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In Inside Higher Ed's article last month on a paper from the American Council on Education on the responsibility of faculty members to prepare college students for the requirements in their desired career fields, Doug Lederman posed three sets of questions:

  • 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 questions, however, presuppose a structure for academic life that largely ignores the most critical challenge, namely, whether and how to enable today’s college students to aspire and work hard enough to acquire the knowledge, skills and dispositions to adequately prepare them for life after college -- a life that presumably includes becoming good citizens as well as successful workers. Let’s examine these questions from a student-centered/empowered student perspective. With each, we offer a response that encompasses the “challenge” just mentioned.

  • Do faculty members have a role in preparing their graduates for early workplace success? Yes, but “a role in preparing” is not the same as “a professional responsibility to help students embrace the challenge of preparing themselves” for “early workplace success.” Do they have an obligation to do so? Their “obligation” is a broader one, namely, to help transfer the onus of learning from the teacher’s to the student’s wheelhouse.
  • If so, is that true for all instructors, or only some? At all institutions, or only some? In all disciplines, or only some? It is true primarily for those who teach pre-majors and who should be collectively responsible for creating an environment in which freshmen and sophomores assume control of their learning trajectories while they increase their skills in critical inquiry, rather than continuing to expect, as in high school, that faculty will tell them what and how to learn.
    This should be the academic mission for all institutions that offer a liberal education. As for "in all disciplines, or only some," it should become the student’s responsibility, having chosen a major, to ask faculty for help in linking the prescribed content of the discipline to the “real world” and to a variety (but by no means all) of careers.
  • 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? Of course, given the parameters discussed above.

To tax any professor with the responsibility to align teaching to the varied and as yet likely undefined career goals of students is futile and unfair to both. As Lederman asserts, people within and without higher education worry that “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.” Such employers may indeed seek these attributes, but assuming that -- unlike a half century ago -- they now want more than obedient wage slaves or docile middle managers, the skills required by today’s complex organizations can best be acquired through a coordinated, interdisciplinary, performance-assessed, student-centered learning environment.

Lederman cites Taylor and Haras to the effect that “‘career-relevant’ skills that employers … say they want to see in students 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.’”

It seems a powerful misconception to assume that these essential capabilities are to be taught to students approaching graduation, rather than, as AACU’s “essential learning outcomes” suggests, across the spectrum of high school and college years, or, as we propose, within a highly focused pre-major seminar sequence. Richard Hersh says this most sharply:

A renewed academic culture must embrace the cumulative and collective nature of higher learning. The core learning outcomes proffered by higher education -- critical thinking, effective written and oral communication, the ability to use rather than simply acquire knowledge to solve problems -- are ineffectively attained in one or two required courses or random out-of-classroom learning experiences. One or two writing seminars are insufficient for producing competent writers. A required general education course in critical thinking alone cannot teach how to evaluate credibility of information and solve problems.

In any case, how can we expect that any single faculty member, or even a dedicated group of instructors lodged within a disciplinary silo and burdened with demands to produce scholarship, can meet this expectation? It is a recipe for cynicism, and there is already far too much of that abroad in academia.

Lederman continues with the observation that “College curricula are not sufficiently focused on delivering the kind of learning that would better prepare students for what they will do after college.” This point suffers from an obsolete metaphor: in the 21st century, one cannot really “deliver” any “kind of learning” (aside from highly specific, technical/scientific information) to the learner. All students must now strive to achieve what the best students have ever embodied: a deliberate, self-motivated pursuit of knowledge and skill. Faced with the passive and compliant mind-set of so many high school grads, only a focused, integrative and well-supported program of so-called (but sadly misnamed) general education can overcome such learned docility. As Mark Edmundson wrote 20 years ago:

To me, liberal-arts education is as ineffective as it is now … chiefly because … university culture, like American culture writ large, is, to put it crudely, ever more devoted to consumption and entertainment, to the using and using up of goods and images. For someone growing up in America now, there are few available alternatives to the cool consumer worldview. My students didn't ask for that view, much less create it, but they bring a consumer weltanschauung to school, where it exerts a powerful, and largely unacknowledged, influence …

Whether the students are sorority/fraternity types, grunge aficionados, piercer/tattooers, black or white, rich or middle class (alas, I teach almost no students from truly poor backgrounds), they are, nearly across the board, very, very self-contained. On good days they display a light, appealing glow; on bad days, shuffling disgruntlement. But there's little fire, little passion to be found.

One need not fully accept Edmundson’s bleak assessment to acknowledge that such attitudes pose a monumental obstacle to high-quality teaching and learning -- surely an adverse tendency no single faculty member or department can vanquish -- and that unless our colleges and universities find creatively stimulating ways to engage and inspire each generation of college students to become self-motivated learners, everyone will continue to blame everyone else for their lack of preparation for what our times require in the workplace, in our communities and in critical national and global debates.

The third underlying assumption Lederman offers is that “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.” But this is only to be expected given the prevailing academic faculty reward system that each tenure-track college teacher must contend with.

In nearly all universities and most liberal arts colleges, scholarship (however esoteric or removed from the exigencies of the world) is the faculty’s principal or co-equal obligation. Thus, taking the time to help detoxify first- and second-year college students from complacent consumerism is more than can be expected of any individual chasing tenure. It is no wonder, then, that many don’t see this as their job, since they have been told that their primary responsibility is, if not to scholarship, then to the upper-class majors in their department.

The dominant paradigm of all secondary and higher education has, for centuries, been the transfer of knowledge from the knowing to the unknowing. But in a world that is replete with sources for knowledge technically accessible to anyone with a computer or cellphone, and is likewise plagued by problems and challenges that require creativity, collaboration, initiative and persistence to solve, a new paradigm is required, one that inspires the learner with a lifelong pursuit of knowledge and skills, a pursuit both personal and collaborative, requiring of all but the most brilliant, lonely minds a capacity to work productively with others, including people from diverse backgrounds and disciplines.

Where career preparation intersects with this changing paradigm (one that has not, as yet, replaced “delivery of instruction” at any but a very few institutions) is that it becomes our students’ responsibility, guided by faculty coaching and modeling, by challenging assignments with options for demonstrating achievement, by introduction to key texts, by performance-based assessments and by patient support, to become the engines of productive learning. If preparing for a satisfying career is a vital part of the student’s life goal, then he or she must be the one who seeks and finds, with faculty guidance, the best pathways, through coursework, texts, projects and internships, to that goal.

Johann Neem, asked by Lederman to respond to Taylor and Haras, is somewhat more optimistic about the capacity of faculty to help students recognize that, in pursuing challenging coursework within the discipline, they are inevitably building skills that are transferable:

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.

He then carries this point to its logical societal conclusion:

Being an intellectual as a humanist or scientist or mathematician or a philosopher comes with the capacity to do certain things. 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.

This view is undoubtedly a critical part of the process of helping consumer-oriented students become passionate learners. But this is not a task for an individual faculty member, or even a collegewide committee to complete. The paradigm of “delivery of instruction” must be replaced by a new liberal education mind-set, and our students are our best allies in making that happen.

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