Katherine S. Brooks, the director of liberal-arts-career services at the University of Texas at Austin, has written a short essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education that every scholar in the humanities and every career center professional should read. (In fact, the article was forwarded to me by one of the counselors in Messiah College’s stellar Career Center. This employee also happens to be my wife!). Unfortunately, the article is only available on-line to Chronicle subscribers, but I will try to provide a summary below.
Brooks’s article, “Closing the Gap Between the Liberal-Arts and Career Services,” addresses some of the roadblocks facing career service professionals when they try to bring their expertise to liberal arts faculty and departments. I must admit that early in my career I was a lot like the humanities scholars who Brooks writes about. I could not fathom how someone in something called a “career center” could possibly know how to help a history major find a job or get accepted into a graduate school. Yet, as I think more in terms of serving my students and my institution, especially in an economy where it is difficult for students majoring in the traditional liberal-arts to find work, I am convinced that we need to do more to help students consider the many, many things they can do with a history major beyond teaching and graduate school in the field.
“…the absence of a clear career path is an important factor in declining enrollment in the liberal-arts that hasn’t been adequately dealt with by most colleges. As things stand now, students are asked to take a leap of faith that what they learn will ultimately reveal its value. At what point, I wonder, will academic deans and faculties consider career development an integral part of a liberal-arts education?
Brooks insists that liberally-educated students must be able to articulate to potential employers the value of their liberal-arts education and how their skills will transfer to the workplace. She writes: “employment is too complex a system to be distilled to one factor like a major.” She uses chaos theory to help her students map out how their acquired skills and passions might translate to the job market.
History majors, who initially discussed reading and research skills, discovered that a prerequisite to the major is being “audaciously curious” and on a search for “truth,” despite its elusive nature. They ponder how different the nightly news would be if newsrooms were fully staffed with history majors instead of communication majors….Once they’ve had this epiphany, it’s amazing how simple it is to teach them to articulate their knowledge to an employer or graduate-school admissions officer.
Here are a few more tidbits from the article worth noting:
There’s no way to predict which moments of a liberal-arts education will be directly relevant in the workplace, but it’s imperative that students know such moments occur frequently, and that the skills and knowledge they’re learning are far from obscure and irrelevant.
Academic departments should evaluate their career-development efforts to ensure that students understand and can articulate the value of their major
Never underestimate the power of liberal-arts graduates who know the value of their degree.
If more liberal-arts faculty and career experts get together, watch out–the results could be amazing. Philosophy departments might just have to limit their enrollment and send their rejected students, disgruntled and frustrated, to the business schools.
I am convinced. In fact, I am going to buy Brooks’s book. It is time that history professors conceive of their vocations more broadly. Should we cease serving the discipline? No. Should we cease serving the classroom? Of course not. As Brooks argues, our liberal-arts curriculum should remain robust. But I wonder just how much we are doing to serve our majors as they ponder what to do with their history degree, especially in these uncertain times.