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.