Not just what you say, but how you say it ...
I am probably going to sound my age, and perhaps I need to be comfortable with that. I do generally aim for a contemporary, in-touch sort of vibe. It is on occasion however, unachievable. So, here goes. Sorry.
I worry about the communication and social skills of students. I observe failings in these frequently enough to regard the issue as serious. Not all students, and not just my students, obviously. But I care about them most.
I think it is reasonable to expect a student to be able to compose, address, argue and close, a simple ‘formal’ message. I expect too, that students will be able to write without egregious errors of grammar, spelling and form. I regard it as important that a student can engage in a straightforward conversation with a member of staff, steering the right line between relaxed informality and, yes, appropriate respect. I would like them to be able to present, to speak simply, clearly and confidently. I want them to be comfortable ‘networking’ and in that grey space between work and socialising where so much important stuff gets done. I would like students to have a good sense of suitable dress and manner for professional and other occasions.
Clearly, I would want them to be able to interview for jobs successfully, to be capable of forming professional relationships with those who do not share their age or background and thus to be able to make the most of the ‘hard knowledge’ they have been given. I know this is quite a high bar, but I would like students to have some instincts about the social dimensions of how to navigate organisations.
Discounting for a moment the matter of my age and accumulated prejudices, and we will return to these later. Discounting too, those skills that seem much stronger amongst current students, such as collaboration and self-organisation, than I recall from cohorts some years back, I believe we have a problem that should be addressed.
So, to the obvious issue. Given the expansion of higher education, is this all about class and background, the opportunities afforded by certain kinds of upbringing? Yes. Is it about schooling? Yes, and this largely amounts to the same thing. So are my concerns just the working of class, and perhaps other biases that I ought to set aside, no longer relevant, or worse, retrogressive? I know some of this is well-worn territory in education and social theory and I expect this opinion to spark dissent. So what follows is voiced with some caution.
I do not need, I think, to make the case for communication and social skills in general. Nor, that they are critical in the workplace and beyond. But I believe in shared ground and shared standards. I believe in the value of conventions. I want my students to be able to make their way in a professional setting and to choose how and what they reveal of their class and background. I want them to secure the opportunities that they merit by virtue of their talent, adaptability, resilience and skills.
Surely, you might say, this is a matter for primary and secondary schools to address and not universities. Perhaps so, but I am not confident they will do so, and am not prepared to wait.
I do not think that this is to be addressed by a couple of presentations during a degree programme or some hastily penned feedback on a piece of written work or an awkward and improvised social meeting with a personal tutor. Not that any of this hurts, of course. They are steps in the right direction. I sense however, it requires a substantial change in the way we educate. One that integrates communication and social skills into the fabric of the university experience. We must ‘form’ as much as we teach. I am not sure we are prepared for this and there is a debate to be held.
Wow. So many important points here I hardly know what to say. One point I will make, however, is the significant role strong family structures and rituals can have. However good your education was, I strongly suspect a large part of your (and your siblings’) social development came from the Finkelstein Friday night dinner table. You argued, discussed, laughed and cried together and learnt a great deal. Furthermore, when you ventured out in to elderly relatives’ homes for afternoon tea, you were not allowed to sit sulking in the corner of the room; you were supposed to account fully for yourself - what you were doing, your interests and experiences. But, looking back on what I’ve written, I realise that all sounds so terribly middle class, doesn’t it? It assumes a structure of family, home and networks that so many people nowadays are not lucky enough to have. I realise now we were pretty privileged.
Lots of food for thought here. I've been in a board meeting with a newly-employed twenty-something, who thought it was fine to have her cigarette packet on the table and slip out for a smoke during the break instead of following her colleagues' example of networking and gathering tacit insight into what members were thinking. She treated work (the thing we were paying her to do) as an optional extra. I've also been confident enough in the capabilities of a colleague who had recently joined us straight from university to ask them to take minutes at a high level meeting. I was provided the next day with half a page of bullet point notes that told me very little of what had been discussed. They simply hadn't understood what was required in that particular setting (and yes, I had discussed it with them beforehand!). My first thought was to wonder about the basis on which this person was awarded a degree. My second (more charitable) was to coach them on how to pick out the salient points of a discussion and record them helpfully...then find some opportunities to practice. My third was a reflection on how fortunate I have been in my educational and formative experiences: family expectations of polite behaviour, earning luxuries and the maxim 'if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well'; teachers at my (State comprehensive) school setting standards for discipline (for which I now read: respect for others), good manners and well-presented work; experiences at university that filled in the gaps of social norms to which I hadn't been previously exposed; employers and managers who showed by example what was expected in professional settings.
I think I'm concluding that we're all presented with examples of how to behave every single day. We're also given the opportunity to influence each other through the examples we set, and by how ready we are to explore alternatives. It's less about sticking to a single codified way of doing things at school, university or elsewhere and more about understanding the life skills that those conventions help to develop...and spotting where a bit of (supportive, non-judgmental) gap-filling might help. Yes, keep up with the times, but don't stop developing skills that contribute to a society that is inclusive and well-functioning.