Since 1998, Ron Nief and Tom McBride have issued a list of traits unique to that year's crop of frosh - the world-changing events, technological changes, and cultural phenomena that shape their worldview.
For example, the Class of 2002, profiled in the first list, was born around the last gasp of vinyl record albums. So they probably wouldn't get it if you told them "You sound like a broken record."
The Class of 2009 might think a phone booth was created especially as a changing room for Superman, because they've probably never had to go inside one and deposit coins.
This year's list reminds us that the Class of 2016 does not remember the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush. Benjamin Braddock, the graduate played by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, could be their grandfather. Kurt Cobain has been dead their whole life.
(For the younger readers out there, he was a singer and guitarist for a grunge band called Nirvana. He died in 1994.)
Nief, emeritus director of public affairs at Beloit, and McBride, a Beloit College professor of English and Keefer Professor of the Humanities, cheerfully deny that their intention is to make people of a certain age feel old.
"We're not above saying 'Kemosabe,' " says Nief, using an archaic form of address that a college freshman might think is an Asian hot sauce.
"We remember Arthur Godfrey," McBride says.
Nief says he compiled the first list in 1998 as a memo of sorts to the Beloit faculty. The upshot: Professors should not assume that their freshman students would automatically understand references to, say, Reaganomics, Johnny Carson, or "Where's the beef?"
"When we initially put this together, it was Tom, myself, and a couple of others who were just having fun with it," Nief says. "We wanted to make this clear: The analogies they would be drawing to Kennedy, to Watergate, to the Cold War, to Reagan - these were all things that would require some explanation."
McBride says they also wanted to help to dispel the stereotype of the callow, clueless college student.
"In 1998, there were a lot of lists out that were very grumpy," he says. "They talked about how ignorant college students were these days: 'They didn't know anything.' We thought that was unfair. We thought it was interesting to talk about their cultural touchstones."
The list went viral. The Wall Street Journal published a story on the Mindset List, and Nief and McBride appeared on the Today show. People began sharing their own "Mindset Moments" via e-mail.
One story claimed that a young law student at a seminar raised her hand and asked the speaker what exactly this "Iron Curtain" was.
"What makes this story special is that the person involved had the courage to ask for an explanation," Nief says. "It reminds me of a discussion with an uncle who was a World War II veteran when I was about 10 who could not believe that I didn't know all about the Battle of the Bulge. I thought it was a funny name for a war; he wondered what education, or the lack of it, was coming to."
Last year, they published The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, What Ten Generations of Americans Think Is Normal. The book is a social history that tracks the progress of America beginning with those born in 1880. The final chapter speculates on the mindset of the Class of 2026. Its title: "They've Never Needed a Key for Anything."
After the book was published, they heard a story of a young woman who was locked out of her car because the batteries in her fob had died. She didn't know that the thing on the other end - a key - could be used to unlock the door.
Nief and McBride have already begun researching next year's list. They scour microfiche, magazines, newspapers, and the Internet, and conduct interviews with students. It's a lot of work, but they say they're in for the long haul.
Says Nief: "When we get to the point where we say, 'There's always been a Mindset List,' we'll reconsider."