Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Humanities and Liberal Arts in College

I've always thought that humanities and liberal arts studies got an unnecessarily bad rap, while also doing a bit of a disservice to their own. I just came across this interesting article today and I have to admit, these are not ideas I've failed to think of at some time already! I mean, how could I have gone without thinking of them when I studied 8 years under the guise of "liberal arts"?

I Went to College to be a Writer

Alright, so let me start with a little random back-story about myself, because it's only appropriate to frame such a discussion in this way. When I was in college, I never had any doubt about what I wanted to do with my degree or what I wanted to be "when I grew up." (In fact, the only thing I did doubt was whether the degree was going to do anything for me at all!) Well, of course the degree helped me personally because I learned to see things in a different way, to analyze things (especially stories) with minute attention to detail, and probably what I consider most important, gave me the opportunity to connect with people who had similar interests. Some of my dearest friends today are people that I acquired along the road of my college education and our friendships may be based on something as simple and seemingly silly as the same love of a childhood book, the same fascination with a certain author's trick with words, or the same endless emotional drive to "write the world anew each day." The latter is probably the strongest tie for me. I connect to readers, but my connection to writers? That is soul mate quality. Other writers can understand the thirst of my spirit like no one else.

But anyway, enough of that love story.

My point is that as a society we teach people they can "be whatever they want to be," and while that's a sweet, fluffy message, we also realize that it's a cruel one. You can't be a famous athlete unless you actually can be, just like you can't be a writer because you romanticize the lifestyle alone. You have to actually know how to write. For some reason the fluff doesn't apply to English students. When I was a student, I was only repeatedly told that I could not be a writer, could not depend on being a writer, there was no market for writing in the world today, etc. But that's what I was there for...to learn how to be a writer. Many times I wanted to quit college because of the overwhelming desire that was seldom satiated. Teach me to write better, I wanted to cry. Don't tell me I can't be a writer. Give me the skills I need to accomplish it and I'll take care of the rest.

Also, I was never once directed toward something that I could be, if not a writer -- except a teacher of course, but I've paid my dues in that department.

The Problem with Liberal Arts

So what's wrong with the liberal arts departments of most colleges? They stand by the worthlessness of the degree (it's not in the least worthless, by the way, if you make the most of your education and develop the confidence that you know what you know) and simply shake their heads at you for having a dream. 

To be fair, maybe my professors didn't often encourage my writing because they didn't think I was good enough at it. Maybe I wasn't...but isn't that what college is for? To learn your craft, to improve at it, to shape yourself around it as it in turn shapes you? Or am I being too dramatic about college? 

Disclaimer: Most of my professors were awesome. Not all of them shattered my dreams. (Actually no one shattered them....I'm stupid enough to keep plugging away at them regardless.)

I'm just wondering though, why does the college of liberal arts fail to promote career options to its students? I had no idea what I could be before I started doing it. (For an embarrassingly long time into my education I did not know that copywriting was not directly related to copyrights.) When I finally graduated from college and took my leave from the education field (Permanently? Temporarily? Who can say?) I jumped in headfirst to a field I didn't know if I could conquer. The only thing I had was a somewhat pigheaded stubbornness about my writing ability. I knew I could do it. I have been known to say, "If it needs to be written, I can write it, whatever it is," and that, I believe, is true.

College didn't give me that confidence any more than it gave me any idea how to pursue a career in my chosen craft (note that I did not say "field," because my chosen field still eludes me) and some people are not blessed with that arrogant, sometimes foolish confidence that hides underneath my thick skin. 

Life After a Liberal Arts Degree

I'm alright, but how are you? If you earned a degree in the liberal arts or humanities departments, I'd love to know...
  • What were you taught about your potential in the workforce?
  • What skills did you learn that helped you find a job? Were they taught to you, or were they learned by accident?
  • Are you currently employed in a field directly related to your degree program? If so, how long did it take you to land that job?
  • Did anyone ever teach you how to create a resume or CV? How did you learn?
  • What were you taught about how important your "resume" was, and did you find that to be true? 
My answers:
  •  I was taught nothing about the workforce except that I ought to develop marketable skills which were not taught in the English department. 
  • My work related skills were learned almost entirely by accident because I am an observer and a researcher. I took a few classes that might have helped a bit, but nothing that I do in my career now was actually learned in school, except the writing. 
  • I graduated with an A.A, a B.A., and an M.A. in English literature. I am now a copywriter/professional writer in the marketing field writing social media copy, website/SEO copy, press releases, etc. So...no. I did however get hired within the month after graduation and actually interviewed with my current company before graduation. 
  • No one ever taught me how to create a resume or CV, or even write a cover letter that includes the proper information. I actually just learned something new about that not too long ago and was ashamed to look back at my existing resume to see how it differed from my new knowledge.  
  • I was taught all through college that internships would be the key to a career. They were not. Working for almost seven years at the Home Depot and proving that I could write were the keys to getting my job. My boss tells me that those things 1) proved I was an employee with longevity and 2) proved that I could do the job I was being hired for. 
It's a good rule of thumb to not believe everything you hear whispered about in the halls of the liberal arts department. I'm willing to bet the whisperers are just as confused as you are. 

I do firmly believe that liberal arts departments need to have more information provided to their students, whether through conferences or courses that help them identify their skill sets and hone them. We need more for these students, because these departments do have value, and its a disservice to the students to act like they don't.