Illustration by Valen Lambert.

Professors on teaching Gen Z


by Valen Lambert

The past few years have been undoubtedly some of the strangest to be coming of age. A global pandemic, inflation, social unrest, war, climate change, political turmoil and the insidiousness of social media has Gen Z – AKA “Zoomers” – shook. Attending college through these trying times is no small feat, and professors who have taught multiple different generations are attentive to what makes Zoomers different.  

Recognized as the first generation to not know a world without the internet, they have been labeled with many different stereotypes: short attention spans, anxious, weary of face-to-face interaction, lazy, coddled. Ouch, right? Professors are quick to recognize that things aren’t that black and white, and that Zoomers have a unique edge because of their balanced set of experiences.

“I feel like Gen Z just came of age in much more difficult times,” said Dr. Heal McKnight, an English professor at Cal Poly Humboldt who has been teaching for over 20 years. “And as such, they have a real sense of their own durability, and they do not have an inflated sense of what they’re entitled to. It seems like they have a much more realistic way of forming relationships with each other and with adults… I feel like Gen Z has a ballast to them.”

But others are worried these experiences may have caused delays in social development. Cal Poly Humboldt art history professor Dr. Julie Alderson has been teaching for 20 years, and noticed a remarkable amount of timidity in passing students when she used to throw dance parties on the quad. 

“I just watched the students have so much anxiety about it,” said Alderson. “I could see them in the distance putting in their earbuds, or pretend they’re talking on their phone, or not catch our eye. They’re still kind of in that high school, ‘I don’t want to be weird,’ mindset. And it’s because they were sort of sheltered in this way… their development towards being adults who don’t care what other people think about them is not as far along as students in the past.”

Professors have evolved with the changing generations to make the classroom more student-friendly. Recently, Alderson noticed that students have become savvy of a multitude of up-and-coming artists thanks to social media, and opens up space in her projects for students to explore them. 

“The thing that I do feel is especially important to know in order to connect with [Gen Z] is that they want to be doing stuff that feels relevant to them,” said Alderson. “And I love doing that because they are way more excited and what they do is a lot more interesting.”

McKnight has noticed the impact that the Digital Age has on students’ focus in the classroom and found out a way to cater to these new tech generations, but in the process, realized it’s a better system for students of all ages.

“I think as soon as I realized I was teaching millennials, I understood that I needed to switch things up and run a classroom that goes in 20 minute cycles,” said McKnight. “I don’t think that Gen Z is any different from the generation above them in terms of that. I don’t think any person really can pay quality attention outside of a 20 or 30 minute bite.”

At the end of the day, professors agree that it’s a sweeping generalization to try and define Gen Z.

“It’s always so funny to label people as a whole generation,” said Alderson. “It’s so much more complex than that – it’s cultural. Like, it’s gonna be different here than it is in the city.”

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