Humanities Education and Career Preparation: Not Either/Or but Both/And

You’re likely familiar with arguments about whether advocates for the humanities should invoke their vocational utility when making the case for the value of studying the humanities. Many point to the need to counter misleading tropes about the practicality of a humanities education in order to address prospective students’ and their families’ concerns. Others, such as Stanley Fish, contend that any such justification “involves a surrender to some measure or criterion external to the humanities.” But faculty who take it upon themselves to help students discern compelling applications of the skills they’ve gained through the humanities discover that such efforts actually enhance humanities education in its own right.

Helene Meyers, professor of English at Southwestern University, has found that intertwining literary criticism and career coaching enriches both. In her course “Novel English Majors,” students read novels depicting the professional lives of various “literary types,” including professors, students, and independent authors. Like the students, the protagonists’ passion for literature is supported by some who share their interests and challenged by others as frivolous and impractical. Students empathize with these characters and critique their professional narratives. 

Meanwhile, students analyze vocational texts, engaging the career advice they offer critically and deconstructing their literary strategies. And they meet diverse English major alumni/ae in class and identify one to shadow at work and/or interview. Students process their stories of frequently serpentine yet successful and satisfying career paths and ask probing questions. 

Through this experience, “students learn what they are capable of, and they learn how to articulate that more effectively to themselves, their parents, and future employers,” said Meyers. “They also learn how to tolerate the ambiguity of post-grad life better because they’ve heard how others have navigated that and grown through it.” As a result, students appreciate how their humanities education prepares them to make the numerous career shifts the 21st century economy will likely require, gaining strength and skills through each adaptive transition. 

Indeed, Meyers modeled this very process in creating the course. She is candid about how the experiment required her to stretch herself, finetuning the model as she went. But ultimately, she said, the course not only proved to be greatly beneficial to students, it has also positively impacted her other courses, advising, and scholarship. She is looking forward to sharing the experience at the Modern Language Association convention in January.  

In a similar experiment, John Sanders, professor of religious studies at Hendrix College, has reimagined the department’s senior colloquium with a grant from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology. In “From Capstone to Springboard,” career planning, intellectual biography, and the traditional research project that culminates the religious studies major are all entwined.  

For their capstone project, students are encouraged to tackle a real-world problem and consider alternatives to a traditional research paper. They chart their entire range of curricular and co-curricular experiences, identifying the skills and passions developed through each and explaining in a formal proposal how these have prepared them to complete their chosen project. Meanwhile, they work with career services to complete personality assessments and practice articulating the skills they’ve identified through draft resumes and mock interviews. In this way, the course’s three components all reinforce one another. And the self-directed, collaborative, concept-to-product process narrows the gap between humanities scholarship and projects students will pursue outside the academy. 

“The faculty members are particularly pleased with the quality of the research projects,” said Sanders. “And the attitude change, even in our best students, is amazing. [It] gives them the vocabulary and knowledge to responsibly transition to the next phase of their lives.”

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