Wednesday, August 17, 2011


The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Yesterday I had a chance to catch up with an old friend -- High School Friend on Wrong Ocean was doing an East Coast tour -- and I realized that, in our very different settings, we’re telling ourselves the same stories.

She teaches at a law school out there, when she isn’t doing other amazing things. We got to talking about teaching, and she made a comment that stuck with me.

“Do you ever feel guilty about preparing students for jobs that don’t exist? I do...”


It’s one of those uncomfortable questions for which you have a set of stock answers, but even after running through all of them, you’re still a little uneasy.

It’s a different question than the one I was trained to answer. Having gone to Snooty Liberal Arts College and majored in something not obviously employable, I was trained to answer the disbelieving “what are you going to do with that?” The subtext of the question was a belief that jobs exist in some fields and not others, so the responsible thing to do is to get a degree that will launch you into something employable. It’s the question the engineering major asks the art history major. The usual responses involved either subsequent schooling (law school, grad school) that would address employability -- yeah, I know, but we were sold the “great wave of retirements” line -- or something about soft skills. (Remember the movie Office Space? “Dammit, I have PEOPLE SKILLS!”)

I don’t hear that question as much anymore. My friend’s question hit home because it relied on a different, updated subtext. Now, the assumption is that jobs are scarce all over, especially for folks just breaking in. Whether they know it or not, students are all philosophy majors now. In the absence of reliable, legible paths to a good income, we’re left with skill-building and hope.

That’s more than nothing. Even in the law school at which she teaches -- a well-respected one -- my friend reports that many of her students have trouble putting a coherent argument together, especially in writing. I would have expected people with strong undergraduate records to have mastered that skill.

There’s a very real sense in which the loss of legibility in the economy argues for colleges to focus more on the skills developed through the liberal arts. I don’t know what the next hot thing will be, or what the major economic trends of the next decades will be. But I’m willing to bet that people who can handle ambiguity, communicate effectively, and synthesize coherent meaning out of disparate information will be in better shape than those who can’t. In the aggregate, they’ll be better able to adapt to change, to roll with the punches, and to add value that automation couldn’t.

But ‘in the aggregate’ is a tough sell. It’s just not as appealing as “get a degree in x and you’ll get a job that pays y.” “In the aggregate” leaves a lot of room for “gee, that shoulda worked...” A student might even learn to appreciate the aggregate, but that doesn’t change the fact that he needs a paycheck. And emotionally, it’s about as satisfying as probabilistic social science usually is.

The other story I tell myself is that economy isn’t our fault. That one doesn’t really satisfy, either.

My friend’s question didn’t dissuade me -- or her -- but I couldn’t quite shake it. Wise and worldly readers, have you found a better story to tell yourself while sending a generation of students into the meat grinder?

How about this..."These beautiful young people are headed into the grinder- with or without an education. My job is to ensure that as they face the maw, they have every single shred of advantage I can hand off to them." This economy won't last forever, and those who are best prepared will be first to benefit when things change.
We all need to tell us stories to cope with reallity better.
If those students can't put together an intelligent paragraph, then you've got other things to worry about than finding a job.

We (parents and college faculty/staff) need to set expectations lower. Yes, you can get a job but it might not be "in" your field or pay what you think you deserve. When I graduated with my degree (in the psych/social services arena), I knew the jobs would be scarce and low paying. So, I took an admin assist job at my alma mater. Hated every minute of it but it was the stepping stone to the next place. And I learned all about writing federal and state grants.
Well, we should feel guilty about training people for jobs that don't exist if we regard education as vocational training.

For many folks, it is that, perforce.

But if we regard it as something else, then we shouldn't be wasting students' time with job training at all: we should be furnishing their minds.

I do, I must admit, teach an occasional online course in magazine writing. As an adjunct, I will teach anything anyone will hire me to teach, and magazine writing is one he!!uvalot less onerous, from my point of view, than freshman comp. But it's a cheat on the students. In out-of-class moments I call it "Buggy Whip Design 101."

The course is in a community college journalism program. For the life of me, I can't understand how the college can countenance a program that DOES present itself as vocational training and that prepares students to earn next to nothing, if they can find jobs at all...which most of them can't. It's truly unethical. In my opinion.

I spent 15 years as a magazine journalist before returning to academe, so I know whereof I opine.
Wait, you think this economy is going to get better?
RE "the great wave of retirements":

It happened and is happening, just not where people are looking (at R1 institutions where a 1/1 load turns into a 40+ year career). I think our college is close to having replaced half of its faculty in the past decade, but you won't see us at the MLA conference or advertising in Physics Today.

RE "her students have trouble putting a coherent argument together, especially in writing"

This really shouldn't surprise you. My impression is that if you don't learn it in HS or college composition, you won't learn it in later classes. I hear the comment "I'm not supposed to be teaching writing" from humanities and history profs all the time. Ask yours. They want to focus on the content of the course.

And let's be clear: I'm as guilty as anyone else. Many engineers actually make their living as writers (proposals, reports, sales presentations), so I should be failing students for the incoherent mush they turn in as a lab report. That starting salary might be great, but first-year turnover is not zero in that business.

You can't judge "good undergraduate" students entering law school by their GPA, because of grade inflation, so I'd wager they are really good at the multiple choice SAT and LSAT tests they trained to take starting in middle school, and had plenty of time (and help?) when writing their admission essay in an unproctored environment. It might be fun to know if most of those weak students had an adjunct for their first semester of English comp in college.
We have a dramatic oversupply of law schools, and law schools really do present themselves as vocational schools. As they should. The excess supply has led to training far, far more lawyers than can be put to productive use. Hence, the emergence of lawsuits by recent law grads against their schools for misrepresentation.

Logically, fewer people should be applying to law schools, given the poor employment prospects. Logically, no one should ever buy a lottery ticket.

Well, at least the bottom tier of law schools should disappear, right? As it turns out, law schools are themselves immensely profitable, much cheaper to operate than many other educational endeavors, so no, they won't be going away. But the law professors really should be feeling some guilt pangs.

The economy is going through a massive paradigm shift. It won't get better soon, because politicians on both sides have treated this as a garden variety recession, which it is obviously not.
"You can't judge "good undergraduate" students entering law school by their GPA"

this is true. i would often look at assignments in my classes, calculate their worth to my overall grade in that class, and then weigh the amount of work required vs the impact of the grade. in engineering classes where there are a lot of projects, skipping assignments that could take 40 hours of work but only affect 5% of your grade was smart, because i used the time for my internship or for projects outside of school. i have no doubt that this was the smart, i landed a really good job because of it. and in the end, my GPA has never been a factor in a job. ever.

Many engineers actually make their living as writers (proposals, reports, sales presentations), so I should be failing students for the incoherent mush they turn in as a lab report.

where i work, none of our documentation team (12-15 ppl) is a liberal arts grad. all are either ex military who have used and relied upon real documentation in the field, or engineers and scientists who have transitioned over to documentation. do they teach how to write mod notes and installation procedures to english majors?

"her students have trouble putting a coherent argument together, especially in writing"

80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. i would say that 80% of the talent/intelligence in this world is held by 20% of the people. maybe even 90/10.

i've sat and watched friends get philosophy, history, mba, and anthropology degrees, only to become realtors, bank managers, and insurance sales people. they spend $50k to get a degree that they throw away, and choose a career they could've started 5 years earlier. they all said 'i want to teach at college', only to realize that there are already 1k PhDs waiting in the wings for the next teaching job.

i've often wondered what advisors tell kids who major in some degrees that have very little job availability. even with today's blog and the comments, i don't see a good response.
Calling it "education" vs "job training" is just semantics.

If you're taking $100k+ from me that I am obligated to pay back six months from graduation, you must be able to look me straight in the eye and tell me that the system/product that you represent was indeed worth what I paid for it -- both in terms of raw cash, but also the $600/mo in student loan payments I have to make immediately after graduation.

I don't care about all of that frilly feel good liberal arts stuff if I can't afford my rent and have to move back into my parents' house. That's not the American dream.

BTW, that's the cynical view. Although i did amass a good chunk of student loan debt, I work in a field that pays well. But, "in the aggregate" we do have an economic problem with schools taking lots of money from kids and parents with little to show for it.
Yes, it's definitely something to think about. I teach mostly prospective engineers. They can definitely do something with their degree, but not all of them will choose to be engineers, for various reasons. Most do, though, at least for a while. So I don't really worry too much about educating unemployable students.

My spouse has a political science/history BA and a perfectly fine job in the nonprofit sector (which doesn't really use her political science or history knowledge). Now she's thinking of taking some courses. I'm not completely sure what the benefit is (except that her employer would like her to take HR courses, so there's a clear reason for that). Our community colleges here also offer post-degree certificates, so she's thinking about taking that. Her mom's suggesting an MBA, but I really don't see the upside of that, so I'm advocating no MBA.
Stop telling stories. Admit:
1) you can now 'do everything right' (go to college and grad school, major in a 'useful' field) and still not find employment
2) you can now 'do everything right' and BE a great person, and still not find employment. That later one is really important, because I think people tend to get really down on themselves when they realize they spent all this time/money on school and they're right back doing the same silly thing they were before college
3) College educations are not a valid way to address wealth inequality. To the degree we have collectively bought into the myth "you can pull yourself up from your bootstraps" we are complicit in the system that got us to record wealth inequality. There are real problems of poverty, and college does not address them in any systematically effective way.

Note that one can endorse the myth "I must work hard if I am to succeed" and simultaneously not endorse the myth "if others did not succeed, it is because they did not work hard enough".
We're not all philosophy majors now. Many of my students have jobs lined up, in welding, dental hygiene, law enforcement, horticulture, etc. The fact that they have to listen to me talk about ethos, logos, and pathos in required English classes is kind of ridiculous, and they realize that. They recognize they are being taught by part-time employees with advanced degrees, and if they don't, they will if they take my class, and they'll know what we earn. One student commented that she was drawing more in unemployment benefits than I make in a year teaching 13 courses.
Just a note to Bob.

I also know students that are drawing more in state and federal benefits than I make per year. It is depressing given the decade of ramen noodle eating it took to get the PhD.
I don't have any answers, but PLEASE be honest with students in pre-professional programs that promise loan forgiveness after x years of employment in certain "high need" areas. I went to grad school to become a math teacher and planned to use those federal programs to get partial loan forgiveness after teaching in a "high need" school for five years. I was assured by everyone I talked to that if I wanted a job teaching math in an inner city school for 5 years, I could pretty much just go and get it.

I can't find a job in any school, "high need" or not. I have a degree (M.Ed.) that isn't useful for anything but teaching, in which there are no frickin' jobs in my state (and licenses are only good in one state, making a national job search difficult) and a lot more debt than I was "supposed" to.

Part of me wants to go back to school to become an engineer. The rest of me speculates that, Intel's constant complaints about lack of engineering grads to the contrary (maybe if they'd PAY PROPERTY TAXES the local schools could teach students math and science! What a concept!), there are no damn jobs there either.

Editor of my high school paper for all the good that did me, either
I would tell my students - a degree alone is not enough to get a good job now. Your internships, research work and part-time jobs will determine where you are employed after graduation because they will create the professional network that gets you jobs.

I have a whole lot of sympathy for students who have a hard time now because I graduated undergrad, went to training and then was licensed in a field just when technology changed and a whole chunk of people got laid-off (victims of automation). But, 10 years later, there's severe workforce shortages in my field. I didn't work in my field directly for a while after being licensed but I took a job in a related area and learned some additional skills. When times improved, that combined experience allowed me to get a great job that I love. Bottomline, people will sort themselves out. They just have to hold on and keep trying different things until they find the one that works. I'd also say that for the most part, getting licensed in a profession that can't be outsourced is a winning strategy.
Editor of the High School Paper,

You can transfer your teaching license, you just might have to jump through some hoops to do it. It depends on what state you got it from. You might have to retake the Praxis for a higher score or take one class in state history or something. I've parlayed my endorsement from Oregon into Idaho and Washington ones as I've moved around.

Also, you say you can't get an inner city job, what about trying a more rural area? It may not be your lifestyle but you might be surprised. If you don't like it after a couple of years, you at least have experience which will give you a leg up when you search again. Rural can start 20-30 miles outside of a city, so it's not an unreasonable drive if you want to go do stuff. Most rural schools are considered Title I high needs schools as well.
I started college in the late 1960s and it never occurred to me or to almost all of my friends that getting a job had anything to do with what we learned in our classes. We didn't care, assuming that we'd somehow get jobs. Along with a number of my friends, I loved learning and took classes that seemed interesting or challenging.

I began law school at age 40 after doing other things, including teaching English at community colleges and universities. I went to a top-tier law school and barely got in because my old GPA wasn't that great (it was good enough to get me into Phi Beta Kappa back in the day).

I struggled that first semester of law school because it seemed so hard, and I was shocked when I got such good grades, including two "book awards" for the best grade (in other words, the best final exam) in a class of 100. (Law schools are so hierarchical that students are constantly ranked.)

Second year, I decided to teach a class of first-year comp at the local community college. I had some friends who were third-year teaching students and served as teaching assistants in the first-year legal writing classes.

One of them complained about the first-year students' writing, and she gave me some to read. They were almost indistinguishable in writing ability from my community college English 101 students. Scary!

But I found a new career for myself: working as an academic support professional in a law school.

I've since learned that MFA's in creative writing do surprisingly well in law school. So even degrees that may seem useless to gain employment actually are not.

As to whether law school graduates can get jobs easily in the economy of the present or future, that's another issue. Some of the law professors I know believe that the true value of the degree is learning how to think and write on a higher level.

People need to have the tools to create their own jobs. Law school can give them some of those tools. So can all sorts of degree programs, whether they lead to a job offer in the last semester or not.

I've taught on every level from elementary school to high school to undergraduate and law and graduate school. It's not my job to prepare students to get their jobs.

Most of the good jobs in the future don't yet exist anyway. I could have looked and looked, but there was no one to teach me HTML in 1970.
*Most of the good jobs in the future don't yet exist anyway. I could have looked and looked, but there was no one to teach me HTML in 1970.*

And they didn't exist when I finished my first degree in the early 1990s - less than two years out from a Masters in Economics I was being asked to take on a role as a webmaster. The work I later did as a programmer hardly existed in my country (NZ) when I started primary school in the 1970s. My brother is a GIS Consultant - something that didn't exist when he left school.

Why do people have such a hang-up about connecting education with a job?

see for more on this

I just threw in my job at the start of the year to go back to uni (at almost 40 - like the previous commenter) to do graduate work in German. Do I expect to get a job out of it? No. But I'm enjoying the break from the workforce and the luxury of time to think without having to fill out time-sheets for charging my time to projects.

What have I noticed as differences between the student experience in the early 90s and now? (Apart from the web and wikipedia.) Back then part-time jobs were rare amongst fulltime students and the reading loads could be greater as a result. Now most are working to live and so the time put into reading outside of class is a fraction of what it was. The students aren't any less capable, they just don't have the same time/energy to put into the classes. The prospects for jobs are about the same - NZ was hard hit by recession in the early 90s.
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