If there’s anything that the Junior Practicum (Oberlin’s career-building program for its furloughed third years) has taught me, it’s that not even living through the middle of a dystopian societal collapse can spare you from the soul-crushing, mind-numbing rhetoric of professional development—in fact, it can make you more susceptible to it than ever.
To be clear, I don’t resent the administrators behind the program for the inherent misery of career talk (at least, any more than I would anyone else who lectures me about internships and resumes over Zoom for three and a half hours a day). There’s no real way for them to make this sort of thing fun or engaging, and I don’t see much of a point in blaming Oberlin for the grim reality of establishing yourself professionally in our current age (especially considering that they managed to secure internships and a stipend for everyone in the program during this tumultuous period in time, an undertaking which certainly could not have been easy). However, what I find much more insidious than the mere drudgery of careerism is the Career Development’s Center’s insistence on linking our professional aspirations to a series of so-called “complex problems.”
Each Practicum session began with an hour-long webinar from a featured speaker designated to tackle the complex problem of the day, which have ranged thus far from “Racial Bias and Reproductive Freedom” to “Trust in Media.” Although the point of this is undoubtedly to demonstrate how these seemingly unrelated issues actually inform each other, the disparity between the content of the speakers’ messages from one day to the next often could not be more striking.
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, one of the practicum’s first speakers was a former Wall Street banker turned for-profit agricultural executive, who avoided talking about the structural causes of climate change in favor of presenting lots of intimidating data and maintaining a position of so-called ideological objectivity. The next day, the program featured an incredibly insightful excoriation of the prison industrial complex from a staunchly leftist pro-abolition activist. This inconsistency between any given speaker’s willingness to actually tackle their designated complex problem results in a sense of whiplash: one that not only makes the less incisive speakers look ridiculous, but also cheapens the message of those who manage to meaningfully address their complex problem by tacitly equating their work to that of the former. Similarly, it feels more than a little bit cynical to either receive these very tangible and serious issues directly presented to us in relation to our professional lives, or have the message of less career-oriented speakers co-opted to fit that framing by virtue of the program’s format.
Of course, it would be naive to pretend like these social issues do not come into play in the professional world, and it is certainly important to be equipped with the knowledge to address how they manifest themselves in the workplace. However, this should be to ensure the safety and comfort of one’s fellow workers, not to inform your individual opportunity to attain professional success—a distinction that the practicum’s “career-readiness lens” towards social issues is severely lacking. Without that crucial point being made clear, the socially conscious aspect of the practicum feels like little more than typical administrative programming designed more to teach us how to co-opt social justice issues for our own gain rather than meaningfully address them. After all, it’s hard to come away from a presentation that switches from a discussion of the impact of gentrification on marginalized communities to advice about how to format your resume in a matter of an hour without a bad taste in your mouth—that is, one even worse than the usual.