Can Your Language Students Take an Accurate Message?

IMG_4135I have  blogged about the professional value of being able to take phone messages before (see posts here and here).

Today’s post is about getting started with taking phone messages in a foreign or second language.

In an introductory language course, students can get practice with the building blocks of language (the alphabet and numbers) while also developing some fundamental communicative strategies.  

The alphabet and numbers often get short shrift in language courses. And the typical L1 activities to build fluency in letters and numbers are designed for pre-schoolers–cute songs and basic counting games. However, adult L2 learners can deploy similar repetitive practice in introductory language courses by asking, “how do you spell that?” regularly (when studying new vocabulary, talking to new people whose names they don’t know, etc.) and by regularly taking phone messages.

At the end of each week or at the end of each unit of study, I read a simple phone message to students. In first-year classes, they just have to get an accurate name and phone number so that a more fluent speaker can call back. In second-year courses, students can take simple messages.  

The key strategies students need to effectively take a basic message include being able to take control of the conversation and ask for information “one letter at a time” or “one digit at a time,” repeating the information back and asking if it’s correct, and know how to say, “someone will return your call.”  

Eventually, small groups of students can work together with one leaving the message and the others taking the message.

With all of that in place, here is what first- and second-year students struggle with: the alphabet.

Even as students develop fluency in speaking, reading, writing, and communication strategies, they don’t get much repetitive practice with the alphabet like they did when acquiring their L1s.  Despite regular practice with strategically taking phone messages, Spanish students a few weeks into a first-year course write “h” when the letter “g” is said (the letter “g” in Spanish pronounced like English “hay”). Students have to train themselves to mentally compare the Spanish pronunciation of “g” to the Spanish pronunciation of “h” (“hache”), which they don’t tend mistake for a different letter. Or they must develop the strategy of repeating it back to the person so that when they say, “hache,” the speaker will correct them.  Similarly, vowels bewitch learners of Spanish because the Spanish “e” and “i” sound exactly like English “a” and “e”–so chaos can ensue when conducting a simple exchange along the lines of “how do you spell that?”

This is a testament to the need for a lot of opportunities to practice spelling in the target language. All the strategies in the world ultimately won’t overcome a lack of knowledge of the basic building blocks of a language. Additionally, students should develop mechanisms to check themselves, such as jotting down all the vowels: a-e-i-o-u and saying them to themselves to review which is which (in the case of Spanish).  

Teachers too often skip over the most basic information–like letters and numbers–which is a lost opportunity to both build a foundation in the target language and frame the experience within a professional development context.

LearHeadShot2018Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in  job search documents, interview preparation, and academic documents. She is the author of the forthcoming volume from Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.” For help customizing your job application documents andnavigating your career transition, contact Darcy:
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Develop Transcultural Competence through email Writing

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 9.36.37 AMIn a previous post, I talked about the importance of using the subject line of an email to convey important, contextual information and make the recipient want to read the content of the message as well as the value of using formal greetings and sign offs. On the latter point, I have noticed that even when I explicitly script for students, “Estimada Darcy:” and “Atentamente,” I still find myself impressed with the professionalism of their messages–and more willing to enthusiastically answer them. I tell students this and explicitly suggest to them that professionals (including their professors) are probably going to be even more impressed than I am when they receive professionally-crafted emails.  

Here is another aspect of email writing that coincides with principles of language education: transcultural competence.  This comes into play when crafting a subject line. For example, if students use the following subject line: “Spanish class today,” that probably doesn’t give the average Spanish instructor enough information. I ask students to put themselves in the position of the recipient and improve that subject line.  Most students quickly understand that most instructors probably teach more than one course (I sometimes add that many teach on more than one campus) and edit the subject line to “SPAN 1101, section 4.”  

A week or two later, a more challenging transcultural competence task tied to email writing might be appropriate. For example, it’s the middle of the second week of classes (on the quarter system, that’s more than 15% of the course) and your instructor is receiving messages like this:  

I am writing to ask to be added to your SPAN 1101/4 class. I’ve always loved Spanish and I took two years in high school; the university placement test placed me into this level and I really look forward to studying Spanish.  

When I ask students to deploy their transcultural competence skills and imagine themselves in the role of the recipient of that message, they struggle.  They offer what we’ve already covered earlier: “They need to use Estimada!”, “Atentamente?”, “It doesn’t say what campus they’re on!”  They intuitively understand that the message itself is polite and subtly flattering. I nudge: “It’s the middle of the second week of classes; more than 15% of the course is completed. What is the one question the professor has that the student writing that email has not answered?”

Some students start to slowly brainstorm: how are they going to make up all the missed classes and work? That would be good to know.  I push a bit more: are there any inherent contradictions or big gaps in the content of that message? If all of that is true, then….? Slowly it dawns on some students: ..if all of that is true, then why are you trying to get into the class so late? Why didn’t you register for it back during registration?

The instructor needs the backstory. Did you start in the wrong level and you’re just trying to bump up or down? Did you start in a different section but have a schedule conflict?  Did you start in a different language and find yourself in over your head? Did someone just drop the class freeing up a seat? Those are all simple explanations that make sense and provide important context for how one might proceed, especially if offered along with a plan for independently catching up on missed content so the instructor isn’t being asked to offer two weeks of independent study.  

If this content is part of a workshop, we can often delve deeply into the intersection of language studies and professional email writing. If it’s part of a language course, the whole activity should take 1-2 minutes so as to proceed with the usual course content.

In any context, I also try to be encouraging by telling students that developing transcultural competence is hard; we all send confusing emails once in awhile; typos abound in emails for a variety of reasons; putting yourself in the position of others and seeing yourself from the outside takes time and effort each and every time you do it; none of us will always get it right. Transcultural competence is aspirational for all of us. Always. This is partly because the whole point of transcultural competence is that it is a constant process of observing, being aware of our own mistakes, taking steps to correct them, and learning as well go through life.

LearHeadShot2018Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in  job search documents, interview preparation, and academic documents. She is the author of the forthcoming volume from Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.” For help customizing your job application documents and navigating your career transition, contact Darcy:
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Who Reads Your Resume & Cover Letter?

person holding black pen

Photo by on

This is something I talk about with almost all of my clients in career transition.  

The first reader of your application materials is probably going to be…an algorithm.

These applicant tracking systems (ATS) or robot readers are programmed to pull keywords that match a specific job ad. The ATS then sends the top applications on to human readers.  That means a single document has to be optimized for both robot and human readers.

This great blog post from Jobscan is a testament to the importance of carefully matching keywords from the job ad to your application materials–even when applying to very similar jobs. It can be vitally important to change “projections” to “forecasts” (in the accounting context) or to carefully select from among “communication strategies,” “communications strategy,” and “communications strategies.”  Every letter can matter.  

Most of what needs to be said is in the post, 8 Things You Need to Know About Applicant Tracking Systems. Remember: it is worth spending your time customizing each application to each specific job ad. Your yield will be much better than spending your time blasting 100 generic resumes to 100 different job openings where ATS readers will never pick up your application and send it on to a human reader.

LearHeadShot2018Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in  job search documents, interview preparation, and academic documents. She is the author of the forthcoming volume from Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.” For help customizing your job application documents andnavigating your career transition, contact Darcy:
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How to Include “Spanish” on Your Resume–A Specific Example

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As one small part of the course, students in the Spanish for the Professions class I taught this spring had to bring a draft of their English-language resumes to class.

Why English?

Because most, if not all, students will apply for jobs in the U.S. and will therefore need English-language resumes for the search process.  

BUT language and cultures skills are also very important to include on your resume.  This is one of the many areas where the resume has to show, not tell. You can’t just list languages (or any other skills); instead, your resume has to show how you used your language skills, preferably in some sort of professional or quasi-professional context.  

Let’s look at specific examples. A typical first draft of a resume lists skills without any explanation of the candidate’s proficiency or illustrations of how the candidate deployed those skills.  This is NOT ideal:


COMPUTER: Proficient in Microsoft Office, PLEX ERP system

LANGUAGES: English, Spanish  

In every case, the skills listed above should be highlighted elsewhere on the resume. Take the example of Microsoft Office: what projects were executed using Excel? What special features of Excel were used? Did you create a database, fill it in with stats acquired from a certain source and then generate a pie chart, line graph, and bar graph?  Explain that in one or two lines under a subheading that provides the specific context (a course, a club, a volunteer project, a job) within a broader heading that is richer than “Skills;” for example: “Professional Experience” or “Technological Applications.”  It might looks something like this: 


Rowing Club of University X 

Used Excel to create and maintain database of 350 members, dues paid, and events participation; presented 3 graphs that tracked growth at quarterly meetings

The same goes for languages: how did you use your language skills?  Provide a specific example that illustrates what you can do with the foreign language. That will tell employers a lot about what they could expect you to do for them in that language. For my students in the spring 2018 Spanish for the Professions course, they could put something like this on their resume to illustrate how they had used their Spanish skills in real-world, quasi-professional contexts while also highlighting some of the tech skills they acquired:

Language Experience

  • Researched, collected data on resources and needs of Hispanic community within Metro-Detroit, and created a website entirely in Spanish:
  • Read, summarized, and analyzed 25 Spanish-language articles, videos, and podcasts on law and human rights

The above entry gives a rich example that is far superior to “SKILLS: Spanish.” Anyone reading it can quickly understand that this student can do the following: design a website, conduct research, and add content all in Spanish–that’s a lot of tech and language skills to illustrate in 20 words + one URL. Any interested employer can then go to the URL and see the graphic design, the content of the research project, and the format of the blog.

The second entry speaks to the professional content the student researched: law and human rights.  In a job interview, this could be the jumping off point for a conversation about legal issues in the Spanish-speaking world and what that candidate knows, both about the Spanish language and media content in the legal realm.  

What technology do you use in your language courses?  At a minimum, you probably use an online learning system from the textbook publisher and a campus learning management system. Can you illustrate broader tech skills on a resume using these as examples?  What assignments or projects can you describe in a brief resume entry that shows or illustrates your language skills and what you can do with the language? 

2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. She is the author of the forthcoming volume from Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses,” which includes a chapter on digital skills building. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy:
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“Can You Design Websites?” One Way to Prepare Students for the Professions through Digital Skills Development

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With minimal guidance from instructors, students can design endless varieties of websites for language courses. For all the websites featured in this post, the instructions were to design a website with at least 2 frames and 3 tabs and turn in the URL by email.

“Can you design websites?” has become a common job interview question addressed to recent grads (who are presumed to be tech savvy). A surprising number of candidates would answer “no” to that question despite the fact that most could design a website in less than an hour.

Digital literacy skills were among the professional skills covered in the Spanish for the Professions course I taught this spring. In class, we talked briefly about the concepts of “native” and “immigrant” as applied to the digital realm, where misaligned expectations can often arise between older managers in the workplace (many of whom are digital “immigrants” who had to learn more explicitly about technology as it was introduced in their adulthoods) and young new hires (who are digital natives, born into a world full of user-friendly technology and therefore don’t necessarily have the explicit, meta-level tech knowledge managers might expect them to possess).  

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One student’s website designed using had 5 tabs across the top, a central image, and a second frame with featured content below the image pictured here.

We did not spend much time on theory, though, as the students had lots of hands-on tech work to do in practice. During the first week of class, one assignment was to design a website (see samples of the final products here, here, here, and here). Each student had to turn in a URL for a two-frame, three-tab website. They could use any web authoring tools they wanted (my students happened to choose from among, weebly, and WordPress). Initially, they did not have to add any content to the site.  

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Another look for a website featuring the legal profession, human rights, and the Albuquerque, New Mexico region.

In addition to forcing students to develop enough tech skills to be able to answer “yes” to that interview question (“can you design websites?”), this assignment required that students grapple with some of the important soft skills that employers most want in new hires: independence, resourcefulness, decision-making, and an ability to deal with ambiguity.  The lack of instructions can make students nervous–afraid that they’ll “do it wrong” or “get a bad grade.” But this assignment not only mimics the ambiguity of the real world, it also plays out beyond the credit / no-credit grade in the class because, ultimately, students have to decide if they want to tout the website on their resumes and in job interviews, leave it up on the internet so it will appear in Google searches for them, and highlight it in professional situations where the ability to design websites is relevant. The real-world utility of each site varies with each individual student–some will delete their websites at the conclusion of the course.  For my purposes as an instructor, the website can be a bland, black-and-white, text-only website; as long as the coursework that has to get posted there actually gets posted there, it does the job and the student will get full credit for that week 1 assignment to design a website.  

The content of the Spanish for the Professions course that I was teaching in the spring required that students add the following to their websites:

  • Regular blog posts in which they 1- summarized content they had read, viewed, or
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    A screenshot of one student’s blog that shows the teaser for 4 entries.

    listened to related in some way to their career aspirations, 2- reacted to the content, and 3- noted any new vocabulary acquired (this activity is based on the presentation by Marta Chamorro of the University of Tulsa at the 2011 CIBER conference in Charleston, SC).

  • The components of a research project on the region where they plan to live and work, including the demographics of that region, existing resources for professionals in that region who interact with Spanish speakers, and a report on the unmet needs–and possible career niche for the student.  

Screen Shot 2018-06-12 at 1.26.16 PMMost students also included an “About me” (“¿Quién soy?”) tab.  Next time I teach first-year Spanish, student websites might minimally include this tab and any writing assignments students complete as well as images of classwork and some “before” and “after” highlights that show student growth from the beginning to the end of the course.


2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. She is the author of the forthcoming volume from Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.” which includes a chapter on digital skills building. To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy:
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Can You Write a Professional email in Spanish?

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 9.36.37 AMThis is a question I ask students at all levels; and often students in the highest level language courses offered on their campus do not know the basics of sending professional emails in their second languages. In my intermediate Spanish for the professions course, email is the practical skill that we cover during week 3, by which time there is usually a need for some email correspondence in the administration of the course.  

First, students have to send an email that:

1- Uses the subject line well (so that the recipient will know what to expect in the body of the message). This should be something like “SPAN 2000 presentation date & topic”

2- Uses an appropriate professional greeting: “Estimado,” “Estimada,” “Estimados,” “Estimadas” in Spanish. Fully half of students usually use the wrong of those four choices on their first try.

3- Uses an appropriate sign-off: “Atentamente” in Spanish.  

For my students, the content of that first email is simply the date of their first in-class presentation. This activity gives very basic practice in the most fundamental norms of professional email writing.

The upside for the instructor: when students want to know what date they signed up to present on, they can consult their own “sent” folder.  

For the second email assignment, I add the 5 W’s of journalism: make sure you include all relevant content that answers the questions who? what? when? where? why? / how?   The specific assignment is to send me an email to schedule a one-on-one appointment in my office to talk about their websites, their daily writing logs, or their course-long projects.  Students have to be resourceful to find information such as the location of my office so that they can clearly assert where they will meet me. It’s not difficult to look on the syllabus or the department directory, but it’s also not something most students have explicitly thought about.  

A third email would add more nuanced elements like “don’t bury the lede” and “don’t put your problems in someone else’s inbox.” These can be the most troublesome emails faculty receive, but the hardest to simulate as in the examples above.  

“Don’t bury the lede” usually comes up with letter of recommendation requests; students feel the need to “catch up” via email and write far too much before coming out with the letter of recommendation request.  I tell students to put “letter of recommendation request” in the subject line so that they don’t bury the lead no matter how much they write in the body of the message.  The body of the message should include the following: first name, last name, title of course and semester you took it with me, a clear summary of the work you uniquely did in my course (not the assignments–I have the syllabus too and can look up what I assigned; I need to know what you did that nobody else did), and a description of the connections between what you did in my course and whatever it is you’re applying to.  This is challenging. But if the student can’t do it, I won’t be able to do it either.  And this is excellent practice for cover letter writing in which the whole goal is to convince the employer that you uniquely meet a need or solve a problem that they have.

“Don’t put your problems in someone else’s inbox” are the emails that include, “what should I do?” anywhere in the body.  Instead, students should explain the who, what, when, where, why and include what they’ve done to resolve the problem (so that they’re just bringing you in the loop or letting you know they’ll stop by office hours) or propose a couple solutions for you to choose from.  I assign this when students are scheduling out-of-class oral exams and need to make a change–or simulate making a change–so that they can run through the possibilities of solving the problem on their own by getting classmates to agree to switch with them, getting a partner to agree to switch times, etc.  

As with all of these professional skills, pick and choose the examples that solve a problem you have; use these ideas to make the administration of your courses easier or more pleasant for you and your students.

2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. She is the author of the forthcoming volume from Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.” To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy:
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What Jobs Should I Apply To?

IMG_6376Monday evening I led a college to career transition workshop at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. As we were planning the content of the workshop, my host made the specific request to provide, “pointers about what jobs to apply to [because students] seem to be lost in that area.”

This is one of the topics I get asked about most by clients in all stages of their careers.

The first thing I say is that I do not work for employers. I work exclusively with candidates. Recruiters and headhunters work for employers, trying to fill vacancies–not trying to find a good match for the candidate.  Placement agencies (to which I do refer clients) work with both employers and clients.

The next thing I do is push students to re-frame their question.  It usually starts out as some version of “What can I do with a degree in ____?” Regardless of your major, there will never be job ads for “Psych majors.” You’ll never see a sign that says, “Help wanted: econ major.”

The real question is “how do my university studies enhance my chosen career?”  You have to choose the career.

Normally, I would leave it at that and turn to the usual topics of my workshops and blog posts: how to represent the skills and experiences from your college experiences in resumes and cover letters, how to prepare for job interviews, how to develop gatekeeping and written & verbal communication skills for use in the workplace.

But for Monday’s workshop, I decided to open with “pointers about what jobs to apply to” since I am uniquely positioned as both a university language department insider and a career coach.

Most language department faculty don’t know much about the job search and careers outside of higher ed. Departments tend to provide theoretical lists of what you could do with your language major (medical professions, legal professions, government and diplomacy, teaching and social service, etc.) without any explicit instruction in how to connect the college experience to such careers.

Most campus career service offices are staffed by generalists who have to help all students from all majors prepare for the college to career transition so they might not understand the unique qualifications of a language major. For example, they may think language majors complete professional translation and interpretation projects (when in fact those are specialized fields that require advanced training).

I know the specifics that are missing from both of those perspectives.

Here’s what we went through in the opening of the workshop:

First, some context: this is your entry level job–the first of many jobs you will have. Conventional wisdom says that current college students should expect to have 7-8 careers.

Don’t get that first job and stagnate—you have to keep refining by identifying what you like most about your first job so you can try to find a second job that focuses more on that while also identifying what you like least about it so you can try to minimize that in future work.

But don’t think you’re making the decision now that you’ll be stuck with until you retire. That’s not even really possible nowadays.

Second, go broad.  Working from the frame of what will be my first, entry level job out of college, go broad. Use job boards to see what’s out there that’s interesting to you. Experiment with different keywords (I like to enter “Spanish” and “Chicago” in regularly to see what kinds of jobs are trending—it varies from interpreter, sales, education—once, 3 jobs at a local zoo popped up). Find local and regional job boards. Find non-profit job boards. Find industry specific job boards. They are out there.  If you have a dream company, monitor their internal job boards (often linked from their homepage under “Careers”). Organizations’ own job boards have more and more-current “real” jobs than the broad job boards do.

Third, narrow it down.  Once you’ve spent some time exploring the landscape of job openings, refining your areas of interest, and identifying keywords from the job ads that you will have to highlight in your own job search documents if you are to apply, narrow your search to 2-3 areas or specific organizations and check those 2-3 online job postings regularly enough to know trends. That way you will be immediately aware when there are new postings.

During this process, you can revisit and refine your job search materials to match your own narrowing picture of “what jobs to apply to”—and that brings us back to the specifics of crafting resumes and cover letters, preparing for job interviews, refining the skills & experiences gained over four years of college.

Finally, don’t forget to network: 80%+ of jobs are internal hires or referrals.

2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. She is the author of the forthcoming volume from Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.” To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy:


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How Can Foreign Language Skills Can Add Up to Access?


This week students in my Spanish for the Professions course will practice taking phone messages.

This sounds like a simple task, but there are many layers to it:

1- On the most basic level, this is practice in the building blocks of language–the alphabet and the digits 0-9. In our first language, we become fluent in these building blocks through repetition in the pre-school years–singing ABC songs and counting objects.  For adult second language learners, those activities are not appropriate so we too often skip over the building blocks of language altogether.  You’ll notice this when you ask intermediate or advanced students to spell their own names in the target language.  

I train my students to practice spelling and giving numbers one at a time while taking and leaving phone messages.  They cannot use global requests for repetition and instead have to use strategies like asking how to spell something, asking a caller to give a phone number one digit at a time, and repeating things back to callers.  That’s all I’d ask of first-year students when taking a message.

2- Intermediate students have to take a basic message in addition to getting perfectly spelled names and accurate phone numbers & emails.  Taking a basic message actually involves significant higher order thinking skills.  When leaving a message, most people provide much more information than necessary.  The task of the person taking the message is to analyze the content and synthesize the most important details to document before passing it on to the recipient.  

As we make the case for the struggling humanities disciplines, using critical thinking skills to take a message provides a concrete example of how our students can apply the skills they acquire in our courses to the working world.

3- The ability to leave and take accurate messages is about access. While it may seem trivial, this is an essential gatekeeping skill that every professional should master.  Where there is a language barrier, the ability to communicate your linguistic level, take control of a conversation in order to get or leave a message, and then ensure that messages gets passed on to a more fluent speaker who can call back is the difference between access to an organization and passive denial of access to the same organization.

4- Though a gatekeeping skill, this is something VIPs have to do all the time. Surgeons have to call their patients on the phone to let them know the results of biopsies. Can you imagine a higher stakes phone call? CEOs have to close deals over the telephone. Attorneys have to communicate with clients and opposing counsel.  

The ability to give and take phone messages is not just an entry-level task. It is an important skill to develop in both L1 and L2 contexts.

2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. She is the author of the forthcoming volume from Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.” To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy:
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Networking as a Career Skill Integrated into Language Courses tagThis spring I will teach a 10-week Spanish for the professions course. It will be a special section of an intermediate course consisting of three elements:

1) Keep up with the vocabulary and grammar content of the other sections of the course so students are as prepared for the next courses as their peers in other sections.

2) Add profession-specific content (a research project and a course-long inquiry into content of specific interest to each student).

3) Professional skills that all employees need in every workplace.  

This third element is the topic of the series of posts I’ll be doing this spring because these are skills that can be integrated into any course at any level. Throughout the 10 weeks, I will post specific examples of how I’m weaving professional skills into the course as I teach it.  

Week 1 starts tomorrow and the professional skill for the first week is networking.

On the first day of class, students will exchange contact information with at least 3 other students.  

First, I will model using my own contact information and train students to ask specific questions to take control of the conversation (“how do you spell that?” “is that with an ‘f’ or a ‘ph’?” “one digit at a time please.” “I’ll repeat that back to you; is this correct…?” ). Global requests for repetition (“Repeat,” “What?” “Slower, please.”) are forbidden.

Once students have applied these skills to exchange new and authentic information (the basis of communicative language teaching that we can and should use at all levels), I will briefly explain the utility of the information they have for the administration of the course: their own peers should be the first line of inquiry for any questions they have about the course (homework assignments, due dates, content covered in class etc.–information that is often available in course documents anyway).  

The rationale is both practical (I am not awake at the times of day these questions usually arise) and professional (employers will want new hires who can independently solve little problems and make minor decisions, which is what these administrative questions about the course usually are).  

I am clear with students: if you send me an email, I will reply with one word: “yes,” “no,” “got it,” “done!” “thanks.” And any correspondence sent in the middle of the night won’t get a reply before class the next day anyway.  This significantly cuts down on the kind of email that we all regard as clutter in our inboxes. Of course, I engage in some substantive discussions with students over email or make appointments to do so face-to-face over email.

And most courses have one student who, in the first 24-hours of the course, sends 2-3 email queries about content covered in class and/or course documents. At the second meeting, I quietly take that student aside after class and repeat the policy and the rationale, using their email queries as specific examples, illustrating where and how they could have gotten that information on their own. Often, these students wind up being top students in the course who were just overly nervous and/or eager the first day.

On the second day of class, students get in pairs and chat until they find something new that they have in common. This is a real networking session.  Those commonalities are what networking is all about: long-term, sustained (if periodic) contact in which you can share tips, leads, articles, links, job postings, events, conferences so that ultimately you wind up doing favors for each other (but it is always mutual and never just about asking favors).  

After 5-10 minutes, groups of four are formed by putting two pairs together and two people in each group have to introduce their partner to the others. This is an essential networking skill that most young Americans are sheepish and awkward about doing. They should practice enough in the low stakes environment of my course that the Spanish-language fixed expression for “I’d like to introduce you to ____” is second nature–which means they will really excel in their first languages at job fairs, networking events and interviews.

On the third day of class, students in the professions course will form groups based on their areas of professional interest. Each group will be asked to report back on the areas of common interest and where they differ in their career goals and areas of specialization. This activity is the beginning of course-long networking in which students will share content of interest that they encounter while preparing their individual reading & blogging assignments or research projects. It should become second nature to send a message to a classmate that says, “when I was reading about X on this site, I saw this headline: ____ and thought of you; maybe you can use it for one of your entries.”

To conclude this unit on networking, I ask students to reflect on who might be their go to networking contacts: is it parents of their friends? their friends’ parents? employers they’ve had?

Next week’s topic: gatekeeper (in the form of taking messages).

2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. She is the author of the forthcoming volume from Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.” To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy:


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Unionized Faculty Reach Tentative Agreement with the University of Chicago


U of C

The day in December 2015 that non-tenure track faculty at the University of Chicago voted to unionize.

I have been largely absent from this blog for longer than I thought I would be.  But I’m back now and will do lots of catching up (including sharing info on my forthcoming book with Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.”)  

First, here’s some of what I’ve been up to for the past two years:  

In December of 2015, I went to the rally pictured here (I’m near the front on the right) to celebrate that non-tenure track faculty at the University of Chicago had voted to unionized. Then I joined the bargaining team.  Those of us who did the least spent 5-10 hours a week, every week for what turned out to be two full years organizing and planning our first union contract. We didn’t get paid. It was a coalition of the willing.  

During those two years, we negotiated with the university over the issues our members cared about most:

  • pay–a livable wage for Chicago residents,
  • benefits–parity with tenured and tenure-track faculty on our campus,
  • courseload–a fair and stable teaching load.  

Of course, there were a lot of details outside of those three things, campus-specific issues, unique needs of subsets of our memberships, and lots of compromises.  

Yesterday, the bargaining team and the university came to a tentative agreement on our first contract.  Members will participate in a ratification vote in a couple weeks and then lots of details will be available.

While I can’t share details of the tentative agreement, I can share some of my broad observations from the process.  

There is power in transparency.  To get fair pair, benefits, and workload for everyone, you have to know the status quo. What were we each getting paid at the time we unionized? What were the different teaching loads?  Who was getting what kind of benefits? We had to open up to each other. Taboos have to be lifted.  Women make less than men in part because we’re all trained not to talk about money and how much of it we make.  The truth: equality will never be achieved unless we talk about money and how much of it we make.

There is power in collective bargaining.  The idea that as an individual employee, you have the power to negotiate the terms of your employment directly with your employer is largely a joke–at least for non-tenure track faculty in higher education settings.  Absent collective bargaining, almost every offer is a take it or leave it offer.  Through collective bargaining, you can improve conditions for everyone. The past two years have taught me that it can be a wonky process and that there’s lots of capitalism mixed in with collective bargaining, but that the collective will ultimately get more for each individual than any individual would be able to get for themselves.

Employers lie to themselves about the conditions of those they employ. The industry I know the most about is higher education and the adjunctification of higher education is nearly impossible to justify.  Paying highly educated individuals a few thousand dollars per course with no job security and no benefits is the norm on college and university campuses. It’s poverty wages any way you look at it.  

How do universities justify this?

“It’s market driven” is one answer. Supply and demand. If there are a bunch of people with graduate degrees who are willing to accept those terms of employment, then that’s what the market can bear. And if we don’t like it, why don’t we just do something else with our lives?  

What universities don’t tell you in those market-drive answers is that they flood the market with PhD grads.  The bread and butter of tenured and tenure track faculty in university departments is grad students; to stay afloat, they have to keep admitting graduate students and train them almost entirely for faculty positions (some disciplines train for other industries, but not many)–even when they know for a fact that there are only stable, livable-wage paying jobs for a small fraction of the graduates they will churn out.

I suspect another assumption that universities make is that people actually want crappy adjunct work in exchange for the status associated with “teaching college.” I think they tell themselves that bored housewives with PhDs and heiresses choose to do adjunct work “because they want to give back.” To be clear, I have no way to know if this is true or not. And maybe I’m giving too much credit here. Maybe it’s truer that universities don’t even bother making assumptions. But what is true in my own experience is that…

Gender, class and labor issues intersect in university employment practices. Note: assume white privilege; I encountered very few people of color in the entire process–thus no ‘race’ in the subheading. There’s a fairly rigid class system in place on campuses–administrators, tenure-track faculty, non-tenure track full-time faculty, non-tenure track part-time faculty.  Men are the majority at the top of that class system–in administration.  As you move down the ranks, more women enter…until you get to the bottom where the majority of part-time non-tenure track faculty is women (and this is tied to all sorts of other intractable social issues that are beyond the scope of this post).  Who earn the most and have the best benefits packages? Administrators. Technically, income is pegged to the titles, not the individuals and their gender.  But man, oh man did this process show me how once you have power and privilege and wealth, you are in a position to get more of the same.  And, conversely, if you don’t possess much power or privilege or wealth, you are in the fight of your life to gain marginal improvements that leave you at the bottom of the heap. It’s the old, “double zero and you still have zero.” You can increase adjunct pay, but as long as there’s an adjunct system in place, those will still be poverty wages.

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