Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Come Here to Fill Out Your Résumé." A New Post from TubaPlayingProf.

I don’t mean to single out the University of Illinois here; I have genuine respect for all of the schools in the Big Ten. Yet this ad, which I saw during the Illinois/Penn State football game last weekend, symbolizes for me the widening rift between most students and most professors.

Much debated and much criticized, the fifty-year-old Clark-Trow typology of four types of college students has its contradictions and problems, yet it seems to me worthwhile to start any discussion about what we do and what most students want. The four are collegiate, nonconformist, vocational, and academic.

I have had little contact with the first two. Where I went to graduate school, the “collegiate” students played a huge role; most of the students were legacies, attending the same school where their parents and their grandparents matriculated. They tended to arrive on campus with well-worn sweatshirts, pledge the right fraternity or sorority—in reality minor corporations in the business of renting out rooms in their multi-million-dollar houses for visiting alumni each football weekend—control the SGA, pick an easy major, then graduate to join the family businesses, and eventually control state politics. They never major in what I teach. I never see the nonconformists, who do major in what I teach, as I teach eight a.m. classes, a time that is at least five hours too early for them.

The Illinois ad is surely aimed to attract vocational students. The racial and gender subtext are obvious enough. The message seems to be “come to Illinois” to have something to say during the job interview. The smug interviewer, in an aggressively dismissive tone, asks, “What makes you so special?” And the UI graduate is able to say, that she attended UI (where she was able to take classes somewhere else—the curious appeal colleges make about their study abroad programs), where she was able to help a scientist “do some research” (although the student appears to be the subject of the research), lead class discussions, (for at UI the white, balding male, suit-wearing professor isn’t the sage on the stage, but the guide on the side), swim in the impressive student pool, and lead by being a SGA representative. She blows the interviewer away because she’s a graduate of UI, where 2500+ employees recruit, including 1/3 of the Fortune 500 companies. The university produced a second ad in this campaign—with a young male who joins a musical group, profits from an internship (where one can wear Illinois-orange dress shirts), builds then plays with robots, climbs rock walls—literally, not merely figuratively—and debates the young woman from the first ad. The two videos direct viewers to a web page aimed at employers, with sections for recruitment fairs, for jobs and internship, etc, yet I can’t help thinking that the videos aren’t for employers but for prospective students. Its implied argument is blow away interviewers, not get blown away by Illini.

Here at Ambitious Regional State, we tend to attract students who would be classified as “vocational.” They are here for the degrees that will get them jobs. I understand them; I started college with that specific goal and understanding of college. Where I teach reaches out to vocational students in the same way, except we don’t’ have D1 football, so we’re not on television.

Increasingly, my department colleagues complain about our students. I wonder if we understand who our students are. As undergraduates, we were or became the fourth type of college student that Clark and Trow describe, the academic college student. Our entire program is for academic students. We maintain with zeal common to religion a pattern of courses and assessment at least twenty-five years old. I had hoped that the many new junior colleagues would question such an old program, but they actually fight off any attempts for revision.

The “capstone course” is a course in which we try to match the pacing and expectations of an entry-level MA class, for we maintain that all of our majors must be able to achieve these “minimum” skills, or goals, or learning outcomes, whatever we’re calling them nowadays. For our majors, this all-important course is merely one of the forty they “need to get out of the way” before we can graduate them so that they can face the interviewer in their way of careers. My colleagues complain more and more about the students in this course: who don’t measure up, who don’t care, who don’t built their schedules around it, who don’t connect with the material, who don’t see the purpose of the course.

Recently, I tried to stoke a discussion in my department about our majors and our expectations, yet the talks flamed out. I understand my colleagues’ resistance, for they believe in the academic model. It’s difficult I think for them to see that ninety-six percent of our majors will never need the skills we hope to hone, for only four percent of our students go on to graduate school. Few students in this field will ever find “real” jobs. And my colleagues, especially the latest hired, ardently and rightly try to dissuade our students from considering graduate school for that very reason. Yet the program is set up for that goal, yet they don’t want our students to go. When I suggest we consider other program tracks that might help our students get jobs, the colleagues argue for the academic model despite the fact that the vast majority of our students are here for jobs. 432 of our majors don’t particularly want to learn how to make it in graduate school; however, we tell the 18 who do not to go.

I wish we would ask questions. What are we doing? Wouldn’t a better goal be to help the 432 prepare for jobs, or life, or something? Why the hell are we asking 432 majors to pay for a program so we can teach upper-level capstone courses to prepare 18 students for something we will eventually not recommend? And why and how do we have 450 majors?

To the larger issue: Can or should a school tell the vocational students not to major in the programs that keep an academic model? No school will do that, for it depends too often on tuition and fees it rakes in by selling a practical reason to attend. Can a department hire “scholars and researchers” (who must “do research” to earn tenure and promotion) then ask them to change the way they teach to meet the demands of vocation students? Can a college ask a department to change so essentially? How then can vocation students and academic faculty understand each other? Are the expectations of students and of faculty the reasons for the growing misery student and teachers feel? Are these views impossible to reconcile? Does that explain the growing criticism of faculty from staff, especially those in “student services?” And if students are customers, explain the deans’ quick reversal of faculty decisions about attendance, make-up exams, etc?

No one here wants to consider those questions. The school needs students, so it tries to give them a practical reason to come here—affordable tuition for their futures tends to be the message--as it hires more and more researchers and scholars who produce research and scholarship that helps make its case for R1 status.

This I know: thirty-second YouTube ads and web pages tend not to mention the contradictory expectations of a majority of the faculty who thinks the purpose of college is academic and of a majority of the student body who is told and who believes that the purpose is vocational.


  1. This is one of the best pieces on this issue I've seen. I note that your question "Can or should a school tell the vocational students not to major in the programs that keep an academic model?" is implicitly answered earlier in your story: You came to college with a vocational motive and left as an academic.

    That said, I agree wholeheartedly that professors need to understand that most of their students (no matter where they teach) are not like they were as students. Somehow we need to provide academic rigour and the possibility of inspiring those students to (occasionally) think in less instrumental ways about their learning, while not denigrating those who do not want to be academics as not bright enough, or not motivated enough, or whatever.

    Because this is implicit in the complaints of your colleagues about the students in the capstone course. Somehow academics need to understand that bright students, who are critical thinkers, can legitimately decide to pursue non-academic careers.

  2. This just doesn't jibe with my experience, perhaps because our fields are different. Where are these "vocations" that do not require the liberal arts skills of finding a problem, seeing patterns in unorganized material, slowing down and looking at something carefully, writing and speaking articulately, trying a variety of solutions with a group, seeing something in historical or social context, etc. -- all staples of my discipline? Most of the jobs that do not require these skills have been offshored, so that leaves service jobs. I refuse to prepare my students for service jobs. The other jobs, white- and pink-collar jobs, do require these skills, and many Americans are unhireable for the lack of them.

    Our capstone courses are not intended to prepare students for grad school -- rather, they are the single small-class experience we offer in our major, and demand collaboration, accountability to the material and to others (as opposed to passive absorption of lecture material), and high-order thinking. If we lose them due to budget cuts, which I think we will, we will graduate majors that much less prepared to develop and share ideas. I can't see how that could possibly be a good thing.

  3. @Frog and Toad. I would welcome a revision of the capstone course here for the goals that you detail. But the only goal for ours is graduate school preparation, not high-order thinking. I am sorry sincerely to hear that your program may lose the course to budget cuts, for I agree completely that the course you describe is valuable, again just the thing I wish we would have here.

  4. Humanities guy talking here.

    I think the resistance stems from a sinking feeling that when we admit too clearly that college is vocational and conclude then that we don't "need" the stuff we do, we come very close to concluding that nobody needs it and that it really is just ivory tower intellectual masturbation, subsidized by the students and tax payers. We like to think - and I think there is some merit to it - that we not only teach the skills like those that F&T listed, but also impart some appreciation for culture that sticks and makes life better in some non-vocational way. If someone in the corporate world reads Shakespeare or listens to Wagner because of us, or thinks of some life dilemma differently because of something they remember from college, we've done something worthwhile.

    So we seek to impart a "grad school"-type worldview, a scientific, lit-appreciation, historical worldview, etc. as a major part of what we do. We feel it is the mark of an educated mind to have done some of this stuff, to think about things at least some of the time the way we think about them - even if the students don't "need" it later.

    There is the serious issue of responsibility, of course. We ask ourselves if getting some people to read King Lear or getting a grant to investigate some obscure corner of our text-based lives is worth $X thousand dollars - to the students, to the tax payers, etc.

  5. I think everyone goes to school with the idea that it will someday help them get a job. A white-collar job in something, somewhere. Most English majors don't think they're going to become college professors. They think that their time as an English major will help them get a job where writing or communication is required. That could be anything from reporting, sales, to public relations and business.

    The academic model prepares one for the vocational model. It really does. I'm tired of hearing that a student's major in college must teach them to do something "practical".

    Learning to think is practical. Most of the English majors I know did not go into teaching. They are in various kinds of publishing, web design, sales, law, etc.

    And they're doing great!

  6. I would like to point out that "the taxpayers" are subsidizing my so-called public institution at a rate of something like 10% now, so they can go screw themselves. I'm so sick of this idea that disciplines like English or Classics are a waste of "taxpayer dollars" when there aren't any of the latter.

  7. @Stella and Frog and Toad. I wish my colleagues were like you. "learning to think" is just the type of goal I would welcome. but unfortunately, my colleagues prepare our majors for one "job," graduate school. How is that practical? I'm not saying that I would throw Chaucer as reading Chaucer is a good thing to to. But reading readings of Chaucer--and nothing else--isn't liberal arts education, is it? It's merely pre-graduate school, more limiting than teaching students to think.

  8. You don't "just" read readings of Chaucer--you really can't. How would you even know what the criticism was referring to? You read criticism within the context of reading Chaucer, and you analyze the argument. What is the critic's thesis? Does it hold up? What are the strong/weak elements? How does the text support/negate this reading?

    And voila--students examine how others think and in the process learn to think for themselves.


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