For Interns, Experience Isn't Always the Best Teacher

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

November 18, 2013

A paradox haunts the college internship. On the one hand, students tend to see it as a ticket to a solid career, whether the experience is exciting or dull. And some faculty members and professional associations see it as a pedagogical marvel that teaches students about the world, their communities, and themselves.

On the other hand, many faculty members, if they think about experiential education at all, regard it with disdain, or they grudgingly tolerate it because it generates enrollments. Moreover, internship programs tend to be located at the institutional margins, not in the core academic units. So the question remains: Is experience really the best teacher?

After more than 30 years in the world of experiential learning, as both a teacher and a researcher, I believe that the internship can be a robust learning experience when done right. Far too often, however, it is not done right, and in those cases it is not worth the credit it generates or the energy and resources it demands.

My complaint with the majority of internships is not that they entail the exploitation of students by employers seeking cheap labor and by colleges charging tuition for minimal pedagogical effort—although surely those are serious problems, as Ross Perlin argues in his recent book, Intern Nation. Rather, my discomfort with them is that students too often do not learn the kinds of things that higher education should be about.

To be sure, students usually learn something by virtue of firsthand experience in a business, a museum, or a community organization—skills that might lead to a career, exposure to an important social issue, or insight into their own strengths and weaknesses. But without rigorous, guided reflection on the experience, they generally do not learn much beyond what one gets from a part-time job.

I make that argument on the basis of having supervised, observed, and interviewed scores of student-interns, engaged in work placements as varied as a community newspaper, a veterinary office, a history museum, and a curriculum-development firm.

What the interns learn most deeply is that fragment of the work process for which they are held responsible. They spend much of their energy figuring out ways to look competent enough to avoid getting yelled at by the boss and to enhance their chances of getting hired when they graduate. They learn how to do things in a particular setting but not alternative practices or competing theories about social processes. Since their motivation tends toward finding a career, they are all right with that.

The theory of situated cognition—that the things we know and the ways we think are particular to the contexts in which we encounter them—gives us a handle on the problem. The psychologist Jerome Bruner distinguishes among the linear, propositional, and abstract modes of thought that we encounter in classrooms, and the action- and results-oriented modes that we encounter in the world of work. Student-interns, who might learn from exploring the tensions between those forms of thought and action, tend to resist that effort: They prefer to go native.

That can be a problem because, although experiential educators claim to engage learners with real-world versions of what they study in college, situationists show that things do not look the same in the real world as they do in the classroom. Poverty, for example. Serving dinner in a soup kitchen, as valuable a personal experience as that might be, simply does not expose a person to the same kinds of information, ideas, or thought processes as does a course on the sociology and politics of homelessness. Integrating the experience and the theory can be the strength of the internship—if it happens.

The challenge for experiential educators, then, is to help students make that connection between theory and practice. Imagine a student who is taking a course on organizational sociology and reading Max Weber on bureaucracy, and at the same time doing an internship at the New York City Department of Education, surely one of the world's great bureaucracies. How does she examine the relationship between her coursework and the internship? How does one form of knowledge affect the other? And how do her professors support that two-way transfer of learning?

Too many programs resort to halfway measures, like learning contracts (written agreements between students and faculty members on what will be learned during an internship), which cannot anticipate all of the educational opportunities; student journals, which end up sounding like "Here's what I did and what I liked about it"; or final papers that report intuitive insights without subjecting them to intensive critique. Some programs do even less than that, essentially awarding credit (and charging tuition) for the raw experience of work.

The further an internship program slides toward that end of the spectrum, the less educational integrity it has. By analogy, imagine a student reading a novel. Think of the novel as the functional equivalent of the work experience, the raw material. The pedagogical question is: Would an English professor be satisfied leaving the student to his own devices to make sense of the novel, or would she prefer that he approach it with some literary theory, some critical methods, some historical context? Higher education is not simply about having an experience­. It is about learning to examine, analyze, and critique that experience, whether reading a novel or managing the samples closet in a fashion house.

Bridging the gap between academic and pragmatic modes of thought is a worthwhile enterprise, one that engages practical wisdom as well as scholarly inquiry, and which connects the university to the world in bold, creative ways. But succumbing to students' demands for internships on the grounds that they are a necessary step toward careers, and selling credit for them, does not do higher education proud.

David Thornton Moore is an associate professor in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University and the author of Engaged Learning in the Academy: Challenges and Possibilities (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).