Pitfalls for the middle-aged academic

A few months ago I witnessed a scene in which a senior academic (not in my current or recent university) was having a conversation with four students. He was offering them some advice, and in doing so made a reference to someone called ‘Robin Day’. Now the academic concerned, and possibly you and I, know who Robin Day was (TV political commentator, the first host of the BBC programme Question Time). The students frankly had no idea and just looked blankly at him. He didn’t help himself by adding another reference to the singer Cliff Richard, whom the students did know all right, but who for them was about as modern as Monteverdi and a lot less cool.

So, if you are some 35 years older than your students but want to impress them with your knowledge of their world of ideas and celebrities, there’s a useful resource for you compiled by Beloit College in the United States called the ‘Mindset List‘, which points out how different your students’ experience of the world is from yours. You might want to have a look. And then remember that even the very hippest people of your youth are now as old as you are, or older, and no longer hip. Don’t mention your Jethro Tull albums, or that you could sing along to the Tremeloes. Unless, that is, you want to be seen as a kindly old duffer, like the professor you remember from your college days who kept talking about Glenn Miller or Matt Monro.

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15 Comments on “Pitfalls for the middle-aged academic”

  1. paulmartin42 Says:

    Tom Hanks Addresses the Yale Class of 2011 @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=baIlinqoExQ&feature=BFa&list=WLE0B2FDB92BB5CD92

    points out at 8:00 that there is a surfeit of celebrity now – the consequence is that oversupply leads to a reduction in quality. No one could say that Matt Munro, who according to Wikipedia “Throughout his 30-year career, he filled cabarets, nightclubs, music halls, and stadiums in Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong to Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas.”, is on the same level as whoever is the latest one hit wonder trending on twitter. Talent should be celebrated however old and that even applies to Cliff Richard and maybe even his fellow Eurovision contestant Englebert. As David Essex said “Rock on”.

  2. Mark Thomas Says:

    Great article and I agree. However, a very large proportion of my students love listening to Queen, The Police, Sting, Genesis and The Beatles!

  3. no-name Says:

    Given that this cohort was born largely in 1994, the same year that Yahoo was founded, one might argue that the biggest academic pitfall that they themselves risk is through the presumption, “if it is not indexed on the Internet, then it does not exist.”

  4. Vince Says:

    I think the error is in attempting to connect at all. It really isn’t the business for the don but the other way round where the student engages with the sage🙂.
    In seriousness though, landing the cohort into the bar for a case or two of Lidls best between them will do more for the social cohesion of that year than any fake connection with their icons.
    And for what it’s worth I expect that the Academy had problems with newer incarnations of greaves causing snickers from the younger intake when the older fellow tried to don them.

  5. Polly Says:

    it’s a fun list, but it’s VERY American, which suggests that not just generation but also geography is important. I imagine I’d get some very blank looks from my Irish students if I referenced the Greenbay Packers!


    • You’d be amazed. Irish students are surprisingly au fait with American sports…

      • Polly Says:

        not that au fait (have you seen the Packers reference on that list? I defy any non-American to understand it without recourse to Google). And that’s just one reference, the rest of the list is very American as well. It would be fun to draw up lists for different locations…


  6. It’s a question of trying to adjust to different perceptions of time. I was giving a lecture on the advance of technology and told my audience of 18 years-olds how when I started my first job in industry the estimators in the company were using slide rules. “None of you even know what a slide rule is!”, I ventured. “But that was only 25 years ago! What to me seemed like a brief interlude was pre-history to my audience. And I was a dinosaur.

  7. Anna Notaro Says:

    Loved the Mindset List, it reflects rather well social/cultural & technological changes while confirming the central role of media, if anything I would have expected some entries to deal with *social* media, that is an odd omission, in any case here are my favorite ones:

    25. They have lived in an era of instant stardom and self-proclaimed celebrities, famous for being famous
    (for the centrality of celebrity culture)

    40. A bit of the late Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, has always existed in space
    (I thought this was poetic, but then being a Trekkie I’m biased)

    60. History has always had its own channel.
    (so nicely put!)

    68. They watch television everywhere but on a television
    (the pervasiveness of screens & evolution of old media)

    It felt cool to know about the Daily Show (no. 5) on the other hand
    age hit back when I read no. 20.- ‘Exposed bra straps have always been a fashion statement, not a wardrobe malfunction to be corrected quietly by well-meaning friend!’
    The latter always make me cringe😦

  8. MunchkinMan Says:

    …leave Matt Monro out of this…


  9. I have been teaching the subject of ‘built heritage conservation’ since the late 1990s, and have borne witness to the migration of my anecdotes regarding Eilean Donan Castle (http://www.eileandonancastle.com) evolving from being current, to marginally funny, to bewildering. References to the film “Highlander” which seemed appropriate in (say) 1997, must now be removed due to the fact that many of my students were not even born 5 years after its release. The thing is, I don’t even like “Highlander” that much, so I run the risk of unnecessarily casting myself as an ancient relic for little reason.

    Of course, references to “The Towering Inferno” in the context lectures regarding the pitfalls of cost-cutting in high rise construction should always be embraced!

  10. Al Says:

    I feel that the tides of time haven’t taken me from the shores of modern relevance, but I wave at you from these fleeting sands…

  11. James Fryar Says:

    Thanks for drawing attention to this list and reminding me I’m getting older! But I have to say, I think there’s a ‘student culture’ that arises during their time in college that is quite an eclectic mix.

    A good example is gaming. I remember playing the same 8-bit games as a kid that our current students are downloading onto phones. I’ve seen a few students around campus with old, chunky Gameboys playing Tetris. So there seems to be a certain amount of kudos in relation to possessing older technology! I’ve seen BigTrak around the campus – a programmable ‘truck’ I remember in the 80s as being THE toy to have. I’ve also started seeing Tamagotchi’s again and chunky digitial watches with basic red LED displays.

    I’ve heard many students referring to MacGyver, the Transformers cartoons, the A-team, Saved by the Bell, Thundercats, etc and they have obviously downloaded episodes of the series on uTorrent. The animated series Futurama has Nixon as president of the world in the year 3000 (his head is kept alive in a jar) and I’ve seen students searching for Watergate to understand the references! A lot of the dance music they listen to has very obvious 80s electro-pop synth elements and certainly groups like Duran Duran, Journey, or artists like Bonnie Tyler and Tom Jones are still popular (probably partly because of Glee covers).

    There is a real 80s retro culture still pervading our university students. So, we can still relate to the students if we pick our references carefully! ‘It’s like that episode of the Simpsons when …’ still works …


  12. That is a great post! One has to be very careful of communicating through the use of language and illustrations which is illegible for the listener (whether one’s students or a general audience)!

  13. Colum McCaffery Says:

    I can’t resist pointing out that having Jethro Tull and Tremeloes albums reveals more than age.

    My biggest shock in the matter of speed of change came – I think – the year before last. During a lecture I referred to “search engines”. The look of puzzlement on their faces spread to mine. Then it dawned on me: they didn’t know what a search engine was. I smiled and said “google it” but tried towards the end to refer back to my earlier quaint reference.


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