Tuesday, November 22, 2011


“General Education,” Within and Without

What do you expect a college graduate to know? What do you expect a college graduate to be like?

The questions are very different. They start from different assumptions, and are usually asked by different people with different goals. A good answer to one may not shed much light on the other.

Higher ed providers tend to look at “general education” as a body of knowledge (the traditional faculty view) or a set of competencies (the assessment-driven view). Either way, the assumption is that whatever the major, all college graduates should have a common base of knowledge and/or ability. Whether you look at it as a set of Great Books or the ability to think critically, there’s a shared sense that whatever else happens in college, students should come out with something specific and name-able that can be traced to a particular moment in the curriculum. It’s a sort of lowest common denominator that, paradoxically enough, draws on the highest traditions of Western thought. (The tension between the two is constant.)

In practice, general education is usually addressed through a set of either required courses, or distribution requirements for courses. Students freely discuss the imperative to “get their gen eds out of the way,” which speaks more to the “lowest common denominator” function than to the “highest traditions of Western thought” function. To students, gen ed requirements are the spinach they have to finish before they get to have dessert.

Having gone through yet another round of employer advisory boards, though, I’m consistently struck by how differently the non-academic world sees gen ed. Their expectations are dramatically different, which may explain why their suggestions (or complaints) are always the same.

I’ve never heard an employer complain that graduates hadn’t read a particular book or engaged a particular theory. That has never happened. I’ve also never heard an employer ask to look at our outcomes assessment rubrics.

Their feedback, regardless of the program, has been that whatever else graduates bring with them, they should bring basic employee skills. By that, they mean promptness, diligence, a positive or at least congenial demeanor, the ability to work with other people, and the ability to get the big picture. (To be fair, they also sometimes mention writing skills, though the version of writing they have in mind is usually grammatical correctness and basic clarity.)

The version of gen ed we use internally is content-based. The version employers seem to use is almost Calvinist. You are the kind of person who makes a good employee, or you are not. If you are, the specifics don’t matter that much; they can train you. If you aren’t, the specifics don’t matter that much, since a well-read screwup is still a screwup.

The vision the employers are using is a variation on cultural capital. It’s the idea that a college graduate is a particular kind of person, with a sense of how the world works and how to work within it. Their consistent feedback is that some graduates manage to get through the programs, sometimes even with decent grades, without quite ‘getting it.’

Even allowing for a certain amount of reverse ageism -- even the best-educated 22 year olds tend to be a little more volatile than the average 42 year old -- I have to admit there’s something to the complaints. Replacing this gen ed requirement with that gen ed requirement is unlikely to make headway on the sort of enculturation function the employers have in mind. I’m just not sure how to achieve that, especially in the setting of a commuter college with many students who haven’t grown up around that model.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways to bridge the two visions of gen ed?

It seems to me that the more pertinent question is who is more important? The university and heights of Western thoughts or the employers who need to hire people to work. It may be all well and good for students to be able to spout philosophy this and social sciences that but if it can't get them a job then all we've done is given them a degree in occupying wall street.
No solution, just an observation. One thing that stands out at a CC is the presence of older students with a background in the working world or the military. They come to class on time.

PS -
My word verification is "unfed". Bring on Thanksgiving!
Sounds like employers are looking for high school graduates. Trouble is, we've already made the high school diploma meaningless, or at least unreliable as a credential, so employers are substituting navigation of college as the quick test of presumed competency. That, too, is proving inadequate to the task.

That may be why the emerging competency test is, "already employed." Not good news for new grads.
I have also heard this same complaint from employers, almost verbatim, for 25 years.

Then I ask for the starting salary they would pay these better qualified graduates, if we could provide them.

With very few exceptions I am quoted $9-$10/hour. Most employers seem to want these skills at basically minimum wage ignoring that the best and brightest will not work for chicken feed.
This is an interesting problem, but I, personally, have always seen it as my role to inculcate the skills that most employers want through training in both content and higher level academic skills. I teach history at an R1, flagship state university, so it's a different context than a cc, but some of the issues are the same. Students are expected to show up to class on time, and there are penalties for persistent tardiness, and they can't miss more than one class per semester without it affecting their grade. They must turn in assignments on time to avoid penalties as well. They must engage in discussions and interact with me and their peers in a manner appropriate for a classroom. Grammatical correctness is emphasized as much as ideas. And so forth. Most of the students who have failed one of my classes have done so because they lacked something essential to any job (promptness, ability to complete assigned tasks, etc.). While it's perfectly possible to pass while being lazy, disrespectful, and/or borderline incompetent, it is much more difficult. Essentially, I am trying to model, to the extent feasible, the average expectations of the outside world. I don't give students copies of my lecture slides because many employers will expect that they can assimilate information they've seen only once. I don't let students choose their own groups for group assignments because in the real world, they may have to work with people they don't like/don't get along with. Honestly, I'm not doing anything that wasn't a regular part of my own college education.
I teach in a gen ed program that is a hybrid of approaches. We actually have an 'award-winning' program where content doesn't matter much. Instead, Freshman and Sophomore students are required to take essentially a year-long freshman course with term-length sophomore courses and then cap it off with related electives as an upper-grad for what I always call a 'soft minor.' So, the content itself doesn't matter BUT we do expect students to have a better idea about some subject area.

Content goals are replaced by specific, but broad (perhaps too much so), learning goals: methods of inquiry, methods of communication, understanding the human experience, and engaging ethics/social responsibility. While the accountability mechanism to make sure faculty are actually teaching to these main goals is weak, coursework approved for the gen ed program must detail how all 4 goals are addressed. In my experience, most of us who teach try to build a course that is true to the goals. Most courses are heavy on the group work and have a lot of points devoted to attendance and active participation. Gen-ed courses are capped at 36 in a large state univ and there are smaller attached and required recitations linked as well.

Now, that doesn't mean that we don't get the 'I want these gen eds out of the way - why do I have to take them anyway complaints,' particularly from the non-trad or transfer students. I'm sure employers still pine for better this or that skills; I KNOW that it is tough in our state for a recent grad to get more than a $10/hr job. But, it seems to make everyone pretty happy - well, except when I'm whining because I'm grading communication as writing and ill prepared to do so because I'm not a writing teacher.
A similar train of thought at http://www.overcomingbias.com/2011/11/true-believers-in-school.html

" The most important requirements are that workers show up and do their jobs every day, feel comfortable working with people from a variety of backgrounds, and know how to find information they need in non-routine situations. Following the directives of supervisors is essential. Reliability and steady effort are highly valued."

That seems to me to be what "group projects" are designed for and anyone who has been in one of those knows just how bad they are because of the free rider problem.

I think a gen ed to teach those things would need to have group projects with evaluation of effort, so every person has to keep a diary of what they did and do peer evaluations, with the projects being about finding things out and writing them up. The marking of such a gen ed would be massively labour intensive I suspect.

Maybe what employers really want isn't a college grad but a "world of work" grad. Someone who has been to a year long course which specifically focuses on those skills. Classes at odd hours that you have to turn up to on time, group work, a stream of assignments some of which are horribly boring but still ahve to be done and so on.

Utterly focusing on the entry level work skills. Then after they've been working for a couple of years they come back to college part time for higher level cognitive stuff.
How about adding an internship requirement to your gen ed (and making it financially possible for lower income students to do it, as well)? This would also require institutional support to aid students in identifying appropriate internships, but I know a number of schools who do this in one form or another.
Time management and team skills are important, but the point of that is most definitely not the point of higher education.

Unless there's some way to monetize or otherwise bring value to the university, in order to justify the extra burden of being expected to take on these tasks, employers need to be told "not my problem".

Unfortunately, it seems politically untenable to point this out.
Unless there's some way to monetize or otherwise bring value to the university, in order to justify the extra burden of being expected to take on these tasks, employers need to be told "not my problem".

I think employers think their tax dollars are the value the university gets from them. The internships and required practical training business provide also add value - especially at the community college. In exchange, I think they want the university to produce ready-to-work employees.

If you want to give more emphasis to the skills that employers want, you need to give them more weight in grading. Make on-time attendance and participation 30% of people's grades. Really grade them on their ability to manage work groups or time. You get more of what you reward so structure your classes to reward the things that employers are looking for.

This would be difficult to implement and highly subjective - but so are performance evaluations.

But at the end of the day, I think internships would do this better than the university ever could - and I'd drop a GE class or two from the curriculum if it meant giving more students the time and opportunity to get out and make some connections to the working world before they graduate.
A general education is one that gives you a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things.It refers to the set of classes that all entering college students must take. They lay the groundwork for specialized classes and help the new student to become well-rounded in the basics before he or she moves on to a more intense area of study. Thanks.
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