Monday, October 26, 2009


Kids Today...

These three articles are all about the same thing: kids today...

Tim Burke's piece details the issues of self-presentation among Swarthmore students. The piece about Morehouse college details measures taken to change the self-presentation of students at Morehouse College, a historically black all-male campus. And the piece about professionalism details the failings of self-presentation that employers perceive in their (few) Gen Y hires.

Although each piece is context-specific, if you read them next to each other, you'll quickly be struck by how little context matters.

I've never been a huge fan of Golden Age arguments. One of the consolations of aging is that I've been around long enough to remember some of the Golden Ages to which people sometimes refer, and they didn't seem that way at the time. That's because they weren't.

Anyone who remembers carbon paper in typewriters can tell you that talk of a Golden Age is hooey. Remember the Ford Maverick? The Brady Bunch Variety Hour? Roach clips as jewelry? Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft? Remember the homophobia? It's not gone now, heaven knows, but it used to be so much purer. Remember the smoking? That was some fine lung cancer back then. And wow, was the racism ever more impressive back then. My Dad, who grew up in Memphis in the 40's and 50's, lived long enough to vote for a black President. You can call that a lot of things, but cultural decline isn't one of them.

Okay, I'll stop.

Unfortunately, the gratuitous nostalgia gets in the way of what could be a very valuable discussion.

While the ritualistic hand-wringing of elders beholding youth is about as useful as cursing the sun for rising, there's still some truth to the claim that styles of self-presentation that can work for students won't work for employees. Professional jobs have certain expectations and codes of conduct that nobody is born knowing, but that new employees can pay severe prices for not knowing. And it makes some sense to expect students to learn some of those expectations in college.

At Proprietary U, we attended to that in a mandatory career development class. Students were coached on what to wear to an interview, how to conduct themselves, and the like. Despite the name, the class was mostly confined to 'getting a job,' as opposed to 'doing a job,' but at least it was something.

In the cc world, though, we haven't done a lot of that.

Part of that is based on a sense of what counts as 'academic' and what doesn't. Part of it is based on the reality that most of our students who will go on to professional jobs will first transfer to four-year colleges, and the immediate task at hand is giving them what they need to succeed there. Part of it is based on the very real heterogeneity (or 'diversity,' if you prefer) of 'real world' work environments. A cultural style that works well in a sales position might not work well at all in a medical position, for example. ("What can I do to get you in our vasectomy clinic today?" Gee, look at the time...) Part of it is based on a sense that attempting to overpower students' sense of identity upfront will shut down any meaningful attempt at learning. And part of it is based, honestly, on unthinking tradition. You know, stuff that dates back to the Golden Age.

(True story from my student days at Snooty Liberal Arts College: my then-girlfriend reacted with shock and horror when she learned that another student was also an English major. When I asked her why she reacted so strongly, she replied -- correctly -- "but he's so...inarticulate!" The major didn't require any sort of speech courses.)

Back in the day, of course, Snooty Liberal Arts Colleges and their ilk didn't really need to socialize students into the ways of the upper classes, since nearly all the students sprang from them. But that doesn't help from the perspective of an open-admissions public college today.

It's not entirely clear just what would be involved in grooming students for future employment. Public speaking courses are well and good, but speeches on the job are exceedingly rare. I'd guess that most people would benefit more from lessons in "how to conduct yourself in group meetings," or "how to keep your cool while being attacked." You'd think that academic seminars would prepare students for that, but they really don't; the cultural norms of academia are too different. (I sometimes reflect that some of the cultural pathologies of higher ed come from hiring employees based on their success at being students. The skills don't always translate.) Some basics are always welcome: expect students to show up on time and ready to work, model preparedness for them, and reward performance rather than effort. But beyond that, the questions get much more complex than is generally acknowledged.

Strip away the narrative of cultural decline, and there's still real work to be done. I'm just not sure how to do it.

Perhaps the individual departments/programs can address what is appropriate in the particular field. For instance, I teach music courses at a CC. Part of the music program includes studio classes where we address things like what to wear for an audition, how to interact with a music director, how to write your program notes, stage presence, dealing with performance anxiety, etc. I think it works because it is context-specific. I'm not sure what classes other majors or programs have where they could address these types of things though. Does your CC require some kind of capstone project? Maybe it could be addressed in the capstone course.
In classical rhetoric, Dean Dad, I think this stuff falls not under the logos, or pathos stuff, but under all that we group with that pesky third term: ethos. How, indeed, do we train "character," ethical stance, or credibility without simplifying distortions of dogma or silly rule-bound moralities ( n.b., full disclosure: I teach English both at a "Snooty LAC" and at a CC; lots of differences, but 18 year olds are way more alike than most of our admissions officers and alumni development offices would ever want to admit).

So, how might we teach micro-techniques of credibility and character development? I have students read their writing out loud a lot. We stretch first, stand up, wake-up bones and breath. We read in small groups of three. We task listeners to identify the "strongest sentence" one that's smart or insightful or honest, or that stands out. Standing, we'll ask the writer to share her "one stronger sentence" aloud to the whole room.

Do you see yet what we're doing? Presence, voice, speech, sound (volume, clarity, energy, inflection), readiness, full attention, the best part of thought, listening; these are discrete, elemental ethical skills, I'll argue. Like other elemental skills, with repeated and regular practice, they grow, intensify, and streamline. Then, of course, we forget we ever had to learn them (which may be connected to why we have forgotten how important it is to teach them!).

When we tie these skills to original thinking (especially critical "logos" thinking about complicated, difficult real-world stuff that actually matters), we build character: honest personal commitment to real ideas, clearly presented in the service of others. We do this so that others can learn, engage, challenge, refine and grow as well.

When I do such things in my college classrooms, lost of other good stuff happens as well (impromptu study groups form, student engagement increases, information retention goes up, attendance increases, retention goes up, and "surface" errors in essays go down). Students are learning an intellectual/academic version of "caring for each other." Who knew speaking and listening were such powerful and humanizing skills?

And, yes, I concur with you re. fantasies of "Golden Ages" and student declines. I do think, however, recent technologies radically shift (dare I posit "distort?") our practices of being present. So, we have to teach them more explicitly, perhaps, than in days of yore.

"OK, everybody, laptop screens down. Everybody, hold your cell-phones up. Lets all together turn our ringers off. Great. Now stash the 'personal pleasure devices' in your backpacks until the end of class, so that the buzzers don't interrupt. Great."

"It should take about 5 minutes of focused listening for you to get through these two-page reading responses. Sit close. Listen hard. ID your colleagues stronger thoughts. Have them read those sentences aloud again, and underline them boldly. We'll reconvene as a whole class in 10 or 15 minutes. On your mark, get, set... go!"

Maybe this, Dean Dad, is what the training you call for might look like (at least in an English composition class). I wonder, would it work in History? Western Civ? Intro. Psych? How is this so different from what happens in most Public Speaking classes (and I’m pretty sure it is)?

Long time reader by the way. Talk about ethical and intellectually generous. Your blog raises the bar for us all.

Yours truly,

--Etho-didact in the Elm City
I clicked on your link and it took me to several more articles on the subject of professionalism. In one, which I don't think you referenced, the writer was disturbed by students' tattoos and "inappropriate piercings," and then went on to note that he would never wear blue jeans to class. I withered in shame. I've been teaching comp for 15 years, I'm male, I have four ear piercings, and a small number of (visible) tattoos on my forearm. Oh, and I wear jeans and sweaters to teach all the time.

There's some irony here. I suppose simply by dint of appearance, I defy, even trump certain preconceived notions and stereotypes -- not intentionally, mind you, it's just that there's no dress code for profs that I'm aware of -- but according to the articles, I am also a poor role model. Yikes!

Still, there are a lot of tattooed people working in law, medicine, and various other professional fields these days -- tattoos are really not that uncommon. And the same goes for multiple ear piercings, nose piercings, even tongue piercings.

Is this really that big a deal? Or is it much ado about nothing?
This is a very timely post for me. My partner teaches at a CC and is on a committee trying to restructure what I'd call co-curriculars because that was the term used at my SLAC, but basically they're presentations students who are working internships have to attend. I'm trying to help her construct one about code-switching and professional presentation, but she's looking for a description that will make sense to the middle-aged white administrators who are going to have to approve it. I'll be watching the comments closely.
"Professional jobs have certain expectations and codes of conduct that nobody is born knowing"

You touched on this a little further down, but I think the key point is that students in the upper middle class ARE born knowing it -- or raised with it from infancy, which amounts to the same thing.

I deal with self-presentation issues with my students when they happen to come up, and I always address them as "code" when I have a class that's resistant to the idea because it seems like an attack on their individuality or "culture." Code they get, and code they're open to, and they think it's kinda fun to learn the secret communication.

I've been pushing some local groups -- Jaycess, Junior League -- to get involved with our high school students on self-presentation issues ... I think that's a good place to get that teaching without the school having to do a lot to take it on.
Is this really that big a deal? Or is it much ado about nothing?

It depends on where you work - in a biotech start-up, no one cares. In medicine, they do.

Almost all of my clinical affiliates limit piercing to the ears and will not allow more than two holes per ear. They limit hand jewelry to two rings and do not allow acrylic nails (this last is a safety thing). The dress code is strict and pages long with some sites requiring uniforms. Tattoos are limited to areas that do not show when long sleeves / pants are worn.

I would argue that the restrictions are appropriate for the most part. Folks come to us looking for a cure. The last thing you want to do to a little old lady having a heart attack is scare her half to death because the guy transporting her or setting up her IV has facial tattoos and multiple nose rings. Our goal is to be bland, competent, and reassuring. This is something I have to explain to each of my students when they start training - that what they wear matters, that being 5 minutes late matters, that most people will be driven crazy by your use of slang but will never call you out on it. They are shocked - but they get over it and adjust.

I think internships vital because they teach "professionalism" in a way that has fewer long term consequences. I also think a workplace mentor can be really helpful if they actually do their job. Finally, every school I know has a career center that covers most of this but the students have to go seek that out, and most don't. I would argue that professors are in no position to teach professionalism - most have never had a non-academic job and would be trying to acculturate students to something they themselves never experienced in any meaningful way.
actually have two courses (in a business school at a 4-year institution; arts & sciences has nothing). The first one, designed to be taken in the freshamn/sophmore year, is called "Career Perspectives," and is really just that. Students do some personality-type identification (using the Myers-Briggs and maybe a couple of other testa), do some research on different occupations, and do some research on a specific company in which they are interested.

Then we have a senior-level course, "Business Career Planning and Placement," which is the job search course. Getting the resume right, learning how to write an application letter, interviewing, and so on. (We also has an "assessment center," which focuses on relevant on-the-job interpersonal skills, and which is tied into this course). If anyone woould like to see a syllabus for one or both of these courses, post something here and we'llw ork out the data transfer.
Ah! As I am reading the post and comments, I feel like I have many, many things to say and think about! I have designed and offered a "skill-class" for advanced undergrads in anthropology that covers three areas: research (finding, reading, talking about, evaluating, research articles), marketing (cover letters, resumes, CVs, talking about your work to folks of different backgrounds) and presentation (research posters, proposals, podium talks).

Already I'm thinking how to adjust and change these sections to more explicitly address professionalism based on this post and comments. I do it some already. (A memorable teaching moment: when I had to tell students why suits/ties/skirts/trousers/jackets are a sea of shock and disbelief.)

I have been working for years to hone my theory on academics (not yet done though). Basically, years of observation across multiple fields has demonstrated that the most "functional" professional academics (by which I mean things like understand the value of, and how to keep, a budget; if they state something is confidential, you know they won't tell; show up for meetings on time; don't spew vitriol over email; etc. etc) are those that worked for some time OUTSIDE academe. I'm still perfecting the subtleties of my theory, but I have noticed that at my current institution, where the majority of undergrads have full time jobs necessary for support, the undergrads respond much more reasonably to professional advice than the "adults." So I'm having to revise my "worked between undergrad and going to grad school" criteria.
As a staff person, this is something I work on with my work-study students all the time. I give every student a handbook that explicitly spells out things like a dress code (very basic--no visible underwear or midriff, shoes and regular bathing are required), examples of professional v. non-professional email correspondence, etc and we talk about issues as they come up throughout the year. Even very bright, willing students often have no idea how to behave in an office environment, and I hope that my coaching will prove useful to them down the line.
Thinking further, on the "Golden Age" issue, I had a thought. I'm not a sociologist or anything, but I suspect the entitlement was just as bad in eras past -- but the entitlement was limited to upper-middle-class and middle-class white men (I keep thinking of Vincent Karthusier's character on Mad Men).

"Professionalism" is really the cultural attitudes of the upper-middle class ... maybe a decline in professionalism is simply a shift away from "good" jobs being ONLY available to certain kinds of people, and a "noticed" rise in entitlement is a change in WHO feels entitled.

Not that we still don't need to teach students how to meet the cultural expectations of the professional workplace, but I think this "Golden Age of Professionalism" doesn't have so much to do with professionalism as with changing attitudes about class, race, and gender.

Locally I keep getting told that in the 50s, we didn't have discipline problems in the schools and we just need to go back to whatever it was we did differently in the 50s. Well, in the 50s, segregation let you remove virtually the entire impoverished population from the district, and truancy laws were so law that the discipline problems simply were never IN school. Again, the discipline problems certainly need coping with, but returning to the "past Golden Age of school discipline" would be very illegal.
"truancy laws were so law"

so LAX
Still, there are a lot of tattooed people working in law, medicine, and various other professional fields these days -- tattoos are really not that uncommon. And the same goes for multiple ear piercings, nose piercings, even tongue piercings.

It depends very much on where you are. Here in North Carolina, it is uncommon to meet professionals with visible tattoos and piercings. There's absolutely nothing wrong with tattoos, but students would be ill-served if they were allowed to think it was appropriate for the local job market.
I went through this with an intern this summer. It wasn't so much her dress that was at issue as her way of interacting with me and other staff members - it was very casual; she would instant message me with her thoughts constantly (even inappropriate ones, like how bored she was by the tasks assigned), and the first piece she attempted to write for me was written entirely in lowercase with very little punctuation.

It was an editorial internship.

I am not sure it's the role of the CC to convey these things but I can tell you that her future chances of employed here at my cosy little Gen-X office were severely impacted by all those things. I did talk to her about them early and often, but she seemed to take it as a sign of my quaintness and not actually useful information.

A seminar on code-switching sounds pretty brilliant to me.
The flaw in the study cited in the IHE "professionalism" article is that they don't cite a survey from 35 or 40 years ago when the complaints would have been about long hair and beads. Or 60 years ago, when the complaints would be about using the sort of "adjectives" common in the WW II military.

I wonder if what has changed is, indeed, the “increased sense of entitlement,” which might be showing up in a refusal to adapt to a particular work environment. That could explain what JennG described.

Back in the "Golden Age", only a subset of those going to college had parents who could mentor them on job seeking. It was probably worst for the masses brought in by the GI Bill, but it would also apply to friends who were first-in-college who had newly middle class, yet still blue collar, union parents with at most a HS education. That is not new. But even if some of us felt entitled to keep our hair long, we did know that "the boss" decided what the job requirements were - not us. Many of us learned that while working in HS or in college.

I was struck by the comment about piercings, because I asked my brother (an engineer) about a student of mine who resembled Pierce. He told me that they routinely hired new engineers who ran the gamut from 1950 IBM to heavily ornamented, but their company is not in the south.

As for your question, it is routine for some colleges of engineering or business to start the professional acculturation process in junior classes, and include it as a key part of a Capstone class. Much less common at at CC, but it can happen in clubs.
Off topic - but - all hell seems to be breaking loose at Southwestern College in Chula Vista:

Just an FYI
Nobody pays attention until there's money involved. A few firings will reverberate.
Look to those at your cc, college, or university in student affairs/student development. They work with students (often in an individualized manner) on this every day. From constructing an email to taking initiative and conducting research, all the way to the good drama of growing up, many on the academic or instructional side don't see that's what we do on a daily basis.
Almost 20 years ago I taught at a tiny private religious school with open enrollment. I was hired to supervise junior-level practica and student teaching.

I advised all students who were "in the field" to dress as if they were going to church with their grandparents. They weren't to strive for cool....they were to strive to please their elders.

Given the context of the school, this advice was followed. And I never received a complaint from the cooperating teachers and principals about my students' dress/appearance.

That said, I would have a much harder time explaining to education students at my current school what is considered professional dress in the field, and what is not (I'm now at a R1, state flagship).
I actually did not mean for my comments to come off as a "kids these days" sort of thing. I don't think that liberal arts colleges have ever taught self-presentation, speaking, and so on consciously or well. Much as I think they've rarely had a deliberate pedagogy addressing reading.
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