The circumstances surrounding the recent allegations of cheating at Harvard may offer a valuable non-classroom teaching moment, and not because of whether cheating occurred. Rather, it is because this story could provide instructive lessons about the Millennial generation — those in college and those young professionals who are learning to navigate their way in the professional world.
The significant media attention offers an opportunity to consider an alternative theory — one that looks at the training and communication challenges arising from the Millennials’ entrance into their higher ed years and the workplace in increasing numbers. For many in this generation, acceptance to a top college was preceded by detailed involvement from parents who scheduled, carpooled, demanded, and obsessed over each milestone, and a school system that urged teamwork and collaboration as a counterbalance to the otherwise competitive culture.
The Millennials responded by working even harder to excel, surrounded by their parental and school safety nets. Failure (or a B grade) was not an option.
In college, they feel pressure to maintain their A average — the only grade they may have ever known. And in reviewing course catalogs and professor reviews, they may be attracted to a course that is reputed to be an “easy A”.
At the same time, young assistant professors — who themselves may be on the older end of the Millennial generation — are struggling to fit into a distinguished faculty, seeking to be liked by students and respected by colleagues. They may also be wondering how to navigate the daunting path ahead to a tenured position. And if their own background does not offer the Ivy League credentials of many of their peers, they may have difficulty finding mentors and sponsors to guide them through the occasionally rough seas of academia.
Without clear support, they struggle to find an identity. Perhaps they initially enjoy popularity among the brilliant students who are not much younger. To establish a comfortable learning atmosphere, they encourage collaboration and teamwork, and promise the liberal granting of an “A” grade. But then they may feel stung by mixed course reviews that could have an impact on their future employment. So they conclude that a correction is in order and tighten up exam requirements — or so they thought.
At the same time, students begin the course with the expectation that it will be the easy experience promised. And as in any large course, their primary interface is with Teaching Fellows who are likely also Millennials of varying skills and abilities, working on their own route to an advanced degree. This may be the Fellows’ first experience supervising groups and reading exams.
The final exam instructions allow for an open book, open notes, and access to the Internet, but discussion with others is not allowed. To an Internet-savvy generation who shares everything on-line, such instructions are inherently conflicting. And for a generation raised on structure and clarity, navigating ambiguity can be more challenging than any exam could ever be.
By its nature, the internet is about sharing. And to rule-bound Millennials, making on-line information available to each other may not be the same as discussing the answers. As the Teaching Fellows face a barrage of questions from the confused students, their responses may vary from one to the other. And the young assistant professor, aware that his rebranding effort may have failed, avoids the students entirely.
The lessons may be this: Ambiguity is the natural enemy of those emerging from the comfort of a structured past. Millennials offer many talents and skills, but they may need more support in learning how to navigate unstructured environments. The workplace is full of ambiguities, yet little about the Millennials’ over-programmed upbringing prepared them to deal with confusing assignments and limited instructions.
Millennials can best put their talents to work in an environment that offers clarity and transparency, as well as mentors and sponsors to help them successfully navigate the workplace and avoid embarrassing mistakes. Then watch them succeed as the overachievers they were raised to become. The workplace will be a much better place for making the effort.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and the executive-in-residence at the Boston College Center for Work & Family, is writing a book about Millennials in the workplace.