If you teach anything “digital,” you’ve probably had a similar experience: as soon as you mention Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat, the conversation goes off the rails. Students want very much to share their own stories about these technologies. When they do, I hear lots of sweeping generalizations repeated back to me: that millennials never read, that the Internet has changed everything about social interactions, that none of the old rules apply.
After a few years of this, I got to thinking, OK, let’s really talk about this, but let’s actually do it right. What do we mean when we say “millennial”? How do we acknowledge the effect of technological change on culture without resorting to scorched-Earth, EVERYTHING-IS-NEW hyperbole? So here’s the course description for the class I’ll be offering this winter.
If all you knew about “millennials” was what you heard on the news, you’d think that college-aged people spent every waking hour texting and had never read anything longer than a Buzzfeed list. Of course, we know that isn’t true. People in their late teens and early twenties are as thoughtful, diverse, and interested in the world as anyone else. And the Internet isn’t evenly distributed. While some people count on near-seamless Internet connectivity, others can only access the Web sporadically.
Still, perhaps something about life is different for people who grew up with the Internet. So how do we think about these differences without defaulting to alarmist diatribes about sexting, or utopian proclamations about the Internet as a realm of boundless freedom? How do we talk about generational difference without flattening diversity or ascribing supernatural power to technology?
This class takes on this question by examining other moments of big technological change — film, television, telephone — and comparing them to the way we talk about technology today. We’ll also read the best writing about what it means to be a young adult in our current moment, and we’ll unpack the notions of “adolescence” and “young adulthood,” which turn out to be historically contingent categories themselves. Our goal is to develop a vocabulary for talking about technological and cultural change that accommodates the diversity and contingency of human experience.
There are some books and articles that seem like no-brainers (danah boyd’s It’s Complicated, much of the stuff on the Selfie Syllabus, Emily Bazelon’s Sticks and Stones), but I’m curious to hear from other people, too. What’s the best, least alarmist, most nuanced work you’ve read about adolescence and the digital age? I’m interested both in work that comments on adolescence and the digital age in its present moment, and work that shows how this moment has been constructed.