When I went to graduate school in 2004, after more than a decade working as an acquisitions editor and then a handful of years reading undergraduate admissions applications, and with my second trade book about to be published, I thought I knew some things about writing.
Then I learned that as a TA for first-year composition courses, I would be teaching students the enthymeme.
Honestly, I never really got it and still have no clear idea what an enthymeme is other than something sort of like a thesis. The folks in charge thought it was a good way for students in Montana, some of whom came from graduating classes of 18, to learn to write.
Currently, I hear composition TAs throw around other Greek words they are told their students must learn, easy ones like logos, ethos and pathos, as if we reach audiences through just one means of persuasion. If only they would focus instead on the freaking telos: teaching students to express their ideas clearly. Learning foreign words that make writing feel like some arcane practice instead of what most of us do every day in texts and emails may not, I have a hunch, be the most successful strategy.
I come not to bury composition courses—arguably the hardest classes to teach and usually by the people least equipped to do so. Rather, I want to point out that in the academy we like to keep doing things the way they’ve been done for, well, centuries.
But the world has changed, and the ivory tower is falling down.
We’ve all seen plenty of articles about the importance of filling the “skills gap” and bringing career readiness into the curriculum. Most of us can’t help but realize there’s a problem with enrollments, budgets and public trust in universities.
But even among those lobbying for change—who believe in internships and experiential learning, modeling clear communication, and instilling the “soft skills” (barf to the language!) of being able to get along with others and work on a team—what I often see is that we academics are not practicing what we teach.
This Is Water
In a graduation speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace famously started with the parable about young fish swimming around when an older fish says, “How’s the water?” The kid fish say, “What’s water?”
Academics, even with the best intentions, and especially if we’ve never left school, don’t realize that we’re all swimming in our own little pond.
Most faculty members continue to teach how they were taught. We focus on our disciplines. We indoctrinate students into academic conventions and genres. We sling jargon like short-order cooks. We ask students to write 20-page research papers—the likes of which few professions would ever require.
In first-year composition courses, we teach them to drop names and cite sources in complicated ways involving parentheses and commas that would never appear in nonacademic publications, certainly not in this one.
As we know, footnotes and bibliographies are a central focus in academic circles. In the workforce, not so much. In my interviews with employers, many people said they looked for applicants who were “humble, hungry and smart.” Not one person referenced The Ideal Team Player, a 2016 book by management consultant Patrick M. Lencioni that used those three words as the cornerstone of his system. In his book, Lencioni mentions his organization’s “no jackass rule” without citing Robert I. Sutton’s “no asshole rule.” In the “real world,” ideas spread faster than COVID, and only conspiracy theorists really care where they originated.
Capstone portfolios allow students to reflect on what they’ve learned and are useful when applying to graduate school (something those with a moral compass would never encourage anyone without a trust fund to do). But how often do faculty members require students to create final projects that will help them get a job?
How many professors are adept at writing a one-page job cover letter? Or a one-page résumé?
I’ve heard engineers, marketing gurus and ranch managers all say that no matter what students learned in college, new employees are a drain on resources for weeks or months. Ignorant of the specific ways of each organization, recent hires demand time and effort from other employees to be trained. Profitability and productivity suffer.
Rather than focusing on skills, then, what I’ve heard from employers in diverse fields is they look for candidates with a certain mind-set: humble, hungry and smart. They want applicants not to talk about what they’ve already learned in classes but how eager they are to contribute to an organization’s mission. This is not necessarily something they’ve learned in school.
Because education is still mostly all about them, we don’t teach students how to make themselves appealing in the “real world.” Many of us spend time at the beginning of each course telling students, “My name is not ‘hey,’” and giving basic instruction on how to email a professor. But according to employers who complain about the cluelessness of recent grads, our students seem not to connect or remember those lessons when applying for jobs.
We may ask students to do group work but don’t explain how to translate those experiences to show they are the kind of team player most organizations rely on. Turns out lone geniuses are not always valued in the world of work where things need to get done.
We believe we teach the goals of general education: to think critically, communicate clearly, analyze rigorously, all from within the framework of a specific discipline, often in ways unintelligible to anyone not trained within that field. We lobby to attract majors so we can keep teaching advanced courses.
And employers say none of that matters. They don’t care about majors, don’t give a hoot about minors and believe only industry-recognized certificates matter in hiring. Students can get certified by taking online tests, often for free.
Needed: A Mind-Set Shift
So, with a chasm between what we think we’re doing in higher ed and what employers say they need, we’re in a position to make some changes.
However, most professors have not recently applied for nonacademic work. Or if we have, it was years ago, when the world was different (though that never stops us from extrapolating from our own antique experiences). And the academic job market is, let’s just say, sui generis. (See, I too can use dead languages to try to sound smart!)
Since I began publishing some of what I learned while researching a book for recent grads on how to snag jobs, I’ve gotten panicked messages from other faculty members now tasked with career counseling. Help! they write. I don’t know anything about this stuff! the most honest of them admit.
Friends, we can fix this.
Like recent grads trying to launch careers, faculty are also in need of a mind-set shift. We must start believing that part of our job is to help our students get jobs—and in careers other than academe. We need to realize, hard and shameful as it can feel, that a great many of us don’t yet know what it takes to succeed in today’s employment climate.
Most of us like to think of ourselves as lifelong learners. Let’s get to it.
We can’t outsource teaching workforce readiness–necessary skills to career placement offices, which are underfunded, understaffed and usually undervalued. Students tend not to take advantage of the services they offer. Our students have relationships with us, their professors, the people they’ve gotten to know and trust in the classroom.
So, we need to understand the AI screening process; to teach students how to network using alumni connections and LinkedIn; to show them how to put research skills to find organizations that will be a match for their values and cultural styles; to write good cover letters that explain how they can contribute (and that it’s not about them and what they want); to tailor every résumé to each job; and to translate their experiences, whether it’s a gig as a barista or as a work-study job in the political science department.
It’s not hard to learn what it takes to be successful in the job search. And it’s not much different from what we say our general education goals are. But first we must learn to get out of our own stinky pond water and understand what it takes to swim in the salty ocean.
If we don’t do this?
More and more students who would benefit from all that universities have to offer will instead realize that going into debt just isn’t worth it. Employers, as has already happened in some states, will no longer require college degrees.
And then we’ll all drown.