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Anna Karamazina

26.11.2022 15:00

How Academics Need to Adapt to New Environments

According to Rachel Toor, a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, teachers need to acquire new skills in order to assist students in becoming ready for the workforce.

Rachel believed she understood something about writing when she entered graduate school in 2004, more than a decade after beginning her career as an acquisitions editor and a few years after reviewing college admissions essays. Her second trade book was also due to be released at the time.

Then she discovered that she would be teaching enthymeme first-year writing students as a teaching assistant. In all honesty, she never really understood it, and she still doesn't know exactly what an enthymeme is  ‒  other than to say it's like a thesis. The administrators believed that it was an effective approach for students in Montana, many of whom were graduates of classes of 18, to learn how to write.

At the moment, Toor hears composition TAs use other Greek terms that their students are required to memorize, simple ones like logos, ethos, and pathos, as if there were just one effective method of persuasion. If only they would pay more attention to the telos, which is to help pupils communicate their ideas clearly. Toor has a suspicion that learning foreign terms that make writing seem like some obscure activity as opposed to what the majority of us do every day in texts and emails may not be the most effective tactic.

She's not here to bury composition classes, which are perhaps the most difficult to teach and are frequently given by those who are least qualified to do so. Instead, she wants to draw attention to the fact that academia tends to stick with long-standing practices. Yet, times have changed, and the ivory tower is crumbling.

The significance of closing the "skills gap" and integrating career preparation into the curriculum has been discussed in several publications. The majority of professors are forced to admit that there are issues with enrollments, spending, and public confidence in colleges.

But, Toor frequently observes that academics are not doing what they preach, even among those who are advocating for change and who support internships and practical learning, modeling effective communication, and imparting "soft skills".

David Foster Wallace famously opened his commencement address at Kenyon College with the fable about young fish swimming around until an experienced fish asks, "How's the water?" The little fish inquires, "What is water?"

Academics sometimes fail to see that they are all swimming in their own small ponds, despite the best efforts and especially if they never left the sphere.

Most educators still deliver their lessons in the same way they were. They pay attention to their disciplines. They ingrain academic norms and genres in their kids. They throw around lingo like quick-service chefs. Few professions would ever expect students to complete 20-page research papers, but that is what they want them to do.

Professors educate students to include names and reference sources in convoluted methods involving parentheses and commas that would never appear in non-academic publications in first-year writing classes.

As is well known, academic circles place a lot of emphasis on footnotes and bibliographies. Not much in the workforce. In the discussions with companies, several respondents indicated they searched for applicants who were "humble, hungry and smart." Nobody mentioned the 2016 book The Perfect Team Player by management consultant Patrick M. Lencioni, which used those three words as the foundation of its methodology. Without mentioning Robert I. Sutton's "no asshole rule," Lencioni refers to his organization's "no jackass rule" in his book. Only conspiracy theorists truly worry where ideas come from in the "real world," where concepts propagate more quickly than COVID.

Capstone portfolios are helpful while applying to graduate school since they let students reflect on what they've learned (something those with a moral compass would never encourage anyone without a trust fund to do). Yet how frequently do faculty members require students to generate final projects that will help them find a job?  How many academics can write a one-page cover letter for a job or  a one-page resume?

Regardless of what students studied in college, according to engineers, marketing experts, and ranch managers, new hires are a resource drain for a few weeks or months. New hires require time and effort from existing employees to teach them because they are unaware of the specialized procedures of each firm. Productivity and profitability are affected.

Thus, rather than concentrating on abilities, companies in a variety of industries seek applicants with a particular mindset: modest, eager, and knowledgeable. Instead of discussing what they have previously learned in class, they encourage candidates to emphasize how enthusiastic they are to contribute to an organization's goal. They might not have learnt about this in school.

Universities don't educate students how to present themselves favorably in the "real world" since education still mostly revolves around them. Many of them take the time to explain to students how to email a professor and to introduce ourselves at the start of each class. Yet when it comes to searching for employment, students don't appear to connect with or retain those teachings, according to employers who gripe about the ignorance of recent graduates.

While professors may assign group projects to students, they don't always explain how to use such experiences to demonstrate that they are the sort of team players most businesses value.

It turns out that in the realm of business, where things need to get done, lone geniuses are not necessarily respected.

Many assume they teach the general education objectives of critical thinking, effective communication, and rigorous analysis, all within the confines of a particular subject, sometimes in ways that are incomprehensible to anyone not educated in that area. They campaign to draw majors so that they may continue to teach challenging courses.

Employers assert that none of that is relevant. They are unconcerned with majors, don't care much about minors, and think that only certifications that have been accepted by the industry count for hiring. Taking online tests—often at no cost—allows students to get certification.

Change of Mindset Required

So, with a gulf between what professors think they're doing in higher ed and what employers say they need, the former are in a position to make some adjustments.

Nonetheless, few academics have recently applied for jobs outside of academia. If they have, it was likely years ago and the world was very different. And the job market for academics is, shall we say, unique. 

Rachel Toor received alarmed communications from other faculty members who are now responsible for career advising since she started releasing some of the information she discovered while conducting research for a book for new graduates on how to land employment. They ask for guidance; the most honest admit their ignorance. This can be fixed.

Faculty also require a mental adjustment in order to begin their careers, just like fresh graduates do. They must begin to think that one of their responsibilities is to assist their students in finding employment, preferably outside of academia. However difficult and embarrassing it may be to admit, a lot of them still don't understand what it takes to thrive in the competitive job market of today.

Most people want to believe that they are lifelong learners. Let's start now.

Academia cannot entrust job placement agencies, which are underfunded, understaffed, and sometimes underappreciated, with the task of imparting workforce with competence skills. Students typically don't use the resources they provide. The individuals they have learned to know and trust in the classroom—their professors, ourselves, and the students—have connections with our pupils.

Therefore, teachers should understand the AI screening process. They should educate students how to network using alumni connections and LinkedIn, how to use research skills to find organizations that will align with their values and cultural preferences, how to write effective cover letters that explain how they can contribute (and that it's not about them and what they want), how to customize each résumé to each job, and how to translate their experiences, whether it be a job as a barista or as a work-study position in political science.

Learning what it takes to be successful in a job hunt is not difficult. And it's not all that different from what universities declare to be the general education objectives. Yet, they first need to teach how to exit their own pond's foul water and learn what it takes to swim in the seawater.

What if they don't do this? Students who might have benefited from all that colleges have to offer are beginning to understand that taking on debt isn't something they should do. Companies will no longer demand college degrees, as is currently the case in several jurisdictions. After that, academia will perish.

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