In the parable of the fox and the hedgehog, the fox knows a little about many things, while the hedgehog knows one big thing. In senior administration, you’re forced by circumstance to be more fox than hedgehog. So, in that spirit, here goes.
Matthew Hora’s piece in Inside Higher Ed this week about career readiness is well worth the read. This isn’t a rebuttal; it’s more of a prompted reflection.
As a student, the first time I set foot in my college’s career center was in my senior year. That wasn’t unusual. I showed up to get some basic help on my résumé. I don’t recall any conversation about jobs, oddly enough. It certainly didn’t help me find any, or even help me figure out how to look. The people there were likable enough and seemed to mean well, but it wasn’t entirely clear to me why they were there or what I was supposed to do. Nobody told me.
In that case, it turned out OK; I was accepted into a doctoral program and off I went. (The relative wisdom, or not, of doing directly into a doctoral program from undergrad is another post altogether.) I don’t remember having any contact at all with a career center in graduate school.
My first administrative experience of a career center was at DeVry. DeVry is a for-profit college with a strong vocational orientation; as such, the career center there carried much more weight than it had at other places. Every curriculum included a required career development class (CARD), in which students received instruction on job searching and résumé writing, as well as practice interviewing. The CARD class wasn’t perfect—some of the older students found it insultingly basic—but the theory behind it had some basis in reality. Most of the students there were working-class, usually the first generation in their families to attend college. Many were immigrants. To the extent that they had been exposed to workplace norms, the workplaces were usually either retail or construction. They were aiming (mostly) for office jobs, but most had little sense of the unwritten rules of office jobs. Part of the theory behind the CARD class was that these students needed the implicit understandings of office culture made explicit.
For example, and I am not making this up, one of the instructors told me that she had to advise her male students on how to pick a suit that didn’t look cheap. (“Fold a sleeve, then unfold it. Do you still see the crease? Not good.”) Some of the female students needed coaching on how different styles of self-presentation read to different people. These weren’t “academic” skills in the sense that the term is typically used, but they were important. The class was a partially successful effort to give students some cultural capital that students from more affluent and professional backgrounds knew without having to try.
That was 20 years ago. Now the codes are even more subtle. At many high-tech companies now, wearing a suit would be considered deviant. They’ve adopted a form of casual wear, but it’s a specific form; read it wrong and you’re not a cultural fit. Students from different backgrounds may need people to make the unwritten rules legible. That’s a greater challenge than helping someone format a résumé.
I prefer to see students interact with career centers from the very first semester. That’s much more common now than it used to be, which is encouraging. Many colleges now include career interest inventories in new student orientation and/or college success classes, on the (correct) theory that students who know their goals are more likely to stick around long enough to achieve them. The Ethnographies of Work model of a college success class takes the insight about legibility farther, using actual workplaces as texts for students to learn to analyze. They develop college-level writing and synthesis skills in an applied context, with the unwritten rules of the various workplaces revealing themselves over time and through comparison.
What I haven’t seen but would love to is sustained interaction between career services offices and academic departments in liberal arts fields. If you’ve been to enough employer advisory board meetings, you know that employers’ most common complaints are about communication skills and overall professionalism, as opposed to course content. But I don’t know if students know that. Even just taking a few minutes early in the semester to explain to students how a given class will help them on the job can make a difference. When I taught debate, a student once asked me when the class would ever be useful. I asked him to imagine that he wanted his boss to purchase something expensive—equipment, training, travel, whatever—but the boss was hesitant to spend the money. If you could put together a good argument with evidence and present it in a professional way, you increase the chances of two good outcomes. First, you may get what you want. Second, even if you don’t, you will come across to the boss as an intelligent, capable professional. That can pay off in much bigger ways over time. Even if you lose the battle, you may win the war. That’s a skill worth developing.
Happily for me, an older student in the room immediately verified what I was saying.
Some liberal arts faculty see career considerations as Trojan horses that will eventually lead to the elimination of the liberal arts. I think that’s a misreading. There’s no faster way to hasten the decline of the liberal arts than to pretend that making a living doesn’t matter. Students know full well that it does. What they don’t know is that the skills developed in liberal arts classes can make the difference. Faculty members who engage with career centers, and who share those lessons with students, can make an enormous difference. They may have to switch from hedgehog mode to fox mode for a bit, but that’s OK. Sometimes it’s even healthy.