Sunday, April 10, 2011


Several years ago I did a short stint in corporate America. Specifically, I spent almost a year in the Human Resources area of a large corporation. I did a variety of tasks during that time – from writing curriculum for the manager of Training and Development to updating job descriptions to answering phones. The “job description” element of that work was an eye opener for me.

At the time, I was quite young – basically at the beginning of my professional career. I had taught for a few years at the college level by that time. The job descriptions that I was familiar with were general – “ability to teach Public Speaking, Interpersonal Communication, Oral Interpretation of Literature and a minimum 2 years experience coaching college level Forensics.” Once hired, those were the basic duties. We were all expected to simply know the details of what was required to do these tasks effectively, and do them. And, the majority of the people I worked with seemed to know and do them.

However, there were a number of other duties that weren’t outlined in the job description. We were expected to serve on college committees, to advise students, to do department work involving curriculum offerings, to participate in the new educational initiatives that came along every 5 to 7 years. We did those things as well, just without it ever being written down as part of our job and, quite frankly, without ever being compensated for the work. It was just part of working in the academy.

Corporate job descriptions, though, were quite different. They contained a laundry list of specific tasks that an individual applying for a specific position was expected to do. They also contained an articulation of what constituted meeting those expectations – as well as what was considered falling short. Some of these descriptions were literally pages long. After working for a while in this environment I chose to go back to higher education and took my current job. The “job description” was what I had experienced in previous academic environments. And, for quite a long while, the majority of us adequately did our jobs with this minimal amount of written instruction.

As with all things, this process morphed over time. We still don’t have a corporate-type job description. However, we now have a “Professional Development Plan” – a document that we create in conjunction with our supervisor that has a 3 year shelf life. We outline in general terms what we intend to do to “develop” our professional skills over a 3 year period, and at the end of that time we submit a report that details how we accomplished this. In the past, this also formed the basis for our performance review. The process was designed to enable success. The 3 year plan was discussed at the outset with the supervising dean. It allows for growth and recognized that developing a skill set is a process. But it still is based upon the idea that everyone ‘knows’ the job description. In my opinion, it is effective and appropriate in an academic environment.

I suspect that part of the reason I am comfortable with this style is that it is what I ‘grew up’ with. When I was a college student, assignments in classes often read something like this: Prepare and deliver an 8-10 minute persuasive speech, 7 sources required, on a pertinent social issue. That was it. The entire instruction. And, we prepared and delivered the speech.

Today things have changed. The assessment movement in American education has pushed (not wrongly) the importance of articulating clear expectations and clear standards of evaluation. In essence, education has become ‘corporatized’ in this area, as well as in so many others. (Many a time we hear administrators refer to students as our ‘customers’.) So our writing of assignments has changed. They now resemble a job description. I now give my students a 14 point checklist of items required for their speeches. I clearly articulate the types of supporting material they are required to use, the pattern of arrangement for their main points, the required elements of delivery. I also articulate for them exactly how the points for the assignment will be assigned. With all these detailed instructions are students giving significantly better speeches that they did when I was a student? Quite frankly, no.

So I don’t think that this change has affected the quality of student work in any significant way for the better. What it has affected is the ability of students to work without a great deal of instruction. Unless you outline every expectation, students are often paralyzed about how to proceed. I suspect that this has worked its way into the workforce as well. It seems that many people have no idea what constitutes professionalism and courtesy, for example, or what constitutes quality work. Without clear and excessively detailed instructions, many people have no idea how to really function in a professional environment. They seem to lack the confidence and initiative to step out and take charge of a task and when they do, they often fall short.

It appears that this new and continued emphasis on the ‘corporate’ way of doing things may appease school boards, assessment officers and maybe even legislators. And maybe it’s simply the way things are so there’s no use in fighting it. But, in that corporate spirit, it might be a good idea for someone to engage in a cost-benefit analysis. For all the cost of changing to this corporate model, have the benefits to students and their skills really been worth it?

Today's image comes from:


  1. I can remember near panic with an open ended writing assignment in seminary. Given by a visiting professor, in an intensive class, it was very troubling not to have all the expectations spelled out. There wasn't much margin for error. Long story short, it stretched me. By not having everything spelled out it kept me from going down a checklist of what was required, and encouraged me to be more creative and thorough. I think I learned more about the subject and myself that way.

  2. Hi Judy, Alyson and I just watched the doc Waiting for Superman, did you see it? Thoughts?

  3. Susan - I have not seen it so can't express an opinion. However, I've heard and read quite a bit about it. An interesting article is found here:,0

    I will say this - it's a complex issue with no easy answers. And I am skeptical of anyone who says that they have 'the answer.'