While browsing through some past Faith Animating Learning blog articles, I came across a helpful piece by Louis Markos on “Teaching in a Post-COVID world.” Part of the piece offers cautions regarding the effects of social media consumption on teaching:
Although the algorithms are generally driven by a consumerist agenda that privileges advertising over politics, one of the effects they have on educators is to skew our view of the students in our classrooms. Rather than see each of them as a unique individual made in the image of God and in possession of inherent value and worth, our over-exposure to social media causes us, often unconsciously, to place them in various groups. It often causes us to do the same with our colleagues. . . . We may complain that students have less skills than they once had, or that they are distracted or lazy or entitled, but what we really mean is that we have lost hope.
This struck a chord. Here I want to suggest that this warning extends not only to how we consume inflammatory social media, but to how we consume research. There is ongoing research of various kinds in a range of disciplines that purports to tell us things about our students. How do the reports that we read of the findings turn into stories in our heads about the human beings we have with us in classrooms?
As an illustrative example consider a research report that I came across a few years ago titled “Teens & Young Adults Use Porn More Than Anyone Else.” Opening with the comment that “sex gets clicks,” the report summarizes data drawn from online surveys exploring frequency of exposure to and active seeking of pornography, as well as related attitudes, within different age bands.
The headline chimes in with some widespread current cultural concerns, and the data does indeed include some support for the headline. Inside the report we learn that young adults (age: 18–24) reported the highest rate of frequent seeking out of porn (16% said daily, 32% weekly), with teens (age: 12–17) in second place (8% said daily, 21% weekly). Yet a closer look muddies the picture in interesting ways.
The report suggests that due to internet algorithms, regular seeking of porn tends to result in more regular exposure, and therefore the tendency to “come across porn more often is likely a result of seeking it out more often.” If this is so, it is interesting to see the same data indicating that older millennials (age: 25–30), Gen-Xers (age: 31–50) and Boomers (age: 51–69) all come across porn at a higher rate than teens. As the report itself notes, if the data is sliced at the “once or twice a month” threshold, then “Fifty-seven percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 report seeking out porn at least once or twice a month, compared to 37 percent of teens, 43 percent of older Millennials, 41 percent of Gen-Xers, and just 17 percent of Boomers.” At first glance, the sequence of data in this sentence seems to be in descending order of frequency, not age. Yet teens have been bumped up two places in the list despite having lower numbers than the next two age bands, a move that seems to echo the emphasis in the report’s title.
Perhaps more interesting still, the surveys include a category for “never” coming across or seeking out porn. While Boomers (age: 51-69) came out clearly on top here as the group most likely to never access porn, the group holding down second place are teens. 46% of teens reported never seeking out porn, compared to 38% of Gen-Xers, 37% of older millennials, and 24% of young adults.
My interest here is not in the validity of this limited set of data. Nor do I intend to belittle concern for teens and young adults (the report goes on to discuss, for instance, indicators of a tendency in the younger age ranges to view porn as less morally problematic). My interest here is in what we notice and how we build stories that reinforce our moral worries. The headline seems in the end an odd summary of the data, which does not seem to unambiguously show that “Teens & Young Adults Use Porn More Than Anyone Else.” In fact, it seems that if different specific results had been foregrounded, it would have been at least as valid to choose the headline “Teens Avoid Porn More Than Most Adults.” Why lead with teens in the headline when according to the data presented the biggest problem categories seem to be adults aged 18-50? Could the fact that the sexual travails of teens get clicks have had any influence on the judgment call?
This example is of course just one small study based on self-reported data. Yet it is the kind of nugget from which we tend to build stories (true, false, or just murky) about our student populations. Most of us do so without combing through the data tables and looking for patterns that were not highlighted in the top-level summary. Not just when consuming social media, but also when skimming research, it can be easier when lamenting the state of the world to dwell on the sins of youth and the tragic decline than on the sins of the mature, especially when we belong to the latter camp.
Perhaps this tendency would matter less if there were little in us for this temptation to appeal to. But teaching is stressful, and I suspect that we are not entirely innocent to begin with. I have many, many colleagues who consistently display in their words and actions a deep care and respect for students. I have also been in enough conversations that included negative stereotypes of students and have read enough journal submissions that begin with a sweeping (and usually unsupported) statement about some virtue that young people today lack to think that the temptation to build negative narratives about our students as a group is real. Research data is supposed to help us avoid this temptation by grounding our judgements. Yet data are fragile and reports are selective, especially if we are consuming them at headline level. The reality is typically more complex than the common “did you hear there was this one study where . . .” conversations tend to imply.
And then there is the small matter of my own imperfection (feel free to skip this paragraph). I have more than once inwardly criticized student inattention in class immediately before performing the same behaviors myself in a faculty meeting. I have resented late student work while missing deadlines myself. I have smirked at unwise and ill-informed student comments yet have my own laundry list of things I need to unsay. I’d like to teach my students humility, charity, justice, if I could only learn them myself. I am a sinner teaching sinners; some of my sins are more sophisticated and better veiled. I would rather feel righteous. Recognizing this should provide some wariness about seizing too earnestly upon data about the failings of others.
At our best we give our time, energies, and creativity to serving the growth of the students given to us. On our less good days we speak about them in stereotypes and gloss over our own solidarity in a state of incompletion. Partial data, selectively summarized, easily become fuel for reinforcing anxious hunches. It’s not that young people don’t fail, or that we should not notice the ways in which they need help. We should be paying attention to research that can inform our work. Research narratives are, however, vulnerable to selective emphasis. When we skim them, we would do well to examine our own motives and tendency to one-sided judgment. When talking about the young, it’s possible to sound quite righteous without being very much so at all.
Excuse me, I have some beams to attend to.