Today is the first day of classes, although I have been back on contract since August 8. I started teaching at Florida A&M University in the fall of 1993, right after I graduated from graduate school. Back then, I was sure that I knew it all. Now I know better.
I was born in 1966 (a year which, in the eyes of my student, is distant history) and started college in 1984. This year I will have students who were born in 1993 and are now starting their freshman year in 2011. I will have to check, but I think that this officially makes me old.
In most ways, school is still the same. The basic methods of education have not really changed, aside from the fact that professors now bore students using PowerPoint rather than overhead projectors and show videos from the web rather than from a film projector or VCR. While the university bureaucracy has far more advanced computers, everything still takes about the same amount of time. That is, too damn long. One major change, however, is that students have a far greater capacity to distract themselves. Back when I went to school, the distractions were analog: other people, a newspaper, homework for another class, or the window. Today, the distractions are mainly digital: almost every student carries a smart phone, tablet or laptop to class and has the entire digital world available to compete with me for attention. I freely admit that the rest of the world is generally far more entertaining and interesting than I am and what I have to offer. After all, how can Plato compete with porn? Leibniz does not stand a chance against LoLcats. Not even Foucault can match the power of Facebook.
True, I can fight back a bit in the “smart classrooms.” However, I still have classes in the “dumb” classrooms where it is just me, my notes, a whiteboard and an Expo marker. I don’t even have writers, props or extras to help me out. I do have a husky, but she is addicted to Netflix and hence would be no help at all-she’d be up on a desk, staring at an episode of Weeds over a student’s shoulder.
I am certain that my predecessors, the folks who had to teach me and my fellows, thought similar things about us. After all, we had the Sony Walkman and the newspaper. They just had chalk and an overhead projector. Somehow they managed to provide us with a pretty good education and I am, of course, obligated to do the same for the current generation. Naturally, some of them will go on to be professors and I can only imagine what they will be competing with. I’m guessing solid Facebook holograms and Hookerbots. I can hear them now: “Those old professors had it easy! We didn’t have Hookerbots back then, just plain old Facebook!”