Thursday, October 15, 2009

D'you Want Fries with That?

I was in a meeting earlier this week during which a colleague talked a little about the difficulties our students have conceptualizing themselves as potential employees. They learn all these important and useful skills, but they don't quite know how to put those into context for an employer.

They also hear again and again that English majors have no job prospects, and that they should really study business in order to get a job.

I know getting a job isn't the only point of a liberal arts education, but for our students it's a major concern (with good reason). It's especially big for our first generation students, since they don't have lots of models available of people they know who have college educations and have moved from getting a degree in English or whatever and getting a job in real estate or management or something else.

I think back to my own models, and my own anxieties when I was an undergraduate student. I had my Dad as a model of someone with a college degree; but he worked for the family business (engineering/light manufacturing) and it was made very clear by my grandfather and father that sons and grandsons were welcome, but daughters and granddaughters weren't part of the plan. So my Dad was an obvious model for my brother (one he followed through undergrad) but not for me.

Other than that, I knew that one of my aunts was a nurse. Then there were school teachers I knew from primary and high school. One neighbor was a physical therapist. And that was pretty much it so far as I knew (I had minimal knowledge of women who had college degrees). But I knew I wasn't interested in nursing or high school teaching. So I felt pretty lost. And my family wasn't much more confident; I remember my Mom telling me that it didn't matter what I majored in because I could always work as a secretary until I got married. (Can I just say how glad I am that the world has changed so much since then, and how grateful I am that I had the opportunities I did?)

So today in my senior seminar, we talked about what they'd learned in college, focusing on skills and how they knew they'd "gotten" something in a real way. I didn't make the connection to work overly explicit, and that may not be good enough, but I tried to get students to practice a bit talking about their skills and why they're valuable in the world.

It's odd, because I talk to my first year writing students quite a bit about liberal arts and skills and such, but bringing that into a course in early modern lit isn't as obvious or easy for me.

Was our discussion useful for my students?

I think maybe it was because one of the students came to talk to me about job and career decisions later and said she'd thought about some things anew.

The questions of the day for you folks are how do you talk to your more advanced students about their preparation for future careers? How do you help them prepare for applications, interviews, and so forth? And finally, how do you talk realistically to them about the costs of graduate school when that sometimes seems like the only alternative (because we faculty are ready role models).


  1. When prospective students (and, usually, their parents) want to know what they can do with an English major, I run through my regular shtick that begins with the line, "In our culture, whoever tells the best story wins," and then I explain how an English major equips students to tell the best story (in the classroom, the courtroom, the media, whatever) and also to critique the stories that surround us in daily life. It's a pretty cynical way to sell the English major, but it works.

  2. I'm a grad student, but I'm back at university for the second time around after nearly 20 years in the workforce. From that perspective, I think the ability to critically compare and analyse texts of all kinds is useful in huge variety of professional situations. Writing well and knowing how to do the research to effectively develop and support a clear argument is also very valued in many industries.

    I still do part-time contracting in PR/marketing to help pay my way through grad school. Although I'm studying history and my work is mainly in the tech/IT sector, I find a my academic research, writing and critical thinking skills are highly transferable.

  3. I don't do a lot of this, but I do occasionally link our Program Outcomes to work skills...