Can We Rebrand the Humanities? (Spoiler: Yes. We need to.)

As someone who studied both marketing and history (and who finds her history degree a super valuable part of that mix) the question often crosses my mind: “How can I sell my history degree?”

It shouldn’t be that hard, really. As a history undergraduate student, I just came out of a program with intensive research and written/oral communication training. I can mine through data about almost any topic, large or small. I can draw conclusions. I can organize the information. The list goes on and on.

When I see the words “B.A. in History,” I see all that.

I just don’t think employers always do. That’s a problem.

Employers often have no understanding of the transferable skills embedded in a liberal arts education. It’s like they see my degree and the only thing that comes to mind is their boring high school history teacher from 1971 droning on about the pyramids.

(…I mean, I do also know a whole bunch about the pyramids, but that is beside the point.)

So, here I am. Here we are. Looking at a job market which increasingly demands innovative, engaged, realistic, and skilled employees who can work with people and technology. Wanting to raise our hands and yell “THAT’S ME!” because really, it is. Our degrees should communicate all these competencies to employers. We just spent years building an understanding of processes, politics, humanity itself.

So how do we fix this perception?

It won’t happen right away. But I think there are a few subtle changes that institutions, professors, students, and graduates can make to help us rebrand some of these so-called useless degrees.

Here’s a start:

  • People who studied the humanities and are using skills from those degrees in their jobs should make the value of their education known in the workplace. When someone compliments your writing style, your note taking ability, or your problem-solving skills at work, do not shy away from giving honourable mention to the fact that you honed those skills through a liberal arts education. All the humanities grads making things happen in the world should be walking examples of the value of these degrees.
  • We need to create more portfolio-oriented curriculum. Many of the educational paths which are considered more “valuable” in workland get that reputation because their graduates have something tangible to show employers. Encourage students to research and/or present their research in a way that is accessible to those outside of the discipline. Give them something to show at a job interview.
  • Change the concept of specialization to include methodology and skillsets. Very few employers care that I “specialized” in 20th century North American cultural history…but a lot of employers care that I specialized in using digital tools and blogging to share information, or that I understand how communications and business have evolved over the past century. Did you become an expert in writing, in using a particular primary source, in different types of research or analysis? Consider recognizing these things as your area of “expertise” when speaking with employers.
  • Academic institutions need to realize that not every student wants to continue in academia and that’s okay. Professors automatically assume that their brightest scholars are immediately destined for academic greatness. But what if they are more interested in business, entrepreneurship, or the public sector? If every professor said to themselves “My students are going to come out of this class with one tangible thing to add to their resume” (it could just be introducing students to one new technology or method or communication skill) they would be preparing their students for success wherever they choose to go. Which is very good news, because if we lock all good humanities scholars up in Universities, they will have less of an impact on the world. Who wants that?
  • Speaking of entrepreneurship…we also need to encourage students to create their own projects and jobs. A liberal arts education helps us understand the culture, economics, and needs in our communities. These are certainly the kinds of people who are equipped to see the direction people are going in (and to make money on that direction). Let’s make sure are given the resources to make that happen!
  • We need to encourage interdisciplinary models in our academic institutions. One of my professors recently suggested putting spaces/resources frequented by engineering students (such as 3D printing labs) in liberal arts buildings on campus to encourage interaction. I think he is onto something. I would love to work with software engineering students to develop an educational app, or a design student to create a better website to showcase research. Fostering mutual respect and collaboration between fields should be a priority.
  • We need to connect students with the community. There are so many organizations who could use the skills humanities scholars have, or who could offer unique resources and projects to students. Working with organizations outside of their school helps students establish networks, explore their own career paths, and build their portfolios/resumes (see point #2). It also allows the community recognize the value that these students have, which can translate into a change in perspective for potential employers.

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We have the resources and technology to rebrand the humanities. Through the internet, we have the ability to connect with each other like never before. We can talk about the value of our humanities degrees online. We can teach students to recognize exactly why their degree is valuable, and prepare them to sell it to an employer (or to create their own business). We can develop interdisciplinary courses and programs which will encourage collaboration and help a humanities student’s degree appeal to a wider audience after they are done.

We can rebrand the humanities. We need to. Because it’s not just our students who are missing out on jobs…it’s our employers who are missing out on awesome workers who can take businesses (and society) to the next level.

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On Work, Play, and Goin’ Professional

“What would you like to do if money were no object?” is our most cliched career advice. In some ways, I get it. I do. I’m a shameless member of generation “follow your passion.”

But I have abandoned that particular question.

– – –

I was sitting in the back seat with a friend.

It must have been 2005, I guess. I was young. She had just shared the new Black Eyed Peas album with me, and we disagreed on the quality of the song “My Humps.”

(Yeah, we were really hip to the important issues.)

I digress.
I digress.

This friend and I had become close through the local little kid theatre scene.  We had both been through summer camps, community productions, that kind of thing.  She declared that she was going to be an actress when she grew up.  I asked her why. She recited, “Because when you have a job you love, you never have to work a day in your life.”

And I was horrified.

Obviously, I couldn’t speak for her–but in that moment, I knew that my enjoyment of little kid theatre would be destroyed if it were forced upon me.  Even as a child, the things I did purely for capital-F Fun were precious. And so, instead of being nice and supportive, I argued back (which I’m sure was super annoying): “Wouldn’t turning it into work make it not Fun anymore, though? What would you do for Fun if you made that a job?”

I wasn’t suggesting that Work had to be unenjoyable–at least, I don’t think I was.  There were a lot of things I liked doing in a “potential career” way.  I signed books out of my little-kid  bookshelf, organized by author’s last name (not because I was organized–I wasn’t. I just wanted to be a librarian). I regularly turned the basement into a carnival, a stage, a restaurant–anything where I could charge admission. I painted rocks and sold them. I rocked the lemonade stand. At halloween, I even turned my parents’ bedroom into a “mall” and charged my brothers for space and hand-drawn business cards.  

This, to me, was what “work” would look like someday. I created something, or did something. It helped or entertained someone, who then decided it was worth signing up for. If I was lucky, they might even decide it’s worth paying for.

I loved it. But the idea of those considerations tainting something I did purely for Fun was terrifying.

ForShaunaColour

– – –

The idea of being forced to do my little hobbies for hours and hours every day is not a comfortable one–it wasn’t comfortable in 2005, and it isn’t now. Work means being accountable to other people. It means meeting quotas, training, building, attaining results, providing something to someone. And it means doing all that OR ELSE.

With some things, that would excite me–but with others, it would be draining.  I love doing puzzles in my spare time, but I would be miserable if you made me jigsaw through my 9 to 5. I like playing guitar, watching sports, scrapbooking, cooking new food–but I also like that those things are not obligitory. That they ultimately belong to me, just me.

“What would you like to do if money were no object?” is our most cliched career advice. And I get it, I do. I’m a shameless member of generation “follow your passion.”

But I have abandoned that particular question.  Instead, I ask this one:

What would you enjoy doing even if you were getting paid for it? Even if you had to. What would you love even if it became a Job?

Work-style accountability can take the enjoyment out of a light hobby or interest.  It’s why readers often resent the books English teachers assign.  Or why people edit Wikipedia…while procrastinating from writing a report. It’s what makes some students realize that  they really picked the wrong major, because being interested in something and wanting to do it full-time are two very different things.

Work-style accountability is not totally unmotivating in and of itself.  It’s just different. It changes the reason you do something, the way you do it. If you’re truly passionate about something in a Work way, it can be incredibly rewarding and awesome to go professional. I think everyone has something (maybe a whole lot of somethings) that they would enjoy even if they were getting paid.

Even if they had to show up.

Even if they had quotas to fill, and people to please.

Even if it became a Job.

Right now, we just have to figure out what that is.