Monday, December 21, 2009

So I Think a Bit More 'bout the Foot and the Door

I think I've begun to figure out how to articulate the problem I have with giving academic credit for non-academic stuff. I think that there are skills everyone should learn as a young adult, including lots of life skills about how to live, survive, and hopefully thrive in one's culture/society. For folks in the US, that means learning how to file taxes, figure out a budget, live with others (whether as family, roommates, or neighbors), do laundry, cook a basic meal, follow a recipe or directions, manage time, show up for work every day on time, all those sorts of things.

People don't go to college to learn those things, they take steps towards independence after a long adolescence. And it's not like everyone becomes great at all of them, but most people learn these skills as they move into adulthood. Sometimes young people are thrown in the deep end and learn the skills early (I know someone who became emancipated at 15 and did just fine), other times, well, some people never learn some things. Some people get lots of help from parents in learning these skills, others, alas, don't. But most folks in the US do get the basics.

Maybe we should consciously teach some of them earlier, so that as people approach young adulthood they know how to sew on a button, figure a basic budget, do taxes. If we need to teach those skills in school, though, we need to teach them early so that all students get to learn them. (I'm thinking junior high or earlier.) They're important, and worth teaching.

But the things students should learn in college specifically should be academic. They should learn to think more critically, understand experimental basics, analyze information (numeric, graphic, verbal), manipulate data, communicate better, and so forth. They should learn information/skills specific to a field/area of study, and be able to work in depth with that information. And they should refine their skills in learning so that they can learn what they need to learn better. That's what makes college different from getting a job. Yes, we all learn on the job, but college should push you further, faster, harder to a greater depth of critical thinking and analysis.


  1. Can I print this out and put it on my door? :) Beautifully articulated.

  2. I tend to agree with you. But I wonder: does your university give credit for PE-type classes? If students can already get college credits for taking, say, bowling or tennis, that would tend to undercut your argument...

  3. Great couple of posts!

    I teach technical writing on a regular basis, and I've always resisted including an assignment that has them write a resume and/or cover letter even though I'd say 3/4 of the tech writing textbooks include a chapter on these genres.

    My rationale has always been that there are plenty of other places where they can find out how to do that, and I have enough other genres to cover. Having worked in HR before coming to academia, I know for a fact that many applicants need to learn how to write a resume. But I also know that there are many different ways to write a successful resume, and much of the advice I read on how to write resumes contradicts itself or suggests doing things that drove me nuts as an HR administrator (which to me always suggested that there is some individual variation and preference at play in resume writing advice).

    So I think perhaps some of our answer as academics to the foot in the door problem should come back to the strengths of our disciplines. Whether you like it or not, academic disciplines are built on the principle of peer-review, so that we can point to work and say that it advances the field, presents what we recognize as legitimate research, follows its conventions, etc.

    So what I present in my classes should also presumably follow the dictates of the discipline. Despite the incredible variety in academia, a course in evolutionary biology will look pretty much the same across schools (and even countries), or any given syllabus for a course on Shakespeare will feature some of the same texts as another professor's syllabus. There's a consistency and set of expectations based on a history of ongoing research into the discipline on which we base our pedagogy.

    Can a course on how to not rape women say the same?

    I don't think it can without recourse to the disciplines upon which it might depend (as you've already indicated). That seems to me as good a reason as any to not make it a credit course. I hesitate to invoke anything smacking of universalism, but one should be able to point to some kind of "field" that credit university courses are based upon, shouldn't we?