Monday, February 21, 2005

Value to Students

In the same vein as getting Sociology to the public, we find undergrad students. There was a moment fall semester my senior year when I went into my advisor’s office and asked what kind of work I should be looking for. He looked at me and said he didn’t know.

I loved that professor, but was troubled by his answer. Within 12 months I was de-boning chicken breasts at a processing plant. That followed a stint selling books as a temp at the other college’s bookstore after graduation. Now I certainly don’t think I am “too good” for such jobs, nor did I really expect the college to hold my hand and get me a career. However, pondering Marx at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, for eight hours, boning breasts, it occurred to me that this was not the career trajectory I expected after college.

As faculty now I find myself in the professor’s shoes, and I want to be able to at least give my students some direction. Other disciplines accomplish this through effectively networking with their alumni, setting up internships, keeping contacts with the local business community and so on. Basically they have done good jobs building weak tie networks. Why this didn’t occur to us, I don’t know. But I also know that our students are good students, our programs are good programs, and our discipline is a good discipline. What those other programs are offering is simply more on-the-street connection for the students – not better academics.

Building these kind of professional networks for the undergraduate students will take years, especially since I am thinking this needs to be done across the discipline. But it needs to be done, and for several reasons. The first is simply self-interest. If a Soc degree is more marketable, there will be more demand from the undergrads. If there is demand from undergrads, Soc departments will be bigger, there will be more demand for faculty, and so on. So it’s good professional activity in the long run.

But more importantly, it’s what we owe the students. The only part of the students’ experiences we have control over is what happens in our program. If they are spending roughly $100,000 for their education, they at least deserve to walk out with a marketable degree. Granted, faculty cut of that $100k is only around $30k or so, but still, it’s what they are here for. Further, good internship programs, and networking into the local community does not mean the value of the liberal arts approach has to be compromised. It doesn’t need to mean that the academic quality needs to be compromised. It is simply balancing our discipline so that undergrads receive a more valuable degree.

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