Generation on a Slackline

Discussing a diverse, global, digital information economy in motion - and Appalachian's role in it

In their book "Generation on a Tightrope" (Jossey-Bass 2012), Dr. Arthur Levine and Dr. Diane Dean present challenges that educational institutions face in preparing this current generation of undergraduate students to understand and thrive in describe a diverse, global, digital information economy in motion. They join Provost Lori Gonzalez and Dean of Students JJ Brown to discuss Appalachian’s role in this challenge. Also featured: Dr. Janice Pope, chair, Department of Communication and Jeff Goodman, practitioner-in-residence, Reich College of Education.


  • Dr. Arthur Levine, “Generation on a Tightrope”: The problems that face higher education aren’t unique to higher education. They’re true of media, they’re true of government, they’re true of healthcare, they’re true of finance. Every institution needs to adapt to a new society.

    Dr. Diane Dean, “Generation on a Tightrope”: This generation, they’re very different, and they need an education that’s going to prepare them for a dramatically different world.

    Voice Over: From Appalachian State University, this is SoundAffect.

    Narrator Megan Hayes: Dr. Arthur Levine and Dr. Diane Dean are the co-authors of “Generation on a Tightrope,” which describes the challenges educational institutions face in preparing this current generation of undergraduate students to understand this world and thrive in it. Between 2006 and 2011, they surveyed and interviewed 5,000 students and student affairs practitioners from 270 diverse college campuses across the United States. Their work explores how different generations navigate our diverse, global, digital information economy in motion. Drs. Levine and Dean sat down with us to talk about these challenges and Appalachian’s role in meeting them. Here’s Dr. Arthur Levine, followed by Dr. Diane Dean, describing this generation, on a tightrope.

    Levine: When they were born, oh let’s see, Bill Clinton was president of the United States. There was never a Berlin Wall. There was never Soviet Union. There was always terrorism. This is a generation that has lived through the worst economic conditions since the Depression. They’re optimistic about their personal futures, but they’re terribly pessimistic about the future of the country. Their balance is precarious.

    Dean: They’re digital natives, in what is really the rise in a digital age. They think globally, in what we now know we have a flattening world. And they’re very experienced with and demanding of change.

    Hayes: So this is a generation that was born when Bill Clinton was president, in a time in which there was never a cold war but in which terrorism within our borders has always been a part of life. Political change and economic uncertainty is nothing new, really. These things have always set generations apart from one another. But we are on the verge of a technological revolution that will impact every aspect of our society – our finances, our politics, our personal relationships, the way we read, shop, work, practice our faith – everything is changing on a scale our society hasn’t seen in over 200 years. Think about what this means. This was a time when factories, such as they were, were powered by horses. Can you imagine sitting around in the 1770s and trying to figure out how to prepare college students for the mining industry, the textile industry, full-scale electric lighting, mass transportation? Well, that’s kind of what we’re doing now. Diane Dean describes what we’ll need to do to prepare our college students for a world we can only imagine, layered with complicated challenges that come thick and fast.

    Dean: This generation, they’re very different, and they need an education that’s going to prepare them for a dramatically different world. They need critical thinking, they need creativity, and continual learning. Secondly, educating students for life in a digital society, it means far more than just infusing more technology in the curriculum. We’re not just pumping more technology, more technology. We have to teach students how to be, you know, information, media, and technology literate. Many major institutions that we have are broken or are breaking. It’s going to fall on this generation to fix that, and repair that.

    Hayes: That’s a really big responsibility. And whether you agree or don’t agree with Diane Dean that today’s 18 year olds will be the ones fixing all of our crumbling institutions, there are 80 million young people who make up this generation of millennials, and they will certainly have a huge influence on how our society will be shaped. Arthur Levine explains the responsibility educational institutions have for opening our students to common experiences shared among and across different generations.

    Levine: We live in a world in which digital realities make it possible for us not to have the same music, not to have the same news, not to have any of the same interests. We need to build that commonality among all people. We need to look at the kinds of values that students should be aware of. They need to understand work. They need to understand the common heritage we all share. They need to understand the planet that we all live on. What I’m talking about is a general education that’s built on the realities of today’s world. We need to rethink the kinds of majors that we offer, the kinds of skills that they teach. How do we build our programs to prepare for a life in which the only universal is going to be change? Students are ultimately responsible for their educations. However, if one of the responsibilities that we ask students to take on was, look, I know you’re digital, but the university is analog, learn to be analog. That’s not a useful responsibility to give students, and it’s a derogation of the responsibility of universities. I think we have the responsibility to tell them what’s expected, and then hold them responsible for accomplishing that.

    Hayes: And, as they enter the workforce, this generation of millennials is working for a generation that communicates differently and has a different set of professional expectations.

    Levine: Employers find this a really tough group.

    Dean: They are a more dependent and entitled generation. They are more connected than ever before, but yet also more isolated.

    Levine: They really rely upon adults for guidance about almost everything they do. They’re used to applause. They’re used to being told almost everything they do is fantastic. And it turns out most employers don’t say that to their, their employees every day. We really need to put career counseling on steroids. Make this something that students run into early in their college career. We have a group of students who are so concerned about doing well financially that they don’t understand the meaning of a career, in terms of an entire life.

    Hayes: Graduate, get a job. That’s what we’re expected to do. That’s what we expect our kids to do. And often that’s how we define success. But isn’t success more than just getting a good-paying job you hope you can keep? Don’t we want our colleges to do more than just manufacture people who can get a job? Don’t we want our kids to be successful in the face of change, comfortable in different environments? Don’t we want them to be successful in citizenship as well as in the workforce? When we come back, we’ll see how Appalachian is preparing itself to prepare our students for success in life as well as in work.

    VO: Connect with Appalachian State University on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Youtube. This podcast, along with a lot of other stories we think are interesting, and some really amazing photography and videos, can be found at .

    Dean: Many major institutions that we have are broken or are breaking. It’s going to fall on this generation to fix that, and repair that.

    Hayes: Perhaps what Drs. Levine and Dean have outlined sounds like a daunting challenge? Intimidating? Even a little scary? I’ll admit, at this point in the conversation things felt a bit pessimistic. But this is where we turned the conversation to Appalachian. A bit of background: Appalachian State University enrolls more than 16,000 undergraduate students, as well as 1,800 graduate students. We have more than 110,000 alumni, 50 percent of whom are under the age of 40. Now as you can imagine, for the provost of a state university facing budget and transition challenges shared by many institutions of higher education, this is just one of the many, many, many concerns she has to consider every day. Outlined as it was by Drs. Dean and Levine, I was starting to feel a bit overwhelmed. But our provost, Dr. Lori Gonzalez, was neither surprised nor intimidated by any of the information Drs. Levine and Dean shared with us. Turns out, she’s been thinking about this for a long time. In fact, while Drs. Dean and Levine have been describing the magnitude of the responsibility we’re dealing with in higher ed, she’s been smiling. Here’s Dr. Gonzalez, talking about how Appalachian is preparing to meet these challenges.

    Dr. Lori Gonzalez, Appalachian State University provost: One of the words that shows up a lot in our strategic plan is collaboration, or interdisciplinarity. And that’s where you talk about creating majors where someone doesn’t, isn’t trained to become a blank, but is educated to understand a lot of disciplines, and a lot of perspectives. We really make a point here to have our students out in the community actually doing. The College of Business accrediting body has a phrase that they use, where students learn, know, and do. So service-learning locally, service-learning globally. And so, as we continue to add those kinds of experiences, what we’re doing is helping them bridge that divide.

    Hayes: And, as she describes, this is a new type of community engagement. Much of it will take place right here in Appalachian’s back yard, but it’s informed by a global understanding and recognizes that the world we live in is flattening.

    Gonzalez: We believe that to be a global citizen, students need to have opportunities to be abroad or to interact in deeper ways with individuals from other countries. So that they, not only may know who the leader is of the country, but they understand the economy. They understand the religious and social cultural aspects of it. And when we talk to the students who have actually had those opportunities, you see a change in the person at a fundamental level. So I think that’s one thing that I would say we need to emphasize more than we are at Appalachian, and we actually have a five-year plan to do that.

    Hayes: The canon on the function of academic institutions is a document called the "Declaration of Principles," formulated in 1915 by a committee of faculty members from across the country by the American Association of University Professors. This document states three reasons universities exist: "to promote inquiry and advance the sum of human knowledge; to provide general instruction to the students; and to develop experts for various branches of the public service." So what responsibility lies with faculty members to meet these challenges? And what kind of support will they need? Provost Gonzalez discusses this with Drs. Dean and Levine.

    Gonzalez: So everything I have said so far is what we are going to have the students do, but I think we in administration have a responsibility to bring our faculty along, because our students want more technology in the classroom. They want to be able to see course content before they get there, and then come to the classroom, and wrestle with problems or work together in groups. Because that’s where they are most comfortable. So it’s sort of, um, on both sides of the academic house it’s what we are going to offer to students, and then how we are going to offer it to students and have our faculty become a little bit more savvy in the use of technology. And I think, Diane, the issue is going to be, faculty are going to have to give up some part of, um, how teaching has always been done. Because, you know, when you say, I taught this way and I really loved it. I love the classroom experience, and it’s sometimes even harder for me to flip my class and get the content up online before, and work out problems in the classroom. It’s going to change fundamentally I think way we approach, approach our teaching.

    Dean: I think you’re absolutely right. And I think, um, hand and hand with that, we’re gonna need to have conversations and think about how the kinds of incentives, how we incentivize and reward faculty. What can we do to encourage and reward and to, um, honor good work that goes on in that area. Also the way that we think about faculty workloads, and the like, is all tied up in that same industrial area model. So there’s just gonna need to be tremendous change across the board.

    Levine: These are really hard times. All of us who have been on faculties aren’t experts in curriculum or university policy. We’re experts in the subject area. I think there’s a very large task to be undertaken right now. And that task is, educating faculty about the world in which we actually live. I think they also need to understand that there’s a good deal of disenchantment with higher education now. Some of it unfair, perhaps a lot of it unfair. But it’s not going to stop states from acting. This is really the time which universities need to get their house in order, and in which faculties need to be able to help them plan for the future – as opposed to slowing down changes that are going to be essential.

    Hayes: At Appalachian, we’re known for a close interaction between faculty and students, which is one reason our students tell us they choose this university. And so far, we've heard from our provost, and Drs. Dean and Levine, all of whom are – or have been – faculty. But they aren't faculty at Appalachian. Clearly, there are some challenges for our faculty here. And while they may not be experts in the curriculum or university policy, they have a lot to add to this conversation. After all, they are the ones in the classroom. We talked with Dr. Janice Pope, who's been on faculty at Appalachian for 18 years, since 1995. She's now chair of the Department of Communication, and here's what she thinks.

    Dr. Janice Pope, chair, Department of Communication, Appalachian State University: Faculty love what they study. They want to share that. And most of us we have the aptitude to learn new things still. We want our students to be lifelong learners, then we need the opportunity to continue to be lifelong learners. And this can’t just be lip-service. This has to be real substantive change. It needs to be a clearly laid out institutional imperative. I think you have to have both community and institutional support, as well as the financial resources to accomplish that kind of change.

    Hayes: Community. Now there’s a word we all love to use. But in this sense, what does that mean? For Dr. Pope, when experts in their subject areas come together to understand institutional challenges and they’re empowered to develop creative solutions for them, a campus community becomes a learning community.

    Pope: The research about learning communities on college campuses among faculty is very strong, and shows that this is a way that faculty feel empowered, that leadership emerges out of such groups. And then, you can grow your campus community, somewhat organically around focused issues.

    Hayes: So, a lot of the learning undergraduates engage in isn’t recognized by them as learning, at least at the time. This is what they learn outside of the class, in the absence of professors, and in large part on their own. Here’s where Dean of Students JJ Brown weighs in. He sees firsthand the development of students that takes place in their residence halls and apartments, through their social activities and civic engagement. But he also sees their struggles, and honestly, he struggles a little too.

    JJ Brown, dean of students, Appalachian State University: Communication is, I think, the biggest challenge, and I think it plays out for us in roommate situations. They were communicating via text message and Facebook message about the trash in the room, and not actually talking about it face to face. It plays out with faculty, in that students don’t want to go talk to faculty. They don’t want to do it. Particularly first-year students, they’re scared, they’re intimidated. With relationships, I think about a situation where a young lady found out her significant other broke up, via Facebook. And all her friends came and consoled her at the library, because he had changed his Facebook status. And they had been in a relationship for almost a year, and that’s how she found out that relationship was no longer a relationship. I also can’t keep up at times, and I think a lot of our faculty and staff struggle with keeping up. A student emailed me at ten o'clock at night. I happened to see them at nine o’clock the next morning, actually in the hall, in the student union. And they asked me specifically about that email, and asked me a question directly related to it. Well, I had seen it, but I hadn’t processed it, I hadn’t thought about this particular topic and when we could meet about it. The student’s expectation was, Hey, you should have gotten this and we should have navigated this by now. And I think that’s again a communication challenge as it relates to technology. So all of us are trying to figure out ways in which we can engage students to really use their voice and find their voice.

    Hayes: Ok, breaking up with someone you’ve been seeing for months without so much as a text is just tacky. But roommates avoiding fights about cleaning up their room? Students intimidated by face-to-face conversations with their professors? There’s a part of me that says conflict is just something a lot of us would rather avoid – especially if we haven’t had a lot of experience dealing with it. Technology just makes it easier – and it also makes it easier for students to assume we’re spending every waking moment checking for their emails. So I asked JJ Brown, what do we do, specifically, to help manage students’ expectations and help them find their voices?

    Brown: What I admire most about Appalachian is, is Appalachian’s intentional approach to engagement. And we literally have Appalachian students going all over the world to do service work. When we have students that go on these trips, and these experiences, we want them to be in the moment. In the moment with many of whom they are serving. That also translates out to communication, in that we don’t allow cell phones and technology, which is going to be a struggle for everybody. It is a struggle for everybody. We want students to truly be present in the moment, use their voices, engage with one another, engage with the community in that they are serving. And that makes a community really special – when you are present.

    Hayes: Every generation indulges the temptation to worry that our society will destruct in the hands of the next one, but Drs. Dean and Levine are optimistic about this generation and how their innate skill set will help our society navigate these fast-paced technological shifts.

    Dean: One of the things that really excites me about this generation, they see this world and its balance in just a different way than prior generations have. And they know that we’ve put it in a precarious position, and they know that we are going to have to change. But coupled with that is that they are such a creative, entrepreneurial generation that they will have that creativity skill set, to be able to come up with ways to solve these problems, to combat these problems. And so I find that just very exciting.

    Hayes: At Appalachian, Provost Lori Gonzalez and Dean of Students JJ Brown are excited about a reciprocal relationship we all benefit from – one that will allow for a bright and transformational future for us all.

    Gonzalez: I have so much optimism about, um, about the students that come here, and about the institution. I think we have the right value system to bring the right kinds of students to become change agents. And so I think that as we forge our values further into the future, then we’re going to be looking for students that meet those values. And when you talk about the people that will be leaders, I think we’ll be able to be a value added proposition by the time that students go through four years with us, through globalization and attempts to get students to be in places other than those that they are comfortable with. Students come to Appalachian as activists, I really believe. They’re not sure what they want to be active about, but they come with that attitude, and they come with a love of the location and the mountain setting. And so when you have that as your entering raw material I think we have a really good chance to take this generation and have a transformational experience. So on the other side of that, they will be the leaders.

    Brown: They’re creative, they’re engaged, they’re engaged in the world, they’re committed to making an impact both here in Boone and North Carolina, but in the world. That energizes me, and energizes our campus and our community. And they’re challenging us while we also all support one another in this community, and we all grow as an end result. Certainly there’s many, many challenges, but I am convinced that our students and today’s students will help us be the place that we want to be, and also help us transform the world the way we want to transform it. And if I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t work in higher education.

    Hayes: I’ll be honest. We’d planned a different ending for this discussion than the one you are about to hear. But last week, we happened to be talking to a professor in the College of Education, Jeff Goodman, about a completely different topic, and darned if he didn’t say something that just wrapped up this entire podcast and tied it with a bow. Here’s Jeff Goodman.

    Jeff Goodman, practitioner in residence, Appalachian State University: One of the roles of a teacher, I’m convinced, in the 21st century is to be what I call an enthusiasm engineer. And so the idea there is that the information is already out there. People walk into class with the information on their phones, in their pockets. But what they don’t have is the way to care about it. And the way we learn how to care about things is by being with one another in a community. It’s by actually doing things together and making meaning together – and we do that by touching things, and manipulating objects, and passing food, and watching something together, and laughing together, and hearing that sound of laughter coming from all three dimensions in the room. Not just from the little tiny speaker on the phone. It’s a, I feel like the, uh, 21st century could be a very lonely place, um, if we aren’t connecting to one another, in real time and in real space.

    Hayes: Our guests today were Dr. Arthur Levine and Dr. Diane Dean, co-authors of “Generation on a Tightrope,” Appalachian State University’s provost, Dr. Lori Gonzalez, Dr. Janice Pope, chair of Appalachian’s Department of Communication and our Dean of Students JJ Brown. A very special thanks to all of these guests, as well as to Jeff Goodman, our College of Education professor whose hope for a less lonely and more connected world inspires us all. Our show today was written and produced by Troy Tuttle, Glenn Dion, and me, Megan Hayes, with research help from Linda Coutant. Our web team is Pete Montaldi and Alex Waterworth. Our theme song was written and performed by Derek Wycoff of Naked Gods. Our podcast studio is dedicated to Greg Cuddy. Special thanks to Stephen Dubner for the inspiration, advice and moral support. SoundAffect is a production of the University Communications team at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Thanks for listening. For SoundAffect, I’m Megan Hayes.