Wednesday, July 25, 2012

 

How It Sounds

Sometimes it’s the offhand comments that tell you the most.

In a conversation a few days ago, some thoughtful faculty noted in passing that the state’s constant drumbeat about job placement and STEM fields -- two different things, btw -- was becoming a factor in faculty morale in the humanities and social sciences.  They heard every invocation of college-as-personnel-office as an attack on what they do, and as a harbinger of even-more-diminished resources to come.

I couldn’t blame them, really.  Budgets are tight, new state and federal money (when it exists) tends to go to more favored areas, and it’s not hard to read the public mood.  

As someone who has attended more Employer Advisory Boards than is probably healthy, I can attest that much of the “practical-versus-pure” dichotomy is overdrawn, if not simply false.  But the political rhetoric is pushing in one direction, so some folks -- understandably, if unhelpfully -- are compelled to push back in the other, thereby implying that the terms of the discussion are correct.  If I could, I’d love to convene some much larger Employer Advisory Boards and invite both politicians and the English department to observe silently.

Even in our most baldly vocational programs, employers consistently make it clear that their greatest need, and disappointment, with new employees is with the soft skills.  Even in technical areas, we hear consistently that anyone who wants to move above the entry level needs to have good communication skills, good workplace savvy, and a basic sense of numeracy.  The employers are still willing to do a certain amount of training on their own specific systems; what they want from us is people are who have the skills to be trainable and employable.

In their more thoughtful moments, I’ve heard politicians acknowledge that.  But in the heat of legislative battle, such counterintuitive truths don’t get heard.  Instead, we fall into stereotypes of “ivory tower” academics not preparing students for the “real world,” and we believe somehow that if we could just reduce education to training, everything would be fine.

It doesn’t work like that.  It has never worked like that.

The relevant question is not whether we should fund, say, chemistry, as opposed to sociology.  (Last week, the Freakonomics folks -- whose readers tend to have economics backgrounds -- did a poll asking which social sciences should die.  Shockingly, economists didn’t choose economics.)  That’s the wrong question at the systemic level.  (It can be the right question on individual campuses, but that’s another issue.)  Both majors can produce thoughtful people who have something to offer, and both can produce drones.  And especially in the first two years of college, it makes sense for students to have at least some exposure to each discipline, or at least to similar ones.

At its core, some very smart economists say, the jobs crisis is not primarily about having too many sociology majors.  It’s about having a too-skewed distribution of wealth, a too-powerful financial services industry, and too many people making life choices that any competent sociologist could tell you don’t lead to good outcomes.  I’m much more worried about college dropouts -- especially those with heavy loan payments -- than I am about graduates with degrees in comparative literature.  

Historically, the liberal arts grads have struggled somewhat to get the first real job, but have done quite well for themselves once they’ve made their way in.  They just need that first foot in the door, which is a tall order during a nasty recession.  But let’s not confuse the effects of the nasty recession with the value of the liberal arts education.  And even more importantly, let’s not make the mistake of purging the “gen ed” courses from the technical and vocational fields.  Technical firms need managers too, and those managers will need to be able to understand people, write and speak well, and make decisions with limited and flawed information.  

Attacking the humanists is not going to solve the recession.  It simply is not.  If the employers with whom I speak are to be believed, that’s the last thing we should do.  Short-term training is, at best, a short-term solution; if we really want long-term prosperity, we need people who bring the whole package.  That means recognizing English and history and, yes, sociology as integral parts of our mission.  The answer isn’t to hit back with the virtues of irrelevance; it’s to affirm the relevance of the educational core.  We need people who know enough to listen to the offhand remarks.

Comments:
As a member of an English department, whose specialization is literature, who has been heavily involved in curricular development as well as in responding to various state and accrediting agency mandates, I can only express my solidarity with you in this wish: "If I could, I’d love to convene some much larger Employer Advisory Boards and invite both politicians and the English department to observe silently."
 
This is really a great initiative taken up sounds to be really appreciating thing to do by a trust worthy.
 
I can second what Dean Dad said about the value of non-STEM fields. I got my degree in Physics, but I have discovered that the most important skill that I obtained in school was probably the ability to write. I found that an ability to write clearly was actually almost as important as skill in science and mathematics in my later career.

I often reflect that the most valuable class that I took when I was in high school was the typing course that we were all required to take. This is because only a few years later personal computers became into general use. You never know where technology is going to take you and what skills will be useful.

I think that the most important skill that you can acquire in college is the ability to learn. If college is too narrowly focused on training for the current job market, there is a danger that students will learn a lot of skills that will be obsolete in only a couple of years.

It is increasingly unlikely that you will be able to remain in the same job for a lifetime career, and an important survival skill will be the ability to learn new things and new technologies so that you can remain up to date and be able to respond to changes in the economy.

If the university becomes too narrowly-focused on training for the job market, the university will be tempted into short-term thinking, chasing the twists and turns of the current job market or listening too much to the Wall Street weenies. There will be pressures on university administrators to cut out those programs and majors which are deemed irrelevant to the perceived demands of the current job market.

I see a lot of this here in Big City, with a lot of schools rushing to set up degree programs in fields that are deemed to be currently hot. A lot of students will quickly rush into these fields, probably producing a glut of graduates onto the job market. Soon there will be so many graduates in these fields that many of them will be unable to find jobs, and the field will be deemed to have gone completely bust.
 
I second writing and typing skills. As a trained writing teacher teaching computer science, I can also say the ability to learn is huge. I've shifted careers twice in my life, and though I hope to remain in my current one until retirement, I never rule out the possibility of needing to pick up new skills.

People have also said to me over the years that my most valuable skill is my ability to communicate between the techies and the non-techies. That's a skill that's increasingly in high demand as science and tech fields affect our lives, and we need people to be able to explain things accurately in ways that laypeople understand.
 
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I am hereby contacting you to leave a comment on your blog, DD.

There are a few articles floating around lately about the myth of the "skills gap" - this one in IEEE Spectrum is my favorite: http://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/at-work/tech-careers/why-bad-jobsor-no-jobshappen-to-good-workers/
 
Learning to learn is vitally important, but you'd better have that skill long before you get to college. Grade school, perhaps?

I generally agree with DD's assessment, writing ability has been more important to my career than the many science and math courses I took at East Coast Engineering School.

On the other hand, I wonder if some unstated assumptions aren't also at work. For example, the humanities have been taken over by the lefties, STEM has been, until recently, apolitical. STEM is harder, so the smarter, more ambitious people choose it. Choosing to major in philosophy or sociology, especially in this recession, seems an almost decadent decision.

Not saying I agree with these assumptions, but they may explain some of the political currents.
 
Absolutely loved both this post and the article that 10:19 linked.

Drives me crazy to read newspaper articles which blithely assert that that there's plenty of jobs, but our workforce is just too stupid/untrained to do them. They never give any evidence of course, other than a cursory interview with some business executive. You shouldn't need a college degree to operate some piece of machinery or fill out paperwork- that's something that any adult with average intelligence can learn in a month, and it basically has to be learned on the job.

I also believe that humanities degrees are broadly beneficial to our society, perhaps even more so than any other kind of degree, and I have great sympathies for the professors who have to justify them on strict salary and job numbers.

However... it is, like you said, very difficult to get that first job out of school with a humanities degree. In this economy, would you really recommend that to a young student (particularly one with no family resources to rely on) that he or she should study humanities, rather than a professional degree? Doesn't that seem like an awfully big risk? It seems like there's a big conflict between what's good for society, and what's good for an individual.
 
Yes, I have always thought that this "skills gap" that industry executives complain about is almost entirely fake. When Bill Gates complains that he can't find enough qualified people to fill the existing openings at Microsoft, he is talking through his hat.

The job ads that I see in the IT field all seem to have impossibly high requirements--they all want years and years of experience in several different operating systems and in several different databases. I have seen job ads which ask for more years of experience in Java that the language itself has been in existence. Some ads are so unrealistic that I don't that anyone would have even a tenth of the experience that they supposedly require. A new graduate who doesn't have all these years of experience doesn't stand a chance.

Management constantly whines and complains about a shortage of engineers and scientists, but I know of lots of engineers and scientists who can't find jobs. I think that a lot of this is because the few companies that are actually planning to hire new people seem to want only very narrow specialists, people who have years and years of experience in exactly the projects that the company is working on right now. They want someone who can jump into the job right away without needing any sort of on-the-job training. If you don't meet *all* of the requirements listed in the ad, your resume goes right into the electronic trashbin.

Finally, I think that a lot of the job ads that list requirements that no mortal could possibly satisfy are actually thinly-disguised efforts to justify shipping the job offshore, or to justify the hiring of an H1B visaholder who will come to the USA and work for a lot less.
 
I won't say more than a "me too" on the alleged skills gap, and mention that pay rates also explain part of the "shortage" of HS math and science teachers.

My own take on learning to learn is that our students need to be taught that there actually is a real thing called "lifelong learning". Even if you learned to learn in grade school, you might think it is something you only do in school. K-12 and much of college is predicated on the idea that there is a specific set of things you need to learn. Period. Changing this mindset is important, and yet another reason to limit "lecture" to things that can't be picked up from books.

I do this by example. My "good old days" stories are mostly chosen to emphasize what has to be learned when college is over and the problem you have to solve does not have an answer in the back of any book. My dad never took a class on computer aided design because there weren't any computers. Never assume the world will be the same ten years from now.

With that out of the way, I'll add my voice in support of the humanities. The engineering profession values "humane letters" enough to require a minimum background in that subject at even the most technical institutions. They know that engineering is a human endeavor that requires interacting with people from all walks of life.

I should also add that Dr. Crazy knows I have become a fan of hers while trying to figure out how to teach critical reading (of problems) to my physics students. It is a work in progress. The best students have high verbal scores, because that skill is so valuable in doing science. The ones without those skills need to work on them in science classes if they haven't taken it seriously elsewhere.
 
"Attacking the humanists is not going to solve the recession."

No, it's not. But it makes for damned good entertainment while we're waiting for a magic solution!!
 
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