Why study internships in China?
One of the goals of my current trip to China is to write a long-form magazine piece on how people are thinking about, designing, and experiencing the internship phenomena in this country. The goal then isn't to generate academic papers, laden with theory, tables and charts, but a rich descriptive piece about the experiences of a group of university students in Tianjin, how the owner of a small plastics manufacturing firm recruits and mentors trainees, and how the political economy of contemporary China is shaping expectations and realities about the world of internships. In aiming for a more accessible piece of writing, I may not be following the best or most strategic course of action for tenure purposes (2 years away), but why start now plotting and organizing my life according to rules like that, and expectations of others?
Watching old men fly kits on the Bund in Shanghai, en route to Tianjin to study college internships
This project is building upon a visit to Qingdao that I made a couple of years ago, but instead of investigating college-work pathways and skills needs, internships now are the chief concern. Internships in China are a fascinating topic for at least 4 reasons:
1) Internships represent a venue or vehicle of pre-professional enculturation and identity formation into the professions and the world of work. (a) For a learning scientist, intrigued by how people learn and the design of learning spaces, the issue of how the internship is structured and experienced by learners is a fascinating object of study. It's a case of informal learning or as an extra- or co-curricular experience, the degree to which these programs are being intentionally structured with respect to issues like learning goals, attention to instructional design and active engagement is an open question. (b) For an anthropologist and vocational psychologist, internships represent a liminal space where the student - as a novice, initiate, or beginner to a new culture and sense of self - begins to transition from their identity as a student or novice to one of a trainee in a particular discipline or occupation. Of course, this isn't unlike the notion of an apprentice, who undergoes years of training and socialization into a profession before they can be considered a journeyman, much less a full member of a guild or profession. What the "cultures" are (and/or the traits or cultural models) that the student experiences in college and the job-site is a key question, and how they negotiate them, and learn new ways of thinking and being (or not). These issues also implicate other issues I'm interested in, such as the construction and acquisition of the so-called "soft" skills, because it is these mannerisms and habits of mind that may demarcate a "true" or "real" professional from a mere technician.
2) I'm just now learning what a fascinating place China is in the 2010s. As someone who hasn't studied the country, its language or its history, with more of an eye towards the country of my family origins (Japan), I've only been peripherally aware of the massive changes underway in its economy, infrastructure, educational system, culture and self-identity since the opening of the 70s and 80s. But lately, with a bit more study, especially the amazing story-telling of Evan Osnos, it's clearly a great time to be studying Chinese higher education, which is a system growing like mad, changing structurally and programmatically year by year, especially with new ideas about pedagogy and the vocational aspects of education. It's entire social system is in flux as well, with a generation raised in boom times and Westernized media, ideals, and experiences. Situating this more general study of internships in specific cultural, political and socio-economic conditions is a goal of this project, and in China this will be a particularly rich exercise. Plus, the noodles and dumplings.
3) The current political and cultural moment surrounding skills, jobs and college. This could refer to skills gap debates, skepticism about the value and utility of a college education, the neoliberal vision being enacted in our educational systems, or the right-wing attacks on expertise and the professoriate that are underway in Wisconsin and the rest of the US. This also speaks to the widespread assumption that work-based learning, whether in the form of an internship or an apprenticeship, is a panacea to heal all of our problems. There's so many ways that digging deeply into internships can speak to these debates and assumptions, and I look forward to continue raising annoying questions about something that many people think is an unqualified good.
4) Finally, internships as a vehicle for the reproduction of class divisions and perpetuation of inequality has to be addressed. Whether through selection processes whereby the rich, connected and privileged get the internships which in turn provide them with even more social and cultural capital to yield in the field of occupations, or the related problem of employers looking for the "signal" of an internship as one of the many gateways to a good job, and the fact that those unable to pursue unpaid internships or secure the high-prestige positions, will be further at a disadvantage when going up against their better connected peers. As income inequality continues to grow, racism becomes entrenched in hallways of power, and people of color demonized for their appearance and heritage, looking at this co-curricular experience as a potential vehicle for perpetuating division or facilitating mobility has to be part of the conversation.
So telling the story of people - students, faculty and staff, business owners and Chamber leaders - and how they conceptualize the very notion of internships, how they design and support them, and especially how they experience them, is my primary goal during my 2.5 weeks of fieldwork in Tianjin. Why a long-form piece and not only or just journal articles? Of course, some of those will eventually come out, but the thinking is that: (a) I want to reach people, (b) the medium and its norms (of academic publishing) don't lend itself to engaging stories and narratives, and (c) I want to reach people. This isn't borne out of any ambitions for reach or influence or prestige, because not a day goes by that I think about bailing the academic world in part because of its artifices and poses and join the un-glamorous world of vegetable farming or landscape painting, but with this platform I've got as a social scientist, I want to tweak the thinking of readers, especially those in positions of influence. If I can help people like Gov. Scott Walker, Senator Tammy Baldwin, or others shaping the discourse and making the decisions, think a bit more differently or critically about internships through the stories and analysis, then I'll have achieved my goal.