The generation game

Recently an academic colleague told me about how he had, during a lecture, referred to the TV show The Generation Game, and suddenly realised that nobody in his first year student audience had the remotest idea what he was talking about. This seriously shocked him – he could not believe that this cultural icon was unknown to his students. For heaven’s sake, he pointed out to me, the last series had only ended in 2001! Leaving aside for a moment that you couldn’t seriously expect anyone to watch a show hosted by Jim Davidson (Generation Game, 1995-2001) – the only real presenter was Bruce Forsyth (Generation Game, 1971-1977) – it had clearly not occurred to him that a 17-year-old would have been 9 when the show had its last run, and might not have been interested then or be able to recall it now.

A similar experience was reported by an American professor who was unable to get his students to see the 1992 US presidential election campaign as something relevant to their own lifetime experience, though it seemed something very recent to him. I suspect that many of us have been aware of those moments when, in talking with students, we shared some little experiences which we thought must make us look rather cool, only to see their eyes glaze over as they became aware of just how old we must be. And it was always so; hell, I remember feeling vaguely embarrassed for the lecturer who in 1974 wanted us to think he was absolutely with it by mentioning the 1960s pop band, the Tremeloes.

Of course every older generation struggles when it wants to impress the next one, and it is no different for academics. However, academics have as perhaps the main ingredient of their profession the task of communicating with younger people, and may feel that they need to do it in terms that students can recognise as addressing their interests and concerns. Can this be done successfully? Does it in fact need to be done?

It’s hard to say. I remember that when I was a student we had some professors who were really quite endearing because of their obvious and complete ignorance of anything contemporary – the kind who would still call a radio ‘the wireless’. And there were others whose hard-worked-for trendiness was simply grating. But then again, we also appreciated the lecturer who made a genuine effort to listen as we talked about what we regarded as important and who even did a little bit of research on the things we mentioned.

In the end, I think the key issue is not to know about every aspect of youth culture (or whatever we might guess it is), but rather to have an open mind and try to understand what the next generation is interested in. For me, that has meant recently becoming acquainted with the rapper Eminem, in order to understand a little better why a group of students I spoke with liked him so much. And it has been a useful bit of learning: because yes, as I already knew, Marshall Mathers is somewhat foul-mouthed; but he also is a genuine poet with something to say.

So what is my advice? Don’t try too hard, and don’t think that you need to be someone you are not – that doesn’t particularly impress anyone. But it is important to understand what the generation we are teaching think and believe, and it is right to engage with that and to learn about it. But don’t ever think that what you felt was modern when you were young still feels that way now. Don’t ever be tempted to show your old photographs when you had outrageous sideburns and wore flares. Just be thankful that era is gone.

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3 Comments on “The generation game”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    Yet flares are back – they just call them ‘boot-cut’ now. And one of the BBC’s most popular characters has sideburns:

  2. It is not just academics who have this problem. All parents suffer much of the same difficulty in trying to connect with their kids.

  3. miriam tuohy Says:

    As a mature student I can see this from both sides .Sometimes the incredibly young lectures are speaking of things I have lived through which they and most of their students regard as history. However I also find it extremely rewarding interacting with the younger students yet often wonder what they make of me. I’m sure the words mad or batty spring to mind.

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