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Teaching students to write stuff that will get them hired, not just essays

Two recent pieces by Rebecca Schuman and Mark Sample have made me ponder again something I wrote about last year: what exactly are professors supposed to be teaching their students? I should begin by disclosing two facts: One, I am terrified at the job prospects of my students, both former and current, given the current unemployment rates worldwide. I have taught in really solid programs (at the University of British Columbia’s Political Science Department in Vancouver, Canada, and at the Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas (CIDE) Government and Public Finance program in Aguascalientes, Mexico). I have (and have had) really bright, talented students whose skills I want to shape. I want them to succeed and have jobs at the end of their degree. And two, I’m obsessed with applied work. While I’ve done a lot of theory development in my research, I am keen to transfer my students those skills that have actually gotten me consulting contracts and other applied jobs, besides academia.

Debate Class CIDE Region CentroWhile I’m not 100% in love with the idea of purely oral exams, as Schuman proposes, and my field doesn’t really “build things” as Sample suggests, I definitely side with them in saying that the old-school college essay is ridiculously out. What our students need right now is those skills that will get them hired. They won’t get hired for “oh I write really lovely essays and can totally format my citations in APA style“.

Curso Derecho y Literatura (CIDE Region Centro)I think they will get hired for the kind of applied policy analysis I like them to undertake. They will get hired for having public speaking and debate skills (CIDE has a debating class this term and it’s incredibly popular with students). Year after year, former students of mine who have taken my Public Policy course have told me “Professor Pacheco-Vega, THANK YOU for having the 72 hour policy-analysis assignment in class. I have used it in my current job as Legislative Intern/Policy Analyst“. These types of emails make my day. Because part of what I want is for my students to learn in a rigorous way, to write well, to learn to analyze data and present it in a coherent manner.

I was flying to Mexico City a couple of months ago and got to sit (in different flights) with the Mayor of the City of Aguascalientes and the President of the Autonomous University of Aguascalientes, and I chatted with both of them about the importance of writing good policy briefings. Mayor Martinez is a busy woman, and she needs to be briefed on a variety of topics. The same happens with President Andrade. And both of them said “I hire people to do EXACTLY THAT. I really need someone who can synthesize information for me and present a solid menu of policy suggestions/options“.

So, my call for political science/policy schools in particular, and for university departments in general is: let’s teach students to write stuff that will be useful to them. Let’s teach them skills that they will then use in their day-to-day job. If that means teaching them to code HTML, write briefing cards, undertake quantitative analysis using R and STATA, so be it. Let’s just teach what needs to be taught and what will get them jobs, not what the traditional models of teaching require you to do.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Writing policy content: Tips for students and educators – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on January 24, 2014

    […] I had to rewrite the entire syllabus, I still remained intent on teaching my students skills that would get them hired. My courses at UBC were always applied and I made sure that my students completed their coursework […]

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