Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Rain in Spain...

Last week, there was a thought-provoking post over at IHE about lessons that the nonprofit sector of higher ed could learn from the for-profit sector. It’s worth checking out.

Having worked in both, I mentioned in the comments that the lower-tier nonprofits, such as community colleges, would do well to learn certain lessons from the for-profits. One really basic one is the importance of addressing a certain kind of cultural capital that elite students already have, but that community college students generally don’t.

At Proprietary U, all degree students were required to take a Career Development class before graduating. (They typically took it in their last or second-to-last semester.) It covered the basics of resume writing, interview etiquette, and even professional dress. The idea was to ensure that the students didn’t sabotage themselves with presentation styles that suggested that they wouldn’t fit in a professional setting. It was badly needed; I recall intercepting one student I knew on the way to an interview and suggesting that he lose the “do rag” first. I couldn’t imagine doing that here.

In the more elite provinces of higher education, a course like that would probably be considered redundant, if not insulting. When you have students mostly from upper-middle-class or just plain wealthy backgrounds, you can usually assume some level of attendant cultural capital; they know how to present themselves in certain settings. (They often choose not to, but they can when they focus.)

But if you’re in the first generation of your family to go to college, and the folks around you are blue collar or marginally employed, the world of the professional workplace may be mysterious. The skills that the Swarthmores of the world could largely take for granted may or may not be there.

PU could get away with it because its mission was unabashedly vocational. Students went there to get jobs. The institution knew that, and embraced it. Nobody had to explain the relevance of, say, interview skills.

Even in class, faculty were encouraged to include some grade points based on “professional conduct” or something similar. The idea was to try to inculcate certain habits of punctuality, presentability, and civility, so they’d become second nature over time. I recall explaining to my students that the style of argument that worked well on Jerry Springer probably wouldn’t work if they tried using it on their boss. They had to learn a new style. Some succeeded, some didn’t, but the effort made sense.

At my cc, though, and at most cc’s, this kind of discussion simply doesn’t occur. The blind spot exists for reasons both good and bad. On the good side is an understandable fear of racism, classism, and general stereotyping. Given the reality of all of these in American life, and the real damage that they do, this is not to be dismissed lightly. There’s also a sense that subjects like ‘deportment’ are not properly academic, and that we have no business teaching those when we can barely get the job done teaching, say, math. Besides, the diversity of the student body goes well beyond race and gender to include age and life experience; a course on professional etiquette that may fill a real gap for a clueless 19 year old may not suit a returning 35 year old. But we can’t construct different curriculum requirements based on students’ age.

Still, avoiding a difficult issue doesn’t make it go away.

Ideally, some of these issues could be resolved through extracurriculars, and sometimes that happens. (I learned a great deal about organizational behavior through my time on the radio station in college.) But typically, the students who gravitate towards those organizations are the ones who least need the polish. They already have it.

Have you seen an effective and non-creepy way to help students from non-traditional backgrounds make up the gaps in cultural capital they need to succeed? I wouldn’t mind stealing a great idea or two...