Teaching to the workplace: A paradigm shift for faculty

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

Students now come to college not to get a degree or even knowledge, but to get a job. That is all students—whether at Yale or Phoenix. Vocationally oriented community colleges and for-profit schools have got this piece very right. This reality is driving much of their popularity. This is especially true for first generation, low income and students of color. Their families want them to get the traditional job—doctor, lawyer, businessman.  I  remember one student at Princeton who grew up in the Bronx and was getting his doctorate in bio physics at Columbia and his parents kept asking when he was going to get a real job. They could not understand that his job was to spend time in the library and to sit waiting for his experiments to gel or whatever they were supposed to do. This is not the vision of work that most  families have.

Large research universities and liberal arts colleges are creators of knowledge, but are often slow to adapt to new things themselves.  They create the  trends and then may be the last to jump on the train.  So while the world has changed in term of the workplace and career paths and the financing of education and even who goes to college, the faculty in these institutions have not necessarily caught up. So they may not appreciate the vocational focus and anxiety that students and their families are now bringing to the academy. Part of it is driven by the vocational uncertainty that is now part of the work landscape in ways it was not in the past.

It used to be that if Uncle Joe was hired by IBM  in 1955, he worked there until retirement—maybe moving up along the way—and then got his gold watch after 50 years and went home to play golf. Now when somebody graduates  from college it is likely that they will have as many as 15 jobs and several careers, maybe even one after retirement and maybe a period of unemployment.

My own story is a bit like that. I graduated with a degree from Bryn Mawr in Political Science. I first taught middle school for a year. After that I landed a job in advertising, went on to a position in corporate public affairs and then marketing.  I spent 15 years advancing in the corporate world in jobs I had never envisioned in college.  A pretty typical scenario. Then in my late 30s I switched totally. I took a job at NYU, earned my doctorate there and have been a professor, senior administrator and dean at 4 different schools and  am now consultant and author.

People move around even more now and into fields that did not exist years ago—like social media marketing – hard to believe but 10 years ago there was no facebook or twitter.

How did Ken Chenault, history major, get to be CEO of American Express? Or Gerald Levin, former head of Time Warner, get there as a Religion major. Jamie Dimon CEO at JP Morgan Chase was a Psychology major. Carly Fiorina studied philosophy and medieval history.  The folks in power positions typically have liberal arts degrees and varied majors.  Even college presidents come from diverse majors– Princeton President Shirley Tilghman is a biologist and Brown’s Ruth Simmons did comparative lit—but they all use the same skill sets.

Both faculty and families—key influencers for students,  don’t necessarily understand that people change jobs and careers over the 50 or so years that most people work. If they did not go to college families may not get the translation of skills like critical thinking to the skills that lead to career advancement.  But because the work that faculty do is in the academy they may not appreciate the ways in which the skills they teach translate to the external workplace. And they have not until now been challenged to defend what and how they teach relative to student (and family) vocational aspirations and needs.

Families and students do not realize that employers do not expect students– other than those at entry level in fields like medical data entry–to come in with specific job knowledge. Those hiring at the entry level of the management ranks don’t expect graduates to know  how to do particular processes in a particular firm or field. They do want to know that a potential employee is smart and teachable (good GPA) and can learn the processes and procedures of that firm or industry and of new jobs as one moves up.  They also want to know that a candidate has basic skills like communications, critical thinking, research, problem-solving,  human relations, and organizational/ time management. Those are the skill sets of a liberal arts degree in a well rounded college program.

Some faculty may  understand these things but may not have shared it explicitly.  But today faculty have to be the change agents – different kinds of professors for a different kind of student in different kind of world.

They will have to be the ones who understand that students today need to know how to relate education to work and how to justify the price tag for a philosophy major in a world where college comes at a higher price than it ever has.  They will have to explain that knowing dates and data have merit but that knowing how to find information and analyze that data and write and present a stellar report are going to be the critical skills for getting ahead.

The bottom line is that we will need the teachers who make college relevant– the ones  who will have students know why they are paying for the experience, the ones  who will liberate them to enjoy the learning because they will see that it has some purpose  relative to their vocational aspirations regardless of the discipline.

Here are three strategies to consider for faculty to become the teachers students need now—especially those students who are first generation to go to college at all.

  • First.  Teaching  vocationally  — explaining how skills get applied in  the workplace. It is important to engage students in experiential, applied  and community based learning opportunities to show how disciplines are  applied in the  “real world”.  Students today learn differently.  They learn online, they have shorter  attention spans and so the pure lecture format is not always the best. One  course I taught did not come together until the students had to go into  the community to do projects that helped them see for themselves how the  disparities of social class really functioned beyond the texts I had  assigned.  This  is especially useful for adult learners  who can relate better to experiential learning.  And adult learners or returning students  is a growing number – maybe the majority of students now entering college.

Part of teaching vocationally is to be interdisciplinary and to use teams. Collaboration  with colleagues in different  departments  to team teach is exciting.  Take an example—Civil Rights. What if that were team taught by professors from Economics, History, English and Art.  How cool would that be for a student.  It is how the real workplace functions— in teams of people coming from many different perspectives. Students should be given team based projects where they bring their own diversity of skill and experience to problem-solving on an assignment and they should see this as a workplace simulation.

Teaching vocationally also means using technology  to build technology  skills among students. Students use technology every day.  Those skills can be pushed  in the work assigned. Employers not only check to see if students have an online presence on facebook or linkedin (a clean one) but also how adept they are at using varied forms of social media like tumblr, or doodles to schedule meetings, or powerpoint, or video conferencing, or researching on lexus/nexus  or using excel and other tools as a baseline for employment.

  • Second,  partner with  other college offices –career office, counseling services, even the library.  Faculty can help students to take  advantage of the resources they may not on their own. They  can encourage students to go to events   (often under-attended regardless of how much pizza we serve) where high  profile individuals or alumni will be speaking. This is a networking  opportunity for students. Sometimes  faculty can take the class or make it  part of an assignment.  I used to  make one class session meet in the library prior to assigning final  papers.  Professors can direct a  student to the writing center.  Professors should ask the Career or  Alumni office for a list of alumni who majored in their field and what they have done with their degrees so they can answer the “what to do with  this major question” with real stories.
  • Finally,  we have to make fewer assumptions about  what students know. For example, we cannot assume they know what a      syllabus is. Students may come from backgrounds where asking questions or  asking for help is not valued. So it is important to spare them the pain of having to confess that they don’t know and anticipate the things they may not know. That is one of the things I do in my book, I CAN Finish College. I give the answers to questions students may not even know to  ask. We need to let students know they can come to a professor. One friend  of mine was a graduate student in sociology and still did not know what a  variable was and fortunately the professor was very wise and realized from  the glazed expression on my friend’s face that she was in trouble and  invited her to come meet with her. My friend went on to earn a doctorate and  head a division of a major federal agency. But the key is to take the onus  from the student and spare  them the embarrassment. Further it gets them into the habit of asking questions and seeking collaborators which is what the smartest leaders do in the  workplace.

The term vocation is often a dirty word in higher education.  But  we won’t really  help our students today unless we can connect school work with job work, especially now that the public considers jobs to be the rationale for education.  It is essential that  faculty take up the challenge to make college  vocationally relevant and clear to students who will mostly be working outside the academy.


Leave a comment

Filed under economic equty, education, equity, jobs and higher education, learning

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s