August 20, 2008

The generation that never sleeps

The question that has been floating about amongst my colleagues — and we could make this a meme, I guess — has been, "How have college students changed since you first began teaching, or since you were in college yourself?" Here's my answer.

When I was in college (back in the medieval times we call the 1980s), I'd sometimes stay up late because I was writing a paper or because I'd gotten into a long conversation with a friend, looking for the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Certainly, I can remember feeling drowsy in class because I hadn't gotten enough sleep. And yes, it's true that I skipped calculus class most of my first semester because it met at 8 am and that was just too early for me. Yes, college for me was the first time I really experienced the joys of sleep deprivation.

But I can also remember nights of going to bed before midnight. Many students did. The snack bar on campus closed at 10 pm, the dorms quieted down, and if you weren't hanging out in a friend's room or doing some kind of studying, there wasn't much else to do. We had no cell phones, no computers. Nothing in my dorm room really connected me to the outside world. Once in awhile, some of us would stay up to go to the one place open at 5 am — the local bakery — but that was pretty much the only option. It was a different culture from today. We still had this idea that nights were for sleeping, and all-nighters were a novelty.

Technology has changed the nature of night. Sure, some students are still staying up late because they are writing a paper or talking to a friend. Those elements of college life — procrastination and friendship — are still there. But more than that, the presence of the computer (and associated technologies) has changed the dorm room forever.

With computers, there is always something going on. Students can get online and talk to their friends back at home — or down the hall — or across the ocean. They can check out websites and download music and watch funny clips on youtube. They can chat on their cell phones and send text messages. They can play a computer game, facing opponents in other states, or watch a movie they've already seen a million times. Never are they faced with the option of an empty room, a quiet space, and nothing to do but go to sleep.

The whole world, seemingly, is at their fingertips — all night long every night.

This generation of students are smart and savvy and far more sophisticated than mine ever was. Ask them a question, and they can come up with an answer without even glancing away from their laptop. I have students who care passionately about global issues, who maintain their connections to their hometown communities, who are experts on all kinds of things. They can multi-task; they can talk to ten different friends at the same time, juggling ten different conversations.

But they never ever seem to get enough sleep.

11 comments:

Lorianne said...

In line with what you're saying, the statistic I found most shocking in "A Vision of Students Today," which I watched at an academic technology summit yesterday, was the claim that the "average" student surveyed gets seven hours of sleep a night. I have a hard time believing the students I teach today get MORE sleep than I did as an undergraduate or graduate student. The statistic simply can't be right: an error in self-reporting, perhaps?

lizardek said...

That was really interesting and fun to read.

Writer Chica said...

Interesting read, though it makes me nervous for all the introverts out there. The type of environment you describe is intimidating and killer for an introvert.

PK said...

Your observation is absolutely correct... for all young people... in college or not. My baby girl... comes home from work... gets on her computer and cell phone... and stays up all hours of the night. She gets up at the last minute possible... works all day... and then the process begins again. I don't know how she does it.

Cathy said...

Well, they do eventually crash... and then they sleep and sleep and sleep.

But times sure are different today. real different.

Angry Pregnant Lawyer said...

Wow, never occurred to me till I read your post. When I was in college, Internet access was available in the computer labs, and we had one on the ground floor in my dorm, but I think it closed at 11, or midnight at the latest. No Internet access in the rooms, whereas I guess the opposite is standard nowadays.

chiya said...

I go to bed too late a lot... especially if I decide to go on the computer for "five minutes" before I go to bed.

I don't have much will power so to get myself to not go on the computer so much, I think that it must be bad for my eyes staring at the screen that much.

Picky Mick said...

Hmmmph? Wha-? I'm sorry, I missed that. I must have nodded off . . .

joanna said...

Since I went to the college where I now teach, making the comparison is especially interesting--for me, at least. These days so many students are working because they have to, because they are part of an extended family which counts on them for money. One of the things I loved best about college (maybe because I was spending so much time flunking out), was curling up in the library and reading a stack of books, without having to race out the door to work. I think that was every bit as important as being in class in terms of shaping my intellectual life.

Bardiac said...

My students are way more likely to talk to and be friends with their parents. It seems like they talk to their folks several times a day, while in my dorm (where calls were pretty much known to other occupants), most of us had a one letter or one call a week minimum, and that was a source of some conflict.

Lilian said...

Great post, but I think it describes pretty much anyone today, at least my life :-) because the computer, the cell phone, the internet have changed most everyone's lives.

Sometimes my husband and I barely get any sleep because after the kids go to bed we want to catch up on the news or something (well, in his case, since we don't have the cable channels, only the open channels provided by the cable company [cheaper, better for all of us], he always wants to try and watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, given that it's election year).

You're right, with the internet at our fingertips there's always something going on. This is probably very tough for studying, I agree! In my undergraduate years I was part of one of the last generations without internet, but I already caught that during grad school. it was the "first wave" of the internet, less pervasive than the newer age of viral videos, blogs, etc... I think every year sees changes in this respect.

Fun things to talk about! I think I'll go create a meme about that (I don't know if you remember mine about innovation and technology from years ago...).