After years of being on the back foot, the humanities have launched a counterattack. A shelf of new books, including Scott Hartley’s The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World (Houghton Mifflin, 2017) and Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro’s Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn From the Humanities (Princeton, 2017), attest to the usefulness of the humanities for the 21st-century job market. Their fresh message makes the old creed that the humanities are a “mistake” or not “relevant” seem out of touch. Surveying these works in the July-August 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review, J. M. Olejarz dubs this countermovement “the revenge of the film, history and philosophy nerds.”
But what exactly makes the humanities useful? Many of the new studies attest to the significance of the humanities by drawing on biographies. How could the humanities not be useful if countless CEOs in Silicon Valley, as Hartley points out, have humanities degrees? Stewart Butterfield, Slack, philosophy; Jack Ma, Alibaba, English; Susan Wojcicki, YouTube, history and literature; Brian Chesky, Airbnb, fine arts. The list goes on.
But where we go from here requires the hard work of identifying just what is the common denominator being learned in the humanities and how to parlay that knowledge and those skills into professional success. How do you apply Virginia Woolf to write better code or marshal your skills conjugating Latin verbs to execute an IPO?
At the University of North Carolina Greensboro, we have taken the next step of improving career outcomes for our students in the humanities by implementing the Liberal Arts Advantage, a strategy that articulates the value of the humanities to students, their parents and the community.
Directors of career development are realizing that they can’t do this work alone. They must engage faculty as their partners.
Jeremy Podany, founder, CEO, and senior consultant of the Career Leadership Collective, a global solutions group and network of innovators inside and near to university career services, says that helping faculty teach career development is part of the job. “I actually think we need to go to the faculty and say, ‘Let me teach you how to have a great career conversation,’” said Podany. The relationship between faculty members and career development offices -- experts in the humanities and careers -- is essential to preparing students for the job market.
Why? Because the central issue in realizing a long-term strategy for student career development is translation. That is, how students translate the skills they learn in the classroom into workplace success. This is particularly true in the case of the metacognitive skills that professors in the humanities can, and should, help contribute in their students.
On campuses nationwide, career services teams are moving to the center -- physically and educationally. Many directors now report to advancement and alumni offices. In their widely read manifesto on the future of career development, Christine Y. Cruzvergara and Farouk Dey identified elevating career services and customized networks as necessary changes for improving career outcomes for students. The money is following. One of the biggest donations of 2016 was a $25 million gift for humanities-oriented St. John’s College, partially earmarked for career services.
Missing in the recent reports, however, is the change that is most needed for institutions to integrate career development into the college experience: faculty involvement. Without collaboration between the faculty and career services, these developments can only have a tangential impact.
Want to meaningfully improve career outcomes for students? Get faculty members on board.
Troy Markowitz and Ryan Craig wrote recently that students aren’t suffering from a skills gap but an “awareness gap” that leads to underemployment, debt and diminished career options. This problem is starkest in the humanities, where many lack the ability to articulate skills to employers. Our strategy focuses on the skills humanities students learn, and helps them translate those skills for career impact. At UNCG we are building a program that helps students take the critical steps toward identifying skills, pursuing them and translating them into professional success.
To make the humanities more accessible, we must show our students the path from their studies to meaningful work. Humanities faculty are mistakenly resistant to integrating career development into their courses. A revelatory recent article in The Atlantic that showed how first-generation students were finding “personal and professional fulfillment in the humanities and social sciences” underscores the power of this strategy. Of course, many students do discover the inherent value of the humanities, yet not all students have that luxury. We must emphasize competencies as much as content, and help the majority of students translate and apply them across the education-to-employment divide.
Humanities education is a long-term investment in future leaders. To prepare graduates for the challenges of the job market, our departments are developing three skill sets that meet employers’ needs: critical thinking, communication and collaboration. We call these the three C’s skills. Together with a task force of faculty members from across the college, we organized UNCG’s first professional development day for students in the humanities. Attended by more than 250 students, the event included breakout sessions co-led by representatives of the faculty and career services.
Our keynote speaker, Laurin Titus, senior vice president in consumer marketing at Bank of America, enumerated how critical thinking, communication and collaboration contribute to success at the entry level and in senior leadership. In breakout sessions that followed, career services worked side by side with instructors from humanities departments to offer examples of exercises and assignments from their classes and how they could contribute to career development. In exit surveys, 99 percent of students surveyed indicated they will use what they learned in the sessions.
This month we are leveraging these workshops at UNCG to pilot online career development modules. Unlike stand-alone career courses, faculty members will embed these modules in their courses and integrate them into their curricula. This approach brings translation to the moment of skill creation. It is only possible through close collaboration among faculty and career development offices.
Many faculty know their value in contributing to the three C’s, as the Partnership for 21st Century Learning’s “Framework for 21st Century Learning” suggests. They know critical thinking when they see it. Presenting the humanities as an obstacle to career advancement understandably puts faculty on the defensive. Yet faculty should be willing to mine curricula for assignments and stories that bring translatable skills to the fore.
The fact is that students are already learning many necessary skills and competencies for the professional work force in humanities courses. The awareness gap has distorted students’ perception of what employers want and clouded us to the value of the humanities. We as educators can correct this misconception by making the skills already learned explicit. We can close the awareness gap and make the humanities truly accessible.
To do this career services staff must reimagine themselves as educators, and professors must embrace their role in professional development. Only translation will show how what is valuable can also be useful.