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.

Deep and Wide: Katharine Brooks on Becoming a T-shaped Professional

Earlier today I blogged on the need for humanities students to take seriously the need to become more literate in science, technology and mathematics, both in order to pursue the ideal of a well-rounded liberal arts education and very pragmatically in order to prepare themselves for the world of work. Katharine Brooks (UT-Austin), one of the keynoters at the Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest takes up the same point in a different manner in her reflections on the need for job candidates coming out of college to present themselves as T-shaped individuals, persons with deep knowledge of one or two areas and broad knowledge of several.

According to those in the talent-seeking field, the most sought-after candidates for management, consulting, research, and other leadership positions are T-shaped. The vertical stem of the T is the foundation: an in-depth specialized knowledge in one or two fields. The horizontal crossbar refers to the complementary skills of communication (including negotiation), creativity, the ability to apply knowledge across disciplines, empathy (including the ability to see from other perspectives), and an understanding of fields outside your area of expertise.

Organizations need workers with specialized knowledge who can also think broadly about a variety of areas, and apply their knowledge to new settings. Since T-shaped professionals possess skills and knowledge that are both broad and deep, developing and promoting your T-shaped talent may be the ticket to yourcareer success now and in the future.

The term “T-shaped” isn’t new: it’s been in use since the 1990s but mostly in consulting and technical fields. Several companies, including IDEO andMcKinsey & Company, have used this concept for years because they have always sought multidisciplinary workers who are capable of responding creatively to unexpected situations. Many companies have also developed interdisciplinary T teams to solve problems.

Dr. Phil Gardner at Michigan State University, who researches and writes regularly on recruiting trends, has been researching the concept of the T-shaped professional and the T-shaped manager. At the recent Rethinking Success Conference at Wake Forest University, Dr. Gardner described the ideal job candidate as a “liberal arts student with technical skills” or a “business/engineering student with humanities training”— in other words, a T-shaped candidate. Dr. Gardner is currently developing a guide for college students based on this concept. He notes that “while the engineers are out in front on this concept – every field will require T professional development.”

As my post earlier today suggested, I think this kind of approach to things is absolutely crucial for graduates in humanities programs, and we ought to shape our curricula–both within the majors and in our general education programs– in such a way that we are producing students confident in and able to articulate the ways in which their education and experiences have made them both deep and broad.
If I can take a half step back from those assertions and plunge in another direction, I will only point out that there is a way in which this particular formulation may let my brethren who are in technical fields off the hook a little too easily.  If it is the case that engineers are leaders in this area, I will say that the notion of breadth that is entailed may be a fairly narrow one, limited to the courses that students are able to get in their general education curriculum.
My colleague, Ray Norman, who is the Dean of our School of Science Engineering and Health has talked with me on more than one occasion about how desirable his engineering graduates are because they have had several courses in the humanities.  I am glad for that, but I point out to him that it is absolutely impossible for his engineering graduates to even minor in a field in my area, much less dream of a double major.  About a decade ago when I was chair of the English department, I went to a colleague who has since vacated the chair of the engineering department, asking if we could talk about ways that we could encourage some interchange between our departments, such that I could encourage my majors to take more engineering or other technical courses, and he could encourage his engineers to minor in English.  He was enthusiastic but also regretful.  He’d love to have my English majors in his program, but he couldn’t send his engineers my way;  the size of the engineering curriculum meant it was absolutely impossible for his students to take anything but the required courses in general education.
I don’t hold this against my colleagues; they labor under accreditation standards and national expectations in the discipline.  But I do think it raises again important questions about what an undergraduate education is for, questions explored effectively by Andrew Delbanco’s recent book.  Should undergraduate programs be so large and so professionally oriented that students are unable to take a minor or possibly a double major?  Whistling in to the wind, I say they should not.  Breadth and Depth should not mean the ability to know ONLY one thing really well;  it ought to mean knowing AT LEAST one thing really well, and a couple of other things pretty well, and several other things generally well.
Oddly enough, it is far easier for liberal arts students to achieve this richer kind of breadth and depth, if they only will.  A major in history, a minor in sociology, a second minor in information sciences, a couple of internships working on web-development at a museum, a college with a robust general education program.  There’s a T-shape to consider.
[Side note;  It was Camp Hill Old Home Week at Wake Forest and the Rethinking Success conference last week.  At a dinner for administrators and career officers hosted by Jacquelyn Fetrow, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Jacque and Katherine Brooks discovered they’d both grown up in Camp Hill, and both within a half dozen blocks of where I now live.  Small world, and Camp Hill is leading it :-)]

Do Humanities Programs Encourage the Computational Illiteracy of Their Students?

I think the knee-jerk and obvious answer to my question is “No.”  I think if humanities profs were confronted with the question of whether their students should develop their abilities in math (or more broadly in math, science and technology), many or most would say Yes.  On the other hand, I read the following post from Robert Talbert at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  It got me thinking just a bit about how and whether we in the humanities contribute to an anti-math attitude among our own students, if not in the culture as a whole.

I’ve posted here before about mathematics’ cultural problem, but it’s really not enough even to say “it’s the culture”, because kids do not belong to a single monolithic “culture”. They are the product of many different cultures. There’s their family culture, which as Shaughnessy suggests either values math or doesn’t. There’s the popular culture, whose devaluing of education in general and mathematics in particular ought to be apparent to anybody not currently frozen in an iceberg. (The efforts of MIT, DimensionU, and others have a steep uphill battle on their hands.)

And of course there’s the school culture, which itself a product of cultures that are out of kids’ direct control. Sadly, the school culture may be the toughest one to change, despite our efforts at reform. As the article says, when mathematics is reduced to endless drill-and-practice, you can’t expect a wide variety of students — particularly some of the most at-risk learners — to really be engaged with it for long. I think Khan Academy is trying to make drill-and-practice engaging with its backchannel of badges and so forth, but you can only apply so much makeup to an inherently tedious task before learners see through it and ask for something more.

via Can Math Be Made Fun? – Casting Out Nines – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This all rings pretty true to me.  There are similar versions of this in other disciplines.  In English, for instance, students unfortunately can easily learn to hate reading and writing through what they imbibe from popular culture or through what the experience in the school system.  For every hopeless math geek on television, there’s a reading geek to match.  Still and all, I wonder whether we in the humanities combat and intervene in the popular reputation of mathematics and technological expertise, or do we just accept it, and do we in fact reinforce it.

I think, for instance, of the unconscious assumption that there are “math people” and “English people”;  that is, there’s a pretty firmly rooted notion that people are born with certain proclivities and abilities and there is no point in addressing deficiencies in your literacy in other areas.  More broadly, I think we apply this to students, laughing in knowing agreement when they talk about coming to our humanities disciplines because they just weren’t math persons or a science persons, or groaning together in the faculty lounge about how difficult it is to teach our general education courses to nursing students or to math students.  As if our own abilities were genetic.

In high school I was highly competent in both math and English, and this tendency wasn’t all that unusual for students in the honors programs.  On the other hand, I tested out of math and never took another course in college, and none of my good humanistic teachers in college ever challenged and asked me to question that decision.  I was encouraged to take more and different humanities courses (though, to be frank, my English teachers were suspicious of my interest in philosophy), but being “well-rounded’ and “liberally educated”  seems in retrospect to have been largely a matter of being well-rounded in only half of the liberal arts curriculum.  Science and math people were well-rounded in a different way, if they were well-rounded at all.

There’s a lot of reason to question this.  Not least of which being that if our interests and abilities are genetic we have seen a massive surge of the gene pool toward the STEM side of the equation if enrollments in humanities majors is to serve as any judge.  I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who recently pointed out that genius has a lot less to do with giftedness than it does with practice and motivation.  Put 10000 hours in to almost anything and you will become a genius at it (not entirely true, but the general principle applies).  Extrapolating, we might say that even if students aren’t going to be geniuses in math and technology, they could actually get a lot better at it if they’d only try.

And there’s a lot of reason to ask them to try.  At the recent Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest, one of the speakers who did research into the transition of college students in to the workplace pounded the table and declared, “In this job market you must either be a technical student with a liberal arts education or a liberal arts major with technical savvy.  There is no middle ground.”  There is no middle ground.  What became quite clear to me at this conference is that companies mean it that they want students with a liberal arts background.  However, it was also very clear to me that they expect them to have technical expertise that can be applied immediately to job performance. Speaker after speaker affirmed the value of the liberal arts.  They also emphasized the absolute and crying need for computational, mathematical, and scientific literacy.

In other words, we in the Humanities will serve our students extremely poorly if we accept their naive statements about their own genetic makeup, allowing them to proceed with a mathematical or scientific illiteracy that we would cry out against if the same levels of illiteracy were evident in others with respect to our own disciplines.

I’ve found, incidentally, that in my conversations with my colleagues in information sciences or math or sciences, that many of them are much more conversant in the arts and humanities than I or my colleagues are in even the generalities of science, mathematics, or technology.  This ought not to be the case, and in view of that i and a few of my colleagues are considering taking some workshops in computer coding with our information sciences faculty.  We ought to work toward creating a generation of humanists that does not perpetuate our own levels of illiteracy, for their own sake and for the health of our disciplines in the future.

Preliminary Takeaways from Rethinking Success

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.

Accessing the Rethinking Success Conference

Wake Forest has done an exceptional job, I think, of creating this conference as a resource for the academic community at large. The goings-on of the conference can be accessed in realtime through Twitter at #rethinkingsuccess, which they are using as a Storify version of the conference.  (John Fea and I are cited several times, so happy to contribute to the view of what going on).  But they are also doing a good job of getting the word out in other ways.

Andy Chan from Wake Forest is compiling a record of the conference at his blog, and there you can access video interviews with the main speakers as well as summaries of the sessions.

There’s also been some good press, with an Inside Higher Ed report this morning.

Finally, Wake has provided a great resource page that examines these issues through linked articles and essays–a bibliography of the main issues according to the topic.

Kudos to Wake for providing a great service to the academic community.

Are Career Development Officers and Liberal Arts Professors Ships passing in the night?

The first day of the Rethinking Success conference was highly informative and stimulating, but also weirdly disjunctive in certain respects.  This was best represented in the two afternoon sessions.  The first focused on historical perspectives on liberal arts and careers and featured scholars from the liberal arts, Andrew Delbanco (Columbia) and Stan Katz (Princeton).  The second session, focused on Employment and Market issues featuring three panelists concerned primarily with different issues associated with careers and college–Philip Gardner (Collegiate Employment Research institute, Michigan State), Debra Humphreys (AACU), and Mark Zandi (Moody’s Analytics and Economy.com).

Independently these were two very good sessions.  Together I think they embodied a problem rather than elucidating it.

That is all the panelists were passionate about students, concerned about college and its roles in students’ lives, and convinced that we needed to do something different.  However, it was as if the two panels were speaking different languages or talking past one another.  The format of the sessions, which was tightly controlled and didnt really invite cross panel reflections or responses, contributed to this sense I had that we do not really yet have a common language to talk about the liberal arts and careers.  What we really have is two different groups talking about the same thing in the same place, but not really talking in a way that was informed by the other’s concerns.

In the first session Delbanco and Katz raised the traditional defenses of the liberal arts that one could expect of those steeped in and defending that tradition.  By contrast the market trends folk were emphatic about the primacy of career considerations in pursuing your college education. A few of my tweeted notes and paraphrases suggests the contrast:

  • From Andrew Delbanco:  Education is in essence, an effort to resist death, to preserve knowledge and pass it on to our children.
  • From one of the second panelists:  We need to be relying on venture capitalists who can see 5 or 10 years in to the future to predict the kinds of skills and emphases we need to be giving students in their education.
  • From Mark Zandi:  The dollar value of higher education has declined even as the cost of higher education has skyrocketed
  • From Andrew Delbanco:  We’re not providing students the time to reflect, the time for contemplation to reflect on who you are
  • From Philip Gardner:  Internships are the most important thing students do in college.

It’s not that there’s anything specifically wrong with any of these proclamations;  it’s just the these folks aren’t really in conversation with each other and it seems to me that they don’t yet have a language where they can converse.

There was one point of commonality on which everyone seemed to agree, even in their different languages, and that was on the need for breadth and depth, that it is not enough to train narrowly for a specific field but that the creativity and innovation that would be required for successful career paths in the future required a combinations of the two.

  • From Stan Katz:  Provincialism is narrow specialization. Liberal arts creates generalists capable of engaging the larger world.
  • From Gardner:  In this day and age you must either be a liberally educated technical student, or a technically savvy liberal arts student, there is no middle ground.
  • Gardner: Innovation comes from thinking broadly, between functions rather than only in your particular role
  • Humphreys–Narrow Learning is not enough. It’s not a choice between tech ed and big issue ed. We must have both.

I thought the second panel was a little better on this than the representatives of the liberal arts, perhaps because the broad and deep model is still somewhat embodied in systems of general education that rely–in however wan and half-hearted a way in many professional and technical programs in university settings–on a liberal arts ethos.  Ironically, this problem is harder for the denizens of the liberal arts because we have to think through the question of what it might mean for our “deep education” in a liberal arts discipline to be come more deeply connected to the workplace.  What would it mean to develop a technically savvy graduate of a liberal arts program.  One solution would be to reimagine  the general education programs we have so that they had higher components of technological learning–and I think that’s something to consider.  Another possibility would be to think about how to transform our majors so that they insist on higher levels of technological competence as that is appropriate to our changing fields, as well as deeper levels of engagement with the translation and transition of skills from the academy to the marketplace.

And I think that’s something to consider as well.