(Not) teaching employability: One case for inactive learning?

Another great guest post by Dr. Jeremy F. G. Moulton at the University of York!

(As for this Pigeon, I just finished teaching a voluntary overload semester: 5 courses, plus developed a 6th course for CSU Online. It’s a workload I’m not in a hurry to repeat. Now back to Jeremy!)

I read with interest Amanda Rosen’s recent blog post on why it is not necessary to choose a ‘side’ in the debate between lecturing or active learning. 

Rather than choosing to be loyal only to one approach, Rosen notes that ‘we should choose our teaching techniques based on our learning goals and the demand of the questions, concepts, cases, and other material that we are teaching’. 

This is something that I have been thinking over a lot in the last year in relation to the subject of employability. Usually, I am someone who prefers to lean slightly towards a more ‘active’ form of learning. Whilst I do see the benefits of the lecture format, I also love experimenting with new modes of engagement in seminars, workshops, and in online learning environments. 

However, employability has stuck in my mind over the last year as one area where there seems to be a strong case for relative inactivity.

This is, undoubtedly, a slightly controversial claim. There seems to be a litany of reasons why we should be actively engaging with the ‘employability agenda’.

In the UK, the last two years have seen headlines about the government’s attacks on ‘low-value’ degrees, i.e. degrees that have a lower proportion of graduates getting professional work. This has driven the need for universities and individual courses to highlight their ‘worth’ in terms of resulting employability. This builds off a strong recent history of discussions of the purpose of university education being tied in with employability.

This increased level of attention comes as our students face increasingly diverse and disrupted worlds of work when they graduate, with the idea of a “career for life” looking increasingly unlikely.

So, given the apparent need for engaging with the subject of employability, why might there be a benefit to inactive engagement with it? Again, there are a few good reasons why I think this might be the best technique here.

Firstly, as many people reading this will likely relate to, many academics panic when they hear the term “employability”. They have spent years developing their The Politics of Development/ The Global Food System/ Political Transition in the Middle East modules; they are unlikely to want someone to come in and say “can we take a week and use it for job talks?”. 

Academics are also, understandably, concerned about adding to already heavy workloads. Engaging with employability can often sound like being asked to do more – something that many don’t have time to consider.

Importantly, employability may not be something with which students actually want to actively engage. They often want to engage with the content they came to university to study and want to leave the subject of employability to some future point. Pushing employability in the meantime risks doing “too much” and alienating otherwise keen learners.

There might also not be a strong case for spending too much time or energy on employability. The UK’s Institute for Student Employers has found that students often do not lack employable skills. Instead, they lack a proper understanding that the skills they developed during their studies are, in fact, employable skills.

This is where I think a less active form of learning has much to offer. If being too active has costs, then relative inactivity has benefits here. 

Repeatedly signposting for students the employable skills they have developed could be one fruitful path to success here. In a recent paper for the Journal of Political Science Education, I propose one such student-facing statement for articulating the employability value of a Politics & International Relations Degree, without risking being seen to do ‘too much’. 

Whilst this is an approach I’m taking forward in my own teaching, as Rosen notes in her blog, there will be a variety of approaches even in the teaching of the same subject, but one fundamental rule remains the same: ‘whatever technique you choose, do it and do it well’.