Is Students' Early Career Success Their Professors' Problem?

A new paper asserts the faculty's obligation to embrace "career-relevant instruction." What exactly does that mean, for professors and students?

February 26, 2020
 

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The preface to a new white paper from the American Council on Education opens with what its co-author, Steven C. Taylor, concedes is an anecdote that may or may not be representative of college and university faculty members. Taylor encounters a tenure-track professor at an academic meeting who, to the suggestion that instructors should embed career-relevant information in their curricula and teaching, says that's the career center's job, not the faculty's.

The paper, the latest in a series on teaching from ACE, the largest association of campus administrators, focuses on the ways that colleges and universities should encourage and support their faculty members to connect "learning and work through career-relevant instruction," as its subtitle states.

Among other things, the paper discusses numerous steps institutional leaders can take to encourage faculty experimentation, get professors thinking beyond their own discipline and better connect instructors to student success professionals, so professors understand their key role in helping students think about their workplace possibilities. Faculty members are, after all, the "greatest single influence on students," the authors write. (Taylor is founder and managing director of ED2WORK, a strategy and research consultancy; his co-author is Catherine Haras, senior director of the Center for Effective Teaching and Learning at California State University at Los Angeles.)

What interested me most about the paper were some questions suggested by the opening anecdote.

  • Do faculty members have a role in preparing their graduates for early workplace success? Do they have an obligation to do so?
  • If so, is that true for all instructors, or only some? At all institutions, or only some? In all disciplines, or only some?
  • And if professors are responsible for preparing students for the workplace, should they try to better connect the skills, knowledge and habits of mind they want students to develop in the classroom to some potential application in their work lives?

These sorts of questions are particularly live at the moment because of underlying assumptions that people in and around higher education are making with increasing frequency:

  • Employers are increasingly doubting whether graduates are emerging from colleges and universities with the skills, knowledge and habits of mind the employers want to see.
  • College curricula are not sufficiently focused on delivering the kind of learning that would better prepare students for what they will do after college.
  • And, as reflected in Taylor's anecdote, many traditional college and university faculty members don't see preparing students for work as their job and aren't willing to adapt in that direction.

Let's explore those assertions and the questions they raise.

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The ACE paper undoubtedly embraces some of the assumptions above, noting in its introduction that “employers now place increasing pressure on colleges and universities to more clearly align credentials with industry and workplace-specific competencies and skills … referred to collectively as ‘career-relevant skills.’”

It notes that "many in the academy" view the push for career relevancy as a "shift away from the liberal arts to vocational and technical education, and thus a reductive view of the rich possibilities of college."

The authors insist, however, that a careful reading of the "career-relevant" skills that employers (and the authors) say they want to see in students (think of the Association of American Colleges and Universities' essential learning outcomes as one example) are "not just skills; they also include habits of mind and social abilities," such as "adaptability, communication, creativity, critical thinking and reasoning, ethical decision making, leadership, problem identification and problem solving, and teamwork."

"Broadly speaking, these sets of skills cut across any single discipline and can be developed through intentional curricular experiences, regardless of the content being taught," they continue. "Many of these are already being taught in the classroom -- but there may be a lack of awareness by students as to how these skills, as they are currently being taught, relate to community and workplace settings."

Many a faculty member -- even some of those who, as described above, see the focus on career relevancy as in conflict with the values of liberal education -- could embrace a lot of what the authors of the ACE paper say.

But many of them would probably also be put off by the repeated use (in the paper's title and in numerous key sections) of "career-relevant instruction" as being what they should focus on.

When pressed in interviews, though, Taylor and Haras go out of their way to say that they don't "advocate that faculty need to make every aspect of their instruction relevant to a career," as Taylor puts it. "It's not that if you're teaching history, you've got to make that history course relevant to a particular experience that somebody might encounter in the workplace."

At numerous points throughout the paper, Taylor notes, the authors refer not just to preparing students for careers, but for "career and life." The conclusion, for instance, states that "faculty have a role in contributing to the public good by developing high-quality, relevant curricula that equip students with broad life and career skills, as well as discipline-specific knowledge that prepares them to contribute meaningfully as civically engaged citizens in their communities and the workplace" (emphasis added).

"What we're really talking about is how you can bring the outside world into the curriculum," Taylor says. "Even small anecdotes that might apply to students outside the academic setting."

A statistics professor might use this particular societal moment, for instance, to include in her lesson a presidential poll in which one candidate has 21 percent of the vote and the next candidate has 20 percent -- but the margin of error is four percentage points, raising doubts about who's really running ahead.

"Helping them start to unpack that is a simple way a professor can bring the outside world into the classroom," he says.

Haras, the Cal State librarian-turned-learning center director, says many faculty members she encounters "feel that they lose part of themselves if they start talking about professional work or jobs" for their students.

She doesn't "think every faculty member is responsible for something called career-relevant instruction," she says.

But "if you look at the faculty who are doing a really good job of teaching," Haras adds, "they are inculcating habits of mind, teaching students skills and relating those skills in very explicit ways to their students. That's a pathway that for many students creates a pre-professional identity. It's a natural pathway into career relevancy."

What Is the Goal?

If the ACE paper and its authors aren't expecting every professor to see him- or herself as responsible for making their teaching or subject matter directly "career relevant" to students, what is the paper's goal?

Professors should be thinking about what it is that their discipline uniquely (or at least distinctly) does. "Each of these meta-disciplines -- humanities, arts, sciences, social sciences -- all make really specific contributions," says Haras. "Theologians contribute something that chemists cannot. If you're a professor, think about what your discipline does. What would it mean if psychology was missing from the umbrella [of disciplinary offerings]? That should help you come to a surer place about what to do in your curriculum" to make sure it reflects and delivers the discipline's particular brand of learning.

And while this sort of analysis might lead instructors to inject new concepts or approaches into their curriculum or classroom, Haras says, it may be just as much about highlighting learning that is already going on there.

"A lot of my work in the teaching and learning center" involves getting professors to think "about what are we already doing and do we have a name for it." Students may need greater visibility into the skills and knowledge and habits of mind that they are already developing, she says, but they don't recognize it (and may not reveal it to employers) because it hasn't been called out during the course of their learning.

***

"I don't think I have a responsibility to help someone get their first job, at all," Johann Neem responds when I ask for his thoughts on the ACE paper. Neem is a professor of history at Western Washington University and author of What's the Point of College? (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), a collection of essays on the value of higher education and a stirring defense of the humanities and liberal arts.

"An accounting professor probably has some obligation to prepare people for a job," he adds. "But most chemistry majors aren't going to become chemists. Faculty members in the arts and sciences' primary responsibility is to cultivate the knowledge, the virtues, the habits of mind and skills associated with being an intellectual."

That statement -- and his view that the anecdote at the start of the ACE paper is a "straw man" that underestimates the extent to which many faculty members are already embracing active learning and bringing the real world into their classrooms -- might suggest that Neem would find little common ground with the authors.

Common Ground

But as we talk, some consensus starts to appear.

"So you as a professor have no responsibility for how your students fare in the world of work?" I ask him.

Neem notes that he's on a committee at Western Washington aimed at helping students develop pathways to their first job. "So I'm not saying at all that there should be no support for students to get that first job," he says.

"What I don't want is to orient the history major to focus on transferable skills for a job," he says. One section in the paper emphasizes helping students become "adaptive" in their thinking. "I don't think I should be remaking my course on the American revolution to teach adaptivity, for instance -- that's a narrowing that will make the historian less ready economically, not more so. The richness of that [classroom] experience is that students learn to think like intellectuals -- I don't want to risk reducing that to a set of narrowly described skills."

Any such narrowing would hurt students, not help them, Neem says. But the authors' argument can also be read as a broadening of what happens in the classroom -- and that, Neem says, thoughtful humanists like him very much embrace themselves.

"The way I think we can prepare our students for a career is to help them understand what they’re doing and why it enables them to have insight, to have purchase on certain questions, that people in other fields and disciplines don’t have," Neem says.

"The authors are right that students sometimes don't register that what they're learning has great practical value, and that they have the capacity to make sense of issues that any organization or any society faces," he adds. "We probably need to articulate that more for students, because the more you articulate to students, the more aware their own brains are at registering."

And as Taylor and Haras acknowledge, Neem thinks it's important to widen the lens so that "career relevant" in the title of the ACE paper becomes "life and career relevant."

"Being an intellectual as a humanist or scientist or mathematician or a philosopher comes with the capacity to do certain things," he says. "How we articulate those things that a humanist can do or a scientist can do that bring value to the world is absolutely part of our job.

"As students come to appreciate what they can do as humanists or scientists, they will see that the knowledge they have gained, the methods and habits of mind they have developed, are things that will help them contribute to society, both in the economy and as citizens."

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