Acquiring street cred

My preamble to most of the college courses I've taught addressed this issue of "actionable content". I treated the students as customers who needed to beware of "getting cloned by academia", as well as to appreciate "getting prepared for the real world". I framed the issue as the difference between receiving "book smarts" or "street smarts" from a college course. Here's four of the ways I've called attention to the shortage of actionable content in college.

A problem with inert content:
If you know what a computer printer is, what good are you? If you know what "Command P" does or how to "Print" from the pull down "File" menu, you're only helpful if the printer is already hooked up, turned on and in working order. If you know how to troubleshoot the printer set-up and respond to particular error messages, you're showing signs of having "street cred". If other people ask for your help when they are having printer problems, you know you've got 'street cred" that you taught yourself, learned by experience or picked up from somebody with the right stuff.
An example of hypocritical content
A new county extension agent was driving around to meet the farmers in his district. He noticed one, whom he had not met yet, on a tractor near the road. The extension agent parked his truck and waved to the farmer that he wanted to talk. The farmer put his tractor in neutral, climbed down and walked over to the fence. The county agent proceeded to tell the farmer about a new class being taught about crop rotation and reduction in soil erosion. The farmer responded "No thanks sonny. I don't farm half as well as I know how to already. Giving me more book learning won't help me act any smarter".
The limitations of trivial content
If you've been taught the parts of a frog, you can play Jeopardy when there's questions about frog parts for $400. You can pass tests that measure how well you recall frog parts to get a good grade. However you cannot help a frog in trouble, prevent doing harm to frogs or protect the habitat of frogs -- if all you know is the parts of a frog. Frogs have troubles with droughts and too many predators. They can run into short supply of what they like to eat and how they like to mate. They may get into difficulties with raising their tadpoles to full size. If you come along with your expertise in frog parts, you won't know what effect you're having on the frogs, what to do differently or what will alleviate the harm you're doing.
Abstract content makes for trouble
When you get a job after college, the people where you work won't care what the textbook said about their situation. They won't want to know how smart you were in some course you took or how good were the grades you got on this topic. Those people will want to know how much you see in what's happening, how much you can do something about it, and how well you judge the alternatives. If you only know how to get good grades, you probably know how to make a worse problem of the situation. You probably think that all it takes to solve problems is being knowledgeable like it did in school. People won't look to you for advice when you're not learning from them, their ways of seeing or their experiences with this kind of thing. You're too smart or your own good and suddenly finding out what that gets you. Not much.
Actionable content results in street cred. When we do something with new content, we discover what it's good for, how reliably it delivers results, what can go wrong with it and what remedies the situation if it creates problems. We don't imagine we can swallow the lesson whole. It's no good for us until we see what good it does. Once we can put the ideas into practice, we'll impress others and earn some street cred.

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