Just over a quarter of a century ago, David Bartholomae published an influential essay , “Inventing the University,” in which he explored the difficulty new college students have as writers, trying to grasp the social discourse conventions of a totally unfamiliar community: they have to invent the university. Project Information Literacy , a font of interesting research about colleges students and their attempts to make sense of the world of information, has just come out with a fascinating new report  about how new graduates navigate information on the job. It turns out they have to invent the workplace, too, and it’s not easy.
In this study, author Alison Head and her research team held interviews with a wide number of employers as well as focus groups with recent graduates. The graduates said that they gained important and useful skills in college, particularly in being able to find, evaluate, read closely, and synthesize information from multiple sources. A history major related how her courses gave her practice in weighing textual evidence. Others had learned enough about research design to evaluate studies based on their methodology and sample size.
But what they hadn’t learned was how to deal with questions that didn’t have an answer that could be found in a text, whether online or in print. Their work assignments lacked the structure and instructions that college assignments had, their deadlines were tighter, and the stakes were higher. They felt their jobs were at risk. One key need graduates identified was finding mentors and informants. As one focus group participant put it, “the biggest hurdle for me was getting used to talking to strangers” (19).
From the employers’ side, the social nature of knowledge was also a key issue. Their new hires needed to conduct research as part of a team, find information in many formats (not just through a quick Google search), to be able to discern patterns in what they uncovered (itself something of a social process – how do these sources talk to one another?), and have the persistence to dig deeper, to get under the surface of things.
To some extent it’s easy to see how employers’ desires are in conflict with new employees’ fears: new graduates feel they have to come up with answers, fast, or they may put their careers at risk. As students they’ve been conditioned to work individually to gain approval from a single source of authority – their teacher. Now it’s the boss who needs to be appeased. From the employers’ side, this nervous need to make a good impression may be undermining new employees’ ability to understand and tap into the expertise of colleagues and to be able to help negotiate the interpretation of knowledge as a group. As Head puts it in her report,
For employers, engaging team members was not only a workplace practice to be learned, but also often the most viable means of solving information problems. One employer told us that workplace research, unlike college research, is highly contextualized and collaborative—thus, experiential factors matter as much, if not more, than facts, figures or theories.
This immediately reminded me of Bartholomae’s notion that students need help inventing the university. Though the essay is often cited, it’s not without controversy. Some critics have pointed out that students mostly don’t want to be academics, that it may be more important that they find their own voices than that they become good mimics of scholarly discourse. There is, of course, a middle ground, in which students learn to join conversations and hold their own, having gained respect for evidence-based reasoning and the skill of understanding and engaging in critical thought. I have always liked the way Michael Oakeshott put it  in The Voice of Poetry and the Conversation of Mankind .
As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian. . . . Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance.
In practical terms, I think perhaps what we really need to do is help students understand not just how the library works and how the university works, but rather how all knowledge is social, how knowledge seeking isn’t a linear process of finding answers but rather is tapping into ongoing conversations in which they may play a role. We need to help students master the social graces of Burke’s parlor . We need to help them learn how to talk to strangers.
image courtesy of Scott McLemee as found on Phil Ford's "Dial M for Musicology" blog