An Interview with Tyler Hughes
An Interview with Tyler Hughes

Assistant Professor at California State University, Northridge

Tyler serves as Assistant Professor of Political Science at California State University, Northridge. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Oklahoma in 2015. His research and teaching interests are in American political institutions and the public policy process. He cohosts a podcast on national politics called The Filibluster. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more cute cat photos than political posts.

AM: Why did you choose higher education and academia as where you wanted to spend your career?

TYLER: I’m a first-generation college graduate. I had a ton of help from family, friends and teachers to get where I am. Because of this, I always I wanted to be a teacher. In fact, my plan when I first got to college was to be a high school English teacher. Early in my college career, I realized high school education wasn’t a great fit, probably because I’d have to deal with students like me (I got good grades, but I was a real jerk). I took a general education course in Political Science and quickly changed my major.

Long story short, I ended up in graduate school, because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my degree. But the idea of being a teacher never left my mind. I immediately fell in love with the research side of academia, something I hadn’t been exposed to in my undergrad studies. Then everything kind of clicked, I could do the scientific research I found so interesting AND be an educator. Luckily, I ended up at a university where I get a healthy mix of both, and I can “pay it forward” by helping students who share my experiences as a first-gen college student.

AM: As a Millennial professor teaching mostly Gen Z students, how you think this group is different from previous generations of students?

Tyler: Alright, this is a big pet peeve of mine. I’m shook, as the kids say. Gen Z is not that different from the Millennial Generation. And Millennials aren’t that different than Gen Xers. Yes, we’ve grown up in different contexts, but our needs, wants, gripes and behaviors are essentially the same. We still complain about older generations not understanding us and how much harder we have it than the previous generation. I’m convinced every generation has done this since the dawn of mankind.

However, I do see two big differences : political worldview and use of technology. To be clear, these are defining characteristics for every generation (that’s why social scientists are so preoccupied with the concept of generations), but I’ll discuss these differences in the context of Gen Z. The two defining events for the Millennial generation were 9/11 and the Great Recession. My students have grown up in a post-9/11 society and the Great Recession is just something their parents keep yammering on about, if recognized at all. All the post-9/11 changes we see as big societal shifts—heightened security, invasions of privacy, increased scrutiny (i.e., profiling) of particular groups—are what Gen Z grew up with. This doesn’t mean Gen Zers are complacent toward these factors; it just means things we see as huge deviations from the norm are ingrained in the world, as it’s known by Gen Z.

I routinely have students complain to me about the state of the economy and how hard it is to find a job. In return, I feel super old when I respond with “Well, let me tell you about the unemployment rate when I graduated in 2009!” Yes, things are different now, but this doesn’t invalidate my students’ perceived struggles. The gap between our experiences seems even wider, given the different technologies we had during our formative years. It’s less about cell phones, tablets and laptops (although, the access to and availability of these devices is a big difference between my generation and Gen Z) and more about the interconnectedness of society. Students now have more information available at their fingertips (literally) than any previous generation. Obviously, this is a double-edged sword, given the validity and transportation of this information, but it means Gen Z is experiencing events, news, and friendships in a completely different way than those who preceded them. Again, every generation has seen changes in the delivery of information. People who complain about Gen Z getting their news from Snapchat or Instagram probably complained about my generation not reading the newspaper. And I guarantee that person’s parents complained about “kids these days” in much the same way. The world Gen Z grew up with is just different than the one I experienced when I was their age.

Again, this isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s the reason why we talk about “generations” of people. Despite changes in worldview-orienting events and available technology, our experience with and views toward previous generations really isn’t that different. After all, my dad told me too much Simpsons and Mortal Kombat would rot my brain, and I turned out okay.



AM: Frequently, universities turn to inventing new majors and programs to try to woo Gen Z into picking their institution. Do you think this is a worthwhile strategy for the student and for the university? Why or why not?

Tyler: Universities are constantly searching for new ways to present themselves to potential students; this is nothing new. Part of this is advertising, but it’s also about changing economies. Innovations in technology lead to changes in the job market, it’s a natural outgrowth of the relationship between the two. Universities need to adapt to these changes, so they develop new degrees, programs and certificates to fill gaps in the job market. Universities are also full of technical experts across an enormous range of subjects (referring to both faculty and administrative roles), so they’re often at the cutting edge of emerging industries. The language and training of workplaces also changes, and educational programs need to change with them. Many of the ideas attached to new methodologies, like “agile” or “scrum,” are not wholesale changes to the way organizations are run. However, these changes in the workplace have real meaning in terms of marketability and mobility.

Universities are constantly adapting to such changes by offering students new programs and degrees that immediately make students viable in the market. It may seem like universities just arbitrarily create new majors and programs to attract new students, but these decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. Instead, leading universities see changes that create a new demand in the workforce, and they create programs to follow suit. Other universities then determine the success/failure of these programs and make a decision to adopt or not. We then see a natural diffusion of new offerings to students that lags slightly behind changes in the workforce.

AM: From your experiences with your students, what do you think Gen Z wants out of college? How can a university address this need?

TYLER: Gen Z wants the same thing every other generation wanted out of college: the freedom to experience new ideas and marketable skills. College is a lot of things, but first and foremost, it’s an experience. I’m not advocating that college should just be a time when you do nothing but “live your best life,” I just want you to do the reading before class. For many students, this is their first real exposure to the freedom and possibilities of adult life, so they naturally want to experience as much of this as possible.

However, Gen Zers also recognize they want a job when they’re done with their degree. College is also about gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to do so. In this way, I don’t think Gen Z is that different than previous generations. However, Gen Z is facing new pressures and is more aware of potential pitfalls in college. My experience with Gen Z may be a little different than professors at other universities. Many of my students come from working-class families, and many work full-time jobs while taking a full course load. I empathize, because I had to do the same thing. This is a difficult balance to maintain. Often, students don’t find the appropriate balance, and one side of their life suffers for it.

To this end, universities need to be more aware of the problems faced by students who may not have the means to support themselves through college. Traditionally, universities catered to the wealthy and privileged. This obviously changed over the course of the late 20th and early 21st century, but these institutional inequities are deeply ingrained in higher education. We need to have a serious conversation about how we can better serve students who do not have adequate housing or are food insecure, basic things students need to be successful in college. We also need to offer better guidance and education about student loan debt. These aren’t new problems facing college students, we’re just more aware of them now. Universities need to do more to provide equal opportunity and access in higher learning.

AM: Anything else you want to add?

TYLER: I just want to reiterate a point: Gen Z is not that different from previous generations. I often find myself saying, “Kids these days, am I right?” First, that’s exactly what our parents said about us. Second, I feel very old now. Our focus on generational divides is valid, because we’ve experienced the world differently.

However, we shouldn’t turn this into an “us versus them” argument about how things should operate. The world changes, and generations change with the world. We need to focus more on what makes us the same (there’s a lot!) than what makes us different. Gen Z has a lot to learn from previous generations—just like we had—but we have a lot to learn from Gen Z, as well.

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