Passion, Identity, and the Faculty in the Humanities: Reflections on Anna Neumann

A half a life time ago now, I was living in Amsterdam working on a short term mission in the red light district.  Sunday evenings it was fairly typical for those of us on the staff at The Shelter to attend a gathering at a community run by Youth With a Mission.  The director, Bill Hallam, a converted hippie who had formerly trekked the drug trail between Amsterdam and India, was talking about how to find your direction and purpose in life, something a lot of people drifting through Amsterdam were in need of, myself included.  He asked us what one thing really got us excited, really made us jump out of our skins, so to speak.  After a little hesitation and with some embarrassment, I raised my hand and said that more than anything, I loved discovering new ideas, learning new things, having sudden aha! moments where my thinking and reading came together in to some new insight.  I recounted how, as an undergraduate, I would read in the library and suddenly be seized with excitement at some new illumination, some new connection that I hadn’t thought of before.  I would be so excited, I would be shaking and have to get up and walk around the library, shaking my fists in the air and whispering “Yes! Yes! Yes!” under my breath.

Most people in the meeting laughed.  To his everlasting credit, Bill Hallam did not.  He said, “Well, maybe that is a clue that you are called to read, and to learn, and to think.  And the church should find a way to support you in that.”  I took him up on it.

I thought about this lesson again reading Anna Neumann’s essay in Change, “Protecting the Passion of Scholars in Times of Change.  I’ve been doing some reading about motivation and change as I work on revising an essay originally presented at a conference in Richmond on Humanities and the Professions, as well as trying to do some preparation for a panel at the Lilly Fellows administrators conference.  Broadly speaking, Neumann makes the case that passion for their subject matter is a driving force in faculty motivation and in faculty pursuit of excellence.

“The scholars I interviewed, all one to five years post-tenure, chose the academic career out of a deep desire to understand the subjects of study that beckoned to them through the rigors of graduate training, the challenges and insecurities of the pre-tenure years, the “big test” of the tenure review, and often post-tenure workloads and campus cultures that did not support the scholarly learning that meant a great deal to them intellectually and personally.”

She cites some faculty having the kinds of physical reactions I had and still have to the joy of engaging their work, and how this can be a near-mystical, or at least deeply creative experience.

“I’m not so sure how common this is, but when things are going well, what happens is first of all, it affects me physically, not just intellectually. My body kicks into a higher gear. I shake, and I can’t stop moving. I barely sleep as it is, and I sleep even less.

“Although it might sound like it’s distracting, it’s not. It’s wonderful, it really is. My students say that I’m talking to the muses. I start channeling things. I start spewing forth conjectures or mathematical ideas without really knowing where they’re coming from. Obviously your subconscious is doing the information-processing when you’re in this agitated state, giving you the results of it while hiding the reasoning. And so then you have to go back and reconstruct where it came from and then try to use it. It’s like you’re not creating it—it’s being revealed to you.”

For Neumann, this kind of engagement is deeply threatened by changes in higher education, though she doesn’t precisely go in to why she believes that is the case.  According to Neumann, this passion for discipline is the singular and defining characteristic of higher education and has to be protected, as she puts it “at all costs.”

This is a hard thing to disagree with, and its not that I do.  I think Neumann is intuitively right that impediments to change among faculty are much more complicated and emotionally nuanced than we administrators usually give them credit for.  Faculty resistance to change in higher education is less about recalcitrance or smugness, and more about emotional investment and identity, about honoring a way of being in the world rather than a means of clinging stubbornly to certain ways of doing.  Every faculty member I know of is in some sense a convert, one who chose to become something rather than someone who delivers certain outcomes, a distinction between being and doing that it crucial to remember.

However, it does seem to me that Neumann has a fairly abstract notion of passion in general and scholarly passion in particular, one that exists in a kind of static and romanticized limbo.  On her reading, scholarly passion is somewhat Titanic-like, with the scholar and his/her subject matter stationed at the prow of the ship sailing rapturously into the future, in this case unprotected.  The tragedy in such a view of passion is that it comes to an end, or that it changes.  If Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslett had not hit the literal iceberg they would have had hit others more metaphorical, and their passions would have changed, adjusted to changing circumstances, matured, etcetera.  If it had not so adapted and changed, it would have died.

Passions like everything else have histories and contexts, and are enabled by certain kinds of material grounds.  We like to say love conquers all, but its well know that financial stress and economic hardship are among the leading causes of stress and hardship in relationships.  And our original passions are made possible by circumstances of chance or class or gender, a mixture of social convention, resistance to convention, and the drive for self-making that consumes late adolescents and young adults launching into a vocation.  We should not be surprised if the ardent passions we had as adolescents and young adults are reshaped and changed and have to find new ways to be or must express themselves in new ways in times of change as well.

So I don’t much like the language of “protection” that Neumann employs, at least not to the degree that it seems to imply “preserve”;  a little too much of the whiff of the museum or mausoleum.  If that is the goal, I don’t know if it is reachable, because higher ed has changed dramatically already, and is likely to change even more by almost every report that we can envision that responsibly tries to envision the future.

However, it does seem to me that  we need to recognize that faculty engagement with a subject matter in a discipline, is a very different matter than selling a car.  It is, as Neumann suggest, much more like the personal investment in a work of art.  Faculty identities as human beings are deeply connected to their fields and their historical ways of understanding them;  their passion is not like a passion for chocolate cake or for Ferraris.  Their passions for a subject matter are an expression of the self, a way of being in the world, that is, in fact, like a religious faith, something that has come at great cost, and has been rewarded with a certain kind of being.

It seems to me that as we begin to address the wrenching changes that are upon us in higher education, it is important to keep this fact in mind, and work together with faculty on issues of identity at least as much as we work with them on issues or policy or program.  Especially, administrators need to be engaged with faculty in the process of narrativizing relationships between what higher education has been and what it is or may be becoming.

Change does not mean loss exclusively.  It means transformation, which is the continuation of our disciplinary selves in to new and sometimes strange circumstances.  Often, in the midst of change, the story of higher education is told as if we were last years model, a clunker that has to be cast aside for newer and more adaptive.  This is a fundamentally offensive approach to the good and important human work that colleges and universities and their professors have done for centuries in many different forms since the founding of the first universities.  A story about the humanities–my own area as an administrator–has to engage with and value the ideals of humanistic study as it has been received, and articulate a relationship between those ideals and our changed circumstances, whether those circumstances are focused on closer engagement with career preparation, doing humanistic study in a digital framework, unbundling the degree, pursuing competency based education, or recasting the relationship between the humanities and the sciences.

This story need not be defensive, tragic, or apocalyptic as it is so often cast by both the defenders and the dismissers of the humanities.  It need not be the closing of a book or the dissolution of our scholarly passions.  It can be the next chapter of a book. The meaning and purpose of where we are going next is made clearer by our engagement with where we have been.

Can we create a humanities for the 21st century?: Reflections on Cathy Davidson

I’ve been invited to serve on a panel at the Lilly Fellows Administrators Workshop this fall in New Orleans, so I’ll use the event as an excuse to revive this blog–famous last words– by reflecting on some reading I’m doing in preparation. Broadly speaking, since we’ve done a lot of work in this area at Messiah College I’ve been asked to talk on how humanities can connect to career preparation as part of a conference that focuses on connecting mission and post-baccaluareate success.

Sometimes I admit that I think these kinds of discussions end up being far too narrowly cast for my taste;  humanists concede that we must do something to address our current and never-ending crisis or crises, and so we talk about career preparation as if it is a concession, something that we will do if we have to do it as long as we can keep doing the idealistic things that we have always done.  Or else something that we will do for the moment even as we look nostalgically to the past or longingly for a future in which the economy is better, our budgets are sound, our classrooms are burgeoning.  On this view, humanities faculty engaging with career preparation is a necessary evil or a pragmatic necessity, but it never really gets to the root of or affects a fundamental understanding of what the humanities are about.  As an administrator, I admit that I have become pretty pragmatic and willing to put up with more than my share of necessary evils.  Nevertheless, I confess that I find this view of engagement with student careers as seriously wanting and deficient.

I think that the halcyon days of yore are not returning, and even if they did it might not actually be all that great a thing.  Rather, I want to believe we are about at Messiah College–when we do curricular revision to include more attention to career concerns, or when we have more training of faculty advisors to address vocational issues,when we work to connect internships, service learning, and other forms of experiential learning directly to our liberal arts course work, or when we begin new projects in the digital humanities–What I want to believe we are about is creating a humanities for the 21st century.

In this, I resonate sympathetically when I read Cathy Davidson, or hear her speak as I did last year at the CIC conference in Pittsburgh.  Davidson’s ruling metaphor, it seems to me, is that our current forms of education, even humanities education, are appropriate to an industrial era, but that we have yet to develop an education appropriate to our own era.

I read again this afternoon her essay on these issues from Academe a few years back, Strangers on a Train.  A passage that particularly stuck out:

If you look at the curriculum in most humanities departments, you would barely notice that there is a crisis and there has been one for decades. At most colleges and universities, humanities departments continue to have a hierarchy of requirements and teaching assignments that imply that the department’s chief mission is to train students for professional careers in the humanities. Most humanities departments do not seem designed to prepare students for any and all careers, including in the sciences, even though all careers require reading, writing, critical thinking, theoretical analysis, historical perspective, and cross-cultural knowledge.

Davidson rightly points out that one consequence of mass education as we have come to know it is that liberal arts programs  have tended to become pre-professional in their orientation, but in a bad or deleterious sense.  That is, we think mostly that we are preparing future graduate students in the humanities, or we organize our curricula as if we are doing that.  Davidson’s essay is a clarion call, if a somewhat unspecific one, to get beyond this form of the humanities for a broader-based approach to the vocational needs of the contemporary students.  Ironically, it seems to me, this might ultimately make our humanities programs more genuinely liberal arts programs, designed broadly rather than for discipline specific expertise.

The one issue that I think Davidson doesn’t address here is one that I think leaves humanities programs resistant to change along the lines Davidson seems to be envisioning.  That is, so long as we argue that humanities programs are the best preparation for a flexible career in the future, that we give students superior skills in communication and analysis, that statistics show our students do relatively well in the job market overall, it becomes unclear why the pre-graduate-school model needs to change.  I have heard this argument stated eloquently.  “Yes, we prepare you so you can go to graduate school;  but if you don’t you’ve been prepared for everything else as well because of all the great communication skills we’ve given you.”

I don’t actually agree with this argument, but it is a genuine argument.  Where it falls short, I think, is in an overconfidence that our students know how to translate knowledge between fields of practice.  This is, I think, a false assumption.  Conversations with business and career development professionals over the past four or five years have convinced me that humanities students regularly and commonly struggle to be able to articulate the relationship between what they have done with their education and the needs of employers.  As I have put it in the past, we broaden our students’ horizons admirably, but we resist teaching them how to walk in to those horizons, or don’t even think to do so.  Indeed, in the worst case, where professors or departments give students only non-instrumental arguments for their fields–“this is inherently worth studying”–we implicitly teach students that they positively should not make connections between their academic fields and some other pathway or endeavor.  Students then not only do not receive practice in applying their knowledge,  they not only are left inarticulate about other career directions, they can come to feel unconsciously that it is inappropriate for them to do so.  I have had students–STUDENTS!–say to me, “I know we aren’t supposed to worry about whether humanities major X connects to a job, but….”

Fortunately, this kind of statement is becoming increasingly rare at Messiah College.  Whatever a humanities program for the 21st century should look like, outcomes ought to include that students have had practice applying their program of study to non-academic work environments, and that students can effectively and shamelessly articulate the value of their program of study in the humanities to future employers.

A podcast of Cathy Davidson’s talk to the CIC, “Educating Students for Their Future, Not Our Past,” is available here.

The Slide show from her presentation is available here.

What is a liberal art: Elizabeth Stone on the vocation vs. vocational in higher education

This summer I’m working sporadically on what I hope will turn in to a paper on Critical Vocationalism for the NEMLA session that I hope will be draw some substantial proposals for next year’s conference in Harrisburg. Trying to get my brain around exactly what Gerald Graff and Paul Jay might mean by Critical Vocationalism since they leave the term underdefined in their own advocacy for the idea as a new defense for the humanities and the liberal art. To that end I read Elizabeth Stone’s essay on the conflict between vocation and vocationalism published a few years back in the Chronicle. I’m struck by the fact of how we seem to be stuck in a holding pattern, with nothing really advancing or changing in our discourse about the liberal arts in general and the humanities specifically, with the possible exception that we must now lament that the rate of debt our students are carrying has more than doubled in a decade.

Stone’s essay does point out some dimensions of the problem that I do think are important to keep trying to talk about. For instance, she points out that we are not just having an enrollment crisis in the liberal arts, we are having a crisis of definition. What are the liberal arts and why are they that instead of something else. For Stone:

<blockquote>So, platonically speaking, I don’t really know what a liberal art is (although I know it’s not auto mechanics), because there seems to be no single characteristic — old, new, theoretical, vocational, quantitative, qualitative, a matter of content, a matter of perspective — common to all liberal arts.

In practice, then, a liberal art is a little like obscenity. We faculty members know it when we see it, even if we can’t quite define it. But there isn’t anything approaching consensus. Because I’m a parent — of one son with a new B.A. and another who’s now a freshman at a liberal-arts college — I’ve seen more than my share of college catalogs over the past half-dozen years. All of them assert the value of the liberal arts, but at some colleges that includes computer science, industrial design, physical education, and even engineering.

If you are a pragmatist, as I tend to be in my weaker moments, this could strike you as merely a self-serving argumentative move. Since “liberal arts” tends to be defined differently in different periods of history and even in different institutional contexts, they must not really be anything at all. In my own College the Humanities–traditional and sometimes sole remaining bastion of the liberal arts–are defined to include not only Philosophy, History, and English (uncontroversial), but also Religion (unconventional but still uncontroversial), Biblical studies and Film production ( a number of raised eyebrows) and programs like Public Relations, Christian Ministries, and Chinese Business and Spanish Business (pandemonium). The Platonist suggests that if there is no essence that unites these disparate fields then there is no there there, no thing that we can call the liberal arts as opposed to any other thing.

I’m not really interested in answering this question, though I will say I am more interested in Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances than in Plato’s forms. What Stone makes clear is that in the absence of any defining essence, the liberal arts largely define themselves by what they are against or what they are not–a version of Aquinas’s theological via negativa for defining God only by saying what God is not, just as most of us build our identities by aversion to our evil others. That evil other for the liberal arts is usually vocationalism. Over and against our money grubbing brethren interested in mere vocationalism we posit the higher order values of vocation, of calling, of transcendent value, or at least of critical thinking.

The problem with this according to Stone is that we don’t have to probe very deeply beneath the skin of what we call the liberal arts to discover an always already fallen vocationalism in who we are and what we do.

<blockquote>Since it’s people like me who are often seen fretting that the liberal arts are being waylaid by the thugs of Mammon, I think it’s time that people like me acknowledged our own dirty little secret. I’ll go first and admit that I, for one, have an unseemly number of vocational courses in my undergraduate past, and the reason is that those courses were directly related to a job I had my eye on: I was a teenage English major, in training to be an English professor.

Stone’s suggestion here strikes me as having two different meanings. First many of our liberal arts disciplines have had vocational ends in some sense, even if that sense was never fully articulated and endlessly deferred. Aquinas’s notion that the liberal arts are things studied for their own sake nevertheless raises the question of why something studied for its own sake should be a required course of study in a society or a seminary. We must admit that the study of most disciplines of the liberal arts have been and were specifically conceived of as appropriate training for young men in order to prepare them for positions of leadership. To be sure, the “higher order” issues of character and spiritual formation have always been around, but young men were explicitly required to pursue studies in these fields in order to prepare for something, specifically to occupy adult roles of leadership as the elites of particular Western Societies. Moreover, some liberal arts as we now conceive of them were not even designed for Elites. My own discipline of English was understood and came in to the academy in England first and foremost as an appropriate course of study in what would have been the equivalent of British community colleges, educational schools for the working classes and for women, even while English was looked down upon by the more cultured classes. So we turn our face away from vocationalism almost like those afraid to recognize their kinship with the adulterated masses.

Also, it seems to me that Stone is suggesting that we ought to recognize that we have increasingly organized our liberal arts curricula around professional (and so vocational) ideals. We have tended for the past few decades to imagine undergraduate education at its best as preparing students for potential graduate study, and have valued most those students who looked just like us, could talk just like us, and wanted to prepare to be just like us. We have accepted a vocational model of education common to the research universities and the professional schools and baptized it in the name of the liberal arts. This fact is why so much of the discussion of a crisis in the humanities is preoccupied with a crisis of graduate students not getting jobs. That is actually a symptom of a much larger crisis that we cannot fully imagine a larger social purpose that doesn’t rely on our self-replication.

What, I wonder, would an education in the liberal arts look like that took it as its explicit task to better prepare students for participation as informed citizens AND as informed workers outside the world of academe. In other words, an education that took as its explicit purpose to produce workers who were not like and do not aspire to be like us. This might be a baseline for critical vocationalism

Dumpster Diving and other career moves: remembering the job market with Roger Whitson

It would be hard to say I enjoyed reading Roger Whitson’s very fine recent meditation in the Chronicle on the quest for a tenure-track job, his ambivalent feelings on finding one, the mixed feelings of exaltation and guilt at getting what so many of his peers would never find, and of leaving behind an #Altac existence where he had begun to make a home.

Hard to enjoy reading both because the story seems to typify what our academic life has actually become, and, frankly, because it reminded me too much of my own wandering years as a new academic a couple of decades ago.  I spent seven years full-time on the job market back in the day (if you count the last two years of graduate school).  I have estimated in the past that I must have applied for at least 700-800 jobs during those years–the idea of being targeted and selective a joke for a new father.  Fortunately I was actually only totally unemployed for four months during those years, though that was enough to plunge me thousands of dollars in to debt paying for health insurance.  For five of those seven years I had full-time work in various visiting assistant positions, and for two of  those visiting years I was paid so little I qualified for food stamps, though I never applied for the program.  I worked as many extra courses as I could to pay the bills–probably foolish for my career since publishing slowed to a crawl, but it saved my pride.  I remember asking, naively, during an interview for one such visiting position whether it was actually possible to live in that area of the country on what I was going to be paid.  The chair interviewing me at the time hesitated, then responded, “Well, of course, your wife can work.”

Only one of those years did I not get an interview, and only two of those years did I not get a campus interview, but even then this seemed like a very peculiar and unhelpful way to claim success for a beginning academic career.  We did not have anything called #altac in those days, and my plan B–which on my worst days I sometimes still wonder whether I should have followed–was to go back to cooking school and become a chef (I know, I know.  Another growth industry).  I never felt bad about pursuing a PhD in English, and I don’t think I would have even if I had gone on to become a chef.  The learning was worth it, to me, at least.

But I did grow distant from college friends who became vice-presidents of companies or doctors in growing practices , all of whom talked about their mortgages and vacations in the Caribbean or Colorado, while I was living in the cheapest 2 bedroom apartment in Fairfax Virginia that I could find and fishing furniture, including my daughter’s first bed, out of a dumpster.  (The furniture was held together, literally, by duct tape; I had to pay for conferences). And I spent a lot of evenings walking off my anxiety through the park next to our apartment complex, reminding myself of how much I had to be thankful for.  After all, I had a job and could pay my bills through the creative juggling of credit card balances. A lot of my friends had found no jobs at all.  A low rent comparison, I realize, but I would take what solace I could get.

I do not resent those days now, but that depends a lot on my having come out the other side.  The sobering thought in all of this is in realizing that in the world of academics today I should count myself one of the lucky ones.  Reading Roger’s essay, and the many like it that have been published in the last twenty years, I always get a sick hollow feeling in the gut, remembering what it was like to wonder what would happen if….

Reading Roger’s essay I was struck again with the fact that this is now the permanent condition of academic life in the humanities.  My own job story began more than 20 years ago at Duke, and even then we were told that the job market had been miserable for 15 years (but was sure to get better by and by).  30 years is not a temporary downturn or academic recession.  It is a way of being.

The advent of MOOC’s, all-online education, and for-profit universities, are responses to the economics of higher education that are unlikely to make things any better for the freshly minted PhD.  While there are some exciting innovations here that have a lot of promise for increasing learning to the many, it’s also the case that they are attractive and draw interest because they promise to do it more cheaply, which in the world of higher education means teaching more students with fewer faculty hours.  Roger’s most powerful line came toward the end:  “Until we realize that we are all contingent, we are all #altac, we all need to be flexible, and we are all in this together, we won’t be able to effectively deal with the crisis in the humanities with anything other than guilt.”

This is right, it seems to me.  In a world that is changing as rapidly and as radically as higher education, we are all as contingent the reporters and editors in the newsrooms of proud daily newspapers.  It is easy to say that the person who “made it” was talented enough or smart enough or savvy enough, but mostly they, I, we were just lucky enough to come out the other side.  But we would be misguided to imagine that because we made it in to a world that at least resembled the world we imagined, that that world will always be there.  We are an older institution and industry than music or radio or newspapers, but we are an industry and an institution nonetheless, and it seems to me that the change is upon us.  We are all contingent now.

Digital Humanities, “techno-lust”, and the Personal Economy of Professional Development: Ryan Cordell on simplification

It’s a sign of my unsimple and exceedingly overstuffed life that I’ve only now gotten around to reading Ryan Cordell’s ProfHacker piece from last week.  Ryan is moving to a new position at Northeastern (kudos!) and he’s taken the ritual of eliminating the clutter and junk of a household as a metaphor for the need to prioritize and simplify our professional practices and in his own instance to get rid of the techno gadgets and gizmos that curiosity and past necessity have brought his way.

I have confessed before my appreciation for Henry David Thoreau—an odd thinker, perhaps, for a ProfHacker to esteem. Nevertheless, I think Thoreau can be a useful antidote to unbridled techno-lust. As I wrote in that earlier post, “I want to use gadgets and software that will help me do things I already wanted to do—but better, or more efficiently, or with more impact.” I don’t want to acumulate things for their own sake.

…..

I relate this not to brag, but to start a conversation about necessity. We talk about tech all the time here at ProfHacker. We are, most of us at least, intrigued by gadgets and gizmos. But there comes a time to simplify: to hold a garage sale, sell used gadgets on Gazelle, or donate to Goodwill.

via Simplify, Simplify! – ProfHacker – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Ryan’s post comes as I’ve been thinking a lot about the personal economy that we all must bring to the question of our working lives, our sense of personal balance, and our personal desire for professional development and fulfillment.  As I have been pushing hard for faculty in my school to get more engaged with issues surrounding digital pedagogy and to consider working with students to develop projects in digital humanities, I have been extremely aware that the biggest challenge is not faculty resistance or a lack of faculty curiosity–though there is sometimes that.  The biggest challenge is the simple fact of a lack of faculty time.  At a small teaching college our lives are full, and not always in a good way.  There is extremely little bandwidth to imagine or think through new possibilities, much less experiment with them.

At our end of the year school meeting I posed to faculty the question of what they had found to be the biggest challenge in the past year so that we could think through what to do about it in the future.  Amy, my faculty member who may be the most passionate about trying out the potential of technology in the classroom responded “No time to play.”  Amy indicated that she had bought ten new apps for her iPad that year, but had not had any time to just sit around and experiment with them in order to figure out everything that they could do and imagine new possibilities for her classroom and the rest of her work.  The need for space, the need for play, is necessary for the imagination, for learning, and for change.

It is necessary for excellence, but it is easily the thing we value least in higher education.

Discussing this same issue with my department chairs, one of them said that she didn’t really care how much extra money I would give them to do work on digital humanities and pedagogy, what she really needed was extra time.

This is, I think, a deep problem generally and a very deep problem at a teaching college with a heavy teaching load and restricted budgets.  (At the same time, I do admit that I recognize some of the biggest innovations in digital pedagogy have come from community colleges with far higher teaching loads than ours).  I think, frankly, that this is at the root of some of the slow pace of change in higher education generally. Faculty are busy people despite the stereotype of the professor with endless time to just sit around mooning about nothing.  And books are….simple.  We know how to use them, they work pretty well, they are standardized in terms of their technical specifications, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we buy one.

Not so with the gadgets, gizmos, and applications that we accumulate rapidly with what Ryan describes as “techno-lust”. (I have not yet been accused of having this, but I am sure someone will use it on me now).  Unless driven by a personal passion, I think most faculty and administrators make an implicit and not irrational decision–“This is potentially interesting, but it would be just one more thing to do.”  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the changes in technology seem to speed up and diversify rather than slow down and focus.  Technology doesn’t seem to simplify our lives or make them easier despite claims to greater efficiency.  Indeed, in the initial effort to just get familiar or figure out possibilities, technology just seems to add to the clutter.

I do not know a good way around this problem:  the need for play in an overstuffed and frantic educational world that so many of us inhabit.  One answer–just leave it alone and not push for innovation–doesn’t strike me as plausible in the least.  The world of higher education and learning is shifting rapidly under all of our feet, and the failure to take steps to address that change creatively will only confirm the stereotype of higher education as a dinosaur unable to respond to the educational needs of a public.

I’m working with the Provost so see if I can pilot a program that would give a course release to a faculty member to develop his or her abilities in technology in order to redevelop a class or develop a project with a student.  But this is a very small drop in the midst of a very big bucket of need.  And given the frantic pace of perpetual change that seems to be characteristic of contemporary technology, it seems like the need for space to play, and the lack of it, is going to be a perpetual characteristic of our personal professional economies for a very long time to come.

Any good ideas?  How can could I make space for professional play in the lives of faculty? Or for that matter in my own? How could faculty do it for themselves?  Is there a means of decluttering our professional lives to make genuine space for something new?

Why students of the Humanities should look for jobs in Silicon Valley

Ok, I’ll risk sounding like a broken record to say again that the notion that humanities students are ill-positioned for solid careers after college is simply misguided.  It still bears repeating.  This latest from Vivek Wadhwa at the Washington Post gives yet more confirmation of the notion that employers are not looking for specific majors but for skills and abilities and creativity, and that package can come with any major whatsoever, and it often comes with students in the humanities and social sciences.

Using Damon Horowitz, who possess degrees in both philosophy and engineering and whose unofficial title at Google is In-House Philosopher and whose official title is Director of Engineering, Wadhwa points out the deep need for humanities and social science students in the work of technology companies, a need that isn’t just special pleading from a humanist but is made vivid in the actual hiring practices of Silicon Valley companies.

Venture Capitalists often express disdain for startup CEOs who are not engineers. Silicon Valley parents send their kids to college expecting them to major in a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) discipline. The theory goes as follows: STEM degree holders will get higher pay upon graduation and get a leg up in the career sprint.

The trouble is that theory is wrong. In 2008, my research team at Duke and Harvard surveyed 652 U.S.-born chief executive officers and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. We found that they tended to be highly educated: 92 percent held bachelor’s degrees, and 47 percent held higher degrees. But only 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just two percent held them in mathematics. The rest have degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, finance, healthcare, arts and the humanities.

Yes, gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of the company that a founder started. But the field that the degree was in was not a significant factor. ….

I’d take that a step further. I believe humanity majors make the best project managers, the best product managers, and, ultimately, the most visionary technology leaders. The reason is simple. Technologists and engineers focus on features and too often get wrapped up in elements that may be cool for geeks but are useless for most people. In contrast, humanities majors can more easily focus on people and how they interact with technology. A history major who has studied the Enlightment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire may be more likely to understand the human elements of technology and how ease of use and design can be the difference between an interesting historical footnote and a world-changing technology. 

via Why Silicon Valley needs humanities PhDs – The Washington Post.

Again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this sounds like the kind of findings emphasized at the Rethinking Success Conference that I have now blogged on several times.    (I’ve heard theories that people come to be true believers if they hear a story 40 times.  So far I’ve only blogged on this 12 times, so I’ll keep going for a while longer).  Although I still doubt that it would be a good thing for a philosopher to go to Silicon Valley with no tech experience whatsoever,  a philosopher who had prepared himself by acquiring some basic technical skills alongside of his philosophy degree might be in a particularly good position indeed.  Worth considering.

Side note,  the Post article points to a nice little bio about Damon Horowitz.  I suspect there are not many folks in Silicon Valley who can talk about the ethics of tech products in terms that invoke Kant and John Stuart Mill.  Maybe there should be more.

Celebrating the liberal arts in the marketplace (cautiously)

A new survey of 225 employers just out emphasizes the continuing value of the liberal arts in the employment market.

More interesting, at least for those of us who got some parental grief over our college choice, was the apparent love being shown for liberal arts majors. Thirty percent of surveyed employers said they were recruiting liberal arts types, second only to the 34 percent who said they were going after engineering and computer information systems majors. Trailing were finance and accounting majors, as only 18 percent of employers said they were recruiting targets.

“The No. 1 skill that employers are looking for are communication skills and liberal arts students who take classes in writing and speaking,” said Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and an expert on Generation Y. “They need to become good communicators in order to graduate with a liberal arts degree. Companies are looking for soft skills over hard skills now because hard skills can be learned, while soft skills need to be developed.”

via Survey On Millennial Hiring Highlights Power Of Liberal Arts – Daily Brief – Portfolio.com.

I don’t particularly like the soft skills/hard skills dichotomy.  However, this fits my general sense, blogged on before, that the hysteria over liberal arts majors lack of employability is, well, hysteria.  Something manufactured by reporters needing something to talk about.

At the same time, I think the somewhat glib and easy tone of this particular article calls for some caution.  Digging in to the statistics provided even in the summary suggests that liberal arts majors need to be supplementing their education with concrete experiences and coursework that will provide a broad panoply of skills and abilities.  50% of employers, for instance, say they are looking for students who held leadership positions on campus, a stat before which even engineers and computer scientist but kneel in obeisance.  Similarly, nearly 69% say they are looking for coursework relevant to the position you are pursuing.  My general sense is you can sell you Shakespeare course to a lot of employers, but it might be helpful if you sold Shakespeare along side the website you built for the course or alongside the three courses you took in computer programming.

Generally speaking, then, I think these statistics confirm the ideas propounded by the Rethinking Success conference in suggesting that students really need to be developing themselves as T-shaped candidates for positions, broad and deep, with a variety of skills and experiences to draw on and some level of expertise that has been, preferably, demonstrated through experiences like internships or project-based creativity.

Speaking of Rethinking Success, the entire website is now up with all the relevant videos.  The session with Philip Gardner from Michigan State is embedded below.  It was Gardner who impressed me by his emphasis that students need to realize that they either need to be liberal arts students with technical skills or technical students with liberal arts skills if they are going to have a chance in the current job market.