Monday, November 07, 2005

Article Note: "College Graduates Aren't Ready for the Real World"

I am trying out a new format on the titles and providing citations up front when I do article reviews and responses. I am hoping this will add some consistency; we'll see if it works. I will note also, as I usually do if I read it in print, online, or from a database. For this article, The Chronicle Review is that supplement found in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I read this particular article through Lexis-Nexis Academic.

Citation for the article:

Levine, Mel. "College Graduates Aren't Ready for the Real World." The Chronicle Review February 18, 2005: 11.

This article caught my eye as a former high school teacher and as a former adjunct faculty member. The headline itself led me to nod in agreement, so I will say up front that I was predisposed to agree with the author since I knew from experience that college students, a very large segment of them, are nowhere ready to tackle the real world.

Professor Levine argues that colleges are facing what he calls a pandemic of worklife unreadiness. Basically, for various reasons that he outlines, students are not able nor ready to handle the challenges of the workplace after they graduate from college. The article makes some good points, but it also raises some questions.

Levine writes:

"I heard repeteadly from employers that their current crop of novice employees appear unable to delay gratification and think long term. They have trouble starting at the bottom rung of a career ladder and handling the unexacting detail, the grunt work, and the political setbacks they have to bear."

Levine argues that this has to do with various factors. For one, it happens in youth when kids lack good role models other than other kids. Actually, it is not that they lack role models. The real problem "kids today don't know or take an interest in grown-ups, apart from their parents, their teachers, and entertainers." This is in contrast to previous times when kids did look at adults more closely according to Levine. This leads to kids worrying more about social status and peer perceptions. I would tend to agree with this, but the cynic in me also has a question. Given the poor economic climate, where many jobs are being outsourced and where the message from those employers seems to be squeeze as much from the workers for as little as possible, can these future employees really be blamed for not being able to think long term? Why would they have any incentive to think long term when the employers themselves are pretty much thinking short term and quick path to the profits? And no, we are not saying here that companies should not be making a profit. That is all good and fine, but some decent treatment of the workers who help make that profit should go along with that. I actually suggest that kids are more aware of their surroundings than we are willing to give them credit for. Sure, they may not read newspapers (for readers, the blogosphere is full of articles decrying the death of newspapers, just run a search on your favorite blog search tool). However, kids can be very aware, even if they often do not show it. True, they could learn more about being patient, delaying gratification a little, and thinking long term, but the places that claim to want such skills rarely display them themselves. I am sure a lot of the kids ask, "why should I wait when you did not?"

Levine also writes:

"Other students were the golden girls and boys of their high schools--popular, attractive, athletic, and sometimes scholarly insofar as they were talented test takers. Yet many never had to engage in active analytic thinking, brainstorming, creative activity, or the defense of their opinions. In quite a few instances, their parents settled all their disputes with teachers, guided (or did) their homework, and filled out their college applications. As a result, such students may have trouble charting and navigating their own course in college and beyond."

I can only say that I actually taught a few of those in my high school days. Challenging them, which I did at every chance I got, was not easy. Ask them to defend an opinion, and they think you are insulting their mother because to them "an opinion is something you have, so no need to defend it." Teaching them to be informed and to think about their views was not ingrained into them, but I tried. I can say I taught some of those that Levine describes because I had my share of parents who would try to settle their disputes with me on behalf of their kids. And guess what, very often the principal would support the parents even in the cases where the teacher was right. So in that regard, Levine pretty much hit the nail on the head. However, I will rush to clarify that these few golden boys and girls were few, even though they tend to stand out. I also had some excellent students who made teaching a pleasure and a rewarding experience. Levine argues that these cases are increasing. From my time as a college adjunct, I get the gut feeling it may be so. I do wonder if it depends on the type of college.

I am finding effective to highlight parts from the article and then comment on them, so here is another quote from the article:

"The most common learning disorder among undergraduates is incomplete comprehension. Affected students have difficulty understanding concepts, terminology, issues and procedures."

This has to do with the fact many successful students in high school used rote memory to succeed. This explains why I had one or two occasional angry students in high school because I often used methods other than those requiring rote memorization. Students need to be challenged, questioned, and probed in order to learn and thrive. It is something sorely missing in the age of standardized tests and teach to the test approaches.

Another quote that follows the one above:

"Some college students are abysmally disorganized and have serious trouble managing materials and time, prioritizing, and handling activities with multiple components that must be integrated--like writing a term paper, applying to graduate schools or prospective employers, and preparing for a final examination."

Disorganization was a problem, and I think it is something that continues into college by what I see. I find some students very organized, but I find a very large segment that barely know how to take notes. I don't have to be in a classroom. Very often just watching them from the Information Desk while they sit on a computer to do research spreading their little mess (and it is literally at times a mess of papers) provides more than enough evidence. Even when students are given guidelines to write a paper with steps will often not follow them, which is when I see them coming to my desk in a panic because they need sources for the paper due in a few days. Some are more extreme than others. In some cases, a good amount of hand holding will help these students. In others, like Levine points out, they are vulnerable to dropping out.

Levine also argues that faculty need to change. They need to learn how to teach and know the latest on pedagogy and best practices in education. I know personally that having a teaching degree was very helpful when I made the move into higher education. I had, and still have, an edge on the other professors who may be experts in their subject areas, but it does not mean they know how to teach it. As an Instruction Librarian, I devote a part of my continuing education and keeping up to reading and learning about teaching topics and issues. This takes work, and a lot of faculty may not feel the need to do this. Some may just feel like they have the letters after their name, so no one should be telling them how to run their classrooms. They stagnate, and if I have learned one thing as a librarian and as an educator, is that you cannot afford to stagnate. You have to keep on learning. You can't teach if you do not know how. The little adage about those who can. . .yadda yadda was pretty much said by someone who never had to teach a class. Levine makes this argument on the topic of faculty:

"They should receive formal training in the latest research about brain development and the learning processes that occur during late adolescence--including such key areas as higher-language functioning, frontal-lobe performance (like planning, pacing, and self-monitoring), nonverbal thought processes, memory use, and selective attention."

Sure, some professors may get a single class on teaching methods in their subject during graduate school. If I had to depend on the one class they exposed me to in graduate school for teaching of English, I would have been lost. The solid foundation I got in teacher training is what has made the difference to me. I was up to date when I came to graduate school and then to teach undergraduates, and I can now continue educating myself. Since I taught high school, it has been helpful because undergraduates are not too far removed from that experience.

There are two more ideas that Levine presented that I found interesting. One may apply to library schools, and the other is just wishful thinking. The first:

"What's more, colleges should offer opportunities for scholarly research into the cognitive abilities, political strategies, and skills needed for career fulfillment in various fields. The study of success and failure should be thought of as a topic worthy of rigorous investigation at all higher-education institutions."

This made me think that we should probably be doing this in library school. On a very practical level, for instance, what I learned about some of the political strategies came from a librarian who was very generous in mentoring me during the job search. She taught me to read between the lines on some of the job ads for example, to know for instance which one was more an internal job that had to be advertised but the school really had no intention of hiring an outsider. Little details in language and the types of skills they ask and the combination of the skills usually give away these types of jobs that basically say "we already have someone in mind, but our rules require us to advertise the position." This is just one example. But overall, there are a lot of things to learn about how the dynamics of working in a library operate. I think what Levine suggests is something we should consider in our profession as well, especially in educating those coming after us. I am sure some bloggers in the biblioblogosphere have touched on this in bits and pieces, but the challenge is to formalize it and give it some structure. For me at the moment, that little quote gives me some ideas for a later post.

The second quote then:

"Finally, every college should also strive to promulgate a campus intellectual life that can hold its own against social, sexual, and athletics virtuosity. Varsity debating teams should receive vigorous alumni support and status, as should literary magazines, guest lectureships, concerts, and art exhibitions. Undergraduate institutions reveal themselves by what gets tacked up on campus bulletin boards--which often are notices of keg parties, fraternity and sorority rush events, and intramural schedules. Colleges can work to change that culture."

Professor Levine, that is a very nice idea, but I think it is not going to become a reality anytime soon. In the large schools, one just has to look at the sports programs to see where the priorities are at. Also, money talks quite loudly when it comes to collegiate sports. I am not going to argue against Professor Levine because I agree with his idea. Sadly, I have seen enough to know that colleges may talk about wanting to change that culture, but in the end, they will not. And it is not just colleges. High schools go through this as well. All one has to do is look at the wealthier districts spending millions of dollars on football facilities while letting other educational facilities die out due to neglect. I read a book a while back that shows what happens when a sport overtakes the rest of a school and a community. Readers can read my post on that book here. I also taught in a high school where the sports were the priority.

The article is worth reading and pondering over. At times, it seems to be too pessimistic in terms of the students and their chances when leaving college. However, if it gets educators and others to do at least a little to give students a better chance in the real world, it is worth it.

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