Thursday, September 16, 2010


The Rain in Spain...

Last week, there was a thought-provoking post over at IHE about lessons that the nonprofit sector of higher ed could learn from the for-profit sector. It’s worth checking out.

Having worked in both, I mentioned in the comments that the lower-tier nonprofits, such as community colleges, would do well to learn certain lessons from the for-profits. One really basic one is the importance of addressing a certain kind of cultural capital that elite students already have, but that community college students generally don’t.

At Proprietary U, all degree students were required to take a Career Development class before graduating. (They typically took it in their last or second-to-last semester.) It covered the basics of resume writing, interview etiquette, and even professional dress. The idea was to ensure that the students didn’t sabotage themselves with presentation styles that suggested that they wouldn’t fit in a professional setting. It was badly needed; I recall intercepting one student I knew on the way to an interview and suggesting that he lose the “do rag” first. I couldn’t imagine doing that here.

In the more elite provinces of higher education, a course like that would probably be considered redundant, if not insulting. When you have students mostly from upper-middle-class or just plain wealthy backgrounds, you can usually assume some level of attendant cultural capital; they know how to present themselves in certain settings. (They often choose not to, but they can when they focus.)

But if you’re in the first generation of your family to go to college, and the folks around you are blue collar or marginally employed, the world of the professional workplace may be mysterious. The skills that the Swarthmores of the world could largely take for granted may or may not be there.

PU could get away with it because its mission was unabashedly vocational. Students went there to get jobs. The institution knew that, and embraced it. Nobody had to explain the relevance of, say, interview skills.

Even in class, faculty were encouraged to include some grade points based on “professional conduct” or something similar. The idea was to try to inculcate certain habits of punctuality, presentability, and civility, so they’d become second nature over time. I recall explaining to my students that the style of argument that worked well on Jerry Springer probably wouldn’t work if they tried using it on their boss. They had to learn a new style. Some succeeded, some didn’t, but the effort made sense.

At my cc, though, and at most cc’s, this kind of discussion simply doesn’t occur. The blind spot exists for reasons both good and bad. On the good side is an understandable fear of racism, classism, and general stereotyping. Given the reality of all of these in American life, and the real damage that they do, this is not to be dismissed lightly. There’s also a sense that subjects like ‘deportment’ are not properly academic, and that we have no business teaching those when we can barely get the job done teaching, say, math. Besides, the diversity of the student body goes well beyond race and gender to include age and life experience; a course on professional etiquette that may fill a real gap for a clueless 19 year old may not suit a returning 35 year old. But we can’t construct different curriculum requirements based on students’ age.

Still, avoiding a difficult issue doesn’t make it go away.

Ideally, some of these issues could be resolved through extracurriculars, and sometimes that happens. (I learned a great deal about organizational behavior through my time on the radio station in college.) But typically, the students who gravitate towards those organizations are the ones who least need the polish. They already have it.

Have you seen an effective and non-creepy way to help students from non-traditional backgrounds make up the gaps in cultural capital they need to succeed? I wouldn’t mind stealing a great idea or two...

They must not be humiliated. It is a clue to everything.

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Make separate versions of the course. Life 101 would be the generic basics. Life 102 would have a focus that differs from section to section (needs of particular majors, facilitated by minority student affairs, etc.). Then tell students that they either need to take Life 101 or Life 102. Have their advisors help them decide which one to take.
Can you add it as an elective?

"Culture and customs of American Workplaces"

(Also, while I remember- do you realise that you can't go forward or back a post if you're reading the full post on your site. For some reason you have to go back to the main roll of post (without comments) to go forward to the full post (with comments). Is that deliberate? It would be neat if you could fix it.

As always, a useful articulation of a real problem. The following is, I recognize, only a small part of a solution, but here goes:

MODEL the behavior that is expected and desired to be inculcated: dress, speech inflections, vocabulary, body language, terms of address, promptitude, etc. In our medium-sized (100 students) lectures, we address students relatively formally, use "please" and "thank you," express disagreement as if to a professional peer, refer in the third person to TA's as "Mr" and "Ms".

In the event of inappropriate behavior, we tend NOT to reprimand via direct address to the culprit. Rather, I counsel my staff to wait and, at a later moment or meaning, address the problematic behavior *to the group as a whole*, and without specific reference to the individual. E.g., "You know, people, as professionals there are certain expectations of our conduct. We can't [be late][use bad language][raise our voices to one another][dress provocatively] in the professional world and be taken seriously, and so we need to all conduct ourselves here at school with those same standards in mind."

Doing this makes it clear what is and is not acceptable, but it eschews humiliating an individual--or making the comment about conduct seem like punishment.

Modeling the behavior we wish to elicit--that is a key component, we think.
i disagree with your assumption that lower/lower-mid class people on average don't know how to dress for an interview, but i do agree that most of them don't know how to write a good resume.

i grew up in a very blue collar home, even living in a trailer for a few years (and was/am the first/only person from my family to graduate from college), but i never had any questions on how to dress for an interview, and neither does my brother (who is blue collar). i think it's just a matter of effort. it's a lot like church. people know how they should dress in order to be respectful, but they choose not to do it.

in my opinion, the best way to get students prepared for the workplace is to have them take a class in the very beginning of their college career, which would outline the benefits of interships and working part-time in their field of study throughout college. i think 1% of people may be naive about the interview/work-place process/environment, but 80% are naive in respect to what it actually takes to get a good job.
It's really hard to make assumptions about who needs this kind of class. I suspect a LOT of middle class students would need parts of it. There's a few things I know I would have benefited from (although they tended toward the ones I suspect it would be challenging to cover in a classroom setting).
Hmmm. Maybe you could structure it as a series of stand-alone workshops? If you took the class, you would have to go to a certain number of them (and you have the right to sign up first, in case any get full)... but then they'd also be available for people who *just* think they need help with e.g. resume writing, but would be bored to tears with 'professional dress' or 'etiquette'. Or maybe pair it with specific assistance in internship or job placement? That might provide a bit of incentive for people to take it.
Becca's idea is stellar. I, like a lot of CC students, was already working for the whole of my undergraduate career, and would've been highly annoyed by a one-size-fits-all approach.

On another note, there's a limit to where the cultural capital you assign to some students in your post will get them. Undergraduates at my current institution (R-1, public Ivy) generally have an idea of what's expected of them in terms of dress and resume formatting, but many have ideas about formality, boundaries, and personal responsibility that seem to be appropriate for their generation but that would not be/are not received well by those in positions of authority. In many instances their needs are not entirely dissimilar from the needs of my students at the open-enrollment, CC-like small uni that I taught at before coming here. So, as much for my own sake as for theirs, I cover 'netiquette', for example, in all my classes (which have nothing to do with computing or business). I find that acknowledging that there's a range of experience and knowledge represented in the room helps tone down the condescension factor so that there's a chance of reaching those that don't think they need the information.
I agree that your students need help. But so do all students. In any case, the solution is simple:

Do not hold classes or set requirements to give a "minimum goal" or a "basic standard."

DO hold classes or set requirements which are designed to IMPROVE people from wherever they happen to be.

It's that easy. What, you think that lawyers like me don't go to CLE all the time? You think that successful college grads don't have their peers check their cover letters? Heck, you've got people with PhDs asking you for interview advice; what other than a sense of P.C. would prevent you from giving that advice to community college students?

When it comes to resumes, cover letters, and interviewing skills, there are only two categories: "not good enough" and "acceptable." There IS NO "too good" category.
And not just at cc's. At my (lower-tier) 4-year public, we (school of business) teach *2* career courses. The first one is a first/second year course calles "career Exploration," which does some personality-type-testing (yeah, I know...) and gets students some background in looking for information about careers, companies, and so on (including doing some professional letter-writing). The second (fourth-year) is the job market course--resume writing (and some of the initial efforts, even after students have seen examples of good resumes, are pretty bad), interviewing skills, etiquette...

We have tried to pitch it to A&S and the other professional schools, but no takers...even in the other professional schools. It may be a sense that having students do this *is* insulting, even here. But...
I work at a business school at a not-for-profit, private university. There are a number of things that we try to do in order to teach those skills to our students. One thing we do is require undergrads to take a course that focuses on teaching them practical business communication skills. Instead of focusing on academic writing, this course focuses on things like resume development, email communication, memo writing, and how to have that 30 second elevator speech. Also, in conjunction with our career center, we've offered a lunch time speaker series. We bring in individuals from area businesses and have them talk to students about things like networking. We also have a specific career center representative housed in our business school who's specifically tasked with working with our business students and whose main focus is preparing students to be successful in their job search.
Anonymous @ 3:19: "Oh no! I failed Life 101!"

More seriously, we do have professional development classes here at my Canadian university. We actually run two kinds: a Professional Development class taught during students' co-op work terms, and we're now incorporating more material like that into seminars that all undergrads need to take. I don't really know a lot about either of these, except that there were severe (implementation-related) complaints about the old PD classes.
At my campus (public, R-1, mostly first generation etc) Student affairs offers a variety of these, including etiquette/dining classes. But our most polite students are not the "privileged" ones, but the ones from poorer families who have had respect for authority drilled into them.
For what it's worth, I went to high school not too long ago in Ontario, Canada. As a part of a "new" curriculum, we had to take a half credit (about 2 months) of "career studies", which included writing resumes, cover letters, job interview prep, etc. At the high school level (grade 10, so I was about 16) it was uniformly useless in my opinion. At my undergraduate school (also in Ontario) we had a career centre, which had workshops on resumes, job interview tips, and the like. They also had resources to look for jobs, internships and scholarships. I never used it much (I was going to grad school!!1) but it would be a good way to go. Voluntary, scheduled, "formal" workshops that are extracurricular on how to prepare for work. The good part about this is that if your school already has a career centre or the like, getting these things together would be relatively straightforward. Just a thought anyway
At my CC, the answer is different based on the student's major.

Academic transfer students are not required to complete a course in this. The Student Services staff does offer optional workshops on these topics, although I understand attendance is not stellar.

In the vocational programs, this content is built into the curriculum. Several programs include a specific course that covers this content. Other programs have required workshops or meetings for students before they start their internship or co-op.
Many years ago, as a former college dropout and single mom, I went back to school through a program sponsored by the AAUW, whose goal was to help women who, for whatever reason, hadn't finished college to get a degree that would get them a job. I came from an upper-middle class family that expected all of us to get at least an undergrad degree. As part of the program, we had to take several workshops that focused on things like interview skills, assertiveness training, etc. Similar to Becca's suggestion, there were several of these workshops, and we were required to attend a set number of them. We chose which ones to attend, but the professors who taught the courses in the program were not shy about advising us which ones we needed to take. Despite my background, I needed these workshops to, if nothing else, demystify the process of interviewing, etc. This was at a two-year branch of the state university, which was pretty similar in structure to a CC. Now, as an assistant prof, I often find myself advising students (informally and only when we have a good relationship) about similar issues. I think the key for me was that these workshops were part of the program I was in, and I think it would perhaps be best to tailor them for specific areas: nursing, cs/it, etc., and to present them in such a way that it was clear that they would benefit ALL students, regardless of their background.
At our university, the gen ed requirements put freshman and sophmores into specific courses labeled as 'inquiry' courses. The main section runs as a normal "intro to X for non majors" course. Attached, however, is a mandatory "mentor" section in which a graduate student takes 12 students at a time for an hour a week. Objectives range from covering etiquette and practicing interpersonal skills, etc as well as supporting students in information that flew by in the main class. The mentors have a high degree of training and flexibility to read what is needed and there is theoretically coordination and support from the faculty and the main gen ed office.

I realize a CC model doesn't have the grad students to make this possible, but it is another example of how to add a module onto basic courses to cover some of these skills.
As a first generation university graduate (with an undergrad degree & two master's), this post did speak to me. My family was absolutely middle class in terms of income (suburan house, cottage, summer trips to Europe) but not at all in terms of education. I would have been interested in a course like this. I have seen courses like this offered at some institutions by career services. For example, the University of WesteBrn Ontario offers the "Backpack to Briefcase" series.

There is a major disconnect between liberal arts skills (write a paper on the causes of World War 1) and business writing/skills. One of the big differences I have learned is that brevity and well reasoned recommendations are valued in business writing. Having footnotes or a bibliography is optional.

I wonder how specific one should get. For example, should colleges recommend Brooks Brother's shirts (which I discovered only last year and now swear by?)? Or should they something more general such as: you should set aside $500-$1000 to invest in some professional clothes.
I have addressed these kinds of issues in a number of ways.

One approach was to teach a professional writing course to students transitioning from community college to the major at our university. In that course, we include resume writing, cover letters, speeches, presentations, flyers, etc.

One of the best ways to address things "unseen" or "unknown" is to have the students play the experts in this class. We have them critique interviews and resumes--some of which are excellent and other of which are just sad. While they may not know what they should do themselves, all the time, as a group they are good at pointing out what is clear, respectful, professional, articulate, etc. They can take these experiences and apply them to their own process, as they write resumes, letters, etc. for class.

Another project I was involved in created a mentoring program for students who had high financial need or who were first generation college students. Students received peer and faculty mentoring, got (minimal) financial support, and attended cultural and social events, as well as professional development events. These cultural and professional experiences gave students some cultural capital that they could reference in other situations. It also gave them some confidence around other students who had that background.

I tell these students that these systems they are negotiating--whether the R-1 public where I teach, the job interview, legal and financial systems--have rules they need to master to succeed. They don't have to buy into the rules--many of us don't. But if they know the expectations and the rules, they can navigate them as they will and be successful.
I like the idea by one of the Anonymous posters of breaking it up into a bunch of workshops and requiring students to take some number of those workshops. That way an experienced office worker could skip "Business Casual for Dummies" but attend "Resume Writing for Career Changers" or some such. It would allow for customization depending on career level. You might even consider allowing for an "independent study" workshop where a student does something like informational interviews with potential employers or some such.

You could even do variants - for example everyone has to do a resume workshop, but it could be resume writing "for your first job", "for a career changer", "for civil service jobs" or "to get the job of your dreams" (targeted to experienced people who need a bit more polish....)
I wish my state college would've offered a course like the one you describe.

I'm a first-generation college graduate. I grew up in what I thought was a good family and never realized how "poor" or "hick" we supposedly were until later.

While I caught on quickly to the academic writing style required and received good grades, I always felt uncomfortable when I had to speak and avoided any gathering more formal than a library study group as if it were the plague.

Things weren't too bad at state college. But when I was accepted to library school at a big 10 university, it was terrible.

No one came out and told me I didn't fit in, but it was made obvious in other ways. Again, I concentrated on the written work, blundered through class sessions as best I could, and avoided outside interaction as much as possible.

Some sort of course to help bridge the cultural gap would have been very helpful. The big problem, in my opinion, with this issue is that you don't realize you're lacking in this area until you get there. And once you're there, you might be too overwhelmed or ashamed to know how to fix it.
Memo to spammer Ludmila with that early bird comment:

They will certainly be humiliated if they get caught plagiarizing as a result of using your advertiser's paper mill.
Actually, I think a Professional Development class would be very valuable for middle class students with four year degrees, especially for those with degrees in the humanities. I spent a lot of time in mind-numbing Admin Assistant jobs, because I had no clue how portray my Lit classes as professionally useful experience. ("Wrote your thesis on "Paradise Lost", eh? So that means you can file alphabetically, great.") As a snobby, "learning-is-its-own-reward" type student, I probably would have rolled my eyes at a Professional Development class, but holy cow would it have been valuable.
Some of these things are addressed in our public speaking course. Others I've seen done well in as a business communication course or an interviewing course that includes a focus on resume writing.
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