The Gap in the Skills Gap Debate

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A 2017 article in MIT Technology Review validates what I have long felt regarding the current move away from emphasis on basic skills and overemphasis on STEM subjects: the so-called “skills gap,” if not a complete myth, at the very least suffers from grave misconceptions. According to Andrew Weaver of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the skills most often associated with difficulty in hiring are not programming, not knowledge of advanced technologies, not even mathematics, but high-level reading in manufacturing and higher level writing for help desk technicians (“The Myth of the Skills Gap”).

Weaver bases his conclusions on data acquired through extensive national surveys of primarily three groups–skilled workers in manufacturing, IT help desk technicians and laboratory technologists. The results of the surveys are surprising: if there is a skills gap, it is not as much a technological problem as it is a soft skills problem, but again, not the type of problems people most often associate with the skills gap myth:

Proponents of the skill-gap theory sometimes assert that the problem, if not a lack of STEM skills, is actually the result of a poor attitude or inadequate soft skills among younger workers. But while demand for a few soft skills—like the ability to initiate new tasks without guidance from management—is occasionally predictive of hiring problems, most soft-skill demands, including requirements for cooperation and teamwork, are not.

The article goes on to say that a closer relationship among employers, workers, and schools, leading to more tailor-made educational opportunities, is key. Community colleges are at the forefront of this push, and administrators are beginning to see the need for close communication with area employers. However, some community college systems continue pursuing the decimation of developmental reading and writing courses and decreasing opportunities for students to improve their reading and writing skills, in a vain attempt to push underdeveloped students through their educational programs faster.

It is good that administrators recognize the importance of closer communication with stakeholders. However, that alone will not solve the problem of an underdeveloped workforce if the  perception of too many administrators, employers,  students,  the general public, and even some educators remains–that learning to write clearly and concisely,  reading complex texts to complete research assignments, or analyzing a literary text is a waste of time.

I am determined to combat students’ misconceptions by providing as many real-world writing experiences as possible while teaching high-level reading skills, whether I am teaching freshman composition or British literature. In future posts I will expand on some of the “summer” ideas that I am working on and fleshing out for trial use in the fall.

 

 

 

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Submissions Now Open for Fall 2018 Edition of Teach. Write.

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The year is winding down. Graduation tomorrow, and I will be finished for this academic year, but there is an exciting summer of traveling and writing ahead, so bring on the professional development!

The spring edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal has been well-received. The journal is available online–print copies are also available–just follow this link–Spring 2018 Teach. Write. 

If you are or ever have been a composition instructor, then please consider submitting creative nonfiction, flash fiction, short story, poetry or drama.  See submission guidelines and deadlines here.

Poetry’s Power

Poetry’s power partly lies in its ability to distill a great deal of meaning into a small space. An English teacher friend of mine used to explain to her students that poetry is the tomato paste of the literary world. Novels are crushed tomatoes, short stories are tomato sauce, but poetry is the thick paste that only comes out of that tiny can with a spoon (or opening both ends of the can and pushing the paste out in one big flavorful lump).

 

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The compact nature of poetry also makes it useful for teaching English composition, especially in college-level classes that often must stuff yards of material into inches of calendar space. For example, when the state where I teach decided to re-design developmental English, shoving 16 weeks of material from two separate 16-week reading and composition classes into one class of 8 weeks, I was having difficulty fitting in essential grammatical information.

 

Our old developmental English textbook used Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” as a way to teach vivid verbs, but my students had a hard time understanding what a verb was in the first place, so the poem became my way to simply identify verbs and introduce the concept of syntax, denotation and connotation as well as  analyzing concrete texts and the original purpose of verb usage.

In addition, we would discuss the importance of symbolism, metaphor, simile, and other figurative language, all concepts the re-design material stressed as important information to cover.

It worked beautifully.

I would introduce the poem and put it into historical context–an African-American writer titling a poem “Harlem”that he wrote in 1951 New York. We would talk about the importance of the title and how it helps the reader understand the poem better.

I would have students identify the action verbs and verbals in the sentence–happens, deferred, does, dry up, fester, run, etc.

Then we would look at the similes  “like a raisin in the sun,” “stink like rotten meat,” and “crust over like a syrupy sweet.” We would talk about the imagery and the importance of syntax and rhyme. Why is it important, I would ask, that the two lines rhyme and come one after the other in the poem?

Inevitably, I would have at least one student who would, in the beginning, question the relevance of studying a poem in a developmental English class, but by the end of the discussion, I would have almost always won the student over to the importance of using connotation, syntax and figurative language in their writing.

No doubt about it–plain and simple. It was the Power of Poetry that won them over in the end.

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The Power of Poetry is certainly displayed in the fine poetic contributions to the

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Spring 2018 edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal.

Check it out!

 

 

No Time to Write

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Busy grading and working on the new edition of Teach. Write. slated for publication on April 1, but been thinking a great deal about optimal number of students in online writing intensive classes. Below is a link to an article by Wayne D’Orio, an award-winning education journalist, writing for Inside Higher Education.

“Online class sizes: one size does not fit all.”

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My favorite comment: “All sources for this story agreed that writing intensive courses demand fewer students.”

BTW—online literature courses are writing intensive if taught correctly.

Just sayin’.

 

An email “my colleague” cannot send (plus, it’s too long anyway)

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Hello,
Just wanted you to know that I posted midterm grades for all my students to see. Of course, because I have open grade books, all of my students have access to their grades at any time in the semester, not just at mid-term.  Oh, FYI, by checking the gradebook, any student can see any major graded assignment (and most minor assignments) with a completed rubric or checklist explaining how the grade was calculated (often I include an annotated PDF file for additional accessible feedback as well).

If students complain that I do not give enough feedback, which I hear they are doing quite loudly and inaccurately,  please direct them to the individual assignments where they can see all of the work I have assessed as well as any supporting documents. If they have questions or concerns, please encourage them to contact me rather than scrawl rather inappropriate things about me on the bathroom walls. This behavior is costing the college money and cutting into the maintenance department’s bottom line, I have been told.

Students can also, of course, ask me for explanations or help if they come to see me during my office hour or make an appointment. I have always made myself available to students who need help and will continue to do so, but I don’t always have time directly before or after class as I have many classes and other duties, as you know.  Oh, occasionally, I am so sorry to say, I must also use the ladies room, though a student once wanted to follow me in there to ask a question. I told him he would have to wait in my office just a minute or two. I trust that was acceptable.

I have been offering the support mentioned above to all of my students for years now and continue to work hard on developing more online resources and updating ones from previous years. If students relate to you any confusing details in any assignments, also which I hear they are doing quite loudly, please feel free to have students record specific information about the assignment in question, including the assignment number, and have them email me that information so that I can make corrections. I can’t correct problems of which I am not aware, you see. I know some students have been saying I must be clairvoyant and have eyes in the back of my head, but I would like to squelch those rumors right here and now. I am not clairvoyant.

In addition, I have always offered an abundance of resources to my students, including thorough explanations and directions for all of my assignments. If students want to know how they can improve their grades, or have been absent from class to go on that cruise with their family, then please direct them to these resources. Of course, you may have to explain to them that there will be no extra credit awarded for opening a resource file. So sorry.

Please know that I care very much about all of my students receiving the highest quality college-level instruction I can give based on my 30 years of  experience teaching composition and British literature. When I err, it will never be out of a lack of concern for any of my students but more likely born of fatigue, or short-term memory loss.  I am pushing 60, you know.

Any confusing details or dates may even be a simple mistake as I must maintain six or seven online course shells, prepare materials for six or seven seated and online classes, and grade multiple assignments for 90 – 100 students each semester. Don’t forget those pesky contractual “other duties as assigned”–two committees (chair of one), attending national conferences, writing press releases, creating promotional material, planning major events, participating in student clubs and events. Oh, I know, I’m just whining now. Some of those things I choose to do so they don’t count.

Sure, I could make it easier on myself, do less and offer fewer opportunities for my students to practice writing, but I am still convinced after all these years that there is only one way students can effectively learn to compose, revise and edit at the level they need to—by doing it. I know it is shocking for some students to hear that they must write essays in a freshman English composition class (plus revise and edit them too), but my hands are tied, I fear…

by my conscience.

Thank you for your time.

Remaining Anonymous

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The above piece is representative of work (creative non-fiction) that I would welcome for the spring edition of Teach. Write. Submissions are open until March 18.

Submission Guidelines