It seems to be a given of the new economic times that we cannot anticipate the future world that our students will inhabit. I hear comments to this effect a half-dozen times each week, from colleagues, administrators, commentators, talking heads on TV, nearly everywhere that I turn my attention. I agree.
Many assume that in the not-too-distant future entire industries will appear and disappear with a rapidness that is almost unfathomable to us. Students, we’re told, will not have one career, but instead many careers, often disparate ones, over the courses of their working lives. From the evidence at hand, I agree with these stock pronouncements too.
I do object, though, when faculty talk about this uncertainty in a defeatist sort of way. Sometimes these repetitions of the conventional wisdom are made from a place a resignation. They’re a sort of way sometimes, for faculty members to say, "We don’t know what the future holds for our students, so what the hell are we to do?"
Giving up is not an option, not for higher education, and most certainly and most importantly not for students. No generation of faculty members has ever been able to predict the future. And while no faculty members I know genuinely consider “giving up” on preparing students, I do sense resignation from some, a defeatist sense that even our best intentions will be ineffectual. Given the recent economy, it’s easy to feel ineffectual in helping even ambitious, conscientious, savvy students to prepare for the future. At many institutions faculty members are as worried about their own future prospects as students are about theirs.
Importantly, though, the vast majority of faculty members I’ve encountered in all of my time in and travels through academe genuinely care about students’ futures, and want students to be productive, economically successful, and happy citizens. But many of us don’t always know how to help students achieve those ends. Especially now.
Maybe this is because the world has shifted. But the world always is, and always has been, shifting. Yet, I wonder if we are more anxious about these shifts than earlier generations of educators might have been.
Part of the problem is that it can be quite difficult for faculty members to advise students about how to pursue paths outside of academe. In addition to discipline-specific differences, there are a variety of general explanations for this difficulty: 1) some faculty members have literally never worked outside of academe; 2) other faculty members are so far removed in time from working outside academe that their knowledge is hopelessly dated; 3) those who do have experience and expertise outside of academe, even ongoing experience, are likely to forget how they “broke into” that other world. Or, even more likely, since some faculty members were established as experts, the means for novices to break into their particular communities have shifted, and the faculty members' experience is no longer relevant in this regard.
It’s easy for a physical education professor to advise her students about how to get jobs in physical education. It’s difficult for an English professor to advise an English major about how to get a job as an intelligence analyst (the initial transition I made, which left some of my former teachers a bit perplexed when FBI agents conducting my security clearance investigation showed up in their building).
There is a fundamental question for the future of both students and higher education as to how we faculty members will help students to inhabit and achieve success in domains that are entirely foreign to us and our immediate areas of expertise. We need to figure a mechanism, both to ensure student success and the ongoing relevance of higher education.
Even when we as faculty members do possess them, individual knowledge and anecdotal experience have short shelf-lives, because as soon as faculty members separate from active engagement with an industry or line of work, their knowledge about that world immediately begins to become dated and to erode. Because such knowledge has such a short shelf-life and tends to be so overwhelmingly oriented around individual experience, it is also difficult to preserve and nurture at the institutional level.
The trick then, as I see it, is to develop mechanisms at the institutional level where individual expertise can be accessed, but also preserved and passed on, or evolved. Think of such mechanisms as centralization of knowledge, which is then distributed in pinpoint precision. This is in stark contrast to how knowledge about life outside of academe is often passed from faculty member to student, a transmission that often takes the form of a faculty member generalizing from their own anecdotal experience.
The Intellectual Entrepreneurship program at the University of Texas at Austin  (full disclosure: I participated in the program as a grad student mentor years ago) offers one model for how to institutionalize such knowledge, while at the same time ensuring that the knowledge doesn’t grow stale, and that it shifts in pace with our changing world. The UT Austin IE program’s mission is to educate citizen scholars by creating collaborations and partnerships between disciplines, by connecting that expertise to collaborators in the community outside of the university itself, and by increasing diversity within both of these types of collaborations. Without going too far into the particulars, the program achieves these goals primarily through mentorship, but not necessarily faculty mentorship of students, which should already exist, but by having graduate students and community members mentor enrolled undergraduates in areas relevant to the students’ interests or ambitions.
My own time as a mentor was spent working with a nontraditional undergraduate student considering attending graduate school. The mentorship consisted primarily of showing her the workings of graduate education, and helping her think through job prospects, and how to mesh a graduate career with her family and work life. Not only was the mentorship — for someone only considering graduate school — intense, but it was exceptional in that I myself had not yet been accredited as an expert in the conventional sense. My own graduate work was still under way. Finding ways to draw in mentors beyond the professoriate, and particularly from active professionals, seems to be the remarkable aspect of UT Austin’s IE program, and the component most necessary to launching other mentorship/advising models.
I don’t want to argue that IE is the solution to the larger problem I’m describing. I’m not sure, for example, that a mere transplant of IE as it exists at UT Austin onto my own campus would best serve my university, which is a regional-comprehensive university, and not a so-called “research” university. For example, my institution doesn’t have enough graduate students or graduate student support to reproduce the model as it exists at UT Austin on our own campus. But I do want to argue that UT Austin’s IE program, and similar programs, offer models for how we can remove burdens from faculty members who might be poorly positioned to advise students about how to achieve their particular ambitions. And that such programs offer models for how to institutionalize an ever-changing set of knowledge in a way that is productive for students.
I can only speculate, but I suspect that the most successful institutions in the future economy — that is, those that create the most student success—will be those that find tangible, enduring structures for mentoring students with expertise beyond just professorial expertise. Too many of our universities, I fear, rely on mere slogans about preparing students for the future instead.