He wants to be a plumber. College still helped him.

In a guest column today, Matthew Boedy, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, talks about what students learned in his class about rhetoric and what they learned about themselves and their goals.

He focuses on a student named Jim, who, at first glance, would not appear to need college classes; he plans on taking over his father’s plumbing business. Boedy, whose goal in teaching students rhetoric is to teach them how to ask new questions of themselves and their choices, helps Jim gain a broader understanding of what a plumber has to think about, how much more the job entails than fixing broken pipes.

This column is a follow-up to one Boedy wrote in October, in which he explained that he centers his class on a singular question: how to think like a ____? He explained: “Students fill in the blank, usually with their majors. And I tell them I am not an expert in any of their fields, but I am an expert in one that undergirds them all: rhetoric. And so, I make the case during the semester that as they explore their majors they are being persuaded how to think like a biologist, social worker, or marketer.”

This column shows where that question can lead students and what it can teach them.

By Matthew Boedy

It’s the end of graduation and commencement season and so this time of year is always a good moment to reflect. I would like to ask and answer this specific question: what did we learn this year? 

We can answer with the big picture. We learned the impact of student loan debate, the power of brand (and money) in admissions, and of course, most recently, the way in which standardized test results need more context. 

But let me zoom in on my students. I work at an “access” institution on a commuter campus with many first-generation students working jobs on top of their course loads. It’s a struggle.

And it is important to pause and consider what one has learned. 

In that frame of mind, I pose related questions at the end of my first-year writing courses. The final assignment in my Fall course, ENGL 1101, asks students to assess how their definitions of reading and writing have changed throughout the semester. 

Today, I want to concentrate on the question asked at the end of the spring writing course, ENGL 1102: how to think like a ____? 

I mentioned this question in a previous post in October and wanted to let you know how the semester played out focused on that question. 

I chose this question because I know that all the students in my class are hyper-focused on not just their major, but that future job, that singular job they think they will get at graduation and keep throughout their lives. Despite evidence that people change jobs 12 times during their working career, my students think in simple logic: major=job=career. 

I try to disrupt that logic in my course. First, by getting them to see the differences between a job, a career, and a vocation. Second, by getting them to see the need in any job for a wide-ranging liberal arts education. 

That means any job is rhetorical. And so in answering how to think like a plumber or physical education teacher or physician, I convince students rhetoric is needed for their job. 

And sometimes it takes a lot of convincing. 

Consider a student I’ll call Jim. He is getting his associate’s degree, that popular two-year degree that even with all its good elements, is sometimes undertaken by people who think college isn’t for them but someone else thinks they need it. 

And Jim fits that. His father is the owner of a plumbing business and, as Jim let me know many times, he would be taking over that business after his father retires. His father didn’t have a college degree, but if I remember correctly, Jim was told by his father to get one. 

So, Jim’s taking history and science and foreign language and literature and all these courses he sees no point to. It’s not that he isn’t smart or curious but he’s going to be a plumber, and as I heard many times, thinking like a plumber doesn’t need all that. 

The first assignment toward answering that final question for Jim, like the rest of my students, is to analyze the arguments made in a video that convinces students to choose a particular major. A minute or two of a college putting its best foot forward, its best graduates, its job placements, its brand. Jim’s goal as I framed the essay was to argue if the video was effective. 

This is the first time Jim has to connect rhetoric to his major, which is business management. And the dots don’t quite get connected. He struggles. Wondering if he is going to pass because he isn’t quite getting it. He puts off revisions of the essay for many reasons. One reasons I think he does so is because he didn’t know to how to judge the effectiveness of the video because he didn’t know anything about business management. He was going to be a plumber. 

Then we get into the research section of the course and Jim’s still struggling with the question: what does thinking like a plumber look like? 

The next assignment is to interview someone who has the job the student wants. Jim heads to his father. And his father explains his job is not really about plumbing, but about business. Sure, he knows the technical aspects backwards and forwards and can and has done the job. 

But he also or mainly now runs the company. He deals with customers. He pays the bills. He runs the team. And so to think like a plumber means way more to Jim now.

The next assignment is reading a host of stuff that might help them answer the question. And so Jim reads a lot about business management. 

And I can tell this is the first time the second-semester freshman has had to really think about it. He starts to wonder what he actually could learn in college. And it is not just bits of information he doesn’t have or could Google. 

He could learn the business from his father, but what college could teach him now was starting to take shape: the business was way more than one person. There was going to be multiple audiences in multiple situations where merely knowing the plumbing would not be enough. 

Jim had to learn how to think. Which for the plumbing business meant more now than he had previously thought. 

So, it comes time for my students to write the final paper and convince me that they know what they are talking about. There is also a secondary audience, an imagined one: the gatekeepers of their major or profession. They have to be convinced in a different way. 

And while he didn’t tell me, Jim is writing to his father, convincing him that indeed these two years at college taking foreign language and literature and this thing called rhetoric has paid off. 

I won’t give you Jim’s final grade, but let’s say he convinced me. 

This time of year is also one of for another type of reflection: student evaluations. These anonymous surveys have their issues as a tool to evaluate professors. But every now and then you get an accurate picture of the learning that has happened in the course. 

One student wrote on my evaluation: “I loved this course.” 

It might have been the Hispanic student who changed her major from the “safety” of business to the “riskier” political science to start a path toward becoming an immigration lawyer. It might have been the African-American student who was dead-set on being a physician and discovered through the class she is even more interested and determined to beat the odds she faces.  

I don’t know who wrote it. But I like to think it was Jim. It even sounded like a plumber. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.