Professional Excellence: Can It Be Learned in College?

After spending thirty years in a corporate environment, I embarked on a second career as a member of the faculty and staff of a liberal arts college. Each semester I would dedicate one class to the topic of “business courtesy,” highlighting for the students the personal behaviors that can distinguish them in the workplace. Since most of my students were juniors and seniors, workplace reality was not far off.

Recently, I was asked to participate in a project in a large corporation. It gave me an opportunity to once again observe young employees, just a few years out of college. What I saw are bright young people, well trained in the specific subject matter that they studied in school. Unfortunately, many lack the proper form that would allow older colleagues to appreciate their substance.

What are the essential performance elements that enable them to stand apart from their colleagues? Simply put, it’s a consistent pattern of professional behavior in all respects. Some of the attributes go without saying, such as good personal appearance, promptness, use of proper language, etc. Unfortunately, some students derail their chances because they simply don’t know those things.

But most importantly in my experience, it is those employees that know how to write well, utilizing good structure, correct grammar, and appropriate business vocabulary, who stand out. Their ideas and proposals will attract notice. This is where the perception gap between graduating students and their future employers is the greatest.

Surveys consistently show that employers are not satisfied with what they are getting. The Business Roundtable contends that virtually all of their members report a significant skills gap, and the Roundtable is promoting programs to address the problem.

Earlier this year, PayScale released a study on employer perceptions of recent graduates. Katie Bardaro, vice president of data analytics at PayScale, commented “The data we’ve collected show that even though their education may make recent college graduates feel prepared to enter the workforce, only half of hiring managers agree with them; managers feel crucial skills in recent graduates are frequently lacking or absent.”

According to that study, business officials are particularly disappointed with the writing ability of the students they’ve hired, with 44 percent saying that writing proficiency is the hard skill they find most lacking.

Similarly, a National Association of Colleges and Employers survey ranked student and employer perceptions of various skills important for success. Of all the skills that were identified in the survey, the perception gap on writing skills was one of the largest—65 percent of the students surveyed thought their writing skills were adequate, but only 27 percent of the employers thought so.

How can we teach these essential skills to college students and help them realize their importance? I believe the answer lies in the systematic reinforcement of all of these concepts, day in and day out, on campus.

To start with, students need to understand that in class they’re expected to be fully engaged—prepared, attentive, and participative. I always found that a qualitative “course engagement” assessment, worth 20 percent of the final grade, helped to achieve that outcome. This deterred students from cutting class and also from spending their class time perusing Facebook.

Students should also dress appropriately for class. Maybe not suit and tie quite yet, but they should still look like professional young men and women, serious about learning and serious about interacting with other men and women in a respectful way. If a student needed guidance in this area, I would speak with the student in private after class, and suggest the changes (lose the ball cap, wear jeans that aren’t ripped to shreds, etc.) that they need to make.

Most importantly, all course papers must be graded by the instructor line by line, highlighting and editing the text. The instructor needs to correct for poor grammar, incorrect spelling, run-on paragraphs, inconsistent use of headings and a general lack of organization.

I constantly reminded my students that their future boss would stop reading at the first paragraph, if their product were written in anything but a professional way. Assigning 30 percent of the paper’s grade to writing competency was also very motivating.

This is hard and tedious work for instructors, as I can personally attest, but it is essential. In the long run, it will benefit students more than the time professors might invest in esoteric academic research topics. Administrators should make it clear that this is a key aspect of the job and not hire anyone who seems reluctant.

But my question is this—who among the faculty will be most effective in guiding the students to understand how important these elements of professional excellence are to their future success?

Half of the courses at American colleges and universities are taught by adjuncts. Some of them work in private enterprise and teach one course, primarily for the love of teaching (it’s certainly not for the money they make).

Although they’re in the best position to emphasize these skills to the students, these men and women are generally on campus only for one course per semester, probably don’t encounter the same student more than once, and have little opportunity for personal contact with the students outside of class. As a result, their impact is limited.

As for tenure-track and tenured faculty, the very fact that they possess earned doctorates suggests that their backgrounds are generally in academic settings. Few have experienced workplace dynamics and have seen firsthand the impact of professional excellence on an employee’s career.

So, how can we do better?

My suggestion is that administrators need to think about the backgrounds of their tenure track faculty selections, beyond the typical academic credentials. Faculty who understand the dynamics of the workplace, and who themselves model and insist on proper behaviors, will be an asset to students as they interview for that first job—and thus boost the college’s placement record, a win all the way around.

Adding some full-time faculty members who have professional experience and will model it to students would be a good move for many colleges. It would increase diversity in a meaningful way.

Recently, a former student contacted me after he had read an article I had published. He’d spotted a misspelling, and called me on it. He said that my emphasis on a commitment to professional excellence has stayed with him all these years, and that typo fairly jumped out at him. Point made—all the way around.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    How much of this is cultural drift? Even writing, and especially spelling, have been automated. Voice recognition, word processing, spell check. All this undermines the development of writing skills.

    I once overheard a college student of mine that was an undercover law enforcement officer — he was writing at a grammar school level — explain how he got A’s in English composition. He used grammar/spell check “until the red went away.” That was his answer. As a police officer, his reports were not written in complete sentences, but sentence fragments.

    Operating at the level of Twitter and Facebook, most of our population has lost the ability to write about complicated ideas. Vocabulary is minimal. And this downward trend will only get worse, as more and more interactions are automated due to artificial intelligence.

    Same thing for quantitative thinking. In my daily interactions with a vast population, I have given up asking people to multiply a number by 10. For some reason, virtually no one can do this anymore.

    I hesitate to add my concluding observations, but this article and my observations confirm a ‘dumbing down’ effect across our entire culture. If this is true, and if educational institutions (and families) are responsible for transmitting the knowledge base from one generation to the next, what we see is a generation-bridge on the verge of collapse.

    But it could also be, given the rapid transformation of culture, that the standards we apply today have risen considerably, and what now looks like ‘dumbing down’ has always been the case, except that competition has increased and required skill sets have grown, leaving many behind. In other words, we have established standards that remain out of reach for much of the population.

    Packing kids off to college, when they should be working and raising families, is not the answer, and only intensifies social stratification (and increases student loan debt with little likelihood of repayment), but this is the road we are on.

    • Anonymous

      I agree with your sentiments up to a point. True, it’s unfortunate that some people don’t bother to build their lexicon or improve their grammar, but those individuals are to blame, not technology. Even if automatic technology was done away with completely, I doubt lazy people would suddenly develop an appetite for library books.

      Our current technology is far from perfect, but it has blessed us in so many ways. Thanks to the Internet, people can purchase items that can’t be found in their local stores. They can even buy things online that aren’t made anymore, like antique objects. The Internet also enables people to work from home either because there aren’t enough jobs in their area or because they prefer not to commute. We can also keep in touch with loved ones far away via email or social networking. While those methods can be abused sometimes, they are faster and cheaper than mail or phone.

      We don’t have much of a choice but to keep up with technology. We can’t remain in the past forever. If we did, we’d still hunt for our food while living in caves, and I don’t know too many people who’d want to live like that.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        ” … it’s unfortunate that some people don’t bother to build their lexicon or improve their grammar, but those individuals are to blame, not technology.”

        Sorry if it sounded like I was blaming techology — complex ideas can be difficult to convey — but it is more of a cultural herd effect, i.e., as technology becomes more widespread, and as more people take advantage of new technology to make their lives easier in the short run, there is a bandwagon effect, called normative isomorphism, or mimetic isomorphism when there is uncertainty. Even such things as smoking and weight gain appear to have a connectivity component (aka degrees of Kevin Bacon in social network theory).

        A good example of this was when the internet first appeared, students plagiarized anything and everything they could lay hands on — until plagiarism software came along.

        Lastly, and this gets to my nightmare, the more technology can do for us, the less individual discretion matters. Even the techniques for engineering collective consent have the net effect of orienting behavior toward bureaucracies and the state, and away from personal decision making. Mary Douglas once pointed out that all our major decisions are already made by legitimated institutions (1986:126). As C. W. Mills prophesied, we have become “cheerful robots.”

    • George Avery

      Well, I grew frustrated with juniors and seniors who could not write a professional memo despite “As” in Freshman comp, and said so to a colleague in the English department. Her puzzled response was “The field of composition is about promoting social justice, not teaching writing.” I think that explains a big part of the problem.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        She is teaching in the wrong department, apparently.

        I had another experience as a teacher worth sharing. My course involved writing, and a poorly prepared student at the bottom of the class was very ambitious. He eventually relocated the Washington DC to become chief of staff for our newly elected congressman. LOL! Our world is full of mind-boggling contradictions, isn’t it?

  • George Avery

    A major barrier to this is that of the fundamental insecurity of most academics, who have insecure egos validated by their degree and consider only work in academia as important. For too many academics, they experience a lingering fear that Shaw was correct when he states, “Those who can, do and those who can’t, teach.” I had a department chair continually refer to me as ” a young guy just starting your career” even though I had been working in my field two decades – most of it in a government position. The same person told me I should switch to do research with more “impact,” even though my work included developing a healthcare surge capacity plan for the state for a respiratory epidemic, work on medical civic action doctrine for DoD, an economic model that influenced the current Medicare physician payment model, etc. – he argued that my work was “too applied” and that “I might make a good private consultant” – even though my work was drawing more press attention and external funding than most of the faculty, was being published in reputable journals, and was well cited by peers. I have overheard faculty members in an engineering department wonder what was wrong with a candidate, as he had initially worked in industry instead of academia. I know of a former grad student in our department who was a foreign-borne physician, and was advised in all seriousness by other faculty to pursue a PhD instead of a residency so that he could be licensed to practice in the US. Dismissing work outside the ivory tower is a tool used to affirm to themselves the superiority of academic life, to reassure themselves that the smartest people work in academia and the also-rans work in “the real world.” Most of us who pursued a PhD have at least a bit of self-esteem issues – the degree really doesn’t mean one is any smarter, but it serves as a credential externally validating our self-image, which is a major reason to put oneself through the pettiness and hazing that constitute a part of the modern American doctoral program. For many, that self-esteem issue is so developed that they cannot accept that others, who follow a different path, might be as good as they are – or have anything to share of value that they do not know.

    • George Avery

      As an addendum after writing my answer to Jane’s comment above, this is a barrier as well to getting faculty to realize that their role is to be a mentor and resource, as self-esteem issues also make it difficult for many to accept that they, in fact, are NOT the key determinant in whether students learn, but rather student motivation is. I think all of us who have completed a doctorate and are honest with ourselves realize that we learned more from research and solving problems – or identifying where we needed help to solve problems – than in our classes, and that the most effective research advisors were mentors, not individuals who dictated what we did. To me, the fact that I had my own funding even before enrolling in the program really brought this home – I was in charge of the project and its direction, and only sought help from faculty if issues arose beyond my own capabilities. I observed this as well in undergrad and graduate students after I began teaching, and took the lesson to heart. In fact, in the most successful seminar I taught, I experimentally allowed the students to renegotiate a final assignment, which led to them taking ownership, leading discussions, finding additional relevant readings, and even presenting their project results at a major academic meeting. Of course, taking a real mentoring approach – treating students as junior colleagues to be developed professionally rather than as inferior subordinates, having a complete open door office hours policy, being open to and aware of opportunities to encourage them to take ownership of and initiative in learning, occasionally allowing students to fail in minor ways in order to learn that they needed to seek help, etc. clashed with the culture of more traditional, faculty-centered members of the faculty. However, having the humility to place the student first while holding them to high standards produces, in my opinion, a better learning environment. To have that humility, however, you have to have the self-esteem to have confidence in yourself.

  • Jane Shaw

    An excellent essay, Vic. I have a question, though, about how carefully students actually read the line-by-line comments made by conscientious professors. I suspect that often the grade is the important thing and the helpful details are ignored–or skimmed at best. If that is the case (and I’d like more input on whether it is), then requesting responses to those comments might be helpful.

    In professional life it is typical for a person to write drafts of letters, articles, or papers and get feedback in order to improve them. But few (I think) rewrite papers in college; it doesn’t seem to fit into the grading format. Yet that would be quite helpful and make sure that the student paid attention to the professor’s comments.

    • George Avery

      Jane, you make a strong point. In my last fall semester teaching at Purdue, I offered to sit down one-on-one with my students in a junior level public health course (65 student enrollment) and go over their papers (they had a biweekly assignment to prepare a professional memo on guidelines that made them merge two or more module topics and apply them), helping them rewrite them to meet standards. I think six or seven that semester took me up on it (maybe an additional dozen did well enough not to need the assistance), and all of them showed a remarkable improvement after the one session. It reinforced my belief that people are mistaken when they view the *teacher* as taking the active role in education – my personal experience, both as a professor and a student, is that the active role is by the student, the teacher is more of a mentor and facilitating resource for the student to take advantage of, and that portraying the teacher as the critical actor suggests to students that they can learn passively and thus do not have to take initiative.

    • Jane, you make a good point. Like most things, it varied by student. For example, students that came to me ahead of time and discussed a draft of the paper always ended up with a much more organized paper at the end. Similarly, students who took advantage of the line by line comments I made would always get better grades in the later papers.

      But in all honesty, by assigning 30% of the paper grade to quality of the spelling, grammar and organization, the students who were strictly grade-driven got the benefit as well. They had no choice!

  • bdavi52

    Yeah, but…

    There is a vast difference between writing as an Apprentice in the Academy, to be judged by a Journeyman in the Academy, who was taught by a Master in the Academy — all of whom are working to be Academy Wizards (We learn, eventually, how to write Academically, very well.) — and writing as an Apprentice for the world outside the Academy (more, there, is distinctly NOT better).

    There is a vast difference between an Academic Research Paper (whose end goal, of course, is the creation of the paper)…and a Project Report (whose end goal is NOT the report, but rather the solution to the problem the report was intended to address).

    There is a vast difference between Library Diving (either real or virtual, in which knowledge is already codified & approved & only has to be ‘discovered’ and summarized)…and Real World Diving (which is always real, and which always requires the ability to separate wheat from chaff, lies from truth, self-interest from fact, while simultaneously recognizing that one’s efforts might just change that little corner of the world (and thereby create NEW knowledge which the ‘library’ does not contain).

    Writing, in fact, is only the ‘tusk’ of the larger elephant which PayScale evidently struggles to describe. It is not so much that newly minted graduates can’t write…it’s that they can’t think, they can’t discern, they can’t interact, they can’t engage; they can’t complete (at least not to the degree required). They’ve never really been out in the world before or been held personally accountable for the delivery of a result which cannot be fudged, delayed, presented in large font (to compensate for lack of content), or made-up at a different time with extra credit and special tutoring.

    We do them no favors when we lower the hurdles and build them safe spaces with playdoh. It only makes it all that much more difficult. But — to Prof. Brown’s point: rigor in whatever we ask of them is always a good thing (even if it’s playdoh stacking).