We talk a lot about millennials — their digital habits, consumer preferences, and educational styles and needs. In academia, this chatter translates into a belief that their near-constant connectedness leads students to prefer interactive learning modes, which in turn require advanced, technologically informed kinds of teaching environments. Sherry Turkle, in “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age,” questions some of these teaching and learning assumptions.

I have a different, but related, concern.

While the emphasis on open spaces, shared communication and interactive learning makes sense in many classroom environments, there is one place where it does not — in the private and confidential space of the individual teacher/student relationship. This issue has emerged recently in relation to the anticipated move of my department to a newly renovated building on campus. Educational consultants hired to assist the architect in updating this late-19th-century structure have advocated strongly for shared faculty offices.

Along with the revolution in technology, there has been a corresponding change in faculty/student interactions, which are clearly more informal now than they were in my undergraduate days. Not only do students call us by our first names and feel comfortable e-mailing us at all hours of the day or night, but they are also more likely to express personal concerns with us, especially in humanities disciplines such as my own (literature and creative writing) where the subject matter calls for individual engagement and introspection.

I have witnessed this revolution over the course of my own career, which began in 1968 — a revolutionary year if ever there was one. What I once perceived as a radical change in education in the direction of democratization I now also perceive as a matter of protection of the teacher/student relationship — which, in turn, argues for private spaces of communication.

Due to the social awareness of disability issues in our society and the responses of University of Minnesota administrators to the needs of students who bring special challenges to their education, we now have a system whereby students may register with Disability Services to request appropriate kinds of classroom accommodation.

At the beginning of this universitywide initiative, I would sometimes see a student who was partly sighted and who needed accommodations in the way that s/he completed assignments.

Increasingly now, I am receiving Disability Resource Center (DRC) statements from students who suffer from mental-health-related problems. Such students typically begin a conversation with me by sending their DRC statement by e-mail — which does not specify the nature of their disability. Most want to meet with me in person, and I always say yes. I never ask anyone to describe his/her disability — which is protected information. But the story usually comes tumbling out. The student’s particular area of need helps me to help him/her in negotiating course assignments.

Here is one example.

In a memoir class I taught recently, one student came to me after the first day of class to explain her DRC statement. She volunteered that she suffered from an anxiety disorder. She said, memorably, that on some days “it’s all I can do to get out of bed and come to class.” She worried that she might not be able to read her work aloud (one of our assignments) and that she might not want me to call on her.

I reassured her that I never call on anyone who does not raise his/her hand to speak, and that she might ask me or someone else in class to read what she had written. This student never missed a class and was one of its most active participants. In her final assignment, she wrote candidly about herself in an essay that made clear the issues that she struggles with.

Other students have confided in me about their personal difficulties. One (a student who had not filed a DRC statement) met with me in my office to tell me that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She was also a former prostitute and sought my advice about how to write about this experience. We talked a lot about this. In the end, she chose to write about a rape experience instead.

Other students in the class wrote about: problems with depression, including suicidal thoughts; participation in an urban gang (from a student who extricated himself by submitting to brutal beating as the price of his exit); a graphic experience of drug and alcohol addiction from another student who was in recovery; the experience of yet another about parental abuse, and the death of one student’s father in the middle of the semester in which she was taking my course.

My class (many of whom had had relatively peaceful childhoods) was responsive and empathic.

Had I not known about the specific difficulties that some of them were dealing with — in the confidentiality of my office space — I doubt that I would have been so alert to my other students’ needs.

In yet another undergraduate class, three students sent me DRC statements. In the first of these, I talked with a very talented young woman who told me that she suffers from bipolar disorder. In the second week of class, she was absent, due to a hospitalization (about which I received notice from her DRC adviser). The next week she was back. Had I not known the reason for her absence, I would have interpreted it differently.

One last example:

Some years ago when I served as director of graduate studies for our master’s and doctoral programs, I was approached by a senior faculty member who taught a large lecture course that employed many student teaching assistants as discussion leaders. One of his TAs came to him to express her concerns about a fellow TA, whose strange conversations with her made her worry that he might “do harm to himself or others.” This professor conveyed her and his concerns to me. Of course I acted on this knowledge — with the help of University Counseling Services. I also held several confidential meetings with the individuals involved, including the professor of the course and the worrisome student in question. Fortunately, this issue was resolved and no further concerns were expressed. Measures of privacy and confidentiality were at issue at every level. The concerned TA needed to be able to express her worry to her professor in the privacy of his office. He, in turn, needed to speak to me in my departmental office in privacy, and finally I needed to bring the professor and the named student into my office in an atmosphere of confidentiality and privacy.

In all the talk about the “millennials” and their almost-constant interactivity, something about individual history and need along with a very urgent desire to communicate with an empathic other seems to be lost. Now, more than ever, students want to feel that they can express themselves in personal ways with their professors. As Sherry Turkle notes, the human connection in these encounters is critical, if not essential, to the learning process.


Madelon Sprengnether is Regents Professor in English at the University of Minnesota.