MCCA Career Education Conference, 10-19-07

Today, I skipped working at Best Buy (oops, should've called in--I'd left a note) to go to the Minnesota Career College Association 2007 conference.

Held at a true-blue Megachurch, which was quite strikingly Orwellian, I got a lot out of the sessions and talks.

Inherent in the nature of conferences is the feeling, "Geez, I sure do feel like a fool. I'm not really doing that good of a job. I feel motivated to do better, but I just listened to someone who I'll never be able to touch in his/her field." This conference was no different.

Frankie Poplau (a female) had a talk about the four generations currently in the workforce, which is unique because people are living longer now.

There are traditionalists, baby boomers, gen-x'ers, and the new students called "millennials." Doing demographic stereotyping of this kind has its purpose. The traditionalists are loyal "company men," and were born from 1900 to 1946. That's my uncle misterskank, and as questioning as he would present himself, he does fit the mold, believing in always having health insurance, strong government institutions, and conservatism with money. WWII is their defining historical moment.

Baby Boomers (1946-1964) are the most numerous; they seek out leadership roles and question authority. They're the first generation of parents concerned with their kids liking them. Their defining historical event is Vietnam. They opened up all sorts of opportunities to women, and like to tinker with institutions. In their careers, they "pay their dues."

Gen X'ers (and Y'ers; 1965-1980) are the TV generation. They seek out a career or careers, not a long-term job; many have lived through divorce; many were latchkey kids. They are disaffected, technological, and entrepreneurial.

I think that I am part of "Generation X," personally. Kurt Cobain's always been my man, and his cynicism about institutions, his core belief in the power of irony, and his seemingly uninterestedness, while in fact being supremely tuned-in, is how I feel about many things.

The "millennials" (1981-current) are defined by the cell phone and its burgeoning capabilities. They are the children of September 11, 2001 and of Columbine, which is significant because these are the most spoiled children; theirs are "helicopter parents." They seek out teams and groups to belong to, and are surprisingly like the traditionalists in terms of values. This generation is truly multicultural -- the first generation with a significant number of nonwhite Americans.

There's actually veracity to this: when I first started teaching in 2004, my students were of such a conservative strain -- not in politics, but values -- I was rather shocked. What happened to irony, to making fun of stuff, to defining your life in contrast to people that are "out of it"? Sure enough, that U. of Arizona 2008 class sought out bonds, thought of education as more of a customer service transaction, and statistically their unplanned pregnancy rate is lower than mine.

For the millennials, all things are instantaneous.

Now, this kind of exercise -- I'm restating this material to learn it better -- is out-and-out stereotyping, but in a good way, I think. The way to use this information is to gear one's teaching to the expectations of the learners.

There's one thing I won't budge on, though: my core belief in the power of the work of art. This means: novels, feature-length films, visual art. The problem with the millennials, who are my students, is that they don't seem to believe in "feature-length" knowledge. Hip-hop music is a mishmash of tripe club singles; only Kanye West makes albums. The knowledge one gains from YouTube and Google is not of perennial worth. Nope. Novels? They don't read. Films? They like Fight Club and Boondock Saints and so on, but those are Gen X products. I don't think the millennial generation has produced much quality popular culture yet. Not to say they can't.

But as Frankie Poplau said, if you can publish your random thoughts for the "worldwidewide" (www), how can you be wrong? "Isn't that just what you believe?" I had more than one student say to me at Arizona. "No! If your belief makes no sense, then it's worth little."

Then I went to a talk by Kevin Pugh, whose presentation showed the weakness of Microsoft's PowerPoint software when compared to Apple's parallel product. His talk was about leadership, and he seemed to talk more often with corporate leaders, but some of his ideas were helpful.

My key "takeaways" (to steal a cliched but useful corporate term) were: failure comes from neglected relationships; learn to "crave problems" instead of dreading them; reveal your expectations instead of making students feel like they're "playing games"; honestly assess performance; re-recruit after you've hired someone or gotten someone to come to class; actions speak louder than words; and create leaders, not followers.

As I look through my notes, Pugh's talk seems to indicate why organizational leadership (and the "scholarship" around it) is not getting much better these days. He doesn't break through the level of cliche -- his concepts are too easily "powerpointed," although the advice is common sense.

You know those business books you can buy in airports? They've got books that summarize these books. Why not have books that summarize multiple summary books?

I did get much of value out of Rosemary Park's talk. She is a teacher of adult learners at the U. of Minnesota. She's not a content expert, and makes it well known that she's not "organized" in the traditional way (neither am I; it seems to help keep me on the spot); and she's British.

She talked a lot about integrating technology into the classroom -- i.e. "blended learning," the title of her talk. She talked about fully-online classes, partway classes, and old-style face-to-face classes. When she talked about the difficulty of integrating new teaching methods at the "U" (as they call it here), I knew exactly what she was talking about, and one word came to my mind: "tenure."

I couldn't help but ask when she got to the end of the talk, "Is it appropriate to compare the University of Phoenix and Capella University to the University of Minnesota?" She has done this three times in her talk, which really grated on me.

She said, yes, the people that come out of the all-online universities are successful and didn't say there was a qualitative difference in the graduates. (This does make sense to me -- statistically, a "bad" person is going to be the type of person that harasses other employees, not one whose writing skills aren't as up-to-par.) I'm still not convinced that the entrance and exit standards for the  "University" of Phoenix are high enough to compare it to a major state university that's been around since, oh, 1851 (UofMN) or 1885 (UofAZ). Additionally, U of Phoenix and Capella were founded by corporate barons, not the government and community leaders, and I believe the difference makes a big difference.

This is a huge ax to grind in education, a big riff. An older gentleman, disgruntled by my comment, responded by saying, "I'm getting a PhD from Capella, and if the standards are exactly the same, what does the name of the institution matter?" Well, times are changing. It was weird that he was in his fifties with a 'stache, and little old me, 26 years old, is defending the traditional education model.

Rosemary Park did make a good point in response, saying (paraphrase): "The brand name of U of M can really weaken if we don't match peoples' needs." That is very true.

Yet, I'm still waiting for someone to counter the unforgiving stereotype in my head of the person who gets an online degree who is unchanged mentally from the day they enroll to the day they graduate.

With a little luck, my students can argue the finer points of pretty much anything in an articulate manner when they leave my class. If you never talk to anyone, where's the growth in that part of your brain? What job doesn't demand that you think on your feet, face-to-face with people? Online teacher?

It was ironic that I made this point while I'm working at a for-profit career-oriented institution, but goddammit, I'm going to be an English composition machine or die tryin', wherever I land.

The most important thing in Ms. Park's presentation was her graph showing retention rates of content according to teaching style. From worst to best, with the retention rate:

Lecture -- 5%
Reading -- 10%
Audio-visual -- 20%
Demonstration -- 30%
Discussion -- 50%
Practice by doing -- 75%
Teach others/immediate use -- 90% retention

I think this is the most important information I gained today.

We had a lunch. Oh, how the portions were so tiny!!! Oh!!! I'm still hungry from that 3 oz. chicken breast!

So, to summarize: teaching, what a life. Ain't bad. Sure beats other ways of making a living.

I wonder: when I start class, is it worth the time to ask students to describe material we've already covered? I think it's worthwhile, although the students feel put on the spot.


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