An Open Letter to President Trump

Dear President Trump:

In this letter, I’m going to presume to give you advice about how to make the adjustment to being President. It’s important to me because, like it or not, your decisions affect the world, including the world immediately around me. I was at first hesitant to write this letter because I don’t know anything about being President, but then I realized. . . neither do you. On that equal footing, then, here goes.

I understand that you’re used to running businesses. You’re used to being either the owner or an owner of some business or another. As such, you’re probably used to seeing your employees as generally dispensable entities whose primary existence is to benefit you. (It’s not that I think all business owners think that way. I just think you’re one of those that do.) Because everyone’s pay is dependent upon your profit, you’re used to seeing your own personal wealth as equivalent to everyone else’s sustenance, and you expect everyone else to see it that way too. And since you’re the owner, you think that your mistakes are yours to make, not anyone else’s to correct, because you stand the most to lose from them, and as the owner you assume that you know your business best of all anyhow. And either way, if you don’t like someone, or if they’re not working out, you can fire them. After all, it is you that they are working for.

I would like to suggest that none of that experience really applies to your current position as President. As President, you’re not the owner or the boss of anything, and in fact you’re not supposed to be that — with the exception of personal effects and private property. See, the nation, the government, the economy, and everything that you use related to that — everything that you’re surrounded with on a daily basis — none of it belongs to you. At most it belongs to the Office of the President and, by extension, to the American people, but the really big things actually belong to everyone and no one. We all own this system to the extent that we’re engaged in it, but none of us owns it to any significant degree.

In fact, the truth is exactly the opposite: it doesn’t belong to you. You belong to it. You belong to the government now. You belong to the people around you. You belong to everyone who works for you, to everyone who voted for you, and most importantly, even to everyone who voted against you. They are your boss. You are not theirs. You cannot fire the American people, but we can fire you. The point here is that you’re no longer the boss. You’re an employee. And a very special kind of employee: a servant. In your position, that is the highest kind of employee. No one is required to cater to you. In fact, what you’re going to be faced with is a seemingly incorrigible mass of people who seem to work hard against their own interests, often refuse to act as they should, and quite often act instead in self-defeating ways. And all the while, they still expect you to work for them and be happy about it.

Yes, it’s a horrible job, but you wanted it,  you accepted it, and now you’re in it, so you need to understand it. Your job as President is bigger than you, more important than you, and — we all know it, even if you won’t admit it — far beyond you.

So what I suggest you do now is this:

  1. Quit lying so much.
  2. Quit expecting validation. Related to this, tell your surrogates to show some respect.
  3. Accept responsibility for the hostility you’ve created and the divisions you’ve caused.
  4. Apologize for the horrible things you’ve said and done.
  5. Shut up.
  6. Listen.

This is just my advice. Of course, I don’t know anything. But I know that one thing: that I don’t know anything. That’s traditionally a very good place to start.

Yes, Employers Still Want Writing Skills…

The truth is that employers have been complaining about M.B.A. writing skills for more than ten years now. And not just M.B.As.

But the problem is not that writing and communication skills are “difficult skills to teach,” as the article suggests. I think this kind of claim comes from a panacea view of writing instruction: students take a writing class, so they learn how to write. Writing instruction doesn’t usually work that way. Developing writing ability is a matter of cognitive development, not just a matter of taking in information, so it takes time to develop. If a program wants to develop students’ writing skills, students need to be made to read and write and to receive writing instruction in most of their classes, not just their English classes. The problem is that business and other programs don’t invest in practices that develop communication skills; e.g., high reading and writing requirements.

 

One Skill Recruiters Say Is Lacking With Recent M.B.A. ….

On Being a Student (in an Institution…)

Before I get around to talking about being a student in an institution (I write about being a student outside of an institution later), I would like you to consider three kinds of machines and how they differ: a hammer, a photocopier, and a computer.

These three kinds of machines represent three levels of complexity.

Three Kinds of Machines

English: A standard household claw hammer.
English: A standard household claw hammer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A hammer is an example of the simplest type of machine. You can perform maybe three tasks with a hammer (beat things with it, pull nails, and use it as a paperweight), but it’s really just designed for two specific tasks — beating things and pulling nails. It’s very good at one or two tasks, but only those. A hammer actually doesn’t make a good paperweight, by the way. Because you can do other things with it, you’ll want to take it off your papers and use it, and then it quits being a paperweight. The best paperweights are useless for almost all functions but being paperweights. And of course if something really is only good for just sitting there, it may as well look good while it’s serving that purpose. Most importantly, the hammer is an inert object. It just lays there until you pick it up. It doesn’t do anything at all until you pick it up and do something with it.

Now, you might say that you can do many different things with a hammer, like chip wood, drive nails, or beat holes, but those are all just different ways of beating with it. You might say that you can throw a hammer, but unless you’re throwing the hammer at something, you’re throwing it for no reason at all (at least, no reason peculiar to a hammer — if you’re in a distance throwing contest, you could throw hammers, rocks, or frisbees), and throwing a hammer at something is just beating on it from a distance.

The next kind of machine, machines like photocopiers, are a little more complex. They too only perform one task, though. The photocopier in my office can scan and copy, but those are just two different ways of doing the same task, which is reproducing an image. It can staple and sort, but those tasks are only important because they are related to the copier’s primary task, which is reproducing an image.

When the spawn of Satan bothers to work at all, that is.

Photocopier of MaliceWe might think that what makes copiers more complex than hammers is the proliferation of moving parts. Since both copiers and hammers seem designed to perform a single task, it’s hard to compare them only on the basis of the work that they do. We might say that the single task that copiers perform is more complex than the one or two tasks that hammers perform, and that would be true, but I wouldn’t emphasize just number of moving parts as the most important order of complexity, or just the complexity of the task. I want to emphasize something else: copiers can be programmed to do their single task on their own, and once you’ve programmed them and started them running, they run until they’ve completed the task. So I can program my copier to make 500 copies double-sided and corner stapled, and once I’ve done so, it chugs away making copies and stapling them until the 500th copy is finished.

When the spawn of Satan bothers to work at all, that is.

This level of functionality is very different from a hammer, which just lays there until someone picks it up and uses it.

The most complex machine I’d like us to consider is a computer. Computers, like copiers, also need to be programmed, but their programming can get very sophisticated. Its normal functioning involves performing a highly diverse number of very complex tasks all at the same time, most of which the user is unaware — programming that runs beneath the user interface. Computers, as the most sophisticated type of machine under consideration here, can perform the most number of tasks and can work the most independently.

Now let’s consider the difference between any of these machines and a human being. Human beings can be programmed, but we can also program ourselves, and we can choose our programming. Furthermore, human beings are not limited in their behaviors to their programming — we can act beyond the parameters of our programming (in other words, creatively), and we can act in ways contradictory to our programming (in other words, annoyingly — but we can be deliberately annoying, unlike a computer, which is just passively annoying). Human beings are also capable of being self-directed. We can choose what to do and then go do it without any external stimulus. Even the most complex machines — computers — do not choose when they run independently. They’re just running established routines. When they act outside of those established routines, they crash.

Like the spawn of Satan that they can be.

Four Kinds of Students

I would like to suggest that our four options here represent four different types of students: hammers, photocopiers, computers, and human beings, and that student attitudes and institutional practices lead students to be one of these four types.

1. “Hammer” students do nothing until they’re forced to do it. School isn’t for learning but for earning grades. Curiosity and the potential for self-development play no role in this student’s motivation at all. This kind of student will do just what they are told to do and no more. They will do it when they are told and at no other time. Until they are told, they will lay there and do nothing. They are completely passive learners.

  • Institutional practices encourage students to behave like hammers when assessment drives education: students are not human beings developing their intellectual, social, creative, and emotional potentials, but are just test takers. The purpose of teaching in this model is to have students earn high grades with high test scores, and lessons offer no motivation for learning but test performance.
  • You might want to note that hammer students are still students. They participate in the educational task rather than resist it. They just do so as minimally as possible. Students who actively resist the educational task are prisoners. So are their teachers.

2. “Photocopier” students will work on their own to perform just the task(s) that instructors give them, but they won’t work beyond their given task. They repeat and repeat and repeat, but that’s it — they do not innovate, add, or create in relationship to the assigned tasks.They are better than hammers in that they have willingly accepted the educational task and will work on their own, but they are largely passive learners.

  • Institutional practices that encourage students to be photocopiers include teaching methods that emphasize only the acquisition of knowledge rather than the application of knowledge or the development of skills. Acquisition-based teaching requires students to take in information and then spit it back out in its original form. The more accurately the student can repeat acquired knowledge, the higher the student’s grade. The human mind is here being treated like a photocopier with no creative or critical potential at all.
  • Students taught to be photocopiers often want step by step instructions for all assignments. They feel anxious when they’re given a goal without being told exactly how to meet it.

3. “Computer” students are often A students. They can work on a variety of complex tasks independently, having developed a number of skills that they have learned to integrate into multiple kinds of tasks. They are capable of working on their own. Sounds great, doesn’t it? The problem here is that these students have not developed their potential for creative or critical thinking. They may write very competent, accurately documented, and grammatically correct papers but have problems with thesis development. They may have learned to write a thesis, but their best work is only a combination of what they’ve already been given. They never surprise their instructors, and they often tend to focus on figuring out what the instructor wants to hear and repeating that back to them in their papers. Depending upon the class, doing so can be a very complex task.

  • Institutional practices that encourage the development of this kind of student include limiting work to just one kind of methodology, or critical paradigms to just one or two — in short, students are not exposed to a meaningful diversity of ways of thinking about a topic or performing a task. Most of all, they are never encouraged to take risks in their thinking, to be creative. Instructors who write assignment instructions that tell students how to write their papers in significant detail (e.g., answer these questions about these possible literary works using this methodology) may be unintentionally derailing the development of student creativity and critical thinking skills.

4. Students who are fully developing themselves as human beings within an educational context see learning as play. Not frivolity, but serious play, the kind of play that creates new things with old materials, that relates existing material to the outside world and to one’s personal life, that changes and transforms and sees new possibilities for course material.

  • Institutional practices that encourage the development of this kind of student emphasize critical thinking, thesis development, creativity in thought, and problem solving (especially by posing impossible to solve or open-ended problems. Solving problems defined by the methodology is computer thinking — students may follow a complex routine, but they’re still following a set routine rather than thinking on their own). The best instruction explains the reasons for the class within the context of a student’s discipline and overall education, and it relates course material to big questions whenever possible.

Vending Machines

How Do We Respond?

First, I need to add a paragraph here that was not in my original draft. One reader reminded me that students can be photocopiers in one class, computers in another, and human beings in a third. That’s absolutely right. These are different ways that students postion themselves, or are positioned by institutional practices, in relationship to a specific course. Even hammer students may not necessarily be hammers in all of their classes. So while I’m describing four different kinds of students, I don’t mean to imply (though I probably have) that each individual student is one of these four types in some globally-defining sense of the word. It’s best to think of these four types of students as four types of student responses to material that can vary for an individual student from class to class.

If you are reading this blog as a student, I would like to encourage you to try to be a human being in all of your classes, however they are taught. Good students make the most out of even bad classes because they are driven to learn, not driven for grades or driven by their instructors. What you learn and do in class is of no benefit to your instructor. Your education, first and foremost, benefits yourself. Your instructor is not your employer — he or she is working for your benefit in class, as the work that your instructor assigns benefits you, not the instructor. For more details, read my next post.

If you are reading this blog as an instructor, I would like you to ask yourself about your classes — and what kind of student you’re creating with them. Are you treating your students like simple machines, complex machines, or human beings? I know that some classes, especially when taught to some student populations, need to be run on the lower end of the scale rather than the higher. Some students need to start out as hammers or copiers and then move up. I think courses designed like ladders — in which students attempt higher degrees of complexity as they move through the course — are best designed for beginning, introductory, or remedial students. We also need to consider this hierarchy in our curriculum design. By the time students are attempting 300 and definitely 400 level classes in their major, most assignments should be designed to serve the highest possible developmental ends.

I hope I’m being clear, though — I’m not laying the responsibility for student learning solely upon the instructor or solely upon the student. Students are responsible for being the type of student that they have chosen to be, and instructors are responsible for their educational practices and the type of student that they create with them. The success or failure of educational practices is dependent both upon the student and the instructor.

I would also like to suggest that this paradigm can help us define different management styles too. What kind of human being are we creating by our management practices? What kind of employees do we have, and what kind should we expect given institutional policies and our treatment of employees?

Choosing a College or Major

Vonnegut QuotationI’ve been reading a variety of blogs about the process of choosing a college and major and feel that none of them really get to the point. All of them seemed concerned with long term happiness, though, which is a good place to start. One Forbes article advises students to identify their passions and make a plan. No kidding. Look both ways before crossing the street too. Another advises students not to focus on doing what they love, but to focus instead on financially viable educational and career paths. It’s always good advice to consider debt to potential income ratio in your educational choices, so follow that advice.

But it’s not necessarily good advice to pursue a job that you will hate because you think it’ll make you money. Some people can separate life satisfaction from job satisfaction, but many people can’t. Some people who make that choice aren’t very happy, and it shows in a variety of ways — miserable home lives, career burnout, and maybe late career switches that are costly in terms of both time and money. Heidi Grant Halvorson’s “The Key to Choosing the Right Career” provides an intelligent self-assessment measure — are you a promotion-focused person or a prevention-focused person?, which is something that you need to know — but knowing that won’t help you choose a career, as all industries have jobs for promotion-oriented people as well as jobs for prevention-oriented people. That self-assessment tells you more about what kind of job within a field that you’d enjoy than the field that you should study. There are, for example, art jobs for promotion-oriented people (producing original work) as well as art jobs for prevention-oriented people (commercial art), but both kinds of jobs are in the field of art. I want to help you decide whether or not to pursue art, English, business, or any other specific field. After you’ve selected a field of study, then you can decide what kind of job that you want in that field.

Before I get started, you should know that most community colleges and many four-year colleges and universities offer a variety of tests that can help you match your interests to a career. The ones I’ve taken have been fairly accurate for me, so if you have the opportunity to take one of these tests, I would recommend that you do so. What I’m going to say here is intended to help you think about the results if you’ve taken one of these tests, and to help you think about the big picture in terms of matching interests with careers and college choices whether you’ve taken a career planning test or not.

Before thinking about a career, though, you need to understand the different educational options available to you. I would like you to consider the difference between vocational education and non-vocational education. Vocational education provides specific training to do a specific job. If you pursue this kind of education, there’s no question about what job will follow, as your education is designed to prepare you to work in a specific industry. I’m not saying that people with a vocational education can’t do other jobs, just that their education is designed to prepare graduates for a specific job in a specific industry. Vocational education prepares students for careers in fields such as auto mechanics, engineering, architecture, medicine (doctors, nurses, radiology, etc.), accounting, education, and law. If you graduate with one of these degrees you’ll still need on-the-job training, but the degree itself gives you quite a bit of job training. That is what it is intended to do. A sure sign of a vocational degree, by the way, is that an internship or residency is a curriculum requirement in almost all schools that offer the degree.

Non-vocational degrees teach you a field of knowledge, and in the process develop valuable and specific knowledge and skill sets that are needed in many jobs, but they do not necessarily prepare you for any one specific job. Those who have graduated with one these degrees have been successful in many, many fields, but if you pursue this option you’ll have to learn how to sell yourself. Degrees in English, art, history, philosophy (and all the liberal arts), mathematics, and the hard sciences fall into this category. Non-vocational degrees can lead you to successful careers in the workforce, because most businesses believe that they can teach their employees the business, but they can’t teach them how to write, speak, work with people, or do math, which are skills students should have learned in college. Employers want students with strong communication skills (oral and written) as well as critical thinking and problem solving skills, and they say the same thing in survey after survey.

Some fields can fall into either vocational or non-vocational categories depending up their focus, such as business (but this is usually vocational), the human and social sciences, and communication (e.g. the academic study of communication vs. journalism, which is vocationally focused: by the way, journalism is a very bad idea right now).

So, how do you do the work of thinking through your career and educational choices?  First, know yourself. I’m going to guide you through a process of self-knowledge that will help you choose a major. And then after you’ve chosen a major, I will give you some criteria for choosing a college.

First, are you good with words or good with numbers? Words are what we use to understand people and ideas. Numbers are what we use to understand the behaviors of and relationships among things. Of course we use words to talk about things and numbers to talk about people too, but I’m talking about the primary language of interaction, what we use to acquire raw data about our subjects. The primary language of interaction with people and with ideas uses words, while the primary language of interaction with things (natural or mechanical) uses numbers. If you’re a words person, choose a major that involves people or ideas. If you’re a numbers person, choose a major that involves things. If you’re good at both, do whatever you want. You’ll be successful in any field. If you’re not good at either, I have a message for you below.

Another way to consider the words vs. numbers question is to break it up into questions about interests and skills:

  • Interests: are you most interested in people, in things, or in ideas?
  • Skills: are you best at working with your hands, working with words, or working with numbers?

Right now some of you are thinking, “I’m not good at anything, and I’m not interested in anything.” That’s not really true. Look at your grades since sixth grade. Is there a pattern? Who were your favorite teachers? What did they teach? What do you like doing? Do you have a favorite movie or book? What does the protagonist do? Why do you like it?

If none of these questions help, if your grades have been average or below average, and if you have no discernible interests, I suggest that you start in community college and pursue an A.A., as this degree is very inexpensive, will meet general education requirements needed in any college major, and is easily transferable: in most states all community college credits are fully transferable to any four-year college or university within the state system. You can take electives while pursuing your A.A. to explore different areas, and you’ll also have a range of two-year vocational degrees available to you (such as an A.S. degree).

Once you’re enrolled in a community college, you can talk to a career counselor, take the tests that I mentioned above, and consider vocational degrees in growing industries such as energy, the sciences, medicine, or computer technology. If you really have no particular interests or passions, then at least be mercenary in your career and educational choices: what will make you the most money with the least amount of student loan debt?

If you think that you have answers to some of my questions, though, start thinking through your answers. Maybe lay them out on a grid:

People Things Ideas
Hands
Words
Numbers

Check off the boxes that fit and see where you have the most checks.

  • Numbers+things? Engineering — the applied sciences.
  • Ideas+Words? English, philosophy, psychology, linguistics — the liberal arts and theoretical study in the human sciences such as sociology, anthropology, and psychology.
  • People+ideas? History, communication, and the application-based study of the human sciences.
  • People+words or people +numbers? Management, communication, and the human sciences.
  • Numbers+ideas? Mathematics, computer science, and the hard sciences, especially theoretical study.
  • Hands+things? The fine arts and trades.

I think you get the picture. Most career tests will get you thinking along these lines. Note that these are all very broad fields with very different sub-fields within them. The most that I can do here is get you looking in one or two directions.

My basic assumption is that if you’re good at something, that’s probably because you enjoy it, or maybe you enjoy it because you’re good at it. I’d really like you to think about that assumption for a while if you think that you’re not good at anything, and ask yourself what you’ve been doing with your life so far.

In less polite terms: get off your butt and you might discover yourself.

Once you’ve chosen a major, you will then need to select a college. I’ve said it before, and I hate saying it, but it bears repeating: name recognition on the degree is more important, initially, than your actual skills and ability. The brand name of your college will help you get in the door. Your actual skills and abilities will then determine how well you perform, so those do matter too. Apply to the colleges and universities with the most reputable names in your chosen field. If you don’t know which these are, research. US News and World Report rankings are much hated but are at least reflective of name recognition and in fact generate name recognition. Find industry journals and look for articles on job placement. Visit a business and ask around.

Minors are smart. If you major in a non-vocational area, develop a secondary skill — take computer programming, web technologies, marketing, management, public relations. English and art majors who have learned a programming language and web technologies have highly valuable skill sets. And for the record, some of my former English majors have been told in interviews that they would be immediately hired if they had these secondary skills. Similarly, if you’re in the hard sciences, take additional humanities courses. Take creative courses too — learn to draw or write poetry. You need to remember that you’re not a machine, and odds are your specific area of study will impact human beings somehow, so you want to understand people in all of their diversity and creativity. Humanities courses will help you gain that understanding.

Once you’ve chosen a major and identified a few schools that are reputable in that field, consider the following measures to help you choose among them:

  • As mentioned above, US News and World report rankings.
  • The return on investment of the degree, or in other words, the cost of the college degree compared to the income its graduates earn a few years after graduation.
  • The college’s graduation rates — the higher the graduation rate, the better the student body and your chances as well. Don’t be too put off by a significant difference between four and six year graduation rates as some majors require extra time. Education majors at my current institution essentially double major in education and an academic field, so it’s very hard for them to graduate in four years, and they have to do so to meet state requirements.
  • The college’s student loan default rates — which is a good sign of student success after graduation.

Notice that I’m not talking about jobs in fields like like sports, music,  film, or theater (the performing arts). These are large industries encompassing a variety of jobs, including (sports) medicine, marketing, management, a variety of technical jobs, and more. If you’re interested in these fields, there are plenty of ways in. But of course everyone wants to be a rock star, a movie star, or a pro sports player. Let me give you some numbers about pro football that probably illustrate the dynamic in all of these fields. There are about 200-300 athletes drafted into the NFL every year (253 in 2012). Theoretically, competing for those spots are 85 players for each one of 242 NCAA Division 1 teams, or 20,570 players, not counting Division II or III players or free agents (of course, not all 20,000+ apply to the draft, but all 20,000+ theoretically could).

I can’t tell you that you won’t make it as a pro football player or a rock star, but I can say that the 1% who do make it have a very rare mix of luck and talent, part of which includes not getting injured (the Shmoop career guide works the numbers in more detail and comes up with about 7% for college seniors — but it’s hard to know how many free agents or underclassmen are trying out). If you’re going to college solely to play football, in terms of averages you’re taking chances almost equivalent to spending $140,000 (or the cost of a college education at an average four-year private institution) on lottery tickets in a single week. Sounds like great odds, but they’re still about 100 to 1 or a little bit better. In other words, if you’re going to college just to play ball and not get an education, you may as well spend your tuition money on lottery tickets. So play football or any other sport in college and love every minute of it, but take class seriously too.

Next — and I’m asking you to think way ahead here — will you be interested in graduate school? Does your undergraduate institution also have graduate programs in that area? Check the institution’s website to see what percentage of students go on to graduate school, and consider your undergraduate degree in terms of the viability of pursuing graduate study in that field too. Master’s degrees are always good choices, but Ph.Ds. in the humanities and human sciences as well as law school have a strong likelihood for high student loan debt and low employability.

So, to review the process:

  1. Identify your interests (people, ideas, things) and your skills (hands, words, numbers).
  2. Match these interests to a major.
  3. Identify the most reputable colleges for that major. Pick three or four or five.
  4. Choose among those by comparing graduation rates, student loan default rates, return on investment, and rankings.

After thinking all of this through, then I’d like to return you to that first article I linked to, the one that I picked at a bit for being obvious. It still asks important questions: who do you want to be? How do you want to live? Human beings aren’t machines: we need more than physical and financial support to live whole and entire lives. Think about the Vonnegut quotation posted up above too. If you’re inspired by your field of study, you will be inspiring to people who will recommend you for jobs or advanced study and to your employers. Remember, no matter what you choose — even if you do not choose — what happens is the result of your choices.

Other useful resources: