Saturday, March 26, 2016

Master of my domain

Last term, during an exercise in which I forced students to think about their progress towards the undergraduate learning outcomes, one student who will be graduating in June said that she and most students were not prepared for the world outside the classroom.  Her point was something like this: "Here, we are told what we need to get done, and we do it.  But, at work, we have to show some initiative."

Most other students nodded in agreement.  I asked, "what prevents you folks from taking charge of your own education?"

It is not that I want students to set the curriculum and design courses.  But, there is a sense of agency that is missing in most students, especially the good ones who merely follow the orders.  In the post-industrial digital economy, there are fewer and fewer rewarding opportunities for those who merely carry out what the boss tells them--those are the jobs that are easily outsourced and offshored.  Loius Menand also writes about this, in an entirely different context however:
Today, if you were starting up a tech company (hey, maybe you are!), you would simply outsource your customer relations. In house, you would want your employees to be innovative and flexible, able to work in teams and adjust to new goals as they arose. You’d want to encourage your employees’ creativity by making them feel valued partners in the enterprise, active agents rather than code-writing drones. You’d be looking to maximize the ratio of brains to adaptability. You’d try to insure your employees’ commitment by making them feel that they were generating their own tasks and measures of performance, by having them “take ownership” of the workplace. You’d want reliable people who can also think “outside the box,” not people who think that successful performance means merely meeting preset goals. You would reward the most loyal employees with stock options.
Menand, unlike me, is a real thinker and writer, who has been an academic forever at a real university.  He is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard, and has been a writer for the New Yorker for more than a fifteen years.  Borrowing from the math concept that Vimala Sitaraman taught us decades ago, I like to think that Menand and I are similar triangles--his triangle is way, way, way bigger though.  Menand writes:
I don’t work in a startup. I work in a brick-and-mortar university, one of the most institutionally conservative workplaces in the world outside North Korea. But my colleagues and I all value flexibility and innovation. We are against routine thinking and rote learning. We teach our students to think outside the box and to be comfortable with failure. We stress the importance of teamwork and interaction; we seek to have our students take ownership of the classroom and to insure that they have a psychologically safe space in which to discuss their ideas. We want them to be smarter, faster, better.
Exactly!  (Though, I am not sure about "my colleagues" aspect.)  If students are even barely attentive in any of my classes, then they would have easily understood my comments on flexibility, innovation, rote learning, failure, teamwork, interaction, and--yes--ownership.  But, hey, when has the world ever paid attention to me and why should students, right?

At a higher education conference that I attended not too long ago--perhaps  the university regrets having sent me there--the presenters at one session emphasized "intentionality and reflective action."  As we got into the discussions, I asked them for tips on how to develop in students a sense of agency, so that they can take ownership of their education.  Of course, there is no easy formula for that.


Ramesh said...

At an undergraduate level, its too much to expect students to take charge of their own education. At that age priorities in life are different and the hormones dictate attention elsewhere.

The whole world is not a start up place and even Silicon valley jobs are much hyped. When you start your career, in an overwhelming majority of the cases, you are told what to do. Successful performance IS meeting and surpassing preset goals. Most of work, in every type of career is grunt work. You have to send in your Obamacare returns (OK that was slipped in to please Anne !). Flexibility and innovation are important traits, of course, but they are grossly overhyped. That Menand is a dyed in the wool academic is obvious - he thinks customer relations will be outsourced ???????

By the way, you are at a "real" university (at least I thought so :):):)) and there is no doubt that you are a real thinker.

Sriram Khé said...

"At an undergraduate level, its too much to expect students to take charge of their own education"

Such an approach worked out well in the old days. Thus, like in the movie "Animal House" students could even party their ways through the undergrad years and yet there were jobs waiting for them. In the contemporary US--remember that unless I call it out, my posts are only about the American condition--it is no longer the old days of the grandfather's. The ones who do not take charge of their education are in for a huge shock.

Maybe you were in your flippant Sunday mood when you typed it. Menand is a wonderful thinker. He is anything but some "dyed in the wool academic" and such a trait is far from "obvious" in his writings. For one, a traditional academic would not even write for the New Yorker and he has been one of their writers for fifteen years. Again, the American entry-level work conditions have dramatically changed. In the old days, employers spent time and resources training the new hires. It is rare these days. Instead, employers want the hires to have a track record of this and that so much so that. The couple of students who have been fortunate enough to find regular full-time jobs, well, the things they do at work are far,far, more than what I would imagine a new hire would do. Which are all the reasons why we want to push so much the idea of Undergraduate Learning Outcomes that I had linked to.

Anne in Salem said...

I have to agree with Ramesh.

My daughter's friends and others just entering or soon entering the workforce are entry level desk jockeys. They enter data, complete reports, fetch coffee, shuffle papers. They are paying their dues and learning their trade. One can't innovate if one doesn't know the standard. "That's the way we've always done it" may be a poor reason to do something, but it is a place to start. Innovation comes after basic knowledge.

Besides, in law and accounting, creativity and innovation are illegal!

Sriram Khé said...

The post has failed to convey the point to the two commenters, which then means only one thing: this blogger failed to clearly articulate his views.

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