The false divide between what the “real world” needs and what we teach

I am a speech teacher–that is my academic background, public speaking is the course I have taught most often, and despite the fact that students generally dislike or even fear public speaking (google “public speaking and fear of death” sometime), I thoroughly enjoy teaching speech and helping students become better speakers.

That is why articles such as the one that appeared in last week’s Inside Higher Education resonate with me. The author noted that, once again, in meeting with potential employers of students, what those employers really need are graduates who have the abilities we emphasize in a traditional liberal education–the ability to communicate accurately and effectively, the ability to think and analyze, and the ability to solve problems.

Those of us in the education business are often told that we are not preparing our students for the “real world.” You can find any number of articles that talk about a skills gap for college graduates entering the workplace.

Yet when employers are specifically asked what they want, and what they mean by “skills gap,” what comes to the top are not the specific skills for a specific job, but instead the broad-based skills we spend most of our time teaching our students–how to read, analyze, problem-solve and communicate.

So where is the gap?

The longer I have been in education, the more I tend to believe that we do best for our students when we help them master (not just learn once) the needed skills for their future–whether in additional education or in the workplace. Education is not a one and done phenomenon, and I truly do believe that we do best when we prepare our students to learn how to learn, and to keep on learning once they leave us. Those are the skills our students need and those are the skills the future employers of our students desire–and those are very clearly at the heart of what we teach. We may call it general education or UCC (we may even use the (to me) somewhat disgusting term “soft skills”), but we do teach this–and maybe we need to emphasize these skills a little bit more.

On a specific note related to this issue, I look forward to our implementation of our UCC Assessment Plan, so we can see where we are doing well in teaching these skills and where we need to do more.



tl;dr and the death of reading?

The Feb. 9th Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting article (here is the link but it is behind a subscription firewall) on the idea that too many of us lack the attention span to read longer and more complex articles. This is not a new argument, but it is a very popular and timely argument–our common reader for First Year Seminar makes a similar argument.

I admit–I have yet to be fully convinced by this argument, but I can see the initial appeal. 

As I think about this, a few thoughts come to mind.

First, one of my contributions to the university dialogue fell victim to this claim–at least for one reader. Instead of holding a campus-wide meeting and presenting a speech this spring, I wrote a message to campus for the spring. Worthy or not, I did hear from one person who said it was just a little too long to read all the way through.

A second thought–more a remembrance: First year, first semester in my doctoral program at the University of Iowa, and I am taking a course in Rhetorical Criticism–lots of reading, complex (if not arcane) theory, and, I suspected, massive amounts of writing. I was wrong on the last count. The professor–a visiting scholar from the University of Utah by the name of Malcolm Sillars (a legend in the discipline-and simply one of the best people I have ever met)–told us that all of our papers had to be no more than 5 pages in length. That’s right–5 pages for theoretical analysis and critical judgment.

All of us students went nuts–there was no way we could provide substantive analysis in five pages. Malcolm’s response: Anyone can write long papers; it takes skill to make a good argument in a short space.

OK–so that claim is also a debatable one, but it is a claim I have come to appreciate over time, and one of the reasons I have yet to be fully convinced by the “death of reading” crowd who claim that web sites, blog posts, twitter feeds and the like are destroying our capability for deep and critical thought. I have more and more appreciation for the writer (or speaker–I am a speech teacher after all) who is concise and efficient in her or his use of language.

I also wonder, from time to time, if the claim that our attention spans are dying is another example of a paradigm shift in how we think and learn. Before we wrote, we memorized–great, monstrously long works–we were an oral culture. Then we created writing (which was not exactly good for our minds, as Socrates notes in Phaedrus). After writing comes printing presses, radio, television, the web–and so on and so on. All of which, to some, are just more examples of how we are dumbing ourselves down.

There is another school of thought, however, that holds that these changes are not devolving our thinking processes–but they are changing, and they are changing our thinking processes because our society is changing.

Much more to this discussion, but alas, it is probably already tl;dr material.

But if you are interested, there is a lot more out there on this topic to catch your attention if it is yet to be limited.

What? Again with the weather?

So as I sit here on the computer as the ice piles up on my car windshield (the scraping will start soon so I can get to campus–once I know that I can get there and not get in the way of those trying to salt and scrape so we can all go to work), I thought I would take a few minutes to writer about what goes into the decision for a delayed start or closure.

Let’s take today’s mess as an example. The weather forecasts started their warning almost a week ago–far too soon to be taken seriously, but soon enough to make plans to plan. By last Friday, the forecast was closer to reality, but still not clear. So that left Sunday to watch the weather forecasts and actually take a look outside and see what was happening.

By Sunday evening, a series of phone calls and e-mails start setting our response. By 8 pm Sunday evening, only 4 area K-12 schools had announced delayed starts, and no one had closed. Forecast was still not all that clear, so we put out the announcement that we were going to continue to monitor the weather.

By about 5 am this morning, it was pretty clear that the ice was here and the roads were a mess. Numerous K1-2 schools were delayed or closed, and colleges and universities were announcing as well. So we made the decision to delay the start and got the word out as soon as we could this morning. Even now as I write this, we are still watching the weather to see what is actually going to happen and if we will be able to get the campus ready.

When we think about delayed starts and closures, we think first about safety–can we get the campus itself cleared of snow and ice so that people can get to campus, park and get around? But campus isn’t our only concern–if the roads and highways that people use to get to campus aren’t clear, then it doesn’t much matter if campus is clear. The majority of our students commute, and our faculty and staff also have to commute–many from long distances.

The decision to close or delay is not easy and there is no simple formula. Make the call to early (witness the super storm of a few weeks ago that went from “storm of the century” to 2-3 inches of slush in a matter of hours) and we have an empty campus, missed classes (particularly troublesome for once a week classes) and cancelled activities. Fail to make the right call and we have students, faculty and staff struggling to get to campus and then either stranded or having to fight the elements to get home.

So we look at all the factors and we make the best call we can with the knowledge we have.

And that is why I am waiting for the ice to melt a bit before I take to the roads and head in to campus today.

Be safe.

Snow days and hard workers

Here we are again–still just getting started with spring term and we have yet another snow day. The weather forecasters were much more on target with this one–I have already shoveled the walk and driveway of the 8 inches of snow we got–followed by ice–and now a little more snow.

Campus clean-up is underway, as our facilities crews are hard at work at shoveling, scraping, salting, plowing and clearing the lots and sidewalks so we can get back to classes on Tuesday. A snow day is not an off day for this crew of hard workers.

But today is not really an off day for most of us. Online classes are up and running; my e-mail has certainly been lively with questions, issues and concerns from faculty, staff and administrators; and despite the fact that most of us can’t get to campus, we are “at work.”

That we are “at work” even when the campus is closed leads me to comment upon Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s remarks about faculty workload. Wisconsin’s public higher education system is facing many of the same economic challenges as the rest of us in public higher education. Governor Walker is proposing what amounts to a $300 million reduction in state funding for the UW system. In return, he promises more autonomy for each of the campuses.There is plenty of discussion about the pros and cons of this plan, and I do not know enough about the details to take a stand. But one comment the Governor made I do want to note-and strongly and publicly disagree with (as did the UW system chancellor).

Walker basically said that all that is needed is for the faculty to just work a little harder, and teach one more class (above the standard load of 4-4).

Walker’s statement demonstrates a common and fundamental misreading of faculty work. Yes–teaching is what most of the public sees–teaching is the observable, performative role of faculty. But for every minute in front of a class (or online for an online class), there is all the work that has gone into preparing for that public performance, not to mention all the work in responding to students, grading and commenting on their work, and revising to even better teach the next day.

And let’s not forget the other roles of a faculty member–scholar, researcher, creative performer, advisor, provider of services to students, departments, colleges, the university and the discipline–the list is almost endless.

Faculty work hard, and not just in that public role as teacher.

Here at William Paterson we know we have to keep being effective and efficient with the resources we have–but let’s not pretend that our faculty (and the rest of the university) don’t work hard.