Dirty Words in Academia, Part 1: Employability

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Employability: is it a dirty word in academia, and should it be? Dr Claire Williams confronts the issue head on.

Before joining the Education Development team I worked in QMUL’s School of English for three years as a post-doctoral researcher and tutor. My research specialism was – to quote my venerable PhD supervisor – ‘sixteenth and seventeenth century manuscript smut’. My last lecture in the English department was on John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. It will come as no surprise to those of you who’ve read any of Rochester’s works (or seen the Johnny Depp film The Libertine) that said lecture was liberally punctuated with ‘f**k’ and ‘c**t’ heavy quotations. (And in case anyone was wondering, yes, those were ‘rude’ words then too.) Then, as now, the words that make a group of people uncomfortable reveal much about their anxieties.

So, my theme for my first few ADEPT blog will be ‘dirty words in academia’. Words which, were I to bandy them about in total earnestness in the Tredegar or the Morgan Arms pubs, might make my former colleagues feel more uncomfortable than any Rochester quotation. The buzzwords that descend to busy academics from HEA policy documents via Vice-Principals do not tend to become their favourite words. But, sometimes, there is more scope for debate and action around a concept than is initially encouraged by a term that invokes irritation and scorn in the wider academic world. I know that it would be indecorous to use such words as ’employability’, ‘engagement’, and ‘reflection’ in polite, jovial academic conversation. Nonetheless, they’re my topics in my forthcoming posts. My undertaking is to make you think slightly differently and even, perchance, to do one or two things differently in relation to my chosen word for today: ‘Employability’.

Back in 2004 Prof Mantz Yorke defined ‘Employability’ as ‘A set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that makes graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy’ (source). In the HEA’s January 2017 40-page review of literature about employability 2012-16, Artess, Hooley and Mellors-Bourne note that ‘a key issue is how far employability is a distinct concept from employment [… that] it is possible to be employable but still unemployed’.

In 2014, President Obama joked that Americans should aim to get skilled manufacturing experience in order to secure a job that would pay rather than studying Art History. Later, he apologised, but his comment is telling of the assumptions that many politicians and heads of commerce make about Humanities and Social Science (HSS) subjects. Thus, it’s understandable that teachers working in HSS in particular might feel defensive when such policymakers mandate ’employability’ as a ‘component’ of teaching in those subjects – it can be seen as undermining the core concepts, integrity, and love of the subject for its own sake. Another possible reason for reticence around the concept of employability may be lack of first-hand experience of other routes available; often, to achieve prestigious posts, academics have simply not worked in other sectors – they’ve stayed within the university system from undergraduate through postgraduate and postdoctoral studies until becoming lecturers. Thus there can be a sense of unease that talking about other options may be misguided or might dilute and distract from scholarship and subject expertise.

At an aesthetic level, at six syllables, ’employability’ is bloated. The employable are passive, awaiting external decisive action (employment). ‘Employability’ holds potential but no guarantee of happy fulfilment. Its ultimate aim is employment but it carries no hint of the steady happiness, simmering resentment or occasional epiphanies about the world that can come from working. All human pursuits generate their own shorthand vocabularies and, alas, the terms of university management and pedagogy have a tendency to sound puritanical, impersonal, and dull. This makes them easy targets for ridicule from quarters in which the expression of truth and the means of that expression are of paramount concern.

However, looking beyond institutional requirements, the Teaching Excellence Framework, and the QMUL model, I’m going to suggest here that anyone teaching in Higher Education likely have more interest in the readiness of what lies ahead for their students than an initial perusal of HEA documents or the Times Higher Education might suggest…

Of course, you hope to inspire your students with a lifelong love of your subject; they can sustain that love across careers that do not seem at first sight to stem from your subject. Postgraduate scholarships are scarce and the majority of your students will leave university after completing undergraduate studies to seek other ways of life. (Some early career teachers may even find themselves wishing that their best and brightest students pursue routes with more security than the paths that they themselves have followed.) When your students leave your seminar room, don’t you hope that their degree in your subject will make them newly qualified to apply for work for which they would otherwise not be deemed ready? Jobs that give them the chance to influence what and how people think (as well, or instead, of what people buy): teachers, researchers, policymakers, lawyers, journalists, museum curators, librarians or archivists. You want them to be able to go on to a future in which they will have more choice to shape the nature of their work and the society in which they live?

If ‘yes’, then you are interested in their ’employability’. I prefer to think of it as their readiness. Readiness for whatever their life will hold: work, travel, relationships, parenthood, loss, success. Readiness rooted in texts they’ve read, discussions they’ve had and thoughts that they’re better able to express because of their studies at university. Readiness to hold onto a sense of what matters to them and who they want to become in the midst of uncertainty.

I’m going to suggest four painless and practical steps that you could adopt from now on to help your students study with more focus and simultaneously form clearer ideas about what kind of work they might enjoy and how their studies are preparing them for their futures.

First, share with your students some sense of the journey that you’ve made to reach your job. You could include it in your introduction in your first seminar for a module. By acknowledging the incremental steps, the effort and some of the stumbles (and failures) that you encountered en route you will communicate some sense that you didn’t spring straight from school fully-formed with the erudite critical views for which you are celebrated today. In teaching undergraduates you are daily modelling a highly-selective professional job; you may be one of the most highly qualified and ‘expert’ individuals whom some of your first-year students have ever met.

Second, encourage your students to identify two or three themes in their own academic interests, hobbies, and beliefs. (This could be in a group email or in just 5 minutes at the end of a seminar or one-to-one with advisees in an office hour). They could keep a note of them as they work through their studies, and take that list them with them when they go to see the careers service. The could use them as keywords for job searches. In the twenty-first century people change jobs multiple times in a working life. ‘Know thyself’ is, therefore, more than ever an important for anyone of working age. It’s empowering to know your core interests and how you want to work in the world in relation to those interests. Being prepared that both these interests and your environment will evolve bringing new opportunities (as well as losses) may help your students to survive these changes better.

Aged 20 and freshly rejected for an MA place I’d really wanted at Cambridge, I had no idea of what job I might do. I knew that I was interested in books, learning, and discussing ideas with people. Thus, over the past decade, I worked first as a bookdealer (cataloguing and selling rare books and manuscripts); edited a manuscript poetry miscellany for my AHRC-funded doctorate and worked as an assistant curator of manuscripts. In the last six years I have taught undergraduate and postgraduate students at Sheffield, Cambridge, QMUL and King’s College London. For the last 3 years, I also worked as a postdoctoral researcher editing seventeenth century medical manuscript notebooks. Now, the purpose of my work as an education adviser for Early Career Teachers (ECTs) is to offer training based on pedagogic research and on my practical experience of teaching to help ECTs to teach more effectively, enjoy teaching more and receive professional recognition for their teaching (in the form of the PGCAP or CILT). The common thread throughout these jobs has been different configurations of those three core interests: books, learning and discussing ideas.

Third, ask students to think about what they want from a job and what kind of work-life balance they want as they start to think about what comes next for them. It’s a question asked surprisingly rarely of the ’employable’ and I’d advocate asking it. By asking, you help your students move from passivity to empowerment: you remind them of their right to make selective decisions and take focused action. It’s a point that could be made to the whole group towards the end of the module as students read the feedback they’ve been given. If it’s a message students hear from tutors they respect, they may take some time to think about how their academic strengths and interests might apply to the type of career they’d enjoy.

I had never thought to make a list of what I wanted from a job until a year ago as a result of a conversation with a professional coach. As an exercise, making this list took just 40 minutes, but the conclusions were profound. I’d been on the academia quest for too long to remember that there were other questions beyond whether I could ‘make it’ to tenure. Did I actually want the lifestyle that would come with it? Suddenly, I had a simple choice, I saw my own preferences for work activities and for work-life balance as valid preferences rather than weakness of resolve. And I realised that whether or not I could make it to tenure, I didn’t want to live the lifestyle of the career that I’d been pursuing.

Fourth, as a module convenor, take just one hour to list on QM+ the skills that students get to practice on your module to make explicit to them some of the ways in which their studies are preparing them for their future beyond university. At the start of 2017, Finola Farrant from the University of Roehampton came to speak at the ADEPT monthly research seminar about Employability and the Teaching Excellence Framework (watch the recording here). The suggestion above was one of the practical ways that staff at Roehampton are now supporting students in their preparations for working lives beyond university. This is so that students recognise how their studies have prepared them for their applications or interviews for their dream jobs. So, for example, in a module where students have to research and produce an assessed team presentation – the convenor would add a note on QM+ to say: this will give you experience of working as part of a team to produce project work to a deadline, of formulating evidence-based arguments ideas and of communicating your ideas clearly to others.

I love this simple step: it’s not about shepherding students towards Morgan Stanley or saying that studying seventeenth century erotic poetry isn’t worthwhile in and of itself. It’s simply showing students how the activities of the seminar room can translate into the genre of The Professional Job Application. For students whose parents or siblings regularly read and assess reams of CVs for applications to professional jobs, there’ll be help at home to talk through and identify transferable skills from student life. In 2012-13 34.6% of QMUL students were from lower socio-economic backgrounds (NS-SEC groups 4-7); for these students the type of CV-friendly signposting I’ve outlined above could be especially helpful. If one hour of your time could help several students see that they have examples of experience for a job for which they wouldn’t otherwise have dared apply, wouldn’t that be an hour well spent?

In conclusion, the types of jobs available to our students are changing and academia has pressures enough without requiring you to become a careers adviser. But as a respected professional subject expert, you can encourage your students to go to the Careers & Enterprise Centre. They can use their a free 20-minute 1:1 appointments to seek advice, get feedback on their CV or job applications, or have a practice interview; they can also seek advice on how to start their own business. The ways that you discuss your own work journeys as well as simply routinely acknowledging that your students have futures beyond completing their degrees can encourage students to think about how their academic and work interests are related and mutually beneficial. Of course, building work placements into a module, and inviting alumnae or experts as guest speakers can be tremendously valuable in helping students visualise what they could do with their degree. Especially if they have the chance to ask questions about the pathways to those jobs. But, even if this doesn’t seem possible for your module, the above are four small but significant ways in which you could start making a difference in helping your students to be ready for whatever lies ahead for them and, yes, to become more ’employable’.