Skilled Rhetoric

Is it time for the University to abandon the rhetoric of "skills?"

I'm starting to think so. Several experiences I have had over the last few days make me think that if the University, or any department, cannot beat back the ideological addiction to speaking about what they do in terms of "skills," they won't survive the higher-ed bubble. 

This week I'm honored to start my participation in a group of colleagues who are interrogating, as a learning-community, the question of how to improve students' mid-career writing. My interpretation of what this means is pretty limited, but for now I'll say that I was attracted to it because of my perception of a great peak in first year students' abilities to communicate (over 2 semesters or so) and then a plateau that often declines near the end a bit. I think I'm in an unusual position to watch these changes as working with debate students allows me a long-term view over time (diachronic) rather than the short-term comparative view of people in one course (synchronic). This might change as I encounter other considerations from other points of view. But suffice it to say, this experience - doing some of the readings and looking at the applications that others wrote for the group - has made me think that one of the major hurdles in student writing quality is to find a better metaphor than a "skill."

The other thing that happened was I attended my required program director briefing that I have to go to annually for leading student programs overseas. We are headed to Morocco on Friday and I am ready to spend a week rushing around getting ready. At this meeting, the director told me how he liked my program, that it provided the sort of experience and encounters that a study abroad program should contain. This got me thinking because there was no mention in our conversation about what skills can be distilled from trips overseas.

Yes, I think skill is a metaphor. I think language is, at its root, metaphorical, but the metaphor of a skill answers the question "what is writing most like that we also do?" I have broadened this question to "what is university like that we also do?" Skill just doesn't seem to capture or fix a very good idea of what the university does (or can do). It really reduces, or acts as a reductive element on the power of the University and how we conceive of it. 

The skills response is a really reactive and sad description of university courses. It pretends that this practice happens for one student, working over a problem, and figuring out how to solve it in a transferrable way, then taking that set of practices over to another problem and also finding success. I feel this is why so many university advertisements must include an image of a person, usually male, usually non-white, in a lab coat carefully placing drops of liquid into a tray in a very complex laboratory environment. This image stands in for the entire lazy conception of the university as skill - here's a repeatable task that, in the context of the background, means this student is smart. This smartness was learned as a skill here.

I think the University sets itself up for total failure as being the place for skill development or acquisition. Skills are developed and refined over a lifetime, so many will simply report that what they needed for success in life they learned later on, or on the job. Many companies report they want graduates who can communicate and interact with others, not those with skills in the particular work they will be doing - the companies know they can train people on the particulars of their business when they hire them. Often times courses do not have a skill focus, but are much more about surveying or introducing differing points of view or ways of identifying and addressing problems. 

The solution to this I've heard many say is that the university is about "soft skills" - so let's take the thing we don't provide and claim we provide a less definitive version of it? No thank you.

So what do we provide at the university? I'm not sure. But I can say that there are powerful rhetorical frames available for our use. 

The first is that we provide encounter. Encounter is the term I've been using in my pedagogy for the past couple of years. The professor constructs moments of encounter for students so they can work through the exposure, understanding, and incorporation of ideas, texts, or methods into their lives. Encounter is also happening to the professor - often when you assign a text and the students read it, the read they provide is a bit different than what you expected. It's not incorrect, nor is it your read. It's something else. So this is an encounter.

We also do teach problem solving and other things people might call skills, but we do it in the opposite environment of the advert lab tech - we teach these things in very diverse classrooms among a lot of people who the student wouldn't choose to associate with. Classrooms and the many types of people they contain is a powerful resource for the encounter narrative. Student learn how to talk about ideas and evaluate them in rooms of people who have very different experiences and points of view. There's also the everyday life of the campus where one is engaging in conversations and interactions with others who are having encounters with ideas. The list goes on.

Encounter helps to develop what I call uncertainty management, which is a really great practice for people to have if they live in a democratic order where technology and procedures are always in flux due to quick advancement of technology. Decisions must be flexible and based on the context of what's happening. Encountering the unexpected and having one's perspective challenged is the only way to become familiar and comfortable with this uncertainty.

Another approach is the idea of exposure. There's a powerful, yet simple argument that university attendees should be exposed to things that they would not choose to be exposed to, nor would they randomly be exposed to those things given a normal life where they didn't seek them out. This is an argument for required courses on exactly those subjects students complain about most - things like Shakespeare, poetry appreciation, and philosophy. More of these courses, taught well, is what the university provides as it shows people what's out there and what isn't out there but could be. In a Marcusean sense, the graduates see university as what could be, "the ought," and are frustrated by "the is" that they find in daily life. I think that such exposure helps develop a better world, or at least the sense that there are possibilities out there for alternative ways of arranging things. 

Finally, although there's a lot more I could type here, I would say the other important metaphor for what we do is practice. The university is a place for the practice of the self. This begs the question: What sort of self would you like to be? This question, not some job-oriented major or career adviser, should be the question that students ruminate on for a while. Treating college as a place to practice skills for a job in an extant resource-distribution order eliminates the chance for them to imagine and craft a self that might reject those parameters. Getting an answer together might take years; they might never finish. Working on the self seems a life-long pursuit that can be fostered with great intensity at the university level. They will decide whether or not to support the system around them given how it helps or thwarts this development. This is also quite a revolutionary role for the university. 

There's a lot more to say about this, but you have been forced to read a lot in one sitting. I'll return to this. What I'll close with is the idea that a defense around skills is a lazy defense that rolls the university over to the powers-that-be in consumer capitalism. Until we become serious about crafting alternatives with our students in classrooms and questioning what the university can be, we won't be able to do anything but serve an order through our teaching that in our scholarship and writing we lament.