I’ve taught college classes in drawing and painting for the last fifteen years and have noticed changes in students as the generations have passed by. The X generation was rebellious and sometimes lazy, but would engage directly with me. I could tell them something and get a response that let me know whether the message had been accepted, rejected, scorned or appreciated.
The Millennials wanted me to be their buddy. They wanted me to praise their efforts first and then introduce a few minor suggestions for improvement. They sometimes felt hurt when they got a bad grade because they thought that we had built up a relationship that precluded any negative judgment of their work. One young man broke down in tears when he got an F on a homework drawing that was supposed to be a realistic depiction (fully developed in tone to show light and volume) of a still life object. He turned in a sheet of paper with three smears of charcoal on it that signified nothing. He told me as he dabbed his eyes that he thought we had such a good relationship in class, but that it upset him when I turned against him when I graded his homework.
The latest generation is somewhat like the Millennials. They still want a lot of praise (sometimes for very little effort), and any negative assessment of their progress has to be introduced slowly, carefully and with endless tact. They’re less concerned, however, with being my friend. They are much too busy managing their existence inside their personally customized, digital cocoons. With some of them I don’t truly exist as a physical entity–I am a ghost fading in and out of their awareness.
The worst cases are lost in a haze of stimulation and see me as just another instructional video playing on a multilevel platform in their brains. As I do demonstrations and give them personal instruction they sneak peeks at their iphones or gaze off into the distance while lost in their daydreams. And they seem unable to work in a calm, quiet environment. They constantly wear ear buds. They bob their heads slightly to the beat of the noise blaring in their ears, and the world around them becomes passing images in their private music videos.
It takes longer, obviously, to build up a good working relationship with this new generation of students as I have to constantly compete for their attention. If I get impatient with them when they don’t follow directions after failing to listen, they look at me as if I’m a programmer who has presented them with a puzzling and unpleasant video that they wish would run to its end and stop. They see no cause and effect relationship between their self-absorbed inattention and the bad grades they receive. They seem to think that I am the source of their vague discomfort, but they can’t figure out what they’ve done to merit my disapproving response to their lackluster efforts. They’re sure that I’m the one with the problem, and that the class would go much better if I let them alone so that they could get on with being geniuses. And being a genius means that they can ignore class rules and my instruction while maintaining an intent focus on their digitally mediated life.
Last semester I had a student who was always an hour behind the rest of the class. His work wasn’t too bad, but he produced it at a snail’s pace. I went over to discuss his drawing, a charcoal rub-out of a still life on a stage in the middle of the room, and he nodded vacantly as I pointed out the five things he had to do immediately. I attended to a few more students and came back to him ten minutes later. Nothing had changed. As I repeated my instructions I happened to glance over at his easel. He had his smart phone half hidden under the ledge on the cross piece of the easel. I saw movement on the screen and realized that a movie was streaming on the phone. I told him (not quite believing that I had to say it) that it was impossible to draw from life and look at a movie at the same time. He never came back to class again, and I had to drop him from the course.
This semester I have a young man who pouts and stops working if he feels that his drawing hasn’t been praised enough. He tried to leave the classroom one and a half hours early the first day this happened, and I warned him that I would take points off his grade for attendance if he continued on his way out the door. He trudged back to his easel, made a few desultory marks to a drawing that had several gross errors in the measurement of proportions, and then pulled out his phone and texted. He frowned at me whenever I made eye contact with him, and I got the impression that his mentality was that of a five year old boy who resented being put into a time out for an offense he didn’t understand. I’ve come to realize that he believes that when he’s finished a drawing to his satisfaction, or when he’s gotten bored with a long project, that my demands on him to refine and correct his work are excessive and possibly cruel. His only refuge is to pull out his phone to escape from the torment I visit upon him when I attempt to get him to go back to work.
Not all of my young college students have succumbed to digital addiction. They don’t all wrap themselves in electronic cocoons. And the ones who do may be somewhat aware of the problem. A young woman recently told me that she and her friends play a game when they go out on the town. They put their phones in the middle of the table, and whoever reaches in and grabs a phone first has to pay for the drinks.
I plan to teach my students who still pay attention as best as I’m able, and to let the media zombies stumble along on the path they’ve chosen. I realize that I can’t help an addict until he/she realizes that they are compromised. My current class is about one third addicted, and the two thirds who are still functional are mostly older and more mature.
I only hope that this class isn’t a harbinger of things to come. I’m not sure how I will handle it when I’m addressing a class of twenty and just three of them are paying attention.