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Teaching for Transfer: Welcome

No matter what you teach, you’ll likely be teaching a large proportion of students who aren’t majors in your discipline. Even of those students who are majors, according to the 2010 census, most won’t continue in that field post-graduation.[1]

Long ago, I majored in Latin and Greek. Within a few short years, I’d forgotten enough of the translation skills I’d worked so incredibly hard to acquire that by the time I finally visited Rome six years after my college graduation, I struggled to understand even the most basic inscriptions on the ancient stone buildings. All that work, it seemed in that moment, had been largely for nothing. So it might occur to us teachers, occasionally, that our classes may not be all that useful to our students in the long run.

And to some extent, that’s largely true. Anthropology is probably not going to be directly relevant to a future bank manager, nor nineteenth-century history to a neurosurgeon, nor philosophy to a physicist. Yet this traditional mode of liberal education is still going strong in the twenty-first century and seems unlikely to disappear any time soon. So it’s fair to assume your class is still adding value to your students’ education somehow, even if your students don’t pursue a career in your field. It’s well worth asking, though, how we can maximize that value.

The answer is short and sweet: Teach transferrable skills.

Here’s an example. Eugenia doesn’t know it yet, but she’s a future lawyer who will spend most of her career working for a medical insurance company. She’s engrossed in an introductory astronomy course that requires her to write a research paper on a topic of her own choosing. She chooses pulsars, which until a few weeks ago she had no idea even existed. Pulsars blow Eugenia’s mind. So far, she’s learned that they’re incredibly dense, emit radiation at a phenomenal level, and spin so fast the human mind can hardly comprehend it. In her paper, Eugenia is going to struggle to clearly and concisely communicate what a pulsar is to her reader. But, over the course of several drafts, she’s going to continue to work on getting her explanation right with the help of her professor. By the end of the class, not only has Eugenia figured out how to explain pulsars clearly to the average reader, she’s also learned several important principles about what makes a good explanation on the page. When she writes her essays to apply for law school, she explains herself so well and so effortlessly that she’s admitted to the school of her choice. Later, when she settles in at her company, she quickly becomes the go-to person for complex, technical legal writing that needs to be clear. And her facility with this skill will be traceable, all the way back to her pulsar project in her Intro to Astronomy class sophomore year. That’s a transferrable skill.

One of the classes I’ve taught at the undergraduate level is a beginning fiction writing class. Statistically, few if any of my students will ever make their living as fiction writers. Not many people do. Nonetheless, I still teach a rigorous course. Fiction is an excellent vehicle for several useful, marketable skills that transfer well beyond the domain of the classroom.

Writing in all forms is composed of useful transferrable elements—research, planning, outlining, composing, revising, and presenting a finished product—these are communication skills that help make students more marketable in most fields. Fiction writing, in particular, offers avenues for teaching many useful transferrable skills that young writers need to learn or refine. I ask my students to read a lot of literary short stories. The purpose is twofold: it helps to foster an understanding of story structure, but more importantly, it allows me as a teacher to challenge and build their reading comprehension skills with texts of varying difficulty. Additionally, when it comes time for them to write their own stories, we’ve spent so much time dissecting story structure and clarity in writing that my students produce work with a quality of structure and clarity that they would never have been able to produce at the beginning of the semester.

Whether you’re an astronomy professor with a room full of sophomores or a biologist with a small senior seminar of ten majors, you’re probably well aware that astronomy and biology are not in the cards for many of your students. But communication and composition are. By identifying the most useful transferrable skills in your domain and making those skills a focus of your class, you can maximize the utility of your class beyond the specifics of your subject matter.

Pulsars likely won’t matter to a lawyer, nor writing a novel to a mid-level manager. But explaining complex concepts to an important client or capturing the attention of your employees with a compelling narrative—these are skills that are sure to demonstrate a writer’s value far beyond the classroom. Teach transferrable skills consistently and you’ll never have to wonder what your students are getting out of your classes. And more importantly, neither will they.

[1] Federal Reserve Bank of New York., accessed January 2020.

Teaching for Transfer: Text
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