There’s a crisis of confidence about modern humanities and liberal arts programs. Universities and Colleges have legitimized an overwhelming number of learning programs that non-academic employers consider irrelevant. And this is hurting students both in Canada and the United States.
Critics are right to be concerned.
Many humanities programs continue to follow an informal structure of course offerings that emphasizes writing and research. This offers little by means of marketable training. None of the history programs I’ve taken, for example, mandated a statistics course – curious for a program built on identifying trends over time. And that’s just one example.
How many English programs feature courses on publishing? (By that I mean, the business side of writing.) How many Classics programs offer museum studies components?
I conducted a quick survey of History and English programs (my two areas of study) at major North American universities (Harvard, University of Toronto, Simon Fraser University, and Yale) and found that none required their students to take any sort of training that could be marketed outside of academies, museums, or book clubs.
This really has to stop, and the people who design courses need to innovate for the sake of their students.
Here are just three ways Humanities programs could change for the better:
1. Incorporate Manadatory IT Components Into Your Discipline
Historians use databases to organize their data all the time – including Access, Excel, and EndNote. They analyze statistics, make tables and charts and plot large sets of information occasionally using complex applications. Similarly, English majors use a variety of word processing software for their writing and some go on to work in publishing houses where specialized software is used. It completely baffles me that there isn’t a mandatory course incorporated into the curriculum where these tools are taught!
I understand the importance of self-learning, but I also understand that 1 in 5 university graduates in Canada alone live below the average income line. The people who design humanities curricula need to consider the signalling power (to potential employers) of offering formal IT training directly in their programs. If I’m an employer, and I know that this English major has learned publishing and editing software in her program to complement her advanced critical thinking, reading and writing skills, then she’s just become a far more attractive candidate.
2. Mandatory Public Speaking Courses
So much of what liberal arts majors do involves communicating, so why is it that so many programs don’t require a public speaking and presentation course? I don’t think that every student needs to be a world-class orator, but they do need to understand the principles of communicating ideas for a crowd, rather than a dissertation committee.
Most programs have professors who are just rock star speakers already. Share the responsibility of offering the class, make it dynamic, have students run the show, but offer feedback. Don’t just sit at the front and pontificate. If your university makes it impossible, organize a Toastmasters meeting in your department and make sure both students and professors are involved. This one innovation alone could be the greatest favour you do for your students.
But it needs to be 100% mandatory. People outside the program need to know that a graduate from X university/college is also a competent communicator.
3. Encourage Students to Submit Assignments Through Social Media
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my increasing involvement in social media, it’s that there is no better way to stay on top of current trends, to validate your ideas, and to share with a wide audience than through blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds. The career and learning potential for students to use social media is enormous!
The practice of submitting assignments – almost covertly, with as little direct contact between professor and student as possible – fails. The additional pressure of making assignments public could encourage better quality work, allow students to compare good submissions to better ones, and provide a medium whereby they would learn from each other, as well as the professor. They could then polish and edit assignments and develop a portfolio of published work well before graduation. What a way to break out onto the job market!
Too many academic programs in the humanities are designed to feed additional studies – law school, grad school, education, etc. It’s a gigantic racket and it has to stop.
With tuition fees at the level they are, it is morally reprehensible to funnel students through a series of low-value diplomas that they don’t actually need in order to have meaningful careers. Instead, program administrators should focus on making bachelor degrees relevant again, and that requires a different way of thinking about the sacred temple of the arts.