By Cindy Blackwell, Ph.D.
From the moment I dropped the first mouse into the snake’s cage, I knew my life was not going quite as I had planned. More than five years after earning my Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin, I found myself feeding snakes in order to feed myself as I waited for my graduate school application to be processed.
This experience is one of my many early career experiences that informs how I teach. As an accidental academic, I have always stressed career skills in courses but not always in an intentional manner.
In recent years, I have learned ways to make career readiness a deliberate undercurrent in the classroom in an effort to better prepare students to succeed in their careers as well as in the professional workplace. Through my experience in the classroom, as well as with ACUE’s program, I learned that by focusing on relevancy, accountability, and connections, I can help students begin their transition by integrating professionalism into the course structure.
“Relevance wins,” as Jeremy Podany, CEO of Career Leadership Collective, says in the first module of the ACUE Career Guidance and Readiness course. The relevance of coursework needs to be evident on many levels—from assignment application to career connections—to help students better engage with content.
While relevancy is more obvious in specialized or major-related courses, instructors can make clear the relevance of other courses, including and especially general education courses. Several of my public relations students struggle through algebra and statistics, but I repeatedly remind them they will need to understand algebra when negotiating contracts and statistics when analyzing data to identify key audiences. Without this knowledge, they will struggle as public relations professionals.
I also offer relevancy with expectations of classroom conduct. Drawing parallels between classroom behavior and the workplace demonstrates to students how similar actions will be perceived in the workplace.
When students ask me questions that they can easily find on the syllabus or another obvious place, I respectfully tell them not to waste their supervisor’s time by asking questions they can easily answer on their own. Packing up early? You are sending a signal to your supervisor that your time is more important than hers. Many of these teachable moments emphasize specific career skills, which are focused on interpersonal relationships or emotional intelligence.
Many college courses have late work policies that take a percentage off of the final grade if an assignment is submitted after the due date; however, such late work policies do not translate well to the professional world. On the first day of a course, I tell students I do not accept late work, explaining that in the workplace, your supervisor will not accept late work. This is transparent on the syllabus: if there is a deadline, you must meet it. Similarly, when asked if I offer extra credit, I tell students that I have never had a supervisor offer me extra credit.
Of course, I also buffer these points by letting students know that life does happen. If a significant life event prevents a student from coming to class or from submitting an assignment, I expect him or her to contact me, just as one would contact a supervisor. If an assignment was given several days ago, I will ask questions about its status, and I might also ask to have the assignment be sent in its current form.
On the first day of class, I have students complete a student survey similar to the one offered in Module 2c, “Connecting with Your Students,” in ACUE’s Career Guidance and Readiness Course. I read through their answers and organize the surveys according to career areas of interest. When colleagues are looking for a volunteer for a day or an intern for the next semester, these surveys allow me to quickly refer specific students to such opportunities. This demonstrates to students the value of networking and making connections well beyond the classroom. Connections are also made through professional guest speakers as well as reviewing job postings with students that offer insight into what will be expected of them in the future.
By emphasizing and building upon important professionalism elements regarding and highlighting relevancy, practicing accountability, and modeling connections, students can practice daily what will be expected of them in the professional workplace. With small changes, instructors can prepare self-actualized professionals who are ready to meet the challenges of the workforce—including feeding snakes.
Cindy Blackwell is an associate teaching professor, associate director of the Center for Faculty Development and academic integrity officer at The University of Southern Mississippi. She received her ACUE credential in 2017 and currently serves as a facilitator for the Southern Miss ACUE discussion sections.