We Can't Train Students for the "Real World"
The notion that we know the "real world" feels like hubris to me.
In my “real world,” undergraduate tuition (1988-1992) at a highly regarded state university cost a little over $2k a year, and when you graduated, you could get a three-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood with a couple of buddies for $1100/month (the same apartment now goes for $2800).
You didn’t need a cell phone or a laptop to work in a professional environment, devices that may cost an individual thousands of dollars a year. Companies expected that they would have to provide training to new graduates.
In my real world post graduate school (1997), the country was about to experience near-historic low unemployment and near-historic high economic growth thanks to the rise of something called the internet. I was taught Microsoft Word in a training class at the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis.
My real world had an at least marginally functioning federal government.
It is taken for granted that one of the purposes of a college education is to prepare graduates for “the real world,” but increasingly, I’m wondering what exactly that means, and whether or not faculty have any particular specific insight that can help with this preparation.
Because things change, right?
When I was an undergraduate creative writing major (1988-92), the prevailing wisdom if you wanted some kind of teaching and writing career was to work hard at writing good short stories, send them off to prestigious magazines – New Yorker, Paris Review, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, Esquire – and if and when you had success placing a story, a New York agent would notice you, and a contract for a short story collection would be secured at a notable publisher. Your tenure track job could come once you’d placed a story in a major spot, and then once the book was published, tenure would follow.
Even at the time of my undergraduate education, this model was dying if not already dead. We just didn't know it yet. Of that list of prestigious outlets, only the New Yorker and Paris Review still publish fiction. Speaking of change, Playboy isn’t even going to be publishing pictures of naked women any more.
Any faculty that gave this (sincere/well-meaning) advice, were wrong. It was bad advice. Things didn’t work that way anymore.
Sure, there were some who managed to sneak through the gates by following the old model. It wasn’t quite camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle time, but it was close, and even those people almost certainly published at least one book before finding themselves on the tenure track. Many of these people will admit to their own fortune. A good number of the rest are littered across the country in contingent positions.
The ground has only shifted further over the years. Fifteen years ago if a student came to me and wanted advice about publishing I could reliably tell them to go get the Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market and go from there.
But who knows if that’s good advice because I have zero experience with any of those things. Like most unfamous writers, I am trying to figure out how to make a living as print erodes and the amount publishers will pay in advance money gets smaller and smaller.
Like most writers of a certain age, I have considerably less insight into the kind of writing that may have value, and the platforms that writing could appear on than my students.
I care deeply about the postgraduate outcomes that await my students, but I cannot train them for a career that will shape-shift throughout their lives. My advice to them is to be adaptable, to seize opportunities when they come, to plan and budget with maximum miserliness.
I cannot train them for something that doesn’t exist, but I can help them build a set of skills and experiences that will make them flexible and self-regulating. I can model resiliency. I can encourage taking risks that may pay dividends. I can show them that writing is a life of constant learning, consistent discovery.
I can provide an atmosphere that is conducive to education and hope they take advantage.
I have to think that this uncertainty about the real world extends beyond the field of creative writing. What other fields are training students for career paths that don’t actually exist?
When colleges and universities claim to be training students for the “real world,” maybe this is a fiction, perhaps a well-meaning one, but a fiction nonetheless. How can we make such claims?
We (I) complain about students thinking tactically about their educations, trying to maximize return on time and investment, rather than engaging deeply, learning material in a lasting way. “That’s not going to work in the real world,” we (I) say.
That’s not how their world has worked, though. In their world, all tests are discrete hurdles to be cleared in an endless race towards necessary credentials. Being curious is a bonus at best, a distraction at worst.
I can see why they feel this way. Why should I deny their reality? Why should I ask them to replace it with my own?
Why is my world more real than theirs? In my world, I am financially secure (for now). I am in a stable, happy marriage. I have identified my vocations.
When I lecture my students about the “real world,” maybe I’m being a bit of an asshole, particularly when my generation is at least partly to blame for the state of their world. The world of a nineteen-year-old who is working 35 hours a week while going to school full time and doing an externship and will still graduate with five-figure debt sounds more “real,” than mine.
Who am I to condescend from my position of power and privilege?
Yes, I have experience, and wisdom (one hopes) over my students, but I am not navigating their world. They are.
If they say they are stressed, if they say life is hard, if they say they’re not sure what their futures hold and they’re deeply worried about that, who am I not to believe them?
Their world is as real as mine. I’m going to try to remind myself of that.
 I was a runner-up in the 1998 Esquire fiction contest. I had people of considerable experience say that this would guarantee an agent and published story collection. My first story collection was published last year.
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