At a time when some analysts are doing the metrics on whether a university degree makes students “career ready” and others – especially within academic administration itself – are bemoaning the rise of the “bullshit job,” just what can or should we expect of our classrooms as crucibles for employability? As an academic administrator, a professor in the humanities and the mother of university students, I can firmly state that job-readiness should not be the lodestar of our vocations or our degree programs. I also know that in an age of entrepreneurship, internship and work-integrated learning, it would be naive for any professor – especially one at a public university – to think that they can escape the question of employability when thinking about the purposes of the classes we teach. With the question of whether millennial students are ready for a job, however, comes the question of whether they are prepared with the critical tools to know that the world of work can be empowering and rewarding, while also being precarious and predatory.
Watching as my own children have sought out and worked in summer jobs in the long four-month break between academic sessions has led me to the conclusion that we need to think about the relationship between the classroom and the jobs that students do during their time at university in a less functionalist and more connected way. In the course of their summer jobs, my children have watched over the lives of small children while lifeguarding at a summer camp, talked with elderly people reminiscing about their childhoods while giving urban history walking tours, and faced the consequences of customers skipping out on paying their restaurant bill.
While the gravity of these personal interactions may differ, they prompt reflection on respect, attention and preparedness for the unexpected when given the responsibility of doing a job. The labour of the classroom for both students and professors, I’d argue, calls for similar responsibilities – whether or not one wants to categorize respect, attention and preparedness for the unexpected as “learning outcomes.”
After my own first year at McGill University, back in the late 1980s, I went straight from the exhilaration of learning about political theory in downtown Montreal to the grind of working in an industrial brewery in suburban Toronto. What I had learned in the classroom prepared me both for coping with and making the most of this repetitive and eye-opening workplace experience. My summer spent running one of the brewery’s box-making machines while having conversations about our working conditions with my more experienced co-worker, a long-term unionized employee, also taught me the necessity (and limits) of theory for understanding the meaning of labour.
In the 1980s, McGill’s introductory course in political theory was team-taught by eminent political theorists including Charles Taylor and James Tully; it remains a legendary and formative classroom experience for many academics and writers of my vintage. Questions of labour – who does it, who profits from it and what makes it meaningful – were woven into our readings and lectures. A roomful of students collectively and actively listened with rapt attention as Drs. Taylor and Tully conversed about Karl Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism or John Rawls’ idea of working toward justice by seeing the world through a “veil of ignorance” which obscured one’s experiences of class, gender or race. The ensuing questions showed that we did not all agree with either our professors or the theorists we were reading, but most of us – both the undergrads and the grad students who also scrambled for seats in the classroom – took seriously the responsibility of doing the work of reading and thinking together about power, justice and equality.
That summer, I was fortunate to have landed a colleague at the box-making machine who taught me the best, and least painful, technique for shooting the cardboard inserts into the beer boxes with a flick of the wrist. I was also lucky, as a young woman in a workplace in which harassment was common, that my colleague was interested in talking respectfully with me about the meaning and meaninglessness of our labour, and wanted to hear more about what Karl Marx thought about the ownership of the means of production. Since then, the people working the box-making machine have likely been replaced by robots; I hope my colleague was able to retire with a good pension.
I often thought of our conversations during my next year at university, when I took James Tully’s course on the writings of Karl Marx. I came to see how the theories of both Marx and Rawls did not account for the gendered aspects of labour or justice. Eager to read a woman doing the work of theory, I devoured the books of Simone Weil, a writer of “scathing originality” who grappled with big questions of labour, meaning and responsibility (among others) through the prism of her own experiences of factory work. Though this was long before universities and governments sought to capture work-integrated learning in their metrics, my summer job in the brewery was experiential learning at a profound level.
Universities are not factories for making either jobs or employees, not least because as institutions they have little say, appropriately, in the decisions that graduates make about the trajectories of their working lives after university. Perhaps more importantly, universities have next to no control over the vicissitudes and inequities of the working world into which students embark upon graduation. But a university classroom can be a place where we prepare people to take on the responsibilities of labour, in part by understanding the ways that work is a collective activity (and I’m not simply referring here to “group work”). Whether involving lecturing, questioning or note-taking, a thriving classroom allows people to practice respect of self and others, to attune their attention beyond self-interest and what they already know, and to be surprised into new ways of thinking by the unexpected.
Both the classroom and the summer job are spaces of labour that can be transformative or, to use the latest idiom, “high impact.” Our academic programs, regardless of discipline, should help students to think critically about how the varieties of work related to their fields of study are shaped by questions of justice, equity and access; our task is not solely to cultivate skills, competencies and habits of networking. We should work to make our classrooms places in which everyone takes on the responsibility of building a community of inquiry. Doing the work of thinking about work – in the classroom, in their summer jobs, or in their dream career – will also enable students to see how the experience of labour is a source of critical reflection, of praxis, and not only a bullet on a resumé.
As more universities and colleges develop plans for how to facilitate what is variously called work-integrated learning or experiential learning, we need to be wary of how our desire, and need, to count up our students’ “work” runs the risk of discounting important experiences of labour in the lives of our students. Making much-needed money in a summer or year-round job that is not directly related to their studies in history or statistics or biology, whether waiting tables, caring for children, or making boxes, students can learn how any kind of labour can be an education in itself.
So, once Labour Day rolls into the first week of classes next year, you might consider dusting off that old pedagogical nugget (sometimes traditions are just as good as innovations!) and ask your students to tell you what they did last summer. The answers may spark a classroom conversation about the integration, and perhaps disintegration, of work that would benefit everyone.
Dr. Klassen is a professor of the study of religion and vice-dean, undergraduate and international, in the faculty of arts and science at the University of Toronto.