Category Archives: careers

Should we have college majors at all?

As I’ve suggested before, One of the more startling pronouncements at the Rethinking Success conference last month came from Stanton Green at Monmouth University, in my memory pounding the table and saying that the college major was the worst thing to happen in higher education in the past 150 years.  I’ve thought for a while that a real negative of our current system is the emphasis we put on students selecting a major even before they get to college–a practice driven largely by the need of large professional programs to get students started on their careers from the first semester.

Jeff Seligo at the Chronicle has an interesting blog post this morning on what exactly students think about all the revolution and transformation talk that’s going on in higher ed.  He picks up on this question of the importance of the major, finding anecdotally at least that students are less convinced of the importance of the major than we are:

Majors don’t matter. Perhaps a better question is why we force students to pick a major at all. The number of majors on campus has proliferated in the last two decades, but some academics, such as Mark Taylor or Roger Schank, think we should abolish our traditional notion of majors and build the undergraduate curriculum around broad ideas or problems we face, like water and food production.

Sure, some of the students I talked with were focused on pursuing a specific profession (marketing, for instance) and wanted a degree that would give them a skill set to secure the right internships that eventually would lead to a full-time job. But most of the students said they were less concerned with picking the right major than they were with choosing the classes that would expose them to new subjects or help them connect ideas across disciplines.

via Did Anyone Ask the Students?, Part I – Next – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Of course, getting rid of the college major would require a massive transformation of what it meant to be a college, not just a college student, and moving away from a narrowly defined research or professionally oriented definition of your major.  There’s no sign yet that we would be willing to do that or that prospective students would respond well to a college that did away with majors entirely.

Even Seligo seems inconsistent on this point since just prior to this point about the unimportance of majors, Seligo says we need to have much more intense levels of career preparation in college so that students can not waste time figuring out what they want to do and what they should major in.  How these two assertions get in paragraphs that sit next to each other, I’m not entirely sure, but it may just signal the confusion we have over recognizing that except in some very specific circumstances majors don’t matter as much as we think they do, but we still somehow can only imagine a college education as a preparation for a specific career.

Maybe if we would think of college as preparing students to blaze a trail for their own professional and personal journey instead of following a career path that is predetermined, we’d be able to relieve ourselves of the belief that students need to figure out what they are going to do with their lives when they are 17 and forever after their fates will be determined by a choice made in ignorance by students who cannot possibly know the kinds of people they will be or the opportunities they will have when they are 22, much less 32 or 52.

So I wonder whether readers of this blog think its possible to imagine a world of higher education in which majors don’t exist?

How Do Blogging and Traditional Modes of Scholarly Production Relate?

In the latest edition of the Chronicle’s Digital Campus, Martin Weller makes some strong claims about the significance of blogging.  Recognizing the difficulty of measuring the value of a blog in comparison to traditional modes of journalistic publication, Weller believes that blogging is ultimately in the interest of both institutions and scholarship.

It’s a difficult problem, but one that many institutions are beginning to come to terms with. Combining the rich data available online that can reveal a scholar’s impact with forms of peer assessment gives an indication of reputation. Universities know this is a game they need to play—that having a good online reputation is more important in recruiting students than a glossy prospectus. And groups that sponsor research are after good online impact as well as presentations at conferences and journal papers.

Institutional reputation is largely created through the faculty’s online identity, and many institutions are now making it a priority to develop, recognize, and encourage practices such as blogging.For institutions and individuals alike, these practices are moving from specialist hobby to the mainstream. This is not without its risks, but as James Boyle, author of the book The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2008), argues, we tend to overstate the dangers of open approaches and overlook the benefits, while the converse holds true for the closed system.

The Virtues of Blogging as Scholarly Activity – The Digital Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The claim that an Institutional reputation is largely created through the faculty’s online identity startled me when I first read it, an index no doubt of my deeply held and inveterate prejudice in favor of libraries.  But I have been trying to pound away with the faculty how utterly important our online presence is, and the internet–in many different modes–gives us the opportunity to create windows on humanities work that are not otherwise easily achieved–at least in comparison to some of the work done by our colleagues in the arts or in the sciences.  Blogging is one way of creating connection, of creating vision, and I think that with a very few exceptions like the ivies and the public ivies, it is very much the case that your online presence matters more than any other thing you can possibly do to establish your reputation in the public eye and in the eye of prospective students and their parents.

That is fairly easy to grasp.  The value of the blogging to scholarship in general, or its relationship to traditional scholarship remains more thorny and difficult to parse.  I’ve had conversations with my colleague John Fea over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, and we both agree that in some sense scholars still have to have established some claim to speak through traditional modes of publication in order to give their scholarly blogging some sense of authority.  People listen to John about History because he’s published books and articles. [Why people listen to me I have no idea–although I do have books and articles I have nothing like John’s reputation;  it may have something to do with simply holding a position.  Because I am a dean at a college I can lay claim to certain kinds of experience that are relevant to discussing the humanities].

I am not sure it will always be thus.  I think the day is fast approaching when publishing books will become less and less important as the arbiter of scholarly authority.  But I think for now and perhaps for a very good long time to come, blogging exist in an interesting symbiosis with other traditional forms of scholarship. Weller quotes John Naughton to this effect:  “Looking back on the history,” he writes, “one clear trend stands out: Each new technology increased the complexity of the ecosystem.”

I’ve read some things lately that say blogging may be on its way out, replaced in the minds of the general public, I guess, by Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.  But for now I think it remains an interesting and somewhat hybrid academic form.  A forum for serious thought and reasonably good writing, but not one that claims to be writing for the ages.  In some respects, I think the best blogging is more like the recovery of the eighteenth century Salon, wherein wit that demonstrated learning and acumen was highly valued, and perhaps a basis of academic life that stood unembarrassed next to the more muscular form of the book. Blogging is one clearly important addition to the scholarly ecosystem, playing off of and extending traditional scholarship rather than simply replacing it.

In my own life right now, as an administrator, I have too little time during the school year to pursue the writing of a 40 page article or a 400 page book–nor, right now, do I have the interest or inclination (however much I want to get back and finish the dang Harlem Renaissance manuscript that sits moldering in my computer).  I do, however, continue to feel the need to contribute to scholarly conversation surrounding the humanities and higher education in general.  Blogging is one good way to do that, and one that, like Weller, I find enjoyable, creative, and stress relieving–even when I am writing my blog at 11:00 at night to make sure I can get something posted.  Ever the Protestant and his work ethic.

Is it irresponsible to advise undergraduates to major in the Humanities?

I am not usually given to screeds about the press.  I advised the newspaper here at Messiah College for several years, I sponsored a recent overhaul of our journalism curriculum, and I continue to have broad if now somewhat indirect responsibility for student media here at the college.  And, secretly, in my heart of hearts I think we need a lot more professors in the humanities looking for how to have second careers in journalism, communicating directly with the public in accessible terms about the thorny difficulties of their work.  So I appreciate journalists, thinking they have a hard job that is mostly under appreciated.  The only world that is worse than a world with a free press is a world without one.

That having been said, today’s piece in the NY Times by Frank Bruni is opinion, and it strikes me as thoughtless opinion, mostly just sounding the cant notes about a liberal arts education that are increasingly becoming the common nonsense of the American public at large.  Although I agree with Bruni that a great deal needs to be done to address the job prospects and job preparation of American College students, the wisdom in his prescriptions is scant and would likely result in an educational program less helpful to students not more.  Says Bruni after lamenting the job prospects of anthropology and philosophy majors (there are hordes of them out there, have you noticed):

I single out philosophy and anthropology because those are two fields — along with zoology, art history and humanities — whose majors are least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level, according to government projections quoted by the Associated Press. But how many college students are fully aware of that? How many reroute themselves into, say, teaching, accounting, nursing or computer science, where degree-relevant jobs are easier to find? Not nearly enough, judging from the angry, dispossessed troops of Occupy Wall Street.

The thing is, today’s graduates aren’t just entering an especially brutal economy. They’re entering it in many cases with the wrong portfolios. To wit: as a country we routinely grant special visas to highly educated workers from countries like China and India. They possess scientific and technical skills that American companies need but that not enough American students are acquiring.

via The Imperiled Promise of College – NYTimes.com.

I can’t get past the irony that Bruni was an English major in college and has a degree in journalism.  Real growth industries.  I realize the ad hominem, but frankly, Frank ought to know better.

My overriding concern is that these bromides about channeling students in to areas where there supposedly will be jobs rests on multiple assumed grounds that are shaky at best, sand at worst.

First, it is terribly misguided to believe that what a student thinks they want when they are 17–or what we think they ought to want–is an adequate index of what they will want or what they will succeed at.  College is first and foremost a time of exploration and development, a time of discovery.  Most students change their major after entering college, most end up doing something after college that is not directly related to their fields of study, and most will change fields and go in different directions during the course of their lives.  When I was 17 I thought I wanted to be a lawyer and possibly go in to politics;  I began as a major in History and Political Science, then shifted to English because I enjoyed the classes more.  I had a conversion experience at the hands of T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Joe McClatchey–not the poet, the Victorianist at Wheaton College where I did my undergraduate work, the best teacher I ever had–and decided to go for a degree in creative writing in the hopes that I would be the next Walker Percy.  It wasn’t until my second year of graduate school that I decided I loved higher education and wanted a PhD, and it wasn’t until I was nearly 50 that I decided administration could be a noble calling. (Others still doubt).  A long way from my early dream of being a congressman or a Senator, a long way from the dream of being a William Faulkner or a Hemingway.

It is secondarily irresponsible to believe that we can know what the hot jobs will be in the 2020, much less 2030 or 2040, despite our prognostications.  Five years ago Finance majors were littering the coffeeshops of Camp Hill (ok, there’s only one), having graduated from the best colleges only to be back home living with their parents.  In my own case, I am very sure that whatever the hot jobs were in the 1970s, novelist and Senator were not among them. But whatever we thought they were, I’m sure they aren’t all that hot any more. We do not, in fact, know what turns the economy will take, though we can know that we need students who are broadly educated, in whom creativity has been inculated and encouraged, and who possess the flexibility and the skills that can be adapted to a rapidly changing job environment.  There’s nothing about majoring in philosophy or anthropology that prevents students from having that kind of “portfolio”–indeed, their majors do much to produce the skills they will need, and in combination with a general education and elective choices that can develop their skills and knowledge base in technical field or in business, such a student could be extremely desirable for a wide range of jobs in the economy of the future.

Thirdly, WHY PICK ON PHILOSOPHY?  It makes up less than one half of one percent of all college majors in the country and anthropology majors not too many more.  Does Bruni really believe this is a solution to our economic difficulties?  GET RID OF PHILOSOPHY MAJORS.  There’s a political slogan with legs and an economic program with brio.  Why even pick on humanities majors as a whole–depending on which set of majors you take up, they make up between 8 and 12 percent of the nationwide student population and have for a very long time.  Their unemployment rates are somewhat higher that the nation as a whole–though not so drastic as the doom sayers suggest–but there are so many fewer of us it is laughable to believe that the unemployment problem is going to be solved by getting those who remain to drop what they are doing and become unhappy engineers.  Bruni was an English major so I will forgive his weaknesses with statistics.

Finally, is it really healthy for the nation to believe that we are going to be better off creating an educational system in which all students are wedged in to jobs for which they are ill suited, for which they have no personal gifts or desires, and through which they have fewer and fewer options.   Is this really what education for a free society will look like?  When I was young, we descried the fact that the Soviet Union forced students into narrow frames of life in the names of the Soviet five year plans.  We now do this in the name of markets and call it “incentivizing.”

It is not irresponsible to believe that colleges should do more to prepare students for the job market that will await them, but it is irresponsible to believe we will solve the problems facing students by forcing them all in to preprofessional or technical majors.  Indeed, if I can be forgiven one more point, it is bizarre that Bruni thinks a student’s portfolio is made up of his or her college major.  A student brings or ought to bring an entire panoply of experiences associated with college life, in and outside the classroom, and through internships and other forms of learning as well.  Believing that we can solve students’ problems by channeling them in to a major demonstrates a poor understanding of both how education works and how the job market works.

We need to do better, but doing what Bruni suggests will be doing disaster, not doing better.  We need to remember, first, to paraphrase Andy Chan down at Wake Forest, that we are in the education business not the job placement business, even if students getting jobs is important.  We are not a job shop, we are a culture and community that touches the whole of student lives–including their preparations for a career after college.  When we are at our best that is for their individual good and their individual portfolios, but also for the good of the nation as a whole–not just its economy.  That is what responsible education looks like.

What is an education for? Remembering the American Revolution

History can remind us of just how expansive our ancestors could be, and how foreshortened our own vision has become.  One thing that makes our current discussion of higher education so difficult is the dramatic impoverishment of the range of our discourse about educational purposes: the narrower our frame of reference the more cramped our imagination, the more limited our creative responses to crisis, and the fewer our possible options.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham begins his sixth chapter with a citation from John Adams.

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy.  My sons ought to study mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculature, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

Of this particular citation and others like it, Harpham goes on to say,

[It] is worth recalling that once upon a time the ruling class–which had also been the revolutionary class–imagined that they were risking their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in behalf of a futurity where what would come to be called the humanities would dominate the concerns of the citizenry.  They humanities, they felt, would represent the crowning achievement of a nation that, having prevailed in war, would build its new society on a foundation of such economic, political, military, and social security that citizens could enrich their lives by turning their attention to the study and appreciation of material and textual artifacts…Adams, Jefferson, and others believed that a general concern for the humanities represented not only the best possible future for the new nation but also the natural progression of mankind, if freed from fear and want.

 We are, of course, a long way from that vision now, our educational vision cramped by a cultural imagination that extends no further than security, economic security first and foremost, but other kinds of security as well.  The quest for security leads fathers to discourage their sons interest in poetry and philosophy and insists that they study business, or leads other students to declare as education majors so they “have something to fall back on”.  It’s worth noting that Adams spoke in a period far more precarious and insecure for the American Republic than anything we face today, and so our current obsessions and fears that education ought to be about employment first and always seems spiritually and ethically….empty.  In the midst of a national experiment that could still have failed, Adams was able to imagine that work existed for the higher purposes of education, rather than education existing for the “practical” purposes of work.

Not that there was no debate between advocates for what is now called professional education and what we continue to call the liberal arts.  It was, in some respects, ever thus, even if it seems more thus now than ever. Harpham points out that John Locke was a philosopher in favor of what we now call professional education and dismissive of the preciousness of the liberal arts.  Harpham also points out that it is a good thing the Lockes of the world did not win the argument and the Adamses did since no one would now be reading either one were it not for the continuing if weakened importance of a liberal arts education.

However,  I think there’s an irony in Adams’s formulation (and in Harpham’s appreciation of it) since it seems to assume that fear and want are defined qualities that can be addressed, finite needs that can be satisfied.  We live in a society that in some respects makes a living off the generation and regeneration of fear–the beneficiaries being our massive security industries–the prisons, the military, homeland security, gated communities, home security systems, and on and on.  We are also a culture defined by the generation of want rather than its satisfaction.  As much as I admired Steve Jobs, Apple is a company built on the generation of desire for things people never knew they wanted, and the iconic Apple is one small mythic reminder of the infinite allure of the new product hanging like fruit from the lowest shelf.

The irony of Adams’s formulation is that there is never any end of want, and our insatiable desires generate, at a minimum, the ongoing fear that we will somehow lose track of all our baubles or have them taken from us.  And our fundamental fears for our children have to do with the fear that they will have fewer baubles than we have.  And so finally, if want and if fear are potentially never ending–like the wars that Adams feels compelled to study–what room left ever for those higher human ideals that Adams deferred for himself. I think he deferred them unknowingly for his sons and daughters and granddaughters and grandsons as well. Are they not deferred always, if we begin with the belief that security is the means and education is at the end? In the world we have created we will never be secure enough for the poetry and philosophy that Adams at least desired for his progeny.

A couple of years ago I tried to think through my own rationale for the purposes of education.  You can listen to it here as you have interest:  Convocation Address: Education for Praise

Can a liberal arts ethos and a professionalized research faculty co-exist?

I’ve been reading Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s recent book, Humanities and the Dream of America, whiling away the hours on my exercise bike.  Ok, half hours.  I’ve been struck by the similarities in analysis between Harpham and Andrew Delbanco’s analysis of the college as a distinctly American achievement, having just finished Delbanco’s meditation on the nature of the college a week or so ago.

For both, the fundamental antagonist to the ideals of the liberal arts has not been professional programs per se–though undergraduate programs in things like businesss, nursing, and engineering (and a host of others) are favorite bete noirs of our current humanistic discourse about the purposes of education.  Rather, for both the real threat lies in the research university and the ethos of specialization that it entails.  This emphasis of specialized knowledge is itself inherently narrowing, and is opposed to the generous expansiveness of spirit that, at least in theory, characterizes the highest ideals of a liberal arts education.

Like Delbanco, Harpham draws on Newman as a first resource for the fully articulated ideal of the idea that education should enrich our human experience, fitting us primarily for a life well lived, rather than for the specifics of a living.  I’m intrigued, though, that Harpham brings out this ethos not only as characterizing the curricular choices and the spiritual, ethical and cultural teloi of the undergraduate [side note, we no longer would use a word like teloi; we would invoke learning objectives];  more than that, this ethos characterizes the faculty and their understanding of their role in the life of the mind.

Moreover, the institution devoted to producing Newman’s protege bears little resemblance to today’s institutions of higher learning. Newman’s idea of a university had no room for either specialized or comprehensive knowledge, and the professors who taught there should, he fervently believed-it is the very first statement in the book-have nothing to do with research, an obsessive activity best conducted by those whose minds were too sadly contracted to engage in full life. …

Newman intuitively understood that the real threat to liberal education in his own time was not the shade of Locke but the spirit of research then crescent in Germany. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States had begun to Germanize its academy, with some university faculties organizing themselves into departments that granted degrees that came to constitute credentials. With credentialing came professionalism, and with professionalism growth. President Lawrence Lowell of Harvard (1909-33) laid the foundation for Harvard’s eminence as a research powerhouse by encouraging his faculty to think of themselves as professionals.4 This meant adopting impersonal criteria of scholarly competence within each discipline, cultivating a spirit of empirical and methodological rigor, and coming to agreement about what would count as standards of achievement in a small, self-certifying group of mandarins

The new professionalism functioned as a way of insulating the university from extra-academic pressures by creating a separate world of academe that could be judged only by its own standards. But professionalism was accompanied by its dark familiars, partition and competition. A professionalized faculty was a faculty divided into units, each claiming considerable autonomy in matters of hiring and promotion, and competing with other units for salaries, students, office space, and prestige. Such competition naturally placed some stress on amity, and so while undergraduates were expected to enjoy four stress-free years in the groves of academe, the faculty in the same institutions were facing the prospect of going at it hammer and tong, competing with each other virtually face to face, for the rest of their lives.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham. The Humanities and the Dream of America (pp. 127-128). Kindle Edition.

This seems about right to me, and it might pass without comment, but it raises a troubling contradiction.  In most of the strong defenses of the liberal arts that I hear, the notion that faculty should abandon research or that the fullness of the liberal arts spirit is best embodied by a faculty full of generalists is never among them.  Indeed, quite the opposite.  We want an institution to display its commitment to the liberal arts precisely by giving more support to faculty research so that faculty can become more and more specialized, more fully recognized in their professional disciplines, more disconnected from the immediacy of their liberal arts institutions, and less able to exemplify the generalist qualities that we say we value as fully humanizing.

What this argument for the liberal arts wants (I’m not saying there aren’t other arguments), is a research university, or at least a research college, with a commitment to research in the liberal arts and all the prestige that entails.  What we definitely do not want to do is give up the right to writing books that no one wants to read so that we can demonstrate our particularly specialized knowledge.

The faculty, as Harpham recognizes, is fully professionalized, and in many respects in the liberal arts we have created specialized professional programs, imagining that our students are professors in embryo.  The college major is now, in many respects, a professional program ,and it is worth noting that the idea of a college major is coextensive with the advent of the research university.  Indeed, I have heard the argument that we should have much larger majors in the humanities than we do have because the size of the major is a measure of its prestige in the college, competing then as it would with the gargantuan programs in engineering, nursing, and many of the hard sciences, programs that students can barely finish in four years, if they can.  So much for our sentimental sop about the value of breadth of mind and spirit.

Can a research faculty that shows no real interest in giving up the ideals of research exemplify and support a genuine liberal arts ethos in an American college today (leaving aside the question of whether liberal arts colleges will survive at all)? I am not sure what the route out of this conundrum actually is.  I stopped in the middle of Harpham’s chapter where he actually has just noted that faculty in the liberal arts are essentially professionals and conceive of themselves as professionals in ways quite similar to their brethren in professional programs.  I am not sure where he is going with that insight, but I look forward to finding out.

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.

Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop in Search of CEOs

One sign of the crisis of confidence in the humanities is that we keep feeling compelled to trot out CEOs to make our case for us.  It’s a little like the way we cited Freud in graduate school even if we believed the emperor had no clothes, just because we knew our professors believed he did.  And so, while we’d like to be citing John Henry Newman on the Idea of a Christian University or Socrates on the tragedy of an unexamined life, we look to the world of business for hopeful confirmation.  This is the way of both presidents and preachers, so why not professors.

I’m not too proud to play that game, so I note this recent essay from Jason Trennert in Forbes, reminding us again that there are lessons important to the boardroom that are learned best in history books and not in business seminars.

I was fortunate enough to attend great schools, earning both a bachelor’s degree in economics and an MBA, and I’ve wondered more times than I care to admit in the last few years whether I learned a damn thing.

After considerable thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that the broader, more liberal arts- oriented courses I took in my undergraduate years did far more to help me to adapt to what was deemed to be “economically unprecedented” than the more technical lessons I learned in business school. Not once in the last three years did I feel compelled to develop more complex mathematical models to help me discern what was happening.

This was due, at least in part, to an almost immediate revelation that it was these same models that sowed the seeds of the financial collapse in the first place. The financial crisis didn’t prompt me to do more math but to read quite a bit more history.

Opportunities for Undergraduate Research in the Digital Humanities

There are three compelling reasons for an administrator in the humanities to support efforts in the digital humanities:  first, DH provides opportunities for serious reflection on what it means to be human now using tools central to human being in the digital age, this quest for understanding the appropriately central task of humanists;  second, DH provides opportunities for students to acquire technical skills that are no longer optional for college graduates transitioning in to the world of work;  third, DH provides serious opportunities for students to pursue original research in the humanities, contributing to the basic fund of knowledge that humanists and society at large will build on in the future.

Regarding this last, I’ve done just a little bit of scratching related to the possibilities related to undergraduate research, attending most recently the Re:Humanities conference at Swarthmore.  Adeline Koh, who has become something of a twitter interlocutor on these issues, was kind enough to point me to Richard Stockton College’s blog post on the conference (Messiah College’s own Larry Lake was mentioned), which in turn led me to the Richard Stockton Postcolonial project.  A really fine example of undergraduate thinking at work in a way that will contribute to our broader understanding of the postcolonial experience.  I am impressed that this kind of work is managed at the undergraduate level, and apparently without massive infusions of institutional infrastructure and cash.  I also love the fact that it is clearly collaborative work between a professor and students, it includes not only literature students but a student majoring in biology, and it provides opportunities for students to reflect on their own learning.  The quality of the project is such that MLA is archiving it in its database of scholarly websites.  Nice work.

There’s going to be another opportunity to hear about and review the best student work in this area via the NITLE symposium on undergraduate research in digital humanities.  NITLE has been a strong advocate for ug research in digital humanities.  I hope I can connect to the symposium.

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.