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.