My colleague, John Fea, has already wrapped up his experience at Rethinking Success and is off to talk about his book at Notre Dame. He’s hoping to avoid the slings and arrows tossed his way by the likes of Mark Noll. The third day is just beginning, so I’m not quite ready to wrap up myself, but a few anticipatory thoughts and considerations.
First, it has been good for me to see that the School of the Humanities at Messiah College has been taking a number of good steps already, confirming my sense begun about 2 and a half years ago (and even earlier as a chair) that we in the Humanities had to do a much better job of addressing the question of jobs and careers. It seems to me, frankly, that a number of elite national liberal arts institutions are only at the stage we were in the School of the Humanities two and a half years ago in grappling with how to address the situation of careers and the humanities. At Messiah our steps have been few, but they have been serious and we seem to have done intuitively what some of the other liberal arts programs are beginning. We have taken small but significant steps to integrate career considerations in to the curriculum, and to do that from the beginning of their time in a major, and we’ve had multiple faculty conversations and professional development opportunities to improve faculty advising for careers. The results have been solid so far. Student satisfaction in the area of career advising and preparation is up, though I admit we don’t have solid data on how effectively our students have transitioned in to the workplace.
Second, it’s obvious that resourcing is key. It’s just really staggering what Wake Forest has decided to do in promoting career development, putting it front and center on their agenda in liberal arts education, and not just doing that with rhetoric but with institutional structure and with dollars. Moreover, it is clear that it is a presidential initiative that everyone has to take seriously. Given the much higher levels of resource that most of the elite liberal arts institutions have, and some of the plans they’ve started espousing, I have no doubt they will be leap-frogging past our efforts in short order. On the other hand, I think this will be a good thing on the whole for the discourse surrounding the liberal arts. The conversation about what the liberal arts are and how they ought to connect to careers will only change fundamentally if places like Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, Wake Forest, and Harvard and Yale and others take up the cudgel and change. So I was extremely glad to see the national liberal arts colleges seeing this as a priority for liberal arts generally.
Third, it’s obvious that faculty is a key. Here again, I think we at Messiah are modestly ahead of the game. We were one of a very few schools that even brought a faculty member, and we brought three. This signifies, I think, the seriousness with which the faculty has begun taking this issue at Messiah College, though, of course, I can always wish it was more widespread and more deeply felt. Universally speakers pointed to the fact that faculty don’t think career development is their responsibility, but if students are going to make the transition in to the workplace from a liberal arts major they have to be able to speak clearly about the way their whole college experience, including their academic experience, has prepared them for the jobs ahead of them. That can’t be done without effective faculty participation and buy in. Secondarily, it was clear issues of curriculum have to be addressed–either in general education or in the majors or both–to assure that students actually have the skills they need for success. That, again, can’t happen without serious faculty engagement with the question of what the curriculum should look like and how it might connect to career preparation.
The final note is that clearly we’ve only just begun. It was evident to me that we’ve only taken first steps and that our continued work in this area is probably another two or three year process to really establish the cultural change we need to establish. I think the biggest areas for us to consider have to do with the curriculum. One speaker made it abundantly clear that fundamental skills were essential. As he put it “You must either be a science tech graduate who is liberally educated, or your must be a liberal are graduate who is science and technically savvy. There is no middle ground.” Other conversations and talks such as that from Hampden Sydney President, made it clear that while companies do talk about the need for communication skills etcetera, the type of things we find in the humanities, it is more or less the case that they are assuming the technical skills. That is, it is fundamentally important that students have the kinds of technical skills necessary to do the jobs for which they are applying. In flush times companies were willing to hire the smartest kids and train them in the specifics. In lean times they want the students to have the skills to do the job, and they want those students to have the skills associated with a liberal arts education as well. We need to keep talking about transferable skills at Messiah College, but we’ve got to talk about what skills students need that we currently aren’t giving them effectively.
In the humanities I think this might mean two or three things for us: First is I think we need to require internships. It was a universal refrain that the kinds of experiences students get in internships are the single most important factor in hiring decisions for companies. If we can develop internships containing reflective components focused on the discipline, we could do a better job of not only making sure students have those experiences but that they are able to connect their disciplinary education to the world of work. Second, I think this means a harder and more urgent look at technology and the humanities. As some folks know who follow this blog, I am an advocate for the digital humanities and am trying to get a few things off the ground here at Messiah. So far I’ve talked about that in terms associated with the future of the humanities. I’ve become convinced this weekend that we need to broaden that conversation to talk about the future of our students. The skills associated with digital humanities are the kinds of skills that will make our students more effective competitors in the marketplace and enable them to infuse the values and interests of humanistic learning in to the world of work. Finally, I think we need to pursue the idea of a Business Bootcamp at Messiah College, a course or intensive summer program specifically focused on liberal arts students needing to make the transition in to the business world so that they can more effectively become familiar with basic skills they will need, and think more effectively about how their disciplinary skills are useful in the business world.
Enough for now, the bus ride is over.