Guest Post: “‘So Are You Going to Open a History Store?’ Explicit Professionalization and the Undergraduate Humanities Major” by Leigh Ann Craig

Today’s entry is the second in a series of guest-posts from the roundtable on “Teaching the Humanities in the Current Climate of Higher Education” that I organized for the recent International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Here we have the insightful remarks from Leigh Ann Craig.

Leigh Ann’s Bio:  Leigh Ann Craig is an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA.  She is the author of Wandering Women and Holy Matrons:  Women as Pilgrims in the Later Middle Ages (Brill, 2009), the associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Medieval Pilgrimage (Brill, 2009), and is currently in progress on a manuscript entitled Deprived of Sense and Intellect: Demons, Humors, and Diagnoses of Loss of Mind in Medieval Europe, 12140-1500.  She has also been deeply involved in curriculum revision at VCU and is the recent winner of the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences Distinguished Teaching Award.


“‘So Are You Going to Open a History Store?’  Explicit Professionalization and the Undergraduate Humanities Major”

We have all heard the same derisive questions from “realists” about the value of the undergraduate degree programs our disciplines offer.[1] My favorite iteration came from a grad school colleague, whose roommate’s father asked him, upon learning he was a History major, whether he planned to one day open a history store.[2] Meanwhile, we have all seen, and many of us have written for, the stream of apologia and outcomes research that seeks to correct these misapprehensions by revealing the flexibility and broad applicability of undergraduate training in the humanities, and the employability and career success of our graduates.[3] We nonetheless meet the same questions in an endless loop. This is both wearying and worrying, especially amid the climate of budgetary scarcity and gently declining enrollments that seem presently to be typical of state institutions like my own.[4] Narrative, as we all know, has a way of becoming reality when it is repeated often enough.

I would like to propose today that our responses to that cultural meme need to be curricular, as well as rhetorical and academic: that we must show rather than tell, and we, the subject-area experts, must do that showing ourselves. Two curricular trends already exist which may be instructive, both of which are usually, in higher-ed circles, tagged as ‘professionalization’ efforts. The first of these is the ‘professionalization’ curriculum which is more and more coming to be appended to graduate programs in the humanities. These programs teach, in a systematic way that was unavailable to me two decades ago, the nuts-and-bolts skills of academic career and project management, and discuss our specialized professional writing formats such as grant applications and job market materials.[5] The second is the ‘professionalization’ curriculum enmeshed within degrees in fine arts, including BFA and MFA programs, whose graduates require a broad set of career and business management skills in order successfully to pursue studio art, professional theatre, and the like.[6] But at the same time, each of these professionalization curricula are apt to consider in a transparent fashion how the skills of a highly specialized area of study might translate to work outside of the pure disciplinary focus of the academy or the art studio.[7] This kind of coursework is now beginning to appear, as an elective offered through careers centers, for use by undergraduate humanities majors, in places like University of Texas at Austin and the University of Arkansas.[8]

My own department is currently debating the possibility of piloting an undergraduate course on Professionalization for the History Major. The goals of the course would be threefold: first, to make explicit connections between the goals and objectives of the History major and the interests and professional goals of the student;[9] second, to facilitate active careers exploration (inclusive of a broad range of speakers from the community); and third, to offer students the skills they need to build the interface between their training and career paths of interest. This would include coursework designed to teach specialized writing skills (such as skills-based resumes, cover letters and personal statements explaining the applicability of their specific education and experience, public history writing, writing for online forums and social media), but also service-learning requirements which would foster interpersonal skills in public speaking, networking, and interviewing, via work in support roles for on-campus events.

(As an aside, I note that it would be hard to simply add this to other standing courses in our current curriculum. While some of these goals might be served in our semester-long internship capstones, but a majority – the critical self-marketing skills, especially – are not. Nor do our internships, grounded in one institution, directly support a broad process of career exploration. Indeed, students might be far better prepared to choose and to apply for internships if professionalization were introduced first. We also lack space for this in our writing-intensive gateway course; I have taught it for a decade and cannot see how this could be embedded within it, given time constraints and its more purely disciplinary goals.)

I have come to ponder whether it might be wise for us to consider not just offering, but requiring such a course for all History majors at VCU, for reasons that are philosophical and pedagogical rather than merely economically pragmatic. I am the parent of a high school junior, and based on her experience I can say with some confidence that by the time they reach us, our students have jumped through many a hoop, badly designed by those far from the classroom. They have rightfully come to understand the process of education, and especially of assessments of learning, to be devoid of applied purpose more often than not. By contrast, I have found that transparency about goals, and about the utility of specific classroom methods I use, is a reliable way to elicit cooperative, and even wry-but-cheerful, engagement from students, even in exercises with the worst reputation for mindless drudgery (see: How to Write A Footnote.) If we can use transparency to our advantage on the level of an individual assignment, it seems to me that a similarly nuts-and-bolts discussion of the professional value of the entire curriculum might help engage students in the process in all of their coursework to a helpful degree. While I cannot guess whether this might lead to improvement in retention and graduation rates, my instincts suggest that it would at very least improve engagement in ways less susceptible to statistical analysis, yet substantively important in the classroom.

And this, I think, is also the reason why humanities faculty should consider offering such courses in our home departments in cooperation with other kinds of specialists, rather than farming the issue out entirely to campus careers centers. We are our own smartest and best advocates, when it comes to explanations of the value of the curriculum we design and implement. The other edge of that sword, of course, is that we are trained medievalists rather than trained professionalization coaches. I myself have not spent a single year outside of academic spaces since I turned four, and I did not apply my two undergraduate humanities degrees outside of structures that were dedicated to pure disciplinary focus. But it seems to me that at that point we must reach for the vaunted autodidacticism and adaptability of the humanities-trained, reach out to our networks to gain the outside expertise we may need, and put it to work. As we consider this possibility at VCU, I would be very interested in the experience of any of my colleagues here with the development or implementation of this type of curriculum, and of discussion of its value.

 

[1] For a more prominent example, see the comments of Sir James Dyson in 2012. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/education/article3596125.ece. A broader overview may be found in this article from Paul Jay and Gerald Graff’s 2012 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/01/05/essay-new-approach-defend-value-humanities.

[2] With thanks to Dr. Marc Horger, Department of History, The Ohio State University.

[3] See for example Katherine Brooks, “Why Major in History?,” Psychology Today, August 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/career-transitions/201208/why-major-in-history; or Jeffrey Dorfman’s analysis on the excellent return on investment in humanities degrees in Forbes from Nov. 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffreydorfman/2014/11/20/surprise-humanities-degrees-provide-great-return-on-investment/#14e395c094a9.

[4] On the nationwide numbers and decline in enrollments, see http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/november-2014/drilling-down-into-the-latest-undergraduate-data.

[5] See curricular info from UCSD at http://humctr.ucsd.edu/graduate-professionalization-series/; see infro from Loyola Chicago here: http://luc.edu/history/stories/archive/professionalizationworkshops.shtml.

[6] See the recent discussion by Eliza Lamb, “Best Practices for Career Preparation in Four Undergraduate Art Programs” (Ed.D. thesis, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 2015).

[7] Lamb, ch. 4, passim; Brooks, “Why Major in History?.”

[8] Brooks’ course at UT Austin has been running in brick-and-mortar space for a decade and is now available online: http://news.utexas.edu/2010/10/07-0. The University of Arkansas course through their Department of English, taught by Dr. Lissette Lopez Szwydky, includes a collaborative blog available at https://theadaptivehumanist.wordpress.com/about/.

[9] For further discussion of this portion of things, see the AHA Tuning Project: https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/tuning.

 

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