Between a presidential proposal rating colleges based in part on what graduates earn, studies linking specific majors to earning potential, and seemingly endless reports analyzing the return on investment of higher education, never have the economic implications of a college education been more important.
Faculty members in the liberal arts are, not surprisingly, resistant to the notion that an education can be reduced to a starting salary. Education, we insist, should prepare one for life — for work, for play, for relationships, for responsible citizenry. And when our students do ask questions about their job prospects, we are encouraging, if not precise. We remind students vaguely that critical thinking skills are highly sought-after by employers and then we refer students to our campus’s career centers to work with trained career professionals, whom we largely do not know.
Is this enough?
For years I thought it was enough, but with tuition and student debt loads continuing to rise and a public that seems increasingly impatient with the liberal arts, I’m no longer so inclined.
For the last ten years or so, I’ve been piecing together, often clumsily, a different answer with and for my students that has developed into a three-credit course on career exploration. Based on the premise that students can apply the writing and research skills they’ve developed in the liberal arts to launch their job searches, this course defends the choice of a liberal arts major, while at the same time confronting the challenging job market these students face.
It is an approach that has required me to become much more involved in my students’ job searches. It is not enough, I now realize, to refer students to career centers or to write glowing reference letters. It is not enough offer platitudes about problem-solving skills.
The course almost always begins by having students identify as precisely as possible the skills they have developed in their majors. When talking with English majors, for example, students almost always start with obvious skills such as research, writing, and critical thinking. But quickly they start unpacking these general categories, and we talk about using databases efficiently, the difficulties of synthesis, and the unappreciated skill of paraphrase.
We talk about interpretation, understanding historical context, writing for particular audiences, and explaining complex theoretical perspectives. Someone inevitably acknowledges that he has learned to discuss difficult subjects like racism and sexism. Someone else confesses that she used to be “bad” at peer review, but now knows how to give -- and receive -- constructive criticism. Someone else talks about developing an aesthetic sense, of appreciating a line of poetry for its sheer beauty.
The different directions this conversation can take have been instructive. The English majors almost always say something about how they have learned to disagree with others, without insisting that one person’s interpretation is right, another wrong, and they appreciate their ability to do so without resorting to the shouting matches they see on cable television.
But students in other disciplines, I’ve learned, are not so quick to claim the English major’s love of ambiguity. During one discussion, two political science majors bristled at the notion that there are no right answers. We, the political scientists proudly declared, learn to win debates. We learn to find the weaknesses in other people’s arguments, and we learn to defend our own positions. Not a bad skill, we all realized, for future policy makers, many of whom will work in a political context in which there are, unquestionably, winners and losers.
I always end this class activity the same way: by asking students to erase those skills we’ve written on the board that are not transferable to a professional setting. There is almost always a long pause, but someone inevitably offers up something: “Peer review. No one here is ever going to get a job peer reviewing poems.”
Before I even have a chance to use the eraser in my hand, however, someone else chimes in with some version of this story: “I’m probably not going to peer review a poem again, but I will have to give constructive criticism. I had a boss once who didn’t know how to give feedback, and it was awful. I know I can give criticism better than he did.”
In all the times I’ve done this exercise, we’ve never erased a single thing.
This activity is no magic bullet. Students still need to identify skills specific to their individual experiences and affinities, and they need lots of practice articulating these strengths to potential employers. But it can be start, a way of helping students link their majors with career options. Because it challenges students’ own perceptions of themselves as having chosen a “useless” major, it also serves as a particularly helpful launch to an entire course devoted to preparing for a job search.
But it is a path that works only if we, the faculty in the disciplines, willingly assume a role in career counseling. As fabulous as the career professionals I’ve worked with over the years are — and they are incredibly knowledgeable and talented — they cannot nor should be solely responsible for helping students recognize the discipline-specific skills they have developed.
Rather than refer students to career professionals, we need to partner with these counselors, in our classrooms and in their career centers. Only if we work collaboratively can we give our students in the liberal arts the career guidance they need and deserve.
Patricia Okker is professor of English and interim deputy provost at the University of Missouri at Columbia.