What We Should Be Teaching in the Humanities and Social Sciences

teaching humanitities

When students consider majoring in the humanities or social sciences, it’s only a matter of time before they hear—or are reminded—about the comparatively dim career outlook for graduates of these programs. Many students, perhaps with a parent or trusted advisor also expressing concern about the viability of nonprofessional degrees, turn away and seek out fields of study with better career profiles.

The challenges confronting humanities and social sciences graduates exist despite the widespread acknowledgement that employers and, by logical extension, the economy as a whole, would benefit from a talent pool with broad and diverse skill sets. These disciplines also transmit vital cultural and social knowledge, not to mention promote the type of informed, engaged citizenry so necessary for a healthy democracy. As this article was going to press, a study was released highlighting the disconnect between higher education and the workplace, wherein liberal arts majors were not ending up in certain occupations for which they were well qualified, including in STEM and healthcare.

Taken together, these factors suggest that a comprehensive approach to workforce development should include reinvigorating the humanities and social sciences. I’d like to discuss one powerful and easily implementable component of that strategy. It centers on two things: a more robust effort to provide students in these disciplines with skills and experiences that will enhance their career prospects and, just as important, an awareness of how to market those experiences when they create their resumes and apply for jobs. This can be done without diluting traditional curricula or otherwise compromising the integrity of courses in those fields. I also argue that faculty and instructors should be front and center in this effort.

Admittedly, this approach defines the quality of one’s career outlook based on employability and compensation. This is not to deny the importance of intrinsic rewards such as fulfillment and doing good, but rather because pecuniary concerns are such prominent drivers of enrollment trends and decision about majors.

Barriers and solutions

There are barriers working against faculty and instructors in humanities and social science courses embracing an expanded role in intentional career preparation. Some of them involve faculty awareness and capacity, while others are attitudinal or pragmatic. These barriers are not insurmountable.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” size=”22″]A comprehensive approach to workforce development should include reinvigorating the humanities and social sciences.[/perfectpullquote]Let’s start with the issue of awareness. For the first several decades of their careers, faculty in more traditional fields didn’t have much reason to think about the employability of their majors. It certainly wasn’t part of the curriculum when they went to college and, to the extent they had their eye on entering academia, it wasn’t much of a personal concern. In addition, the focus on the link between college major and career outcomes may be laser-like now, but plenty of onlookers—well beyond the faculty ranks—did not foresee this. But these factors no longer justify the lack of awareness among faculty. Student career outcomes and mounting student debt have received massive amounts of attention, leaving few excuses for faculty who remain unaware. Deans and department chairs who fail to hammer this awareness home are equally remiss.

As for issues of capacity, faculty and instructors may not feel equipped to teach discrete job-related skills or job-search tactics in their philosophy, political science, history, or literature course. Some may believe that vocational preparation is outside their purview. Isn’t that what the professionals in career services are brought on board to do? But many courses in these disciplines already help develop career competencies, and there are plenty of other steps that require little additional training. Career services staff, along with academic administrators, can provide helpful hints and shovel-ready suggestions. Even if an instructor or faculty member has trouble integrating changes throughout their existing syllabus, there’s always the option of a stand-alone special project or presentation. Beyond the specific content of the humanities and social science fields are the higher order thinking skills, problem-solving approaches, and reasoned discourse that their faculty assiduously promote. Those are the very skills many employers wish more employees possessed.

There are also attitudinal barriers to faculty action in this realm. One of them seems to be the fear that a focus on job-related skills in humanities and social science courses somehow sullies and compromises the purity of the content in these courses. For generations, these disciplines have been viewed through the lens of theory, research, discourse, and debate. Pegging these fields to specific occupations or merely thinking about course content through an occupational lens could diminish the integrity of the content. Besides is it really in a faculty member’s interest to divert students to jobs only marginally related to the discipline when there’s a chance those students could end up as scholars in the field?

But there’s an alternative way to think about this. The history major who ends up working for, say, a financial firm, and bringing the knowledge, theoretical perspectives, and methods of her discipline to bear might be seen as increasing the discipline’s exposure, widening its influence, and underscoring its broader relevance. If all this helps attract more enrollment, that further contributes to the overall health of these disciplines.

The final set of barriers are pragmatic—the reality of busy faculty and instructor lives in and outside of work, and courses already full of content. Is there time to teach our beloved content and then to add a vocational component as well? The answer is yes, especially if faculty are provided with model syllabi and ideas for projects, and they get to see how seamlessly this can be done within the existing course design. For example, a short debriefing session after a group project might help students think about what they learned about working with others and how this is germane to their careers.

Learning experiences that build resumes

A run-down of how to cultivate the employability of humanities and social science students begins with a simple but essential step: having faculty and instructors identify the skills, experiences, and knowledge from their courses that can be translated into specific bullet points on the resume. This can begin immediately, using what they already include in their course. Students can be provided with sample wording—perhaps enshrined on the syllabus—and should be encouraged to add it to their resumes right away.

The fundamental importance of converting skills and experiences into explicit resume items stems from the need for hiring managers to have applicants’ qualifications neatly correlate to specific job descriptions, as the rapid-fire initial vetting process for jobs leaves little time for thought or analysis. Even if employers are looking for, or would unknowingly benefit from, the knowledge and attributes gained from a cutting-edge humanities or social science curriculum, they are also looking for experience or at least potential in a well-defined set of job tasks. That practical reality cannot be overstated. The resume must, therefore, make it exceedingly clear that our humanities and social sciences graduates fit the bill.

Other steps include:

  • Faculty can incorporate additional specific competencies in humanities and social science courses. For example, courses could include projects through which students learn a common statistical software package, such as SPSS. Experience with Internet databases or the development of interviewing skills via focus group facilitation are other specific employable skills that can be listed on a resume. Even proficiency with common business tools, such as Microsoft Access, PowerPoint, or project management software prepares students from these majors to hit the job market with some hands-on experiences and abilities.
  • Broader job-relevant qualities can also be more intentionally inculcated. Capstone courses are perfect places in the curriculum to provide significant experiences in areas such as project management and leadership. Capstone projects can develop important communication skills, such as leading meetings, facilitating discussion, persuasion and advocacy in public venues, and training, education, and outreach.
  • Faculty and instructors can specifically and repeatedly point out the skills students are developing in these courses and stop assuming they are obvious. The syllabus, again, is a good place to identify these skills. Preparing reports, responding to requests for information, answering difficult questions with clear logic and empirical support are all widely applicable. Working with people you don’t know—and may not initially like or work well with—teaches students how to keep personal feelings from interfering with professional responsibilities.
  • Humanities and social science courses should have internships. Administrators in charge of these degrees and faculty who teach in them should make internships a requirement. They should work with students to find job placements that give them new experiences and further develop their skills. Information can readily be distributed electronically and reinforced with announcements in class. An English major with on-the-job writing experience will have a competitive edge over a student without that experience.
  • Humanities and social science degrees can be augmented with professional degree minors or certificates. A collection of courses in management, finance, or business logistics may be seen by employers as the best of both worlds. Faculty should encourage students to explore these options and administrators should make the addition of course work in professional areas viable options in terms of curricular requirements. One way to overcome reluctance toward efforts on this front is to highlight the many thematic commonalities between the humanities and social sciences disciplines and business-oriented offerings and explain how the two areas can be mutually reinforcing when studied in tandem.

A major in the humanities or social sciences can be the springboard to a great career—there is plenty of evidence for that. But students could be graduating from these majors with even more tools than they do now, and we should take discrete steps to make it all glaringly evident to their prospective managers and colleagues. This strategy will benefit students and employers and it might just provide the shot in the arm these vital disciplines need.

Chris Morett is the director of the Office of Scheduling and Space Management at Rutgers University. In this position he guides the daily operations of the office and provides strategic direction on office policies and practices. He also advises on the planning of new instructional and learning spaces throughout the New Brunswick campuses. You can follow him on Twitter @crmorett.

For readers who might be curious, given the thrust of this article, Morett did his graduate work in sociology and public policy (University at Albany) and, as an undergraduate, majored in political science and minored in religion and history (Rutgers). He remains a strong proponent of the social sciences and humanities.

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[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen students consider majoring in the humanities or social sciences, it’s only a matter of time before they hear—or are reminded—about the comparatively dim career outlook for graduates of these programs. Many students, perhaps with a parent or trusted advisor also expressing concern about the viability of nonprofessional degrees, turn away and seek out fields of study with better career profiles. The challenges confronting humanities and social sciences graduates exist despite the widespread acknowledgement that employers and, by logical extension, the economy as a whole, would benefit from a talent pool with broad and diverse skill sets. These disciplines also transmit vital cultural and social knowledge, not to mention promote the type of informed, engaged citizenry so necessary for a healthy democracy. As this article was going to press, a study was released highlighting the disconnect between higher education and the workplace, wherein liberal arts majors were not ending up in certain occupations for which they were well qualified, including in STEM and healthcare. Taken together, these factors suggest that a comprehensive approach to workforce development should include reinvigorating the humanities and social sciences. I’d like to discuss one powerful and easily implementable component of that strategy. It centers on two things: a more robust effort to provide students in these disciplines with skills and experiences that will enhance their career prospects and, just as important, an awareness of how to market those experiences when they create their resumes and apply for jobs. This can be done without diluting traditional curricula or otherwise compromising the integrity of courses in those fields. I also argue that faculty and instructors should be front and center in this effort. Admittedly, this approach defines the quality of one’s career outlook based on employability and compensation. This is not to deny the importance of intrinsic rewards such as fulfillment and doing good, but rather because pecuniary concerns are such prominent drivers of enrollment trends and decision about majors. Barriers and solutions There are barriers working against faculty and instructors in humanities and social science courses embracing an expanded role in intentional career preparation. Some of them involve faculty awareness and capacity, while others are attitudinal or pragmatic. These barriers are not insurmountable. [perfectpullquote align="right" bordertop="false" size="22"]A comprehensive approach to workforce development should include reinvigorating the humanities and social sciences.[/perfectpullquote]Let’s start with the issue of awareness. For the first several decades of their careers, faculty in more traditional fields didn’t have much reason to think about the employability of their majors. It certainly wasn’t part of the curriculum when they went to college and, to the extent they had their eye on entering academia, it wasn’t much of a personal concern. In addition, the focus on the link between college major and career outcomes may be laser-like now, but plenty of onlookers—well beyond the faculty ranks—did not foresee this. But these factors no longer justify the lack of awareness among faculty. Student career outcomes and mounting student debt have received massive amounts of attention, leaving few excuses for faculty who remain unaware. Deans and department chairs who fail to hammer this awareness home are equally remiss. As for issues of capacity, faculty and instructors may not feel equipped to teach discrete job-related skills or job-search tactics in their philosophy, political science, history, or literature course. Some may believe that vocational preparation is outside their purview. Isn’t that what the professionals in career services are brought on board to do? But many courses in these disciplines already help develop career competencies, and there are plenty of other steps that require little additional training. Career services staff, along with academic administrators, can provide helpful hints and shovel-ready suggestions. Even if an instructor or faculty member has trouble integrating changes throughout their existing syllabus, there’s always the option of a stand-alone special project or presentation. Beyond the specific content of the humanities and social science fields are the higher order thinking skills, problem-solving approaches, and reasoned discourse that their faculty assiduously promote. Those are the very skills many employers wish more employees possessed. There are also attitudinal barriers to faculty action in this realm. One of them seems to be the fear that a focus on job-related skills in humanities and social science courses somehow sullies and compromises the purity of the content in these courses. For generations, these disciplines have been viewed through the lens of theory, research, discourse, and debate. Pegging these fields to specific occupations or merely thinking about course content through an occupational lens could diminish the integrity of the content. Besides is it really in a faculty member’s interest to divert students to jobs only marginally related to the discipline when there’s a chance those students could end up as scholars in the field? But there’s an alternative way to think about this. The history major who ends up working for, say, a financial firm, and bringing the knowledge, theoretical perspectives, and methods of her discipline to bear might be seen as increasing the discipline’s exposure, widening its influence, and underscoring its broader relevance. If all this helps attract more enrollment, that further contributes to the overall health of these disciplines. The final set of barriers are pragmatic—the reality of busy faculty and instructor lives in and outside of work, and courses already full of content. Is there time to teach our beloved content and then to add a vocational component as well? The answer is yes, especially if faculty are provided with model syllabi and ideas for projects, and they get to see how seamlessly this can be done within the existing course design. For example, a short debriefing session after a group project might help students think about what they learned about working with others and how this is germane to their careers. Learning experiences that build resumes A run-down of how to cultivate the employability of humanities and social science students begins with a simple but essential step: having faculty and instructors identify the skills, experiences, and knowledge from their courses that can be translated into specific bullet points on the resume. This can begin immediately, using what they already include in their course. Students can be provided with sample wording—perhaps enshrined on the syllabus—and should be encouraged to add it to their resumes right away. The fundamental importance of converting skills and experiences into explicit resume items stems from the need for hiring managers to have applicants’ qualifications neatly correlate to specific job descriptions, as the rapid-fire initial vetting process for jobs leaves little time for thought or analysis. Even if employers are looking for, or would unknowingly benefit from, the knowledge and attributes gained from a cutting-edge humanities or social science curriculum, they are also looking for experience or at least potential in a well-defined set of job tasks. That practical reality cannot be overstated. The resume must, therefore, make it exceedingly clear that our humanities and social sciences graduates fit the bill. Other steps include: A major in the humanities or social sciences can be the springboard to a great career—there is plenty of evidence for that. But students could be graduating from these majors with even more tools than they do now, and we should take discrete steps to make it all glaringly evident to their prospective managers and colleagues. This strategy will benefit students and employers and it might just provide the shot in the arm these vital disciplines need. Chris Morett is the director of the Office of Scheduling and Space Management at Rutgers University. In this position he guides the daily operations of the office and provides strategic direction on office policies and practices. He also advises on the planning of new instructional and learning spaces throughout the New Brunswick campuses. You can follow him on Twitter @crmorett. For readers who might be curious, given the thrust of this article, Morett did his graduate work in sociology and public policy (University at Albany) and, as an undergraduate, majored in political science and minored in religion and history (Rutgers). He remains a strong proponent of the social sciences and humanities.