Strategically Deployable Shifters In College Marketing, or just what do they mean by "skills" and "leadership" and "multiculturalism"?*

Bonnie Urciuoli
Hamilton College
Anthropology Department
Clinton NY 13323

Table of Contents

Discursive fields in contemporary post-secondary education
The art of the strategically deployable shifter
Fetishizing the SDS, or taking that shifter to the bank


Colleges seek to recruit students by persuading them (and their parents) that the education offered will pay them benefits in a tight job market. Recruiting discourses are generated by social actors in specific discursive fields in the institution, and rest on key terms that chime with ultimate objectives of business success. What are these terms, how do they work pragmatically and how do they fit together-- if they do? Some terms, like skills or leadership, resonate readily with the promise of success. Discourses of multiculturalism and diversity have also become important in colleges but these do not fit into the pragmatic pattern quite as neatly. Nevertheless, a sort of fit is achieved. This paper examines how these discursive processes operate.

Discursive fields in contemporary post-secondary education

As anyone working in post-secondary education can see, U.S. colleges and universities operate very much within a market. Recent research demonstrate some key dynamics of that market. For example, Shumar's College For Sale (1997) traces the increasing commodification of higher education and the shift toward uses of a flexible labor force in university teaching; Collins (1999) analyzes basic and regular composition courses in the same institution, showing how race/class differences between them align with differential emphasis on literate practices. (See also the essays in Collins, Calagione and Thompson 1999). These and related studies suggest that the past fifteen to twenty years have seen a growing trend toward demographic specificity in the structure and marketing of education, a trend considerably strengthened by the emergence of the ranking system codified (not to say powerfully reified) in U.S. News and World Report's annual publication of America's Best Colleges. Over the past decade, institutions with or aspiring to national or top regional ranking in this publication have expended growing effort on the identification of their markets. Personnel in offices of admissions, and communications and development have expanded and grown increasingly specialized.

This expansion and specialization of educational marketing has led to the development of distinct discursive fields, in Bourdieu's (1991) sense: fields of social relations, each with characteristic forms (i.e. registers), and goals and expectations constituting distinct linguistic markets. Thus for example, in the relatively small college that forms the immediate basis of my ethnographic understanding (and this college is far from unique), the academic and administrative fields have grown quite distinct. Even more distinct is the field of discourse generated by the offices of admissions and of communications and development. The admissions office has the task of marketing the school to prospectives and so must identify and target viable categories of prospectives. The communications and development office (C&D) has the tasks of keeping alumni connected and supportive, of publicizing the school, and of raising money. Both these offices are particularly sensitive to the interests and concerns of the Board of Trustees, a point to which I return later. Additionally, distinct fields of discourse are located within the academic administration (office of the dean of faculty), the business office, the office of student life, the faculty in general, and the student body. These are minimally addressed in these essay but I will point out that there is considerable congruence between the academic administration and admissions and C&D, and between the business office and the Board of Trustees which is an external but inescapably linked field. There is considerable incongruence between faculty and admissions/C&D, and probably the most disconnected field within the institution is that of the students themselves (as indeed they point out to me whenever I discuss this research with them.)

I refer to the degree of congruence among these fields because I want to make it clear that they intersect insofar as the people in them have overlapping goals and practices. Obviously we are dealing with organizational structure and specialization of tasks but some tasks are specialized in more distinct ways than others. In a previous essay (Urciuoli 1999) I described considerable congruence in how student multicultural organizations and humanities faculty conceptualized and talked about multiculturalism insofar as both shared a sense that multiculturalism was about establishing a viable non-white identity on campus. Talk about multiculturalism in recruiting discourses, by contrast, was less congruent with that of the above fields in that the concern in recruiting is the deployment of demographic categories vis-à-vis other schools in this school's comparison group. The student and faculty fields were not identical but did share a point of concern that was not an issue in the recruiting field.

The offices of admissions and C&D each have an internal operating and explanatory discourse, and an external representational and persuasive discourse. Internal and external discourses are distinguished by speech event goals and (in Silverstein's parlance) by their conventionalized, purposive function-1.1 Their internal discourses are congruent but different insofar as their defining tasks differ; their external discourses are very congruent because while their immediate audiences differ, both are about a projection of a highly structured image of the school. By recruiting discourses I mean the representational and persuasive language generated by admissions to attract viable prospectives. Viable is a critical term here: now more than ever, viability is affected by the linear measurements represented in the U.S. News and World Report ranking system. If schools are to stay competitive, their policies are continually shadowed by the need to maintain or improve their niche in those rankings, which includes enrolling and retaining enough students with high enough SAT scores. An article on the U.S. News website describes its criteria for "student selectivity":

We therefore factor in test scores of enrollees on the SAT or ACT tests (40 percent); the proportion of enrolled freshmen who graduated in the top 10% of their high school classes for the national institutions and the top 25% for the regional schools (35 percent); the acceptance rate, or the ratio of students admitted to applicants (15 percent); and the yield, or the ratio of students to those admitted (10 percent of this ranking factor). (Graham and Morse 2000: 3) I draw the reader's attention to the high degree of objectification here. College recruiting discourse objectifies and fetishizes certain qualities desired in individual students or the student body as a whole. While any school, indeed any organization, is likely to do this I suspect that the marketing system has, in a top-down fashion, strongly affected what is objectified and how.2

The art of the strategically deployable shifter

The recruiting register deploys a number of terms that specify what the school can offer students and/or what it seeks in students. Here is a representative selection subdivided into three categories:

  1. desirable practices which the school promises to inculcate: skills, effective communication, critical thinking.
  2. desirable qualities which the school seeks and/or promises to develop: leadership, citizenship.
  3. desirable qualities which the school seeks: multiculturalism, diversity.3
All these practices and qualities are consonant with the current liberal arts model of preparing students to be flexible members of a professional or managerial work force. All of them are conceived of as "things" which students can possess.

The first set of terms, desirable practices, may be phrased as "critical and creative thinking, thoughtful analytical writing, and persuasive, substantive oral communication" or as "writing, speaking and critical thinking skills."4These terms are rhetorically deployed to represent qualities that are straightforwardly instrumental. Sharp opposition is drawn between skills per se and specific subject-based knowledge. This disjunction is clearly set out in the following paragraph crafted for a recruitment brochure:

If you expect to spend your college years quietly sitting in a classroom soaking up words of wisdom, you'll be surprised after your first semester . . . Your professors will challenge you to explore new ideas and empower you with the skills to ask the right questions, find creative solutions and communicate effectively-- skills you will apply throughout life.5
Elsewhere, a graduating senior offers glowing tribute to a professor whose oral exam method provided the student with just those skills, making job interviews a piece of cake. A recent issue of the alumni review carries a keynote address from the college's annual career conference. This address was given by an alumnus who is now a senior officer of business affairs for a major media company-- clearly a leader. Throughout the keynote, he stresses the transience of discipline-specific knowledge, in opposition to the enduringly useful nature of skills:
Indeed, I think the underlying function of a liberal arts college is not to dispense specific knowledge, which in time is usually forgotten and often superseded, but to induce [critical] habits and develop [analytic skills] [which are] both portable and adaptable, with application well beyond the academy. . . . The classroom or laboratory in which is taught . . . virtually any field one finds exciting also functions as a rehearsal hall in which the skills of critical analysis and precise communication can be mastered through practice (Lang 1997-98:26-27)
If the college degree is sold as an instrument of class maintenance or mobility, only select bits of education-- analytical skill, critical analysis, precise communication-- can be commodified as this instrument, and the persuasive function-1 of the brochure's authors is to catch and convince the buyer in terms that could have a dollar-value.

The terms in the second set are about desirable types of people-- effective leaders and good citizens-- rather than about specific instrumental qualities. In the alumni review, one reads such phrases as "leading in public education"; "Under [X's] leadership . . . [the school] has gained recognition"; "a leader of the campus community"; "civic-minded and community-engaged citizens." While these qualities may not come with a specific sense of dollar-value as do skills, they are clearly related to notions of advancement. Each excerpt cited above was written in connection with a college student or alum, and conveys a sense of how students should go forth and fit into the world.

The third category of terms is more problematic in that diversity and multiculturalism per se do not resonate with an orientation toward success as readily as do skills or leadership or citizenship. They are presented as demographic categories (based on the five-part system established in 1978 by the Office of Management and Budget) to prospective students in the form of a question on the application form:

. . . [the] community values the unique perspectives and cultural heritages of all its members. How would you describe your ethnic/racial heritage? If it is not indicated here, please help us recognize and appreciate your heritage by using the space provided by 'other.'

American Indian or Alaskan Native_______________
Asian, Asian American or Pacific Islander
(including Indian subcontinent)_______________
African-American or Black_______________________
Hispanic or Latino/Latina_______________________
White or Caucasian American_____________________
Mixed Racial Heritage (describe)________________
Other (describe)________________________________
Applicants who are U.S. citizens and fill out anything other than white on this form are thenceforth classified as multicultural. Students who check other or mixed are assigned to a single category. At the end of the admissions process, the multicultural numbers are tabulated by admissions and sent to the office of student life. The college's multicultural profile can then be seen relative to the rest of its comparison group. This information is available in U.S. News and World Report America's Best Colleges and become part of the standardized profile of the institution, though not part of the rankings.6

The terms listed above, the subcategories of multicultural, designate categories of person. They correlate with current "race" categories but are used to emphasize cultural activities. This is evident in a brochure which (like much of the school's literature) opens with a spotlight on the 18th century founder of an on-site and short-lived Native American Academy. It continues:

Two centuries later, the American cultural landscape comprises not just Native Americans but African-Americans, Hispanics, Pacific-Islanders, Asian-Americans, and other ethnic groups. The same is true, but on a smaller scale of course, [here] where a renewed commitment to racial and ethnic diversity has resulted in more people of color among our students, our faculty and our staff in the past five years. Such growth has corresponded with a similar increase in curricular and extracurricular services and programs. The following pages are intended to introduce you to . . . the multicultural community we are dedicated to fostering.

Next is a discussion of "richer course offerings" in Africana Studies, Asian Studies, Latin American Studies, and Women's Studies, without mentioning other programs or disciplines. Then:

These programs, along with the Visiting Minority Scholars Program (which brings to the campus distinguished multicultural scholars to lecture and teach), reflect [our] recognition that our world has become increasingly multicultural and that the intellectual horizons of its students must be expanded accordingly.

Next is a list of Asian, African American, Latino, International, Islamic, Middle East, and Black Women student organizations. The rest of the pamphlet covers general aspects of the admissions process, with pictures of multicultural students (as they are termed) intercut throughout the text. The prose outlines a social and educational environment that reproduces, in an almost fractal manner, the categories of person outlined on the application form. The assumption is that prospective students come with a multicultural identity that should neatly map onto the club structures and courses of study. As I have found in nearly two dozen student interviews, this is not the case.

In these institutional registers and discursive fields, terms like skills, communication, leadership, citizenship, multicultural and diversity can serve as strategically deployable shifters, or SDSs.7By this I mean a lexical item or expression deployed in different discursive fields so that, in effect, people using term X in a referring expression in field A are engaged in a different pragmatic activity from those using the formally identical term X in a referring expression in field B. The salient interpretation of the term depends on the relation of its user to its audience and so shifts with context; in that sense SDSs have shifter-like qualities.8These qualities are most evident in the differential deployments of multiculturalism in various education-associated fields and I will come back to that point shortly. First, though, I want to review some general points.

A great deal of discourse involves terms signifying social facts. How are we to understand the meaningful structure of such terms? Does it make sense to say these have denotata in the conventional sense explained, e.g., by Lyons (1977:207) as "the class of objects, properties, etc. to which the expression correctly applies"? Lyons does note that some lexical items such as unicorn have sense but no real-world denotata since they are understood to be imaginary, but he then notes that many lexical items have no physical denotata and yet occupy important places in cultural life; he leaves the problem, saying that "until we have a satisfactory theory of culture" (210) we are stuck with an ad hoc understanding of denotation.

Silverstein does provide a useful theory of the pragmatics of culture addressing the relation of semantic structure to social action, which I think is the key issue here:

True lexical items have that unpredictable quality of specialization or extension or multiple senses in their referential functions-1 which makes them what they are, referential primes of some sort.

But it is precisely at the level of pragmatics that the coding of seemingly arbitrary chunks of referential "reality" becomes clear. For lexical items are abbreviations for semantic complexes made up of semantico-referential primes in grammatical constructions [references omitted] together with all of the indexical modalities of meaning that make the functional-1 result unexpected. In other words, traditional semantico-grammatical analysis can never hope to specify meanings for lexical items finer than the grammatical structure of implicit referential categories allows, for every lexical item includes a pragmatic residue-- an indexical component motivated only at the level of speech acts, actual discourse reference being only one such mode (1976:51-52).

Parmentier, discussing this passage, elaborates:
. . . words are the last place you would hope to find meaning determined by semantico-grammatical specification, since they are the pragmatic sediment of discourse presupposition. . . . Imagine trying to get a group of Americans to agree on the meaning of freedom, nature, kinship, success or mother. It would be far better to adopt Silverstein's rule: the more culturally embedded the lexeme is, the more impoverished its strictly semantic structure-- formally it is usually a small word; distributionally, it can usually occur in many contexts and even in several grammatical roles (1997:18).

This discussion sorts out what I think is the heart of the issue. Contemporary U.S. social life is full of speech situations in which what appear to be "the same" lexemes are distributed across a range of discursive fields and are, so to speak, naturalized (over the course of pragmatic sedimentation) into those fields in ways that make their meaning appear quite transparent among its users. In this way, "the same" lexemes can come to mean quite different things in different fields. But since social actors, especially in the U.S., are notoriously resistant to the idea that context shapes (or indeed, has any right to shape) the "real" meanings of words, actors operate as if meanings are constant across contexts. Not all instances of differential deployment are strategic. Differential pragmatic sedimentation is likely to take place whenever discursive fields sufficiently diverge, resulting in semantic shifts and polysemy. But social life does appear to teem with lexemes that can serve as SDSs, i.e., that can be strategically deployed. We see this constantly in any form of persuasive public discourse, especially during election years. When this happens, the SDS becomes a position marker, taking on as its most salient function-2 the social location of its deployer vis-à-vis its audience. That is what makes it pragmatically, and culturally, interesting.

To return to my little taxonomy, the terms in the first two categories--skills, communication, etc. in the first; leadership and citizenship in the second-- have already become relatively presupposed in academic-institutional discursive fields though in ways that can contrast with their use in other fields. For example, in technical, engineering or production work, skills denotes specific techniques or procedures that can be learned by specific training. In talk about academic performance, skills denotes the capacity to read or write or do other academic tasks well. The denotata of skills in recruiting discourses does not really fit into either of these fields, and indeed I am not sure I could specify what they are. But I can say that people referring to skills, critical thinking or good communication in these discourses appear to operate as if they are sure they are referring to some real "thing." So in that way, denotata exist which actors see as useful and desirable. For those operating within the field, the terms are presupposed and unproblematic.

But people use multicultural and diversity in institutional fields in ways that suggest that their users find them a lot less presupposed. These terms also exhibit noticeable semantic wobble across institutional fields. Undergraduates whom I interviewed told me that these terms (and the identity terms listed on the college application above) had little, if any, signification for them until they came to college. In college, students identified these terms with organizations and activities operating under the aegis of the office of student life; they also saw these as polite euphemisms for marked racial and gender identities. Faculty also tend to identify these terms with categories of person and race; they also (especially in humanities) tend to identify them with textualization and/or with political activism (see e.g. Flores and Benmayor 1997). Administrators, and admissions and C&D people mostly identify them as qualities possessed by students who check off a non-white line on the application form, as illustrated above.

As these terms have moved into recruiting discourses, the pattern for their deployment is set by presuppositions connected with already-sedimented terms like skills and leadership. Setting up such resonance takes some rhetorical work, as indicated in the following remarks by the president:

In the privileged world in which we live, it is not enough for us or our students to acknowledge, in an abstract sense, that other kinds of people with other modes of thought and feeling exist somewhere. . . . our commitment to excellence means that we will continue to admit students based on their merits . . . We need to remind ourselves that student diversity has, for more than a century, been valued in its capacity to contribute powerfully to the process of learning and to the creation of an effective educational environment. It has been seen as vital to the education of citizens and the development of leaders in heterogenous democratic societies such as our own.9
The rhetorical end is achieved by linking diversity to leadership and citizenship, an example of what Silverstein (1995) calls indexical ordering: the indexical value of certain terms rests on the already-established, presupposed indexical value of a previously enregistered set of terms. This appears to be taking place here: in the discursive field of college publicity and recruiting, diversity and multicultural are taking on indexical value and accumulating components of meaning that had not been evident in other discursive fields. Still, it is not clear from these remarks how diversity is situated in the school. Are the students who "have" it really part of the school or not? Is diversity a useful add-on? Who is "us" here? The president tends to cast diversity as instrumental, a means to educate citizens and produce leaders; in so doing, he treats it kind of like-- well-- like skills.10

Nevertheless, the semantic wobble is less important than the the invocation of diversity, the strategy which shows that the president and metonymically, the college, are in tune with the business-oriented social realities of the U.S. at the turn of the 21st century. This display of savvy-- "we know who and where we are"-- is critical because the school is part of a nationally ranked U.S. News and World Report comparison group in which the top five schools have a much higher proportion of multicultural (i.e. nonwhite) students than does the college. The references to leadership, community and citizenship position the school with respect to the business world and the nation state, saying in effect, we are the nation writ small in the ways that count, we have a direct line to elites in business and government. The alumni review and the president's remarks to the college community at large continually stress those connections, further reinforced by campus visits and talks by such elites.

The terms that lend themselves to use as SDSs also serve to metadiscursively organize the key concepts defining these discursive fields. To put it broadly, these become the defining social facts, the reality of the field. Silverstein and Urban (1996:2) theorize this in terms of the "metadiscursive construct . . . that grows out of and refers to actual cultural practices" and becomes entextualized in ways that appear to pass on culture as a shared thing. Mehan's (1996) analysis in the same volume is especially relevant to what happens here. Mehan shows how the "learning disabled" label is fixed onto students by credentialled personnel through professional discourse. The referents that figure into the diagnostic process may be inaccessible to the non-credentialled, the teachers and parents, but their institutional positions and registers do not count enough for them to question, let alone challenge. The diagnostic referents summarize, connect and interpret selected actions, highlighting some and ignoring others. Those constructions, and not the actions themselves, are the means by which the students' identities are classified. Parents or teachers might refer to different actions or aspects of action but their categories carry little if any weight. What is institutionally real is what is officially diagnosed, whatever parents and teachers might think.

Institutionalized SDSs are metadiscursively organized and constructed through selection, collection and authorized labeling. They select for some referential possibilities and not others. The configuration of such possibilities are set by the indexical ordering principle described above. In the following passage, we see how the pragmatic sedimentation involved in the SDSs examined above also becomes part of a process of metadiscursive organization operating beyond the bounds of a specific institution. The passage is from the periodical Change. Its author is a college president concerned about the "perceived value of a liberal arts education" (Hersh 1997:16). In publishing this article, he (and the periodical) gives an enxtextualized reality to these terms that they cannot take on just within the local institution. In this way, we see how the local administrative and discourses work as part of a more general, national level discursive field.

In this article, the author describes how he enlisted foundation support to hire a polling firm to ask high school students, parents, CEOs, faculty/administrators and recent graduates how they valued education in terms of career skills, personal values, life skills and learning for learning's sake (p.18). The results:

Overall, stakeholders believe that the large majority of the goals of higher education can be achieved in any curriculum, especially writing and oral skills, professional school preparation, exposure to the business world, critical thinking, problem-solving, computer literacy, strong work habits and time management. The only goals of higher education seen as being uniquely provided by liberal education are "developing an appreciation for culture" and "developing basic skills in the sciences, arts, humanities and social sciences"-- goals generally rated as less important by most stakeholders in this survey. (p.19)
Let me draw attention here to the invocation of skill for writing and speaking in public (presentational/communication skills, as the author later explains) critical thinking and problem solving (cognitive skills) and strong work habits and time management which are explicitly Tayloristic; more on this below. Skills somehow also covers basic knowledge of subject matter in the four liberal arts divisions. This is not so much an extension of meaning as an thinning of referential specificity such that skill can cover a range of attributes that employers will want and, at the same time, be seen as somehow academic. Published in this way, skill has considerably more metadiscursive power than it would if it only occurred in recruiting discourses. Here it becomes something college presidents and deans will refer to with authority, an academic fact which can now organize, classify and name selected aspects of selected practices which fit institutional goals. It emerges as one discrete term which appears to refer to a discrete, transmittable, culture-making thing. And it is something an individual can buy in the course of an education.

Fetishizing the SDS, or taking that shifter to the bank

Not to put too fine a point on it, skills are what justify the $30+K a year price tag on tuition, room, and board. The issue of selling skills in a political economy of linguistic practice is nicely formulated and developed by Irvine: verbal practices and knowledge are deeply tied up in the "allocation of resources, the coordination of production and distribution of goods and services" (1989:249). The Wolof griots Irvine describes sell actual performances; college officers and administrators, by contrast, sell something with no definite form or enactment. Indeed, what the college sells is a product very much like the monoglot English that Silverstein (1987) describes. This monoglot, untainted English is sold like the skills characterized above, as a product which can be learned through instruction and application, and which enhances employability. As Matsuda (1991) shows at length, judges are likely to rule against claims of denial of employment by reason of linguistic (accent, really) discrimination, the rationale being that anyone can learn to improve his or her English-- hence, a skill. Let me finally add that the content of "standard monoglot English" is about as specifically defined as the content of the skills referred to above, which is to say, not very. Insofar as "skills" are thought to have such inherent capacities, they are fetishized. In Capital, Marx describes how commodities are reified relations of production, such that what appears a natural quality of the commodity emerges in fact from material conditions of production. Skills are conceptualized as tool kits that can bring success. What goes into the production of these tool kits are: ideologies of linguistic form and interaction that shape the interpretation of certain discourse practices, the fact that such practices are only acquired in elite schools and only work so long they index users' social location (current or potential).

The context in which colleges and universities currently recruit students is what Shumar (1997) spells out as the post-Fordist flexible accumulation era of higher education. This is a shift in both the economy and in the culture of the economy: flexible accumulation is the new ideology of capital. In a Fordist economy, people had fixed, structured places in the production process that provided money to spend and affordable things to spend it on, thus keeping the cycle going. In a post-fordist flexible accumulation economy, employers strategically deploy labor to maintain top-down control and keep costs down. Skills discourses disconnect content from technique, providing administrators with rationales for monitoring faculty (especially junior faculty), and cutting costs by hiring non-FTEs or term people to teach skills, especially oral communication and writing (see Collins 1999).

In the market for liberal arts colleges, as an institutional informant pointed out to me, there is a rough correlation between family income and where people go to school: generally and cumulatively speaking, people with more money go to higher status institutions. In these post-Fordist days, the market squeeze is being felt further up the economic ladder, making its way into the ranks of parents sending their children to colleges in the U.S. News & World Report top 25, parents who now face increasing college debt burdens. At the same time, colleges compete hard for a tight consumer market. (The same informant told me that for the last ten years the president's office has increasingly referred to students as consumers). Even with aid packages, colleges need to convince prospectives that this school has something special just for them-- what C&D people call "high peaks." One such hook is the idea that the college trains leaders by providing them with skills to succeed; again, my informant points out that the prestigious grant foundations from whom the college draws funding have been in the habit of giving to places like the college because the college provides leaders like the funders. In short, skills and leadership discourses are about recreating a specific niche in the class system. The skills hook takes on its value in this class-charged environment: what gives value to the skills is not some inherent quality in the practice itself but the fact that people who "have" them have also become successful business leaders, like the alumnus media executive quoted earlier. The school's niche in the economy is very much corporate, in finance and management: if that is not the statistically dominant place in which most graduates find themselves, it is certainly the most visible, judging by the "class notes" writeup in the alumni review. So the conclusion is that skills learned in college lead to these jobs. Yet interestingly, another article in the alumni review, by the career center director, on new rules for job hunting in a changing economy, notes that personal networks are critical to career development, since "60% of all jobs are filled through some sort of personal referral" (Roche 1998:24). While the author depicts this as a skill (the ability to network), the capacity to network successfully is critically determined by who one knows in one's social niche, i.e. by class.

An especially fetishized SDS (and a type of skill) is oral communication. The college used to have a speech requirement for graduation and many trustees, alumni and students call for its reinstatement. Trustees routinely talk about this requirement and the public speech that crowned its fulfillment as a transforming experience which not only gave them confidence but put them over a threshold that ensured future professional success. If one examines the actual content of a public speaking course, one understands how confidence can be instilled but it is less clear how this ensures professional success. Public speaking courses teach techniques for public verbal performances that are partly, but not fully, scripted, retaining a degree of what should come across as enthusiasm and spontaneity. Scripted elements include use of correct vocabulary and phonology, careful timing, and structured ideas or arguments that build to a conclusion based on research or background knowledge. The audience is public and of some size, the speaker should express expertise and authority and be able to persuade the audience of the truth and/or importance of one's message.

These are indeed useful techniques but it is hard to see how the techniques alone create success. The fetishizing of speech courses, and more generally of clear communication (another skill SDS) rests on a strong ideology of the speaker as "like us," i.e. the audience, conceptualized as important and influential. The speaker is conceptualized as a forceful individual, a good citizen, democratic and leaderly. We see here the lurking deixis, the discursive production of the "us" that runs the "real world." The context of leadership is economic and civil (community and citizenship). Public speaking textbooks heavily stress these angles, starting with the economic:

A recent Office of Academic Affairs study in Wisconsin identified oral communication skills as a basic factor considered by employers when they assess job candidates. The study also found that such skills correlate highly with success in employment. (Osborn & Osborn 1994:4) Almost as heavily stressed is the nation-building angle, as the same source puts it, the active participation of citizens in public speaking since "the political system of the U.S. is built on faith in communication" (ibid).
The fact is, SDSs index fetishized concepts because the values clustering around them, in their pragmatic sedimentation, are very much congruent with what potential employers want in their workforce. College president Hersh's survey of what consumers want from liberal arts education concludes as follows:
CEOs and human resource managers in our study told us they are looking for three clusters of skills: cognitive, presentational and social. . . . Cognitive skills include problem solving, critical thinking and "learning to learn." . . . Presentational skills include the ability to write and speak clearly, persuasively and coherently about oneself, ideas and data. The ability to communicate-- to make sense of and present clearly what appears to other as information chaos across many disciplines-- is crucial, say business leaders, if one is to advance in a career . . . Social skills include the ability to work cooperatively with others in a variety of settings. Intercultural understanding, the ability to work with people regardless of race, gender, age and so on, is also crucial. International experience and foreign language facility are also considered very desirable (Hersh 1997:22).
Here, in a powerful public forum, skills talk metadiscursively patterns the other SDSs invoked in administrative and recruiting discourses.

Hersh's schema nicely exemplifies the U.S. social ideology of scientific management that gives the skills fetish its peculiar luster. Hersh makes an earlier reference to a couple of skills not on this concluding list: strong work habits and time management. These invoke the spirit of F.W. Taylor, the philosophical founder of scientific management which began as a program for maximizing production through efficient shop management, and in which the notions of work ethic and time management play a central role. In this approach, the way to maximize production is to break jobs into component elements and have experts analyze how workers can best perform those elements. Workers do not make those decisions themselves. The one best way11 entails top-down control, "the assignment to management of the responsibility for discovering these best ways of performing units of operations and the further responsibility of planning operations." (Taylor 1972, p.x, Harlow Person's introduction).

Certain key elements of Taylorism have become a general organizational ideology: execution separated from planning, planning done top-down by credentialled planners who then deskill lower-level employees. This line of thinking organizes or is assumed to organize the companies that students are imagined to be headed for after graduation, and, as Hersh's article, the college president's remarks, and the recruiting literature and alumni review make clear, the schools that produce that labor force. However, Taylor's original planning philosophy assumed the existence of a manufactured product, whereas the institutions dominated by this line of thinking do not manufacture material products. In that case, institutions rethink what they do as if it is a product: Shumar lays out the ways in which colleges and universities treat education as product. In addition, a truly Taylorized outfit would actually involve a tightly organized set of job activities, something like a classic Ford plant. This is not what we see in liberal arts colleges or indeed in most organizations: what we do see is a Tayloristic institutional ideology first outlined by Taylor's young colleague Morris Cooke in his 1910 Carnegie Foundation study, Academic and Industrial Efficiency-- an ideology still unevenly applied but drenched in technicized discourse. Finally, as Shumar notes, this is a post-Fordist economy, in which the key to success is control, deskilling and cost-cutting strategies.

The ideology of scientific management ultimately shapes the metadiscursive construction of skills and, in the process of indexical ordering, other SDSs. In contemporary organizations, what get reified most readily are those elements that can be segmented and assigned value within a system of production for which colleges are now conceptualized as a source of labor. In this conceptual system, skills are more readily reified and more worth commodifying than discipline-specific knowledge. As students move from consumers (of the college experience, including but not limited to classroom education) to workers (in their post-college careers), they enter a hierarchic system in which the content of what they have studied is hard to classify or assign value to. But "skills" can be assigned a particular place in a planned operation. If students can obtain those job components before they enter the workplace, they should be that much more competitive.

The reification of skills also fits nicely into deskilling strategies increasingly deployed by colleges and universities. Colleges like the one described here have become increasingly concerned with faculty development and outcomes assessment programs. The implication is that faculty are assumed to know a subject but not necessarily how to teach it; faculty development workshops provide the techniques and outcomes assessments provide ways to find out if those techniques work. Such moves are likely to be applauded by trustees who have been known to express concern that faculty may not understand the kind of skills that employers are looking for, and indeed may not themselves be effective communicators. Trustees play a critical part in this fetishization, particularly trustees who identify themselves strongly with what they see as a hierarchically-organized "real world." Faculty are notoriously hard to classify in terms of labor relations, nor is it clear who, if anyone, sets and supervises their tasks. Trustees operate in worlds of discourse saturated with job descriptions and flow charts of production. Recruiting discourses that stress skills and leadership are embraced by parents, by many students and by trustees, all rhetorically unified with a "real" world of business.


Though one might not immediately see the talk coming out of administrative and C&D fields as poetic, skills does operate as a sort of master trope, after Friedrich (1986), for the other SDSs. It organizes them iconically. Its key qualities become their key qualities. We see this especially as multiculturalism becomes refashioned so as to seem somehow skill-like: a discrete thing, the property of an individual, that can have a cause-and-effect relation to success, specifically, economic success.

The ideology of communication skills (which, I suspect, iconically organizes other skills discourses just as skills discourses generally organize all SDSs), is the ideology of transparent, accessible meaning, as clean, simple and sharp as a well-machined tool bit: Using language to express thought concisely and persuasively is a discipline best acquired through practice under critical guidance . . . The grace of precise expression is the hallmark of a liberal education. It is also the single most marketable skill I know. (Lang 1997-98: 27) At no point does this writer or anyone else cited in this paper explain how the reader (or listener) knows when what gets said or written matches the speaker or author's thoughts (or how you know what anyone is thinking), or how that is a skill, or what makes it marketable. The recurring message is that what constitutes a skill is determined by its salability, not vice versa. Calling it "critical" or "precise" is likely to be appended after the fact. Truly critical and precise thinking and writing could get (and probably has gotten) people fired pretty damn fast, and is therefore unlikely to count as a skill. Then again, maybe there is something skillful about any discourse that can take racial markedness and somehow turn it into a salable skill.