We’re currently half-way through the second term of the year here in London, and for the second year running I’m a teaching assistant on the second year undergraduate compulsory course ‘Research and Presentation Skills’.

The principal of the course is to offer, highlight and build on ‘transferable skills’, as well filling in the academic skill gaps that the faculty feel the undergraduates lack. The course covers a lot of different ways in which the skills you gain as an archaeologist/undergraduate can be framed as useful to employers, and the aim is to get students to think positively about this and about how to make themselves employable.

I have to admit that as I have expanded my reading in pedagogical/andragogical theory (cf.Rainbird and Hamilakis, 2001) I find myself becoming conflicted about the unit. Not because it lacks anything, or falls below standards: far from it. ‘Res and Pres’ as we affectionately call is taught by one of the best lecturers I know, and he utilises far more innovative and engaging teaching methods than many. My doubts relate to the underlying paradigm of the course.

At the heart of the matter are a number of assertions which are embedded in the core of this course:

  1. Employer’s demands for students with ‘transferable skills’ are acceptable (without critical analysis);
  2. The teaching of ‘transferable’ skills is something that universities must do;
  3. ‘Transferable skills’ should be woven into standard teaching modules.

At an Institutional and indeed Academy level, no critique is applied to these statements. This feels at odds to the fact that we, as archaeologists, are usually a highly critical and reflexive discipline. Ut nat be that this lack of critique is symptomatic of the general lack of conscious critical analysis of teaching in Higher Education (HE) that is particularly apparent in archaeology. This particular observation needs another whole post – or rather article – in itself, but having looked over the pedagogical literature published by archaeologists in the last twenty years I think it can be substantiated.

Personally I would like to do a thorough and extended critique of these assumptions, and related ones concerning ‘practical’ skills, but again, that’s also so big it’d need it’s own post or article. My position at the moment is that I do not subscribe to the idea that these assertions are in any way ‘common sense’, inherently obvious or contain some natural ‘truth’. I think that in cases like this, where motivation is top-down and pressure imposed by powerful organisations outside the Academy, a healthy but open-minded scepticism should be employed.

Thinking discursively around these assumptions, the words of Bertrand Russell on education are strongly brought to mind: that in some situations education can either create good citizens or it can create good people. What he referred to is the overwhelming power of education to indoctrinate, or to liberate, something which has been echoed through 20th century by such thought-provoking educationalists as Freire (1970).

I cannot help but question whether the demand for transferable skills – arguably knowledge and skills which employers used to teach on the job – should be seen within this model of emancipation or indoctrination. In teaching students how best to write a CV, perform a presentation, communicate archaeology to the ‘public’, what am I actually trying to do? Am I giving them the skills to liberate themselves from socio-cultural restrictions and pursue the jobs that they want? Am I teaching them the inside tricks with which to outsmart current restrictive paradigms and take control of their careers and lives?

Or am I just propagating the norms within which we currently exist by teaching them that good presentations are only done this way and that there is only one way in which they can be ‘valuable’ employees? Am I teaching them that the current arguably unequal, dehumanising, restrictive and artificial way of ‘being’ is the only one acceptable and thus helping to replicate the current unequal social and economic situation?

At the moment I think it is a bit of both. I’m teaching things I wish someone had taught me, and that I would have found really helpful. The world of CVs and interviews and presentations is a rarefied, constructed one that is not immediately obvious. To thrive in this you need help. But I’m not teaching my students as openly and as reflexively as possible. I’m not saying – this is one way of doing it, it might not be the best and it arguable doesn’t represent anything ‘real’. I’m not saying that just because an employer wants something this way, doesn’t mean it’s the best way for you, it just means that’s the way you have to be to get the job.

I don’t want to be in the situation where I’m attempting to turn my students into clones of an idealised model student that only exists in the minds of government advisors. I have to teach transferable skills: that’s the aim of the course after all, and I agree with the utility of them. But I can teach it more openly, and I can be frank about the essentially artificial, constructed and industrialised nature of the type of knowledge that these transferable skills often represent. I lack the power to fundamentally change the course, but I can teach my bits better, and I hope that can be a start.

 

Freire, P., 1970. Pedagogy of the oppressed, Continuum International Publishing Group.

Rainbird, P. & Hamilakis, Y., 2001. Interrogating pedagogies: archaeology in higher education, Archaeopress.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching thoughts – ‘Transferable skills’: indoctrination or emancipation?

  1. All good points. On Saturday evening, some friends and I were having a similar conversation about whether university degrees should be vocational at all.

    1. Thanks. I have some thoughts on ‘practical’ or vocational skills v. what a University degree is actually about… but that’s a whole new post! Also, it’s liable to offend some archaeologists. There’s a bit of a divide between some commercial archaeologists who want universities to produce fully-formed diggers who can just be put straight into a trench, and academics who see that as the sort of ‘on-the-job’ training that they a) dont’ have the money/time/equipment to do and b) shouldn’t do as a degree is about ciritical thought and higher reasoning.

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