Thursday, April 07, 2011


What’s In a Name?

A returning correspondent writes:

My state's community college system just got state money to offer job training. I assume this entails new classes, but it also influences the whole culture. My bosses are now asking me why my syllabus simply says "If you miss X number of classes you fail" instead of "In a workplace you are fired for not showing up... my classroom is the same, etc.". I don't like to play pretend that my classroom is a workplace, though it's clear that that's what my bosses would like. The power differentials are totally different between student and teacher vs. employee and employer. Money is going the wrong direction for one thing. And to blithely pretend apples are oranges just seems fruity to me.

That reminds me of a discussion I had years ago with a biologist. He made the argument -- true or not, I don’t know -- that many projects are funded in the name of a given disease, but have applicability across a wide range of diseases. Accordingly, savvy scientists know how to repackage what they’re doing according to the flavor of the month. It seemed to me somewhere between cynical and brilliant.

When I was at Proprietary U, nearly everything had to be presented in pre-employment terms. PU sold itself as education for employment, and it wanted a consistent message. It was a little annoying at first, but I figured out ways to make it work. Since my classes were in the gen ed side, which students generally enrolled there specifically to avoid, I’d get the “why do I have to take this class?” question almost every semester. The argument I found that usually worked was that the technical skills they were getting in their “major” classes would get them their first job, but the analysis and communication skills they developed with me would get them promoted. Management requires people who can see, and convey, more than just “how to.” If they ever wanted to get promoted above the help desk, they’d have to show that they could compete with all the liberal arts majors from Flagship State.

I’ve long held a pet peeve about people in academia generalizing about “industry” as if it were all the same. Different workplaces have different cultures. Some prize “face time,” and others allow you to work any sixty hours a week you want. Some define “communication skills” as the ability to simplify complexity; others define it as the ability to strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere.

The common denominators tend not to be the kinds of things that folks in higher education like to think we teach. Yes, it’s important to show up when you’re supposed to, sober and clean, ready to work. But you shouldn’t need college to know that. You need to be able to navigate organizational politics well enough at least to stay out of trouble; higher ed can be helpful with that, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient. You need a work ethic, but again, you shouldn’t need college for that. (If anything, I sometimes wonder if the party culture at some traditional colleges and universities is antithetical to developing a work ethic.)

Making matters worse, many of the skills that effective higher education helps to inculcate only show up indirectly and over time. It’s hard to show a one-to-one link between, say, a course on Elizabethan England and the ability to make sense out of ambiguity. I’m convinced that the link is there, based in part on the behavior of the wealthiest and most powerful in our society, but it’s difficult to prove. (Part of the reason that Academically Adrift got the reception it did, I think, is that it confirmed a suspicion among many of us that some students never quite get it. Interestingly, the liberal arts majors are the likeliest to get it.)

The question I’d love to pose to some of the folks who routinely bash the liberal arts in favor of more vocational majors would be why the colleges and universities that have the most elite clientele are so clearly focused on the liberal arts. Are the wealthy really that stupid? Or do they know something?

I’ve argued before that our largest ‘vocational’ major here is the liberal arts transfer major, and I believe that. Underfunded public colleges may have a hard time keeping up with the cutting edge of technology, but we can still do a damn good job of teaching literature, math, public speaking, history, and the rest of the fundamentals. Giving students that kind of grounding, the kind that gives them the skills to succeed in whatever comes next, is a form of job preparation in itself.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Are the classic disciplines useful for developing job-relevant skills, or am I just chasing the disease of the week?

I'd like to give an unequivocal "yes," but the methodologist in me says it's more tricky: there's a causal direction problem. Are promotion-relevant skills like thinking for oneself, mental adaptability, ability to coordinate others' activities, etc. the result of a liberal arts education? Or are they preexisting characteristics that make the liberal arts attractive to some incoming students who subsequently gain other (non-vocational) things like breadth of human experience or richness of expression? When I first started teaching I believed the former; now I suspect that the latter is more accurate.

On a related note about rich people: IIRC, Allan Bloom would say something like "Gaining the benefits of a liberal arts education requires much of students, and not all students are equipped for that." Maybe it requires a certain attitude about education, maybe going to a college-prep high school, maybe just not having two kids and a night job. Whether or not we believe Bloom, it does seem reasonable to say that students are wildly diverse, and we can't assert that what works for one group will work for others.
There's a lot of truth to your point, DD. However, it doesn't accomodate the many young people who arrive at college age having already passed the point of no return with respect to at least some of the liberal arts subjects. By that I mean that they are adults, and they've already decided (as they have a right to do) that they are more interested in a career goal than in analyzing literature; more interested in their technical courses than in comparing the US and the Chinese political systems -- you get the picture. We might argue that this indicates failure on the part of the high schools, but my many family members who fit this profile did not go to bad high schools. They're simply reflecting the fact that not everyone chooses a liberal arts life.

Now, that doesn't mean that they wouldn't benefit from mixing liberal arts skills into their pre-professional courses. And some of them have to do basic science or non-remedial math to get to where they want to be. But I think at some point we have to respect their goals, their choices, and their habits of mind.
"The question I’d love to pose to some of the folks who routinely bash the liberal arts in favor of more vocational majors would be why the colleges and universities that have the most elite clientele are so clearly focused on the liberal arts. Are the wealthy really that stupid? Or do they know something?"

(Disclaimer: I'm an English instructor and DO believe the "pay off" of liberal arts is in the development of critical thinking skills.) That said, I always had the impression that elite colleges focused on liberal arts because their students could rely on 1) the name of the college and 2) familial connections to get them jobs. Therefore, the main concern of students at elite universities is to find "their passion", rather than find a job. Also, most elite students plan on becoming elite members of various white collar professions. It would make no sense for top tier schools to include vocational training, because none of their students plan on going into a vocational trade.
It's hard to separate the abilities students going to liberal arts colleges already have from what they might gain in college. At the middle and high school level, I'm discovering some interesting things. Already in middle school, I see kids who have a real desire to learn and always go above and beyond what you ask them to do. You just know they're not going to lose that curiosity as they go through life. And it's that quality--the desire to know, to understand, to figure things out--that probably makes a really good employee. Communication skills go with that because in order to figure something out, you often have to ask the right questions, know where to look, know how to frame a problem. I see those qualities in 6th graders.

On the flip side, I bet I could tell you which kids are going to focus on going to a party school, or who will go straight through an MBA program. They want their paycheck and they want it now, never mind the thinking.

The first group of kids see value in everything they do. They soak it up and store it away until they need it. The second group focuses only on what they want to do. Things that don't seem relevant--right over their head.
I think these responses miss 'returning correspondent's point, which is, as I read it, that his bosses want him to waste his time building a Potemkin village and introducing unnecessary cognitive dissonance into his classroom and relationships with students.

This business of pretending classroom is a workplace is a perennial argument where I work.

Many of my colleagues feel they lack enough control and instruments of coercion if they don't use the I-am-employer card.

When I worked at Job Corps, everything was always and legitimately hooked to employability--that was the sieve we ran every question and action through: did it enhance or undermine employability?

But that was a whole culture everyone bought into. In the hands of my colleagues now, employability is just an ad-hoc way of jerking people around.

In returning correspondent's case, I suspect his bosses are caught up in one of those fashionable-buzzword fads administrators are so prone to.
I teach writing, and I think writing is very important, but it has very little to do with later employability for my students. My faith is that writing better does contribute mightily to their growth as thoughtful people, long after any end-of-semester assessment.
I'm surprise there's no mention of "cultural capital" here. Along with networking, aren't these the primary reasons rich people send their mediocre kids to the ivy league?

Knowledge-based code words that show you're part of the club, along with the right fraternity membership come in handy at cocktail parties ten years later.
At my CC, the 2nd year automotive lab is actually a working garage with paying customers. (Students aren't paid for their time, I'm assuming the money goes back into the program.) The automotive department chair embraced the "school is like a job" approach and starting awarding students "dollars" instead of points for their work. Every two weeks, students receive a "pay check" with the amount they earned for the week. At the end of the semester, students had to "buy" their grade with the amount of "money" they had earned throughout the semester. The instructor found a lot of success with this model: students were actively competing to earn the biggest paycheck, whereas they were fairly indifferent under the traditional points system. Of course, this took place in an actual business setting with customers, etc. I'm not sure if the model would work in traditional lecture classes, or even other traditional labs.
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