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.