A professor struggles to cope after a campus shooting (essay)

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant,” writes Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking.

I call April 12, 2013, “my” shooting, to distinguish it from all the others -- the more than 23 that occurred on college campuses last year alone and now the terrible murder of a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. No one died in the shooting at the college where I teach, although two people were seriously injured. Few people outside my area remember it. For me, though, it possesses startling power: 10 minutes of one afternoon bleed into the 1,000 days that have followed. I went to work that Friday morning with plans to spend the weekend with my father. I ended that Friday afternoon in shock, mutely scrawling a witness statement in red ink.

Like Didion, I turned to information as a way of managing my grief and dislocation: “Read, learn, work it up. Go to the literature.” I spent hours on the library databases, keying in terms like “professor” and “school shooting.” As though I were a patient with a rare malady, I needed an expert to explain the prognosis. What symptoms would ensue? Was I going to be able to continue teaching? There was plenty of research about the psychology of school shooters and assessments of campus safety but nothing about the long-term impact on professors who survived a shooting. That was another shock: if there was no research, maybe I wasn’t going to be OK.

I turned then to a different kind of literature. I read Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World, Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave. I read Parker Palmer’s affirmations about the necessity of courage and integrity in higher education. I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and pondered what would emerge from my disoriented grief. I moved to South Africa for a year, finding equilibrium in the middle of cultural dislocation.

David J. Morris, in The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, describes how early cultures regarded trauma as a moral and spiritual crisis rather than as a neurological disorder. Trauma, he argues, was a “social wound, a damaging of the intricate web of relations that keeps a person sane and tethered to the world.” Rather than a pathological reaction to extreme peril, trauma is a natural response to a world of incomprehensible brutality.

It was through an existential lens that I had to address how the shooting had damaged my sense of identity as a professor, my assumptions about safety and my beliefs about the holiness of education. I wasn't concerned with the logistical aftermath; I needed answers to questions that few were willing, or able, to discuss. They remain an endless echolalia: “Is this the cost of teaching in the 21st century? And if so, can I pay it?”

The costs emerge over and over again; the bill is never settled. I have nightmares that my dog is being mutilated and I’m unable to save her. She is the stand-in for my students, the precious thing that I am unable to protect. I prepare myself for a nightmare whenever I speak publicly about that day. I endure the heavy silence that descends when I tell other professors that I have witnessed a school shooting.

I shudder when I recall the campus as it was the morning after: bullet holes in the doors and walls, computer stations littered with students’ abandoned mugs and notebooks, yellow crime tape, plastic sheeting in the doorway. I feel a sickening empathy when I see the faces of other horror-stricken students and teachers on television. I wonder how I will protect my students who use wheelchairs the next time. I am always aware of the ordinary instant in which it all crumbles.

Though a fellow survivor once reminded me that there is no hierarchy of suffering, my story is nothing compared to what others have endured. Yet stories need a listener. Witnesses to campus violence remind others of the toll that these events enact and demand that we have hard conversations about what it means for educators to be expected to accept violence, injury or death as part of their professional lives.

In 2017, despite widespread opposition, Kansas will also allow concealed carry at all public colleges and universities, the ninth state to do so. Supporters invoke the usual rhetoric of preserving public safety and providing defenseless people with deadly recourse in the event of an active shooter. Opponents decry the impact on academic freedom and the potential for impulsivity to overcome reason.

My reasons for opposing campus carry are personal: I do not want another professor to become like me. I do not want anyone else to have to write a document called “Post-shooting lesson plans.” I do not want anyone else to have to spend three years in therapy to find ways to let those 10 minutes settle into the rest of their lives. I do not want anyone else to witness the fearful, childlike, exhausted looks on their students’ faces the day they return to class. I do not wish this journey back to “normalcy” on anyone.

Guns have no place on campuses and in classrooms. One gun made April 12, 2013, the worst day of my life. More guns would not have improved it (and in my case, there was no “good guy with a gun”: the shooter was subdued by an unarmed off-duty security officer who shouted at him to put the gun down). Beware the people who proclaim that they could kill a shooter, if only they were allowed to carry their guns to school. To employ a military analogy, that is the bravery of being out of range. It is swagger masquerading as courage.

No one knows what they will do until it happens. It has already happened to me, and I don’t know what I am going to do the next time. I don’t know if the choices I made that day will always be the right ones. Nor do I even remember consciously choosing. I heard the gunfire, and I acted.

I've been asked so many times, “Don't you wish you’d had a gun that day?”

No. I only wish that he had not had one.

In spite of the label “post-traumatic stress disorder,” I am not disordered. I am the natural response to a shooting in a place that should be a place of inquiry, vulnerability and transformation. What’s abnormal is a country in which students are given active shooter training and teachers are expected to be human shields. What’s deviant is a culture in which witnesses are blamed for not rushing a shooter and derided for not carrying a weapon themselves.

None of us are safe. The challenge for us and for our students is how to dwell in that awareness and still be courageous enough to live and learn unarmed, both literally and figuratively.

Megan Doney is an English professor at New River Community College. She wrote this article while on sabbatical at the University of the Free State, South Africa.

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Vigil at UCLA

The enduring power of textbooks in students' lives (essay)

“We can give you three dollars,” the clerk at the campus bookstore told me.

“That’s all?” I asked. I had hoped to get more for the book I wanted to sell back, given what I had paid for it just months before.

“Sorry. It’s not assigned next term.” She shrugged.

“Well,” I decided, “for three dollars, it will look good on my bookshelf.”

That was the moment I kept my first college book.

At the end of every term, college students lug piles of books across campus to sell back to the bookstore (or post the books online to sell directly to next term’s students) for a fraction of what they paid for them. Selling back books is so ingrained in college culture that it seems natural, inevitable. Strapped for cash, most students accept the few dollars joyfully.

But there’s something to be said for keeping books, too. In the years since my own small beginning -- just the one book, just three dollars, just to look good on my bookshelf -- I have developed a lasting commitment to having books around.

These days, as each semester nears its end, I find myself on the losing side of a friendly argument with my own students. I tell them they should not sell their books back. They raise objections:

“The book’s not in my field.”
“I already read it, and I remember what it says.”
“I can always get another copy if I need it.”
“I can find the same text, or the same facts, online.”
“The information will be outdated soon.”
“The edition will be replaced with a new one soon.”
“I want to put this class behind me!”
“It’s too expensive to keep. I need the money.”

I do my best to respond. Then, of course, the students make their own decisions. I’m afraid I’m not very convincing. And I understand why. Most of the reasons to sell back books are quite reasonable. In certain cases, I have to concede the point.

Yes, I do agree, some books are just fine to sell back. I have little fondness in particular for stereotypically textbookish textbooks: repositories of facts, good for exam prep but not for actually reading, likely to be replaced by a new edition in a year or two, apparently written by a committee or a machine, duplicating material available online for free. By all means, students should sell those back.

And, yes, I also agree, some books are too expensive to keep. Costs for textbooks are the primary reason students sell textbooks back, rent them instead of buying, pirate them or simply don’t get them at all. Each year, costs for books increase faster than tuition. A multibillion-dollar industry, bookstores and publishers for college textbooks take advantage of a rather trapped student market. For many students -- particularly students with multiple jobs, loans and responsibilities to young children or aging parents -- just getting books each semester can be a Herculean (indeed, Sisyphean) task. And not selling books back, even if they would love to keep them, can sometimes simply be out of the question. By all means, if it’s keep the books or pay the rent, students should pay the rent.

Accordingly, colleges and universities must recognize that not being able to keep books is a disadvantage faced disproportionately by students from poor and working-class backgrounds. We need to take steps to make books affordable as a matter of social justice. Some have suggested switching to ebooks as a solution. But ebooks can cost just as much or more than used print books and offer less. (Moreover, most students prefer print.) Better ideas include increasing financial aid, reducing the overall cost of college, including books in the cost of tuition, assigning more affordable books and writing our own books and giving them to students for free, among other strategies.

Even with these caveats, I still insist students should keep books. As college teachers, we usually focus more on what students do (or do not do) with books during our courses, not after. But I think we can do more. Just as we would like students to remember what they learn in our courses and to continue learning after the courses have ended, so should we also care that they keep the very books that can help that remembering and learning along.

With the loudest voices (including bookstore advertisements) telling students to sell their books, it’s up to us to teach them otherwise. We can assign books worth keeping. We can help students connect with the books for themselves. We can talk to students about keeping books, telling them something like this:

Keep your books. Not every single one, necessarily, but keep many. Keep most, if possible. Do not let a book go without deliberation. Begrudge the ones truly not worth keeping. Grieve the ones you truly cannot afford. Keep books from your field and from other fields as well. Be well-rounded in your keeping.

Yes, appreciate what the internet can offer (through sites like Project Gutenberg), but also appreciate what books can offer. Yes, some books contain nothing but information with a short shelf life, but keep the books that are not of this sort. Keep books with ideas, argument, voice -- books in which writers say something to readers. Keep books you know you will use again and books you think you won’t, just in case.

Start small, if it helps: keep one book you otherwise would have gotten rid of. Next time, keep two. Keep keeping books until you’ve built a library. Why? There’s value in having books and being the sort of person who has them. This value often outweighs the cost. Sometimes books are even worth a little sacrifice.

Finally, while asserting there’s value in having books, we teachers can also explain just what that value is. We might communicate to students the following points:

Having books around can make a difference in students’ lives. Analyzing decades of data from dozens of countries around the world, sociologists found that the number of books in a home correlates strongly with academic accomplishment for children in the family. Specifically, the more books around, the farther in education the children go. That holds true across time, culture and socioeconomic status. The connection between books and academic accomplishment is so strong, the researchers comment, that there almost seems to be “an intrinsic advantage in growing up around books.”

Of course, merely having books around is “not enough,” they add. One does not imagine books that are just sitting there unread, unnoticed and ignored doing much good. But there is a high “correlation between owning books and reading.” Books offer “skills and knowledge.” Having books around demonstrates “a commitment to investing in knowledge.” Having books around indicates that people in the house “enjoy and value scholarly culture, that they find ideas congenial, reading agreeable, complex and intellectually demanding work attractive.” In a home that has books, it is likely “conversations between parents and their children will include references to books and imaginative ideas growing out of them.”

Students who are (or hope to become) parents should certainly keep books for the sake of the children. But if children benefit from books, no doubt adults do as well. It’s not that books are magical (at least, not in the strictest sense of that word). It’s that deciding to have books and to be the sort of person who has books can change a person’s life and the lives of those closest to them.

Students might want to read certain books in the future. Sometimes students feel finished with a subject once they complete the final exam. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. They do not know what they will want to read or reference in 10, 20, 30 years. But if they have built up a library over that time, it will be all the easier for them to grab the right book when they want it.

Students might want to lend books to someone someday. It is easy for students to ask, “Will I use this book again?” But building a library allows students to be a resource to others. One of my fellow professors calls it a “joy” to have the right book on hand to give to someone. He compares it to the proverbial “word fitly spoken.”

Books can serve as physical reminders of what students have read. Reading doesn’t end when one puts a book down for the last time. Reading ends when one thinks about a book for the last time. When students read enough, they will likely forget not just what they read in certain books but even that they read certain books. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies here.

But so does the opposite. Books as physical objects sitting in plain sight on a bookshelf, glanced at regularly and browsed through from time to time, can remind students of what they have read, keeping that reading alive, active in their minds. (For this to work, of course, books can’t stay boxed up in storage.)

Books can serve as physical reminders of what students have not read. As Umberto Eco and Nassim Nicholas Taleb know, unread books remind people of what they do not know. Some unread books eventually get read. Others don’t. In that way, sitting on bookshelves, unread books can remind students to be both curious and humble.

Books shape the meaning of a place. According to place theory, places are not mere locations; they are laden with meaning. The physical environment of a place shapes its meaning (including walls, doors, furniture, the lack thereof, etc.). What happens in a place also shapes its meaning. So do names, memories, objects and so on. A grass field marked by the lines and plates of a baseball diamond means something different than a grass field marked with tombstones and flowers. The apartment wall lined with books means something different than the apartment wall lined with family photos, band posters, sports memorabilia, works of art, bottles of wine or nothing. Having books around says, “This is a place where thinking and learning are valued.”

Books shape students’ identities. Of course, people are more than their books, degrees, careers, relationships or experiences, more than their thoughts, feelings, even bodies. And yet, these all shape how one lives in the world, the kind of person one appears to be, one’s identity. Having books around says, “I am the sort of person who values thinking and learning.”

Keeping books allows students to return to them over the years. The most meaningful connections people can have with books play out over a lifetime. The weeks or months during a course count as an introduction. That’s enough for some books. Others offer more. Students can return to a book after 10 or 20 years, reread the notes they wrote in the margins the last time they read it, observe how their thinking has changed, see what new layers of meaning they can find in the text at different times in life.

Books are a tangible investment in lifelong learning. College students’ finances vary vastly. It’s not my place to tell students whether they can or cannot afford books. At the same time, I know many students already sacrifice a lot to attend college, as an investment in something that matters to them. All I can add to that is that books are a good investment, too, a real commitment to continue learning long after graduating.

Distinguished scholar bell hooks testifies to this final point. Growing up poor in a patriarchal, segregated town, she learned the value of books from her mother, who had never graduated high school. “Against my father’s wishes,” hooks recalls, “she was willing to spend money on books, to let me know the pride of book ownership and the joy of possessing the gift that keeps on giving -- the book that one can read over and over and over.” Reading books, she continues, “empowered me to journey to places with the mind and imagination … expanded my consciousness … made the impossible possible.”

At the end of each semester, when the line at the bookstore to sell back books is at its longest, one of my dear friends and fellow professors walks by crying out, “Traitors! Traitors!” His joke -- and, of course, he does this playfully -- contains a historical pun. The Latin root of the word traitor, traditor, was the name given to those early Christians who under persecution handed over their sacred texts to be burned by the Roman authorities. The Latin cognate literally means “to hand over.” To hand over one’s books is a betrayal of our common purpose -- although if it’s that or die (or miss the rent), one will surely be forgiven.

We hope students leave college with memories, friends, knowledge, skills and a diploma, and we do well when we remind students to obtain them. We need to add a library to the list. When students sell back their books, they sell back part of their education. I care much more about what books students keep, and what notes they wrote in them, than what courses they passed or what grades they earned. Students’ bookshelves say much more than their transcripts.

Paul T. Corrigan is associate professor of English at Southeastern University.

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Only tiny minority of Roma enter higher education in Europe

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Roma lag other groups in attaining higher education.

Universities need to communicate much more effectively about science (essay)

Many brilliant products of research end up feared and rejected by the mainstream society. Technologies such as vaccinations, genetics in agriculture or animal models in medicine can save lives, feed the world and preserve the planet but are distrusted by the majority of nonacademic Americans. How should science regain the trust of consumers? Probably not by doing more research. Instead, scientists are increasingly urged to come out from their academic ivory tower and become better communicators.

But is it fair to expect that scientists will do much of this communicating? Few hard-core researchers are gifted communicators. The minds that discover new drugs or new particles do so with an enormous amount of focus, and it may be counterproductive to demand from them additional, completely different types of creativity.

Instead, the academic leadership and administration of higher education institutions need to embrace science communication as a key pillar of their existence and enter the world of media. Most of society -- political candidates and parties, the corporate sector, nonprofits, even religions -- now engage in aggressive and technologically innovative campaigns in the struggle for influence. But not universities. Instead, scientific and educational institutions still appear reluctant to harness their accumulated intellectual, literary and technological capacity.

Yet there are enormous benefits to be reaped, financial as well as political, if higher education manages to enter mass media. For the national academy, communicating the importance of science is no longer a noble pursuit but a matter of survival. Here I offer for debate a few strategies for how science communication can be functionally institutionalized. Academic leadership should:

Measure and reward the impact of individual faculty members’ outreach. Not every scientist needs to know how to use Twitter. But for those who do choose to distribute their knowledge by means less obtuse than research articles, a system should be in place that objectively assesses their efforts and rewards demonstrable outcomes. Such rewards are commonplace for exceptional research, teaching or extension. That they do not exist for science communication is not by design, but out of inertia. Current tenure metrics still value a cryptic research publication that is never cited more than a blog post that influences thousands. Furthermore, measuring the impact of science communication would be easy and possibly more reliable than standard metrics of teaching, such as student evaluations, as usage analytic methods are readily available.

Revamp communications offices. At most American colleges and universities, offices in charge of science communication ether do not exist or are underfunded and resemble something between a sign shop and a branding police. In the world where what matters most is one’s prominence in the media and on the internet, this is an anachronism. Colleges and universities should take note of successful industries and invest heavily in high-quality science promotion teams. Such offices will always need to keep adapting to societal and technological change, and thus will only retain meaning if staffing is flexible -- and always open to new generations that are ahead of, not behind, new trends.

Some colleges and universities are moving forward and even establishing joint science news outlets (such as Futurity). That is a great start, but the vast majority of science news on the web is still by independent bloggers.

Get serious with local and national media for self-promotion. Many American colleges and universities, and most of the large land-grant institutions, reside in relatively small communities. Local radio stations and TV channels are a logical venue for promoting the importance of science to the community. Yet which research departments truly dedicate strategic effort to collaboration with local news media? In Gainesville, Fla., the crime scene dominates local news, with often little or no mention of the mega-funded and mega-productive research enterprise of the University of Florida that resides here. That is a wasted opportunity for developing a positive image of the institution in the lives and minds of the community, as well as for recruitment of supporters.

It is easy to blame the news media for not supporting science reporters any longer. But media-savvy institutions do not sit and wait to be noticed. They flood the market with interesting stuff, form long-term relationships with the news media and cultivate their audiences.

Reinvent extension. The three traditional pillars of all land-grant universities in America are research, teaching and extension. In a nutshell, extension is a network of university employees who mostly live among farmers and other industry folks and who can translate the fruits of recent research to their constituency. Over the last 100 years, this model helped propel America’s countryside into the most productive agriculture region in the world.

Now, in the 21st century, the vast majority of people live not on farms but in cities, and the extension empire is sometimes struggling to remain relevant. Land-grant universities would benefit themselves and the nation if they turned the extension model toward urban audiences. Those audiences are increasingly moving the American economy and are also more and more prone to be swayed by anti-science ideologies.

The main strength of extension has always lain in the army of motivated agents accustomed to working with lay populations. Thousands of agents are trained in core competencies such as electronic communication, program development and youth education. This organization is as close as it gets to being capable of carrying out the much-needed science communications revolution. All it needs is a new focus on plugged-in city dwellers. Some land grants are already exploring this path: check out the Western Center for Metropolitan Extension and Research.

Establish courses on activism and how to influence the media, combined with STEM course work. Whether academic circles approve of it or not, one sting video can thwart a thousand research papers. By producing alumni with practical skills in activism as well as empirical thinking, colleges and universities would secure their place in this increasingly vital aspect of contemporary history. Most important, by also requiring science-based courses, the educational system can exert a degree of control over the choice of worthy causes. Even a few instances of young people loudly demonstrating for better vaccinations would make a huge difference in the public perception of such matters.

Collectively demand that government agencies increase funding for science communication. Scientists are smart people and would invent amazing ways to communicate their results, but only if it becomes the currency of the trade. It is currently not. The National Science Foundation supports research participation for various student groups, but that is quite different from the need to break into online chat rooms where millions of adult Americans form their opinions. NSF also requires an explicit “broader impacts” statement with every grant application, but there is minimal enforcement and no monitoring of impact. This is not the robust incentive that is needed to communicate with masses.

Some of these suggestions may be uncomfortable for many in academe. Some raise ethical questions about the impartiality of education. That is the point. Anti-science groups and lobbying firms that already dominate the virtual marketplace of ideas are not going to wait for ethical guidance.

Jiri Hulcr is an associate professor in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida.

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Report examines impact of national study abroad scholarship program for low-income students

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Report on study abroad scholarship program targeting low-income students finds that beneficiaries build on their experiences abroad in future academic choices.

Creating the conditions on campuses that allow leaders to encourage change (essay)

To achieve positive change in higher education, we must create campus cultures that celebrate shared learning as we go, writes Judith S. White.

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A professor takes his classes on a walk (essay)

Literally walking side by side with students while teaching a class can bring unexpected benefits, writes Del Doughty.

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On campus, voting behavior varies widely across college majors, regions

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On college campuses, voter turnout is low. But voting behavior varies widely across disciplines and regions, a new study finds.

A humanities professor visits colleges with his daughter (essay)

I have spent a lot of time in the past year visiting college campuses with my daughter. She is a senior in high school and has recently made her college choice. We visited all kinds of institutions: elite private schools, liberal arts colleges, Christian colleges and public universities. My daughter is a humanities person. She will most likely major in something like English or history. If she dabbles in the social sciences, she will probably pursue anthropology or sociology.

She was also very perceptive about the vibe that she got from the colleges that she visited. She did not merely want an institution with strong humanities programs. She wanted one with a humanities ethos that pervades the campus.

A few months ago, on back to back days, we visited two very prestigious private universities. The first institution, despite its reputation as a world-class research university, presented itself, first and foremost, as an undergraduate liberal arts college. The admissions office and tour guides noted that many of the professional schools, including the graduate school, were located in remote parts of the campus. The layout of this campus exuded a sense of community rooted in ideas and questions about what it means to be human.The departments of History, English and African-American Studies were all located at the center of campus. When my daughter told some of the current students that she was thinking about majoring in English or history she was greeted with enthusiasm.

The second institution -- another world class research university -- offered a very different feel. Little was said about the humanities and liberal arts. Our tour did not even venture to the location on campus where these departments were housed. Instead the presentations stressed professional programs: business and engineering.  When we talked to some students at an off-campus residential community, we learned that none of them were majoring in humanities-related fields. I think my daughter was embarrassed to tell people on the campus that she was interested in the humanities.

Last fall, we also attended a few Christian colleges. One of these colleges had a strong tradition of liberal arts and humanities education. During her evening in the dorms, my daughter met several humanities majors. The next day, during presentations, tours, and classes, she was deeply impressed by the way the questions raised by the humanities-oriented disciplines animated everything that happened in the curriculum of this institution. (This college is not defined as a "liberal arts college" by the Carnegie rankings.)  

My daughter was not sure if she wanted to attend a Christian college, but if she decided to do so, she wanted an institution with a strong commitment to the integration of faith and learning. She was aware that such integration is difficult, if not impossible, without robust support for the humanities -- history, English, theology, philosophy, languages and the like. Those disciplines raise the “big questions” about what it means to be a human being in the world -- the kinds of questions more compatible with religious faith. She felt at home in this place.

The other Christian college that she visited attracts more students interested in professional majors. The humanities programs are solid, but the faculty spends a lot of its time fighting for the importance of the liberal arts. During the course of the visit, a few students asked my daughter about her intended major. In every case, when my daughter said she was interested in history or English, her new acquaintances asked her if she wanted to teach. When my daughter said she was not interested in teaching, her hosts responded: "Then what are you going to do with that [degree]?" She also sensed that the admissions staff did not know how to talk about the humanities.

My daughter came home from the visit wondering if she could find any conversation partners or friends with the same interests. Everyone she met, it seemed, was majoring in athletic training, nursing or business. I told her that she certainly would meet people at this institution who had the same passions and interests as she did, but, in the end, what my daughter sensed was correct: this college did not have a humanities or liberal arts ethos.  She felt it.

I have enjoyed seeing these various colleges and universities through my daughter’s eyes. I have concluded that the liberal arts and humanities are still strong at the small institutions of higher learning that continue to define themselves as “liberal arts colleges” and are categorized as such. But beyond those elite colleges, the chances of finding an institution in which the humanities define the academic culture are slim at best.

In my experience, students are still interested in subjects like history and English, but they see these more as a "hobby" than a legitimate focus of undergraduate study. I can't tell you how many times I have heard a talented undergraduate tell me something like this: "I love history, and I would love to study it, but I am not sure what I can do with it, and neither are my parents." 

For the last several years, I have been arguing (along with a lot of other people) that humanities departments need to do a better job of showing students how the skills they learn in our courses are transferable in the marketplace. As part of their college experience, humanities and liberal arts students should know how to articulate those skills to potential employers. We want our students to get jobs in the business and nonprofit sectors not in spite of the fact that they majored in a humanities discipline, but because they did.  I have made these arguments in my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and at my blog “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” through an ongoing series of posts that I call "So What CAN You Do With a History Major.”

As a history department chairperson, when I speak to potential history majors, or even curious students in my general education courses whom I am trying to "convert" to the history major, I emphasize not only the content that they will learn in history courses but also the transferable skills. I would encourage professors in liberal arts colleges to work with admissions officers about making sure students know that humanities majors can make a decent living in a variety of different professions and careers. If trained well, they should know how to think clearly, write well, communicate effectively, tell stories, empathize with others and take small bits of information and make meaning out of them.

A move in that direction may also require curriculum changes or additions. For example, at the college where I teach, we added a one-year "Introduction to History" course that contains a substantial unit devoted to careers. The students read the pertinent chapters of Why Study History? and hear from career-center staff about how to sell themselves as history majors to potential employees. Our department even added an "administrative studies" concentration to our curriculum. Students in that concentration take the full history major, but they use some of their non-history electives to take courses in business, leadership, economics and politics. 

I have worked hard at trying to transform my department along these lines, but sometimes I wonder if I have gone too far in this direction. Instead of championing transferable skills and all the things students in history can "do" with their majors, maybe I should have spent more time challenging this market-oriented approach by defending humanities learning for learning's sake. We don't spend as much time anymore talking about the non-marketable values of the humanities or the benefit of humanistic learning to make us better people or citizens. I know that my faculty colleagues care about this, but I'm not so sure about the majority of the students whom I encounter. I worry that the success of a particular humanities discipline is now being measured by utilitarian ends such as career outcomes.

This career-driven approach to the humanities is the new reality for those of us who teach at tuition-driven schools with smaller endowments. I am aware of the high-profile cases in which politicians with control over state budgets have attacked the humanities. I realize that unless we start focusing on careers and transferable skills we will continue to have depleting enrollments in humanities majors, continue to lose faculty lines in our departments, and see government funding for our disciplines dry up.

But I still believe this: STEM and other professional fields may help to build a strong economy, but the humanities -- and the liberal arts more broadly -- provide education for a democracy.

I understand that my daughter's interest in a college with a humanities ethos is unusual in today's day and age. In the end, she decided she wants to attend a college with a culture where the humanities define the warp and woof of everyday life and where she will not have to explain to dorm mates and other friends why she is majoring in history and what, beyond teaching, she is going to do with such a major.

John Fea is the chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA.

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British universities report some job candidates won't accept offers while EU vote is pending

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Some British universities report that faculty job candidates don't want to commit until after the vote on the European Union.


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