Classroom tips for debunking the arts and humanities employability myth

David Dodick offers practical pointers gleaned from a course he designed and taught aimed at communicating the value of arts and humanities degrees for various careers

David Dodick's avatar
University of California, Berkeley
9 Sep 2022
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How to communicate the value of the arts and humanities to students

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Arts and humanities students are often asked: “But, what can you do with your degree?” The question reveals what many people believe: that a humanities degree is of little value in today’s economy. And indeed many students are foregoing their real interests in favour of STEM majors that they feel will lead to more secure and lucrative employment.

Of course, it’s hard to deny that obtaining a job after graduation is important. STEM degrees can lead to high remuneration, too. The coding skills acquired in computer science enable work as a programmer or developer. Conversely, the soft skills cultivated in comparative literature don’t algorithmically “plug in” to any particular profession, meaning students can become anxious about their future.

Is the anxiety warranted? Is the premise behind the question accurate? I would argue it’s not. These students are acquiring valuable transferable skills that are in high demand by employers – skills such as critical thinking, communication and collaboration. It’s time we debunk the arts and humanities myth and communicate their value and potential application to numerous careers.

In describing below one effort to do this, I realise that some universities may not have the resources to undertake a similar initiative. However, I hope the lessons learned are adaptable to other contexts.

The course

In 2021-2022, I designed and taught a course called Berkeley Changemaker: Humanists at Work. Its purpose was to debunk the aforementioned myth while introducing multiple career possibilities to my group of students. The initiative codifies what UC Berkeley has always stood for: questioning the status quo; activating undergraduates’ passions; helping them develop a sharper sense of who they want to be; and showing them how to make that happen. The class included students ranging from undeclared majors to graduating seniors. Here are the lessons learned and their relevance to the higher education community.

The curriculum

In designing a skills development and career awareness course, it’s essential to understand your students’ backgrounds and aspirations. Undergraduates are at a complex crossroads of school and career that they’re attempting to navigate while concurrently trying to figure out their linguistic, cultural, intersectional and sociopsychological identities. Ask them to send you a copy of their résumé and then meet with them individually.

My interdisciplinary lectures drew from the education, business, sociolinguistics and career development literature, but the instructor can adapt these to their interests and expertise. This approach allows students to make meaning of their career pathway by exploring it from different perspectives in a way not often found in discipline-specific courses.

Place students in groups of three to five for collaborative learning and support throughout the semester. Groups should be heterogeneous to facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas, opinions and people they will encounter in the workplace. A senior, for example, can illuminate the pathway of a freshman considering their major or discuss steps required for graduate school or employment. Learners discover the transferable skills they already possess and those they are developing in their coursework, as a premedical student commented: “I came into this course thinking hard skills were all I needed, believing that all I needed to be a good doctor is to be really smart and know my literature. Boy, was I wrong. There’s a whole side of [being] a physician related to the soft skills that I was able to learn more about.”

The guest speakers

Guest speakers are the most inspiring and impactful part of a course like this. One speaker who had been an English major described how it helped them later analyse cases at Harvard Law School. The drama in legal battles paralleled the twisted stories they’d read in novels as an undergrad. A speaker from Google refuted the myth by stressing that they welcomed arts and humanities graduates in various areas, including user experience design.

Every speaker highlighted a “winding road” to get to their present position and that it was OK to try things and fail. Realising there are circuitous routes to success can be a relief to students who might experience anxiety, imposter syndrome and the pressure to be perfect.

I’d advise having students submit questions for the speakers in advance, discuss impressions of them afterwards and assign a reflection for the following week, such as: “What is it about this person’s behaviour, discourse, actions and ways of being that exemplify their identity?” and “Which of these qualities do you see in yourself?” Use student facilitators to help host the speakers and include them in the planning. There is usually a student in the class with whom a speaker resonates. Most importantly, guest speakers should reflect the diversity of individuals in the class. Students need to see and hear role models who look and sound like them.

The internships

If you incorporate internships, draw on the experience of any existing internship programmes on campus. Will students find their own internships? Will you coordinate placements with on-campus partners? Consider logistics such as the number of hours students will be required to work, how they will record their activities and whether they have conflicting or disqualifying responsibilities. Students should create a work plan that addresses course objectives and obtain approval for it from their supervisor and you.

Internships can help students discover their calling – as well as the contrary. One student interned with a fashion design company and knew that fashion design was their future career. Another guided visitors at a local gallery and realised they wanted to pursue an art career that was less public-facing.

Key takeaways

This initiative revealed that changing perspectives on the value of an arts and humanities degree through a well-integrated course is possible. It helped answer the question: “What can you do with your degree?” Involved students can now readily dismantle the arts and humanities myth and are aware of the world of possibilities open to them. Future efforts might further address students’ intrinsic motivation for acquiring subject-matter knowledge in tandem with their extrinsic motivation to obtain viable employment after graduation. Understanding how students negotiate their identities at the intersection of school and work should come naturally to educators who view their students holistically.

David Dodick is a sessional lecturer at University of California, Berkeley and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

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