With Michael Brown
Mary: Mike, while I agree that we need to prepare students for a “fluctuating job market,” I do not believe that universities should be wholly responsible for this preparation. Although students may approach higher education as a form of career preparation, are professors really the ones who are best equipped to prepare them for their next jobs? Obtaining a position requires much more than coursework or the credential of the degree. Most often, it requires on-the-job experience, the ability to interview well, the strategic use of well-made connections, etc. These skills are not typically the purview of college professors, and I think it is a mistake to expect faculty to prepare students for jobs in this manner.
The primary role of a university is in providing education through teaching and learning. If our teaching is determined by what employers want today rather than what our students will need for tomorrow, we are not doing anyone a favor. If, in the 21st century, the primary purpose of higher education has become job placement, then we should be eliminating faculty positions and hiring career counselors.
I think this is a ridiculous scenario, but I also think that it is ridiculous to evaluate and rank an institution based on its job-placement rate. An accompanying trend that I have witnessed is the move toward expanding a faculty member’s role to include wearing the hat of a career counselor.
Mike: I agree. It may be part of the task of the institution, but not the academic faculty, to provide resources for job searches, but it must be remembered that the job market today is no more predictable and no less volatile than other markets. So even if faculty are pressed to teach job-related courses, that would not be much help to students.
But the main question is not how to use faculty and curriculum to increase job placement. Rather, what needs to be done to advance teaching in a way that advances that value of education, which in turn prepares students to participate in society. That certainly includes learning to engage in the sort of critical and self-critical dialogue that doubtless contributes to more success in job interviews, in the same way that it can contribute to living with and among others.
Mary: Mike, that is it. If job preparation belongs in higher education, it is the responsibility of the institution, not of the faculty. This is where universities can play a role in preparing students to define and achieve their career goals. Institutions that do this well coordinate this preparation through their Career Services offices, and they include robust career coaching that begins at undergraduate orientation.
The move to push this work onto current full-time faculty makes little sense. For the most part, professors work in higher education—that is the business they know. To ask faculty to pinch-hit as career coaches is a disservice to students and a poor use of faculty time, which would be better spent on teaching. You are right: Teaching can play a broad role in preparing students to be productive and contributing members of society, rather than preparing them for jobs that will be obsolete before they have had the opportunity to repay their student loans.
Mike: However, this is a very specific type of teaching. When I speak of teaching, I mean the sort of teaching that corresponds to the interpenetrating values of critical thinking and dialogue. A jobs-focused curriculum involves something quite different. What I mean by “education” and “teaching” are discussed to some extent in earlier posts. But for now the point is to mark the distinction between teaching for the purpose of educating and becoming educated and instructing for the purpose of learning specific skills or acquiring a specific credential. The latter are primarily tasks oriented by market evaluations that require ignoring disciplines (including inter-disciplines) and therefore effectively ignoring the idea that knowledge and self-knowledge go hand-in-hand.
It lies within the province of administration to develop points of contact with the institutional contexts of supply and demand, speculative opportunities, and the like. In this respect, administration is a kind of brokerage house, with the additional “fiduciary” obligation to help students anticipate sudden shifts in the market and to prepare for them.
Mary: Administration plays a key intermediary role in negotiating relationships between potential employers, students, and faculty. Employers say they want students who can think critically. Mike, it’s hard to conceive of a world where their definition of critical thinking is the same as yours.