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An Alumni Response to The 2016 Mindset List

DR. VALERIE P. RENDEL‘95, Contributor

Every year, when the Beloit College “Mindset List” is released, I get it sent to me at least a dozen times. Lots of folks assume that, as an English professor and a Beloit alum (class of ’95), I must have a special appreciation for it. In a way, I do; I took several excellent classes from its author, Tom McBride, English professor and Gayle and William Keefer Chair in the Humanities (who, like every professor at Beloit, went by his first name – it was has always been kind of place).

Tom was the professor who introduced me to rigorous critical literacy, who had us apply social Darwinism to “Hamlet,” and the first I ever heard swear (good-naturedly) in class. His classroom persona was his genuine self; he did not keep his sense of humor separate from his intellect or professionalism. He combined them, and was one of the first people to make me consider that maybe I could pursue a life of the mind and still have fun along the way.

One of the things Tom taught us was to talk back to texts. As I read The Mindset List for the class of 2016 (as always, with his voice in my head), I reflected on how every year I tell myself I’m going to get around to writing a reply soon as I have time. This is that year.

The Mindset List calls itself “a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college this fall.” Knowing Tom, I’m sure he also sets out to poke gentle fun at the limited perspectives of youth, and perhaps also at aging. But over the years, the list has morphed into something else, whether or not its author intended such – the joke has become a one-note recitative of “Har har, look how young they are!”

For example, “They grew up, somehow, without the benefits of Romper Room.” Yes, just as many of their parents, professors, and coaches managed to grow up without the benefits of Howdy Doody, secret decoder rings or playing hoop-and-stick on wooden sidewalks. Ironically, the list “was originally created as a reminder to faculty to be aware of dated references.”

Many items on the list paint a generation with broad brush-strokes (“They watch television everywhere but on a television and never listen to the radio in the car, despite many cars in our student parking lot displaying local call-letter bumper stickers”). Others are painfully forced puns (“The Twilight Zone involves vampires, not Rod Serling”), irrelevant to the students themselves (“Their folks have never gazed with pride on a new set of bound encyclopedias on the bookshelf”), or genuinely puzzling (“Ice skating competitions have always been jumping matches”).

A few are Luddite editorials, with cyberspace dismissed as “electronic narcotics” and airplane “tickets” defined as pieces of paper. Some also reflect views of gender behavior that are, shall we say, of another era, such as the claim that “exposed bra straps have always been a fashion statement, not a wardrobe malfunction to be corrected quietly by well-meaning friends.” Actually, they are neither – sometimes they just slip out. Don’t panic. It is also intriguing to learn that “good music programmers are rock stars to the women of this generation, just as guitar players were for their mothers.” I have yet to see a female student — or a male for that matter; (I hear they enjoy music as well) — wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the likeness of Rob Birdwell. Never heard of him? Don’t worry, it’s not your age — I had to Google him. That’s because there are no famous music programmers.

And of course, some are thought-provoking, insightful, or just plain funny: “Mr. Burns has replaced J.R. Ewing as the most shot-at man on American television.” But the overall humor in the list itself seems to be one of laughing at rather than with. It walks the perilous line between wry cultural observation and curmudgeonly lamentation, each year teetering more and more. If nothing else, the list has outlived its usefulness as a legitimate tool for college instructors to identify with the mindset(s) of their students; it now serves more to create a sense of division than one of common identification.

Of course, generational wars can be fought on multiple fronts. A comparable list for first-year college students about the mindset of many of their professors might look something like this:
MTV is a channel that plays music videos.
A browser is someone looking around in a store.
“Virtually” means “almost.”
Michael Jackson was the cute little kid who sang “I’ll be there.”
Any non-white character in a movie can be played by a Caucasian actor.

That’s all I can think of. But I’d rather expend my efforts on finding ways to genuinely connect with my students and listening to what they have to tell me about their own mindsets. I’m more interested in finding ways to help them apply their interests, values, and experiences to new knowledge contexts, just as Tom McBride did for me. We are more than the sum of our pop cultural touchstones. We were not all defined by trivia or limited by superficialities, and neither are they. They are capable of deep, rich thought, humanistic appreciation of language and culture, technology and information; I look forward to walking new paths with them, asking them to show me things and showing them along the way in return. As Tom taught me to do.

Now get the hell off my lawn.

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