October 31, 2008

Unsolicited Advice

Normally, giving people unsolicited advice is a social no-no. But isn't this what teachers get paid to do? We give students helpful information because they're too young and inexperienced to know this information themselves. I give students unsolicited advice all the time in my classes: advice on investing, ethics, web site design strategies, increasing productivity, study skills, and even career exploration. This is what I get paid to do. I'm supposed to give students unsolicited advice. I'm supposed to be teaching them things.

How much is too much? Where does one cross the line between advice about academic topics and advice about personal topics? What type of advice is OK to give, and what is better left unsaid? Where's the line between professional opinion and personal opinion?

Last year, one particular student was really interested in a career as a computer programmer, and we chatted quite a bit. We talked a lot about programming, where the jobs are, Monty Python(!), and all kinds of other stuff. He was a senior, and his plan was to go to a two year technical college and get an associate's degree in Computer Science. He said that he didn’t want to spend a bunch of time and money studying liberal arts classes at a four year school, and he wanted to get into the workforce and start building stuff as soon as he could.

I can certainly sympathize with that sentiment. In fact, I very nearly made the same decision when I graduated high school. But I'm so glad I went to a four year school instead. It was a fantastic experience. It also opened up so many more possibilities for me, and I probably wouldn't be teaching today if I made the other choice.

Also, I spent three years in the software industry before becoming a teacher, so I have a good sense of what employers are looking for. In my experience, NO ONE hires programmers straight out of school with only an A.S. degree. A four year degree is a minimum qualification for the job. People with A.S. degrees get stuck doing helpdesk work, not programming.

So what advice should I have given this student? Should I be encouraging and congratulate him on his choice to get an A.S. degree? Should I be positive and supportive? Or should I question his decision and tell him what I know about the value of a four year degree? Is this a personal decision or a professional one? At the least, it's an academic decision, so I do have some jurisdiction to give advice in that area.

But giving unsolicited advice is such a social taboo. Plus, maybe a two year degree is what the student really wanted. Maybe it's better to encourage him instead of second-guessing him. I still wish he would have gone to a four-year school, though.

I did talk a little bit about four year schools as a requirement for programming jobs with this student, but I didn't push the issue too hard, and overall, I was very encouraging to him about his decision. But still, when he gets his helpdesk job with his A.S. degree instead of the programming job he really wanted, will I be kicking myself for not being more candid with him?

What do you think? As a teacher, what type of unsolicited advice should we give students? How much is too much?

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