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.
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Strokes affect hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. For professors, who make a living speaking with authority for long periods of time, the road back -- to the classroom or research or both -- is long.
Nine years ago I wrote a column for Inside Higher Ed entitled “The Professor as Personal Trainer.”Back then I was A.B.D., adjuncting, and had basically never exercised in my life. Today, I’m a middle-aged, tenured professor and I’ve hired a personal trainer to try to get in shape. Now that I actually am a professor, and really do work with a personal trainer, how does my original piece hold up?
I still stand by a lot of what I said in the original piece: Education is not a commodity that can be bought and sold, but is a process of personal transformation. Student learning is the student’s responsibility, not the teacher’s. It requires commitment outside the classroom, not just in it. And, I maintained then (as now), the best "job skills" we can give our students are the generalized capacities cultivated by a liberal arts education.
But I’ve also learned a lot. Some of it I learned working with my trainer, and some of it has come to me as I grew into my profession. For instance, I’ve come to value concision in writing, and I cringe now when I look at how deep I buried the lead in my original article.
In some ways, however, my views have shifted. In 2005 I argued that students didn’t know what they wanted when they sought to be educated. I’m not quite sure I agree with this today. Today I think my students and I do have a concrete idea of what and when we seek to become “educated” or “fit.” What we lack is not a sense of the what, but the how: the means by which to improve.
Getting fit has been transformative for me. Sure, I’ve learned to keep my weight on my heels when I hit the squat rack. But it’s also taught me how to think about nutrition, movement, posture and my daily routine. Learning to exercise involved major culture shock -- and I say this as an anthropologist whose work has sent him to the highlands of Papua New Guinea. It started before I even set foot in the gym. Just buying the right kind of workout shoes involved immersing myself in a kind of masculine culture that’s always been alien to me.
This experience has helped me realize what it is like for my students – particularly those who didn’t grow up in the white middle class, which is most of them -- to enter college. I’ve gotten so used to doing university work that I’ve forgotten how strange and disheartening it can be. Hopefully, this experience will help keep me empathetic.
So getting fit has meant testing unknown waters. But it’s also reaffirmed a lot of what I’ve already known. The culture of fitness has a huge pop-psychological component focused on commitment, motivation, inspiration as well as a slightly more kinky side focused on fighting through the pain, conquering, enduring, and so forth. In the past, I couldn’t tell the difference between websites about losing weight and Onion articles lampooning websites about losing weight. But after a little committing, enduring, persevering myself I have come to see that the idioms of fitness are just another way of discussing familiar academic virtues.
My students often ask me how I can live my life reading boring, poorly written books. I’ve never been sure how to answer since, let’s be honest, a tremendous amount of academic work is boring and poorly written. Now I have an answer! You have to push though the pain and persevere, never relent and keep fighting, if you want to get mentally strong. Never give up. Never surrender. Previously, I thought this was a cliché from Galaxy Quest. Now I know it’s about Deleuze. Working out has helped me understand my intellectual regimen in a new way.
I’ve learned a lot from my trainer about teaching, and from the other guys in my workout group about learning. When I say I have a “personal” trainer, that’s not quite right. I actually work out in a small group with three other guys, since an actual personal trainer is ridiculously expensive. Working out with people who are further along than me gives me a strong sense of what I’m supposed to look as I progress -- and it also helps confirm that the current amount I’m benching is, in fact, peanuts. I suppose they put things into perspective for me.
My trainer has also been great. Although professors are right to rail against the retailification of teaching, we might actually learn something from someone who actually gets paid by their students to help them improve! In our rush to defend our prerogatives we may accidentally dismiss the value of being supportive and considerate (even indulgent) of our student’s needs. And of course, it's just valuable to watch another teacher at work -- something that rarely happens in the academy.
I’m still beginning the process of becoming a healthier person. Like, really really beginning. But my experience with my trainer has confirmed for me what I originally learned dabbling in the performing arts: Although Seneca excluded wrestling and other “knowledge that is compounded of oil and mud” from the liberal arts, any attempt to educate the whole person should recognize that that person is, importantly, a body.
More then that: I think my liberals arts education has taught me to imagine my trainer as a professor, to imagine me as a student, to take lessons learned from dancing and transfer them to lifting weights, and to find the familiar in the strange. Would I be able to bring this capacity to my workouts if I hadn’t gotten a broad, general education? I hope so, but frankly I don’t think so. But then again, maybe it’s something I could learn from my trainer. After all, he went to a liberal arts college himself.
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