I give you my word that by the end of this article, you won’t feel bad about yourself. You won’t feel behind the times because you refuse to tweet course announcements, or follow your students on Instagram, or friend them on some new app that tells you what they had for breakfast.
I care about your feelings because I understand your pain. I was born in one of those years that generation X and millennials have agreed to treat as a demilitarized buffer zone. Part of me feels a kinship with those who came before me. I share their concerns about online privacy. I’m a little worried about those NSA data bunkers and the fact that kids today don’t return phone calls. I even hesitated to list the year of my birth in this very public blog post, which is probably a sign I’m not a true millennial.
On the other hand, part of me longs to burn my gen-X passport and defect to the reckless frontier that is the Republic of gen-Y. To learn what I’ve been missing, I recently embraced my dual citizenship and spent a few weeks living as a native among the millennials. Within days, I went from shaking my fist at Miley Cyrus, with her twitpics and her twerking, to sharing artsy photos of melted ice cream and Vine videos like a true gen-Y artiste. I also created a profile on Vizify, which took my yawn-inducing data from LinkedIn and transformed it into a slick collage of photos and infographics. (For more on that, view the video below.)
I like that my Vizify profile peels back the professorly veil just a bit without leaving me overexposed. And while I feel comfortable including photos of my home and factoids about my first job, other instructors can share the information and images that feel appropriate to them.
No matter your age, it’s easy to feel torn between the world of an oversharing tech trendsetter and that of a digital recluse who can only be contacted by carrier pigeon. One of my favorite, semi-relevant resources on this topic is Brené Brown’s TEDx Talk and her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. Brown is a Research Professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, and much of her scholarly work focuses on vulnerability. In her research, Brown found that a willingness to be vulnerable, share personal stories, and be seen as imperfect is essential in forming meaningful connections with others.
While vulnerability research might seem a bit too touchy feely to apply to our roles as educators, I think there’s something particularly relevant for anyone teaching online or hybrid courses. If we want to connect with students we rarely (or never) see and help them connect with each other, we could learn a thing or two from Brown’s research subjects and from millennials. Why? Because more than any generation that has come before them, millennials know how to use technology and asynchronous communication to form and maintain relationships.
It can be easy to dismiss millennial’s communication wisdom when we hear about teenagers posting inappropriate photos on Facebook, or young professionals badmouthing their bosses on Twitter. Yet, many millennials are skillful managers of multiple online personas, and they recognize that long-distance relationships thrive when we share frequent (and often mundane) glimpses into our everyday lives. That doesn’t mean you have to tell your online students about your cat’s struggle with psoriasis or your frustrating visits to the DMV. I’m simply pointing out that face-to-face courses are bubbling over with opportunities for casual interaction. That interaction is essential in fostering a sense of community, and recreating that online requires a certain level of digital openness that might seem awkward to the uninitiated.
I might never pass for a true native of Millennial Land, and their culture and customs will always seem a bit foreign to me. However, if we venture to the spaces they call home, I think we’ll find them to be a hospitable, open people. They are not daunted by distance and they are eager to document and share their history. As I continue to study their ways, I find I learn something new with each visit and I leave feeling compelled to tell the world.