Art for Work’s Sake

This is not simply another defense of the liberal arts. This is a call to action for faculty to explore and explain the very real value of their fields outside of academia.

 
Amy Ware, PhD, HDO Associate Director
February 28, 2017

To those of us who work in and advocate for the liberal arts and social sciences, there’s little question as to why the skills provided by disciplines such as literature, history, sociology, ethics, and psychology matter for professionals. These areas of study provide critical-thinking skills, analytical expertise, writing and speaking abilities, historical insight, cultural understanding, and other qualitative and quantitative methods for understanding the ways people and groups act the way they do.
 

Lost in Translation

Unfortunately, for those who question the utility of a broad liberal arts education are unmoved by vague descriptors like “critical thinking” and “analytical expertise.” How exactly does one transfer general thinking skills to specific vocational tasks? As an administrator at UT Austin with significant academic training in the humanities, I believe these skills are crucial. Yet, when I review the résumés and cover letters of liberal-arts graduates, I recognize that these “soft” skills may not resonate with consulting and marketing firms, human resource units, technology corporations, and other organizations in which a liberal-arts graduate may be competing with a candidate who has training that appears more directly applicable to the specific jobs for which they are applying.

 

More often than not, liberal arts faculty rely on students (and perhaps college and university career-service centers) to translate these skills into something valuable on a résumé. This is a lost opportunity for faculty.


 

There is, of course, significant evidence that high-level managers value students trained in these traditional disciplines. On the face of it, that seems the end of the debate: Humanities and social sciences graduates will eventually work it out. Sadly, unless these skills are articulated as transferable and usable in a life beyond the Academy, they remain largely invisible to decision makers guarding the gates for entry-level positions.

Members of the C-suite often realize the value of a broad and flexible skillset, but they are promoting established workers. Unfortunately, this high-level acceptance isn’t going to affect the job prospects of new liberal arts graduates. It’s exciting that Steve Jobs claimed that calligraphy helped him develop a beautiful font and said that, “The reason that Apple is able to create products like the iPad is because we’ve always tried to be at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts.” Unfortunately, at the time Jobs articulated this, it is safe to assume he wasn’t involved in recruiting and onboarding at Apple.
 

 

An Opportunity for Faculty

This chasm between advocates and skeptics should matter to faculty at least as much as it does students. More often than not, liberal arts faculty rely on students (and perhaps college and university career-service centers) to translate these skills into something valuable on a résumé. This is a lost opportunity for faculty. While students may suffer or succeed in the long-term, depending on their ability to explain and display why their skills are valuable, faculty often remain inarticulate regarding why the topics of their research and teaching matter in the workplace–or even in life after college generally.

As one of the founders of UT Austin’s Human Dimensions of Organizations (HDO) program and now its associate director, I can attest that this failure of articulation is not true across the board. From my work with the program, I have witnessed professors from the humanities and the social sciences intentionally explain to students not just the content and methodology of their disciplines–but their importance in practice.

In faculty’s defense, many do not have non-academic workplace experience that would help them better understand the business world, the nonprofit landscape, the military terrain, or the government’s infrastructure. Still, it doesn’t take extensive vocational training to explore the non-academic, tangible value of the humanities and the social sciences.

 

For faculty who want, above all else, to teach students the importance of their field, this larger focus – on content and applicability – may be just the trick.


 

Successfully completing months- or years-long research projects, such as dissertations, does not just result in an impressive document, but also in the acquisition of real project management experience. Students involved in self-guided group work will, by necessity, develop leadership and team coordination skills. Exploring how underdog military forces throughout history have allocated limited resources to defeat technically superior opponents provides key insights for students interested in human resources or organizational productivity. Lastly, as interesting as the scientific reasons behind habit formation or behavior change are, when presented in a psychology class, the application of that information to understanding why people behave the way they do is clearly relevant for students interested in consulting or talent retention.

None of the examples above are unfamiliar to a liberal arts or social sciences student; however, they are not often advised in class to think of the practical skills they’ve learned alongside the explicit course content.

For those faculty still uncomfortable with bringing more practice into their classroom, I suggest a conversation with their university’s career center on why these subjects matter in the modern workplace. Career services struggle–and succeed–in helping liberal-arts students every day. They can also assist faculty to incorporate a subject’s non-academic relevance into their classes.

Faculty might also benefit from engaging their students to help with this leap. Ask students, through assignments such as directed reading responses, how the course content is relevant beyond the classroom. The responses may be surprising and enlightening. I’ve seen it in action. Several faculty who teach in the HDO program have told me that the direct applicability of their discipline to the workplace was best articulated by the students in their classes.

If faculty in these foundational fields take time to consider why their work matters beyond the walls of their discipline, it could be life-changing for them and truly world-changing for their students. The moment a liberal-arts field specialist articulates to students (undergraduate and graduate) the leap they can make from the content of the course to a workplace, that individual has reinforced the role that field plays in students’ mindset.

For faculty who want, above all else, to teach students the importance of their field, this larger focus – on content and applicability – may be just the trick.

 
 

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