Let our teachers teach: compulsory work experience for academics would be disastrous

It’s December, so applications to summer internships are underway and finalists are on the hunt for a graduate scheme or a masters. In the humanities, the choice between furthering your education and entering the workforce can seem a daunting one: you don’t quite feel ready to be in the “real world”,  but don’t know how to ask professors about it because they’ve had a scholastic route without relevant work experience in the field.

The idea of making work experience compulsory for the professional development of academics has been suggested as a way to bridge this gap. The issue came up when it became apparent that what professors saw as ultra-futuristic innovations, such as AI-dominated lectures, were becoming concrete possibilities. Concerns over whether professors would be able to adequately advise students about a rapidly evolving workplace led to the proposal of a year in industry every three to five years of teaching. This would, in turn, create “professors of practice”. However, changing the way we are taught so that universities create more competitive employees suggests that our intellectual development is less of a priority than making campus into a job farm.

Presenting the academic workplace as inadequate diminishes a legitimate and incredibly prestigious career

Encouraging teachers to leave academia every few years implies that the work that they are currently doing isn’t valuable. This makes light of the hours that go into helping someone form their view of the world. It suggests that learning all there is to know about a field of study and continuing to challenge those limits isn’t good enough. It tells students that being passionate and inquisitive within your subject area isn’t something that is marketable.

Furthermore, it sends a mixed message about interdisciplinary skills. If the humanities are celebrated for the development of analytical and professional skills, surely the people at the top of their fields would possess them? There is a sense of having a “right” and “not quite” type of professionality, with limited parameters that generally conform to a corporate setting. This is not to say that having different professionalities is a bad thing. We should be able to adapt to any setting we are in, but presenting the academic workplace as inadequate diminishes a legitimate and incredibly prestigious career.

The scheme aims to change universities, rather than our perception of meaningful and innovative work. As forums for dialogue and research, a university campus is the best place for progress to happen, independent of financial gain. For example, the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to a professor who, from his position outside the “workplace”, critiqued the financial foundations of climate change and carbon emissions. This ground breaking work is only able to take place when academia is taken seriously, when people are free to think outside of the box. If people can’t ask questions about the current system, it will never evolve.

Higher education is a pathway toward professional life, but it should not be a means to an end

Work experience is portrayed as a way to solve two issues at once. Professors would be able to overcome both professional and technological disconnects from the current workplace. Portraying their distance as a hindrance twists the importance of academia’s objectivity. The debates that are so crucial to understanding the ethics of artificial intelligence and the commercialisation of privacy cannot happen in a place where the goal is financial viability. Celebrating artificial intelligence and the way it pushes the boundaries is part of an important moment in history. However, if this is done without the insightful analysis that is so central to what we are taught by professors, then what does that say about the future of human intelligence?

Higher education is a pathway toward professional life, but it should not be a means to an end. It should be a place where different perspectives and untapped knowledge meet and coalesce. It should inspire debate in a respectful manner, learning how to hone our argument and present it in a persuasive way, whilst being respectful to those around us. University should be a place where we can begin to form our views of the world without thinking about what will make us the most money. Professional skills will come from our lessons, but we need the work of our professors to be validated and for that, they need to be in classrooms.

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