Friday, August 31, 2007

Philosophical Challenges

One of the more difficult problems for me is controlling my aversion to the theoretical. In some ways, my view of what a university should do is not shared by a good percentage of others within academia.
I believe there are three primary roles for a university. Colleges have two primary roles and technical schools have but one.

  1. Create knowledge through the discovery processes of each discipline.
  2. Prepare future leaders.
  3. Prepare managers and workers.

These primary roles should not be take to exclude others. The first role is unique to research universities, which must also perform the other two functions in order to survive. Few universities can exist without undergraduate and professional programs (though there are research-only institutions).

Colleges, often public schools without graduate degree programs, are still fortunate enough to draw students who will be civic leaders. These students need well-rounded liberal educations and the ability to consider philosophical matters. Preparing leaders means exploring how our society functions and how it can be improved. It is no accident that some state colleges were founded as "teacher colleges."

Every institution will prepare workers and managers. Of course, a Yale or Stanford is more likely to create a hundred managers for every worker they graduate, but even managers have to know the basics. Too many students don't appreciate what it means to be a good worker: self-discipline, honesty, and intellectual curiosity all contribute to the value of an employee.

Where I differ with my colleagues is that too many view teaching as the dissemination of abstract, generalizable skills. The reality is that students also need concrete skills. I would never teaching painting without brushes and canvass, but I have been asked to teach a "digital media" course without access to the Internet or a projector. I was told that writing was "generalized" and I shouldn't worry about technology — despite the title of my course.

This year, I am teaching a technical writing class with a text the university has modified. The chapter on Web technologies is missing. Why? Because technology changes, naturally, and we are supposed to concentrate on theory, not specific technologies.

To me, this violates the third role of a university. Our students do need to be trained in specific skills. No, skills are not as sexy as theory, and certainly not as intellectually demanding, but work skills are essential to success. I was told we don't support the corporatization of education. In other words, since capitalism is somehow "bad" we don't want to train future workers. That some work sills are used by everyone, even within non-profit organizations, didn't seem to register.

No, the Photoshop and Word of tomorrow will not be precise clones of the versions used today. But, skills are often transferable in technology. Teaching a writing course without discussing the Web's basic tools seems like we are doing a disservice to students. Plus, a student using a current tool might develop the better tool of tomorrow.

The truth is, I think most students end up employees for a time. They want and expect job skills. I bet their parents would be astonished to learn we don't focus nearly enough attention on technology skills.

But, that's just my view...

One more thing. Should I blog on these matters? Should I speak out? Honestly, I'm frustrated with much of what I see and experience. It isn't about the people, generally, but about an attitude. "We are a research institution" is a nice slogan, but that doesn't mean everything we teach, at all levels, should be outside the private-sector job market.

People are well-intentioned at the university. I just hope the students realize the need to supplement their skills.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Start is Near

The start of Year 2.0 is near, Fall 2007, and I'm in the midst of preparing for my the doctoral seminars in which I am a student and for the course I will teach in the fall semester. In about nine days life will be even more hectic than it already is.

Every teacher approaches a new course with some trepidation. Last year, I taught a public speaking course with a clear rhetorical framework and obvious goal: to help students inform and persuade audience. Technical writing is "rhetorical" — but it lacks the same flexibility. We tell students to think for themselves, to be independent, and then we (finally) explain that employers get to set the rules in real life. Of course I have some trepidation about a course that claims to focus on the world beyond the university. I know that world pretty well; the text isn't quite the reality I've experienced.

As a teacher, I must decide how to discuss reality outside the university. The text for the course is definitely idealistic, in some ways. In other ways, it is nearly mechanical: here are the rules you need to write in your career settings. Good luck! Reality is, rules seldom stay the same or work the same from employer to employer. But, I'm sure the students know this by now. Teachers aren't any more consistent than employers.

I'm outlining the text now, for my own use and for the students. I have to finalize a syllabus in the next seven days (or less), so I thought it would help to read the book the week before classes start.

I hope this year is much better than last year, on a number of levels.