Thursday, November 07, 2013


When Unwritten Rules Change

The Boy is twelve, and growing at what seems like a rate of about an inch a week.  He’s growing fast enough that despite what seems like a superhuman appetite, he’s nearly invisible from the side.  He doesn’t know it yet, but I can attest from experience that you don’t get an email when your metabolism decides to change.  It just happens, and you don’t realize it until some damage has been done.

That’s how it works when unwritten rules change.  You don’t get a text message or a memo.  Most people don’t know until the change has happened.  And even then, some figure it out much faster than others.  As the saying goes, the future is here; it’s just unevenly distributed.  

Unwritten rules, by definition, are hard to control.  They change, but the process by which they change is much murkier than the process for, say, amending a regulation.  Figuring out when they’ve changed is a form of literacy in itself, and a subtle one.  It combines a certain kind of social capital with a certain kind of perceptiveness.

As the distribution of social capital becomes more polarized in America, following the distribution of economic capital, it becomes much more important for community colleges in particular -- and public education in general -- to help students learn some existing unwritten rules, learn how to discern unwritten rules for themselves in unfamiliar settings, and eventually learn how to shape unwritten rules.  We can’t rely on them “just knowing.”  

That’s a big job.  And it requires rethinking some of our own unwritten rules.

Most basically, it requires acknowledging the reality of social class in American life.  That’s a tall order in itself.  Americans have trouble saying the word “class” without first saying the word “middle.”  We have to choose, consciously, to violate -- and then change -- the unwritten rule that we pretend that class doesn’t exist.  

That’s a pretty drastic cultural change to ask, but it matters.  The single most common complaint we hear from employers about new graduates -- and this has been true everywhere I have worked -- has been about “soft skills.”  That’s a broad category that includes everything from communication skills to dress to punctuality.  It’s the stuff that we, as academics, tend to assume that students already have.  

There’s good historical reason for that.  For most of its existence, higher education was the privilege of the wealthy.  They knew the folkways of the elite, because they grew up among the elite.  In the lower echelons of higher education -- the teachers’ colleges, say -- the students knew the folkways of the middle class, because they grew up in it.

The great expansion of American public higher education happened during the heyday of the Great Compression of income inequality.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, income inequality dropped, and it was possible for intelligent people to assume that the greatest social problem of the time was either bringing “minorities” into the expanding middle, or fighting the epidemic of “conformism” in the middle class.  (It’s hard to imagine now, but critiques of “massification” and “midcult” were endemic in the social thought of the time.)  Community colleges were part of a larger picture in which an ever-expanding middle class was assumed to be the wave of the future.

It wasn’t, but we’re still here.  And now we’re producing graduates into a market that rewards some winners extraordinarily well, but that punishes the rest with increasing vigor.  Institutions that were built to mass produce the middle co-exist uneasily with an economy and culture that tend, increasingly, towards extremes.

Which suggests that the unwritten rules have changed.  We can’t assume anymore that students always arrive knowing what to wear to job interviews, or how to comport themselves when taking criticism from the boss.  They may violate unwritten rules without knowing that they’re doing it.  

With higher education no longer the exclusive province of the elite, and with “masscult” very much a thing of the past, we have a new task.  We can’t rely on wealthy backgrounds to do the extracurricular work, and we can’t rely on a rising tide lifting all boats.  We have to rethink the boundaries of “extracurricular,” and to confront the great unspoken taboo of American life.

How hard can that possibly be…?

I would love to assign my students "Dress for Success" and teach them the basics of professional dress and behavior.

How am I supposed to do it?

I can assign class presentations and tell the students to dress like they were going to church or a job interview. What about the students who don't own a coat and tie or dress shoes? Am I supposed to deduct points for it?

What do I tell my dean when he (rightfully) asks: "What the hell are you doing? How is this related to science?"

These are honest questions on my part. I'd love to hear some honest answers.
The high school where I work requires a thesis that includes a presentation. Students are required to wear business dress. As part of the same class, they also do a mock college interview where dress and comportment are part of the assessment. It's essentially a speech class. It strikes me that a public speaking or communications class is the right place for this.
I think there are some challenges to assigning these responsibilities to a particular department. In each field, the expectations and standards can be a little different. "Proper dress" for a physicians assistant, a teacher, and an engineer are certainly different.

@Anon-7:15pm, you can tell the dean that this is related to science because students need to understand the work environment in which science is conducted. When I was a researcher at Large American Company (I'm sure readers everywhere would recognize the name), we once had a summer intern who chose to wear shirts for the first week that exposed her belly button. While it was a popular style of that time (late 1990s), it was a fashion choice in a science/engineering environment that Was Simply Not Done. If that intern was in marketing, it may have been just fine; I don't know since that isn't my field.

We incorporate presentations throughout our R-1 engineering program. The students we see do seem to be comfortable with such presentations. Written communication is a bit different. I have sometimes contemplated requiring a weekly "journal" assignment in which students write a 1-paragraph summary of what is going on in class. It would make them write, and as a bonus I would learn about what they are understanding about the class. I admit that I haven't tried this yet due to the negative (yet another thing to grade).

The other soft skill I would add to the list is marketing and self-promotion. That seems to have become a yet-more important part of the world than it used to be. (Maybe I'm just noticing?)
write a 1-paragraph summary of what is going on in class

I've done this. The way to make it not punishingly difficult to grade is to assign it through your LMS, track completion only and make comments on about 10-15% of them each week. Students love the attention! If you announce a prompt for the assignment in class, it acts as an incentive to attend.

You won't be teaching them to write but it will force the kind of post processing that helps in absorbing complex ideas. Also, make it worth about 5% of their total grade. It will reward the diligent and help push them up a third of a grade if they do poorly on an exam but it's not so many points that if they miss one or two it will really matter.
>What do I tell my dean when he (rightfully) asks: "What the hell are you doing? How is this related to science?"

You tell him that you can't do science unless you're hired and get grants to do so. And you can't get hired, or get the exposure to get good grants, without being able to give a good presentation, part of which includes dress.

Or, you could ask him if he'd hire a PhD who showed up for a job talk in ratty jeans and T-shirt, even if the science content of the talk was great.

Either way, I think you're on track that the best thing you can do is to have them give a class presentation. You don't have to deduct points for dress, but you can still give suggestions.
>What do I tell my dean when he (rightfully) asks: "What the hell are you doing? How is this related to science?"

You also tell him that the stakes are different--and much higher--for women and people of color.

Given this, "Or, you could ask him if he'd hire a PhD who showed up for a job talk in ratty jeans and T-shirt, even if the science content of the talk was great."
I'd say it very much depends on the applicant's gender and ethnicity.

I'm basically plagiarizing @TressieMc, so here's the link, because I could never say this as well:
This comment has been removed by the author.
This also cuts to important questions about the role of the school. Is it the job of education, K-12 or beyond, to socialize students a certain way? To teach them the rules of a specific culture? I think that's short-sighted. There may be a place for dealing with clothes, human interaction styles, what we arbitrarily call "appropriate" behavior -- but a school has to handle that carefully. I think it's an abuse of our power to say "you need to dress this way if you want to succeed." It makes more sense to put it in context: "The current dominant culture values certain kinds of clothes in certain contexts. Why? And what does this mean for you?" As an educator or advisor, it's not my job -- and it's not right -- to tell students how they should dress. But it's certainly within my job and my rights to launch a critical examination of the assumptions underlying our culture, such as attitudes toward clothing, and also convey the information that The Man wants you to follow these rules. Students can then use that information however they will.
My CC has several career-oriented events (resume writing, interviewing practice, an employer fair) where dress codes are addressed and (in the last two cases) enforced. It is barely a start, but every bit helps.

Your comments have set me thinking about the soft skills engineering colleges teach because engineering companies expect them: things like following directions, right down to details like where your name appears on a paper. I should be starting the process of pushing those ideas even before they get there, but we are usually so happy that they turn in an assignment that we don't want to take off points for format errors.

One thing I've been noticing is that even students with an obviously upper middle class background (quality of clothing or comments about a parent's career during various discussions) lack many of the skills DD mentions from the 60s and 70s. Boomers appear to have done an uneven job of teaching skills at home that they learned at home.
@ Uncle Matt --

I agree that schools have to be very respectful of students' cultural and class backgrounds. But they can start by identifying behaviors that are troublesome in the majority of work environments (or social environments for that matter). K-12 teachers are well aware that some behaviors that are common among youth bother lower income and minority/immigrant parents just as much as they bother "the man." These parents want some back-up when trying to coach their kids into mature behavior, not what they see as an "anything goes" attitude from teachers.
These parents want some back-up when trying to coach their kids into mature behavior, not what they see as an "anything goes" attitude from teachers.

And the teachers have been beaten into that "anything goes" attitude by other parents who make a fuss, and administrators who won't back them up when they try to enforce standards.
Before doing interviews through my college's career center they made me watch a video or go to an orientation (I can't remember) that talked about appropriate dress.

The thing I find rather infuriating in retrospect was that a lot of the advice they gave was bad and made me stress out about the wrong things. Like, I remember a young woman asking about nylons (this was definitely still in the Nylons Era) and whether it was OK to wear colored nylons that matched your suit, or if they needed to be "nude." The woman running the orientation said that they absolutely HAD to be nude, that suit-matching colored nylons were something you ONLY wore if you were interviewing for a RETAIL job, and went on about this for some time.

1. I was interviewing in a black suit. I decided that a black suit with nude nylons looked stupid, and wore black ones.

2. Which was fine because NO ONE CARES ABOUT THIS. They want you in conformist business clothes: in 1995, that meant a women's suit with a skirt and jacket, nice shoes, and pantyhose, if you were a woman, and a men's suit with a tie and dress shirt if you were a man, but if you were a guy no one particularly cared whether you were wearing a black, gray, or navy suit, whether you had a striped tie or a solid tie, and whether you wore a white shirt or light-colored shirt. If you were a woman they didn't care if you accessorized, they didn't care about the color of your pantyhose (in fact, a pants suit would have been fine, it wasn't freaking 1967), as long as your clothes basically matched and you looked like you were making an EFFORT to abide by the business norms.

(I wore a skirt to work my very first day and then switched to business casual -- the company had a business-casual dress code -- and never looked back. At my next job interview I wore a pants suit.)

Anyway. On one hand, I feel like there's information that needs to be communicated to students; on the other, I feel like it needs to not be boilerplate, because "appropriate" at one job is "ridiculous" at another. A good rule of thumb is to look at what your coworkers are wearing, and wear something similar. (CONFORM, in other words. Sigh.)
@Anonymous 7:15 AM -- I can't speak to the K-12 teacher's experience, so I'll leave that to others. I do know a few things about college, which is the setting my comments were meant for. It's absolutely okay for post-secondary education to examine and explore and explain and ex-whatever the various reasons and effects of dressing certain ways. But are colleges supposed to be agents of socialization? Should they be? I appreciate the importance of soft skills. And I work for a community college, which means we listen carefully when employers talk about what they want. But there's still a line between teaching "You need to dress and act this way" and "You're heading into a culture that will treat you better if you dress and act this way."

Should K-12 schools be agents of socialization? Now *that* is a fascinating question...
I would be much more comfortable if it is pitched as, "These are the rules a lot of the mundane employers you must deal with enforce; some of them don't even realize that there is any other valid way of being human. We do not endorse these odd folkways, but we do want you to know that they are rigidly enforced by people who have the power to hire or fire you for violating them." In other words, the anthropological perspective.
@ Uncle Matt: (from Anonymous 7:15 AM) --

"Socialization" can mean different things. It can mean teaching kids to conform in a way that benefits employers but maybe not themselves. And especially if certain children are picked out to be "molded" that way, and those turn out to be poor children (or women, or people of color) then we rightly reject the idea. But socialization can also mean helping children develop maturity, self-directedness, respect for the community, and awareness of the fact that there even ARE norms that the adult world operates according to. Schools are far from the only institutions that do this sort of coaching -- family is first (and show me a family that wants its kids to stay child-like forever!), after-school and summer jobs to the extent that they even exist any more, teams, churches, etc.
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