No More Digitally Challenged Liberal-Arts Majors

How to give B.A.'s in arts and humanities more career options without abandoning the life of the mind

Douglas Paulin for The Chronicle

November 18, 2013

One of my roles as director of a program in the "digital liberal arts" is to close the gap between what our students are learning and the expectations of the job markets in their fields.

While I don't think liberal-arts education should be at the service of employers, I do think it is important to enable our B.A.'s to build careers that allow them to continue what they valued about their undergraduate experiences. Too many liberal-arts graduates, especially in the arts and humanities, struggle to find their first positions, and many end up in jobs that have few obvious connections to what they imagined themselves doing. Yearning to follow their academic interests and to be appreciated for what they have to contribute, they end up going to graduate school.

We know that the realities of job placement after graduate school will not deter most of them from pursuing Ph.D.'s. In general we have done a poor job of creating partnerships and career paths that would allow undergraduate majors in, say, English and art history to continue doing what they love, and to make a living at it without going straight into a Ph.D. program.

Too many career-services offices seem to still see the primary objective of arts and humanities majors as graduate school, and do not give enough thought to their other options. Those offices focus their energies on students with degrees that are more easily marketed to potential employers. Professors want to help, of course, but most do not have recent experience outside of academe, and, just as important, they generally do not have nonacademic networks that can help undergraduates get job interviews. Some faculty members have experiences or political convictions that cause them to talk about the "corporate world" in negative terms.

And, of course, many arts and humanities departments rate their success on the basis of graduate-school placements, not on their ability to help B.A. students find good positions immediately after graduation. We celebrate the graduates who seem most like ourselves—the ones who set out to become academics—and we don't talk much about what happens to those graduates after they've earned their Ph.D.'s. Without that conversation, we ill serve many of our students, and we undercut the impact that our fields could have beyond academe.

The alternative-academic movement has done much to encourage the "rebooting" of graduate education to consider supporting a wider range of career options for Ph.D.'s. For those of us who teach at liberal-arts colleges, I think we need to extend that reform to undergraduate education: We must tell undergraduate majors in the arts and humanities that graduate school is but one option, which should be researched carefully in advance. And we should be working just as hard to help those students explore careers that take their values, interests, and skills into occupations that can begin immediately after graduation.

Students who are considering a career path are usually advised to do some informational interviewing: Talk with people who already are doing what you might like to do. That's good advice for faculty members as well: We should be talking, not just with each other, but also with the people who might want to employ our graduates.

At Hope College, we have an experiential-education program called the Philadelphia Center, directed by Rosina Miller. Founded in 1967 as a way for Midwestern students to gain a better understanding of life in a large, diverse metropolis, the center offers an unusual combination of coursework connected to internships relevant to the students' career aspirations.

My students tend to focus on internships in galleries, libraries, archives, museums, publishers, and foundations, but there are more than 800 options, representing every career path imaginable. Our students come back from the center transformed in many ways: more confident and professional, as well as more aware of opportunities for applying their degrees to the workplace.

For several years now, I have been meeting with the center's faculty members, students, and internship directors to learn what they are hearing from employers about our students. Again and again they hear potential employers say things like, "We like liberal-arts graduates. They are curious and creative, they write well, they can do research, they are quick learners, and they are good critical thinkers." The best of them have the "ability to synthesize and distill large amounts of information." And "we especially need individuals who are good storytellers—who can convey the mission of our organization in a variety of forms."

All good so far. We liberal-arts faculty members pride ourselves on graduates who have those qualities and who can do those things. But employers also have other, more specific and immediate needs: "What we ­really want right now is someone who can build and maintain our website and publicize our work appropriately using social media. We want graduates who can generate content, of course, but they also need some technical skills. And most of the time we can only hire one person. Do you have anyone like that?"

"We want liberal-arts graduates who are not digitally challenged," one museum director said.

That message seems to echo a recent report that executives value liberal-arts graduates, almost without regard to discipline, but that those graduates are seldom hired unless they can get past the screening processes of human-resources offices dealing with large numbers of applicants. At the entry level, most employers are looking for specific skills and experiences that many liberal-arts graduates do not possess, or are not well prepared to articulate, though they could be acquired relatively easily in comparison with more-elusive qualities, such as creativity and critical thinking. Employers are, of course, expecting that some training will be necessary on the job, but they are obviously less open to graduates who seem completely "raw," unprofessional, undisciplined, or unwilling to work within an institutional culture.

In addition to web design (including repeated mentions of WordPress, Drupal, Dreamweaver, JavaScript, HTML, and CSS, though this list is sure to change quickly), there seems to be a consensus about what's most needed to enhance the marketability of liberal-arts graduates. Evidence of teamwork—the ability to work collaboratively on large projects with different kinds of people—is extremely important, along with time management and the skill to juggle multiple tasks. Employers also want people who can work with data and statistics and are able to make lucid arguments, using spreadsheets and visualizations, that are grounded in quantitative ways of thinking. (One employer said she was "tired of graduates with only half of a mind.") They want employees who can give compelling presentations in a variety forms and contexts, from elevator speeches to lectures before large public audiences. Rather than mere assertions of ability, employers want concrete examples of how job candidates have demonstrated those skills.

More than anything, employers want adaptability. They often use words like "self-starting," "bootstrapping," and "entrepreneurship." Essentially they want employees who are able to think for themselves—within parameters—and who are able to learn on the fly, without excuses or needing a lot of hand-holding or micromanagement. They want people who can get things done, even if it's something they've never done before.

Based on what employers say they want, liberal-arts graduates should have a distinct advantage because they possess a breadth of experiences in a wide range of subjects, including quantitative and qualitative disciplines. They should have cultivated presentation skills and teamwork, and, maybe most of all, the ability to adapt, again and again, to the changing expectations of individual classes, projects, and co-curricular activities.

I don't think we need to create philosophy majors who are also software developers—though that's not a bad combination—but liberal-arts graduates should be confident that they can learn anything because they have demonstrated success at it repeatedly.

This is not a call to abandon liberal-arts education as the pursuit of learning for its own sake, but rather to help our students—to paraphrase Frederich Buechner—match their passions to the world's needs. I take it as a matter of faith that the world needs the kinds of skills and interests that we cultivate in our students at liberal-arts colleges and at other institutions with similar missions. But the challenge remains: How do we best help take those passions into places where they can have the most impact?

As Mark Clark, a long-serving faculty mentor at the Philadelphia Center, described it to me, "As much as we love the life of the mind, we need to show students how they can take that experience into contexts that are not necessarily exclusive to academic culture. The world needs those kinds of people far more than the world needs more future adjunct faculty."

The conversations I've had in the context of the Philadelphia Center suggest a compelling response to the false yet endlessly repeated narrative that the only options for students in the arts and humanities are graduate school and unemployment. Broader opportunities are available for students who follow another route: experiential education, combined with technological training and collaborative research, and built on the traditional foundations of the liberal arts,

(And the specifics of how that is accomplished will be the subject of another essay.)

William Pannapacker is a professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employers.