April 23rd, 2009

Should Senior Faculty Teach More Introductory Courses?


Boomers and Millennials Have More in Common
Than You Might Think

After years of service and moving up through the faculty ranks, senior faculty members often feel they have earned the privilege of concentrating their teaching efforts on upper-division courses, leaving the introductory courses to younger faculty members. It seems fair enough: If you stick around long enough, you will be able to teach the courses you enjoy most. But is it the best arrangement for students?

Tom C. Roberts, assistant dean for recruitment and leadership development in the College of Engineering at Kansas State University, says that perhaps senior faculty members should teach more introductory courses because the generational differences between the current young faculty members and first-year students are greater than those between the senior faculty members and first-year students. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

Roberts bases this assertion on generations theory, particularly the work of Strauss and Howe, which proposes a 90-year cycle in which societal changes affect the general characteristics of each generation. The theory proposes a succession of four types of generations, each of which lasts 17 to 23 years: idealist, reactive, civic, and adaptive.

The current idealist generation (indulged as children, come of age as narcissistic young crusaders, cultivate principle as moralistic mid-lifers, and emerge as wise elders) is the Baby-Boom generation (people born between 1943 and 1960). Boomers went to college in the ’60s and ’70s and generally sought an approach to learning that gave them the freedom to problem solve in a less restrictive manner than what their professors offered.

Generation X, the current reactive generation (grow up under-protected, alienated young adults, mellow into pragmatic mid-life leaders) take a random approach to problem solving and are more skeptical than Boomers.

The Millennials, the current civic generation (grow up protected, come of age as heroic young team workers, demonstrate hubris as energetic mid-lifers, and emerge as powerful elders), are generally more sequential thinkers. They grew up with a lot more structure than Xers and generally need more guidance in their classes.

“When you’ve got Boomers and Xers who wanted freedom and didn’t want all that control suddenly teaching students who need more control, this starts to set up conflict within the classroom which is almost the reverse of the kind of conflict we had in the ’60s and ’70s,” Roberts says.

The Boomers’ more formal approach to teaching (relative to Xers) and experience teaching a variety of students might make them better suited to teaching Millennials, Roberts says. Having senior faculty members (Boomers) teach introductory courses and junior faculty members (Xers) teach capstone courses could help Millennials more readily adapt to a new learning environment and also help develop Xers as teachers more quickly “by giving them the opportunity to learn some things they didn’t pick up because of their random approach to learning,” Roberts says.

Convincing faculty that reversing teaching assignments is in the best interest of the department can be difficult, and department chairs and heads should not force such a change, Roberts says. The department needs to carefully consider the issue, and, in some cases, members need to be convinced. Roberts and his colleague, John O. Mingle, have worked with departments on this issue for the past four years in a variety of venues, using a three-step process:

  • Educate the faculty members about generational differences. “We get some defensive behavior, but when we have the right mix of people and a good facilitator, we can turn that into some very thoughtful discussion,” Roberts says.
  • Relate the generational differences to the teaching that occurs in the department’s courses.
  • Look at the curriculum and student development throughout the curriculum in light of the findings in the first two steps. This may involve changing teaching assignments or the timing in which certain things are taught.

Because generations theory deals in general characteristics of generation, it is important to remember that people do not fit neatly into categories. “You have to be careful about putting people in boxes, but the trends are there. They are very distinctive over time and over the general social context. But as always, we have to pay attention to individual students. That never goes away, but our general approach might change,” Roberts says.


Excerpted from Rethinking Teaching Assignments: Should Senior Faculty Teach More Introductory Courses? Academic Leader, April 2005.