No More Digitally-Challenged Liberal Arts Majors

From The Chronicle:

 William Pannapacker, “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,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (18 November 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. . .

For several years now, I have been meeting with . . . 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. . . .

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? . . .

The full article is available here


William Pannapacker is a professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker.

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