An Open Letter to Charles Westerberg

On the eve of the release of the Class of 2020 Beloit Mindset List, I’m publishing this open letter to Charles Westerberg, sociologist and newest member of the BML team, urging him to start basing the List on the best available evidence rather than continuing to just make it up.

Dr. Westerberg:

As committed as I am to the destruction of the Beloit Mindset List, I was pleased to see that as Ron Neif and Tom McBride contemplate their retirement, they are choosing as their apparent successor a sociologist.

We have a lot in common, you and I, Beloit Mindset List disciple and Beloit Mindset List detractor. We’re sociologists who earned our Ph.Ds. at roughly the same time and region of the country. As sociologists, we are both committed to making accurate statements about the social world based on the best available evidence. That’s what led me to my campaign against the Mindset List.

As you must know—even if you can’t admit it to Messrs. Neif and McBride—the BML’s claims about undergraduates are based on little or no evidence. The list is a “poorly written compendium of trivia, stereotypes and lazy generalizations, insulting to both students and their professors, and based on nothing more than the uninformed speculation of its authors” (to quote our purpose statement).

But bringing a sociologist aboard suggests that there is yet hope that the Beloit Mindset List could become something better—something that could be useful for someone wanting to understand matriculating college students.

I offer to you the following suggestions (building on an earlier post) about how you could do this:

1. Collect data from incoming Beloit College freshman. Instead of just making up what movies, books, celebrities, and so on that entering college freshman care about, send a survey to incoming Beloit freshman and ask them. You can also test all your hypotheses about what the class knows and doesn’t know, has and hasn’t done.

2. “Crowd source” all or part of the list to Beloit College freshman. After a student is accepted at Beloit, they could be sent a password to a Mindset List forum. The students could propose items to the list and other students could vote them up or down in conjunction with lively online debate. It would be a great perk to attending Beloit and would produce a list that, whatever its flaws might be, would actually be produced by the people it claims to be speaking about.

3. Involve Beloit College students in researching the list. As part of a research methods class or special seminar, current Beloit students could conduct the research used to produce the list: learning about events that took place 18 years ago, designing a survey, building the on-line forum, reading social science research, and so on. Turning the list into a class project could move it in new and interesting directions.

In your forward to the latest Mindset book, The Millennial Promise, you report the following:

In the spring of 2015 I had the chance to teach the capstone course for graduating seniors in my home discipline of Sociology. In it, I used the Mindset List as a way to talk about what a liberal arts education could be. One of the things I found surprising was that some students resented the List. The chief gripe was that they felt as though the List was reductive of them as a group and provided them with no individual history or story.

This surprised you? I’m surprised that any of your students didn’t resent the list since one of its central features is that it portrays college students as solipsistic idiots. Incorporating students into the creation of the list, in any or all of the three ways I suggest here, would go a long way toward producing a Mindset List that might result in some sort of self-knowledge or self-reflection by college students, rather than completely deserved resentment.

4. Form an advisory panel of experts on college freshmen. Plenty of social scientists, journalists and others have expertise on young adults. The Higher Education Research Institute has been surveying college freshman for decades. The Pew Research Center has been conducting research on Millennials. Many of the publications from the National Study of Youth and Religion, like Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, are relevant to understanding college students. Books are regularly published on college students, like Paying for the Party. The Beloit Mindset List could assemble a panel of experts and draw on their knowledge and feedback to create a better publication.

5. Change the format of the list to allow for different types of information, making clear the evidence used to produce each. Instead of just a list of items, think about creating a two- or three-page colorful document (available online as a pdf) with different sections. Some people apparently enjoy the “stuff that happened before college students were born” items. You can keep those, but drop the “always”/“never” language and give them their own section. Have another section reporting college students’ favorite movies, books, etc. drawn from your Beloit entering freshmen. Another section could contain simplified findings from the latest research on young people. Other sections could be developed by your incoming students, BML undergraduate seminar and/or expert advisory panel. This sort of publication would allow you to include the evidence for each of your claims about entering freshman.

(The list already seems to be stumbling in this direction. Last year’s list included (1) the introductory essay with your thoughts about “difficult discussions about privilege, race, and sexual assault,” (2) the list itself, (3) a dreadful appendix attempting to translate youth slang, and (4) the discussion guide.)

6. Have someone else look at the list before it’s published. Year after year the Mindset List includes factual inaccuracies, items that make no sense, horrible jokes, and confusing writing. Let some college students read it over and let you know what parts don’t make sense to them. Have someone do some fact checking. Give a professional editor or someone from your campus writing center a chance to clean up the writing.

I’m by no means convinced that the Beloit Mindset List shouldn’t be destroyed, but if it does survive, it could be much better. And you can make it better.

Maybe I’m completely wrong here. Maybe you’ve already “drunk the Kool-Aid,” to use an expression nobody from the Class of 2000 through the present would understand.

Here’s another passage from your introduction to The Millennial Promise:

The List… urges that in investigating change we need to practice and perfect the skills of curiosity, inquiry, evidence-collecting, and argument….

If that is what you think the Beloit Mindset List is doing now, you may be a lost cause, no different than the List’s founders, who think their evidence-free pronouncements are providing some service to their readers. But if that statement is your vision for what the List could be, then there is still some hope—slim though it may be—for the future of the Beloit Mindset List.

— Disgruntled Prof

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