Like most college teachers at this time of year I’m thinking about my fall semester courses. Most of these thoughts are about details – choosing readings to assign, revising class policies that prove inadequate every semester, shifting last year’s M/W/F dates by one and remembering to schedule in the vacation days, etc. The details, however, are really only worth fussing over if you are trying to design a course that reflects what you think is important about teaching as a craft. I had a nice conversation with a friend tonight about exactly that.
I’ve never been eager to teach to the job market. Yes, social science students end up with skills employers will value – don’t worry mom and dad – but taken to its logical conclusion, teaching to the job market would require us to bring in employer-consultants when we design our curricula. I mean, reading Mills’ critique of the fourth epoch probably isn’t going to directly translate to a good performance evaluation or an annual bonus. But it is valuable. Feel free to read any current defense of a liberal arts education you can find, probably something about how critical thinking and comfort with diverse cultures and ideas are valuable in the workplace.
So, even these common defenses are really ceding the argument to those in control of the job market. Saying that what we are doing is valuable because of its marketable byproduct doesn’t really give me the inspiration I need to worry about test dates and policies about line spacing.
After saying basically this to my friend and colleague, he asked (out of curiosity, not dismay) ‘if you don’t care about your students getting jobs, then what do you teach for?’
I think my answer was basically “First I want students to be good citizens, next I want them to be compassionate, and third I want them to be ready for graduate school. And then, maybe, I care about job readiness.” No administrator at a school living and dying on enrollment and selling its ‘real world’ applicability is going to want to hear that, I imagine.
Nonetheless, the basic question ‘why do I teach’ and the tension between teaching to the market versus teaching what I hope is at least a little bit of a ‘critical’ social science are things I hope I never stop thinking about. To that end, I’ve spent the last few hours trying to articulate it a bit more.
A good social science class ought to be oriented toward civil society, not the job market. I want students to recognize the value of being curious about the world around them for the sake of living a richer life. I want students to be thoughtful about how they live in relationship with others; who recognize that the decisions they make as members of society have consequences beyond their own lives. I want students who take my classes to believe that it is important to be an informed citizen who thinks not only about how they make their own way, but also how we might make a different society that works for everyone.