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A student wrote to me recently to tell me how tired she is of the assumption that Humanities students are prepared for nothing in professional life besides teaching.  She said many of her friends are majoring in something vocational, and they give her a lot of grief about being an English major.  “I never get a break from the whole ‘you’re not gonna be able to do a lot with that major’ argument,” she said.

Of course I replied with a good “chin up!” email and some real-world encouragement about her prospects for the future.  I suggested she tell her friends “I’ll be able to do more than you will.  You’re preparing yourself for a lifetime of one job.  I’ll be ready for much more!”

Then I wondered: Why does this poor girl have to write to me for encouragement?  Not that I mind—I don’t!  I love hearing from students.  But I’m 3,000 miles away from where she is.  I’ve never set foot on her campus.  Isn’t there someone close by who can tell her the same thing?  Someone in a classroom, a department office, someone who’s an advisor, an instructor, something?  She had to scour the internet looking for help until she finally found me?

I know career advisors often try to help Humanities students see a broader future.  But not all students visit the career center, and even those who do often don’t get around to it until graduation is looming on the horizon.  By then they’ve spent years fending off the “you’re-not-gonna-be-able-to-do-a-lot-with-that-major” critics.  Worse yet, they’ve come to believe it themselves.

Now imagine for a moment students majoring in Business, Nursing or Computer Science being told their professional prospects were unclear, vague, or limited.  Or—even more preposterous—imagine Business, Nursing or Computer Science students getting no guidance whatsoever about their prospects for the future.  Imagine a Business student asking a professor what he might do with his degree and hearing the one and only answer: “Well, perhaps you could teach.”  Pretty energizing bit of encouragement, eh?

When students know they can put what they’re learning (writing, research, systemic thinking) to work, they’re likely to be more enthusiastic about what they’re learning, motivated to master the skills and abilities they’re pursuing in school.  That tired expectation—“Perhaps you could teach”—has an unspoken follow-on phrase:  “Otherwise, you’re on your own, so you better really love this stuff because it’s not very useful.”

So let’s stop that.  Now!  Tell Humanities students they’re preparing themselves for important responsibilities, for leadership, for entrepreneurship, for careers involving analysis, managing qualitative information, working across cultures.  Humanities students need to hear from people whom they trust that what they are learning is practical and relevant.

(If you’re not entirely sure how a Humanities education translates into skills and abilities useful in business, and if you’d like some help developing that message, call me!)

4 thoughts on ““Well, um, Perhaps You Could Teach?”

  1. I just found your blog and, as a result, sat here and read the entire thing. I’m an English major and I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed reading it. Since I graduated I’ve worked for two huge corporations as one of those liberal arts people they keep down in the basement, converting appalling Business-ese into English. I’ve run into the same things you talk about, from wondering what I can do besides teach, advertise, or edit to being passed over for jobs requiring analysis, communication and research skills because I had the “wrong” major. And, of course, there are the professionals with career-oriented degrees and decades of experience who boast that they don’t know when to use “there” versus “their.”

    Despite that griping (sorry), I’m enjoying my budding career — in the business world, apparently — and even make a buck or two doing it. Thanks for the advice, but moreso, thanks for proving there are more than three jobs for an English major.

  2. I find this as well…English grads seem to have a few years of drifting…I have just published an interview about how English majors can break into editing with a former amazon.com music editor….if your readers are interested it is on selloutyoursoul.com

  3. This reminds me of when I was in college and I asked all my teachers, “what can I do with a math major?” The answer was always “well, you could be an actuary.” How deathly dull that sounded! I think the problem is that people in college, both students and faculty, have no real-world experience to drawn upon to answer the question. The only person who can tell you what you can do with a major is a major who graduated and got a job. I think colleges could do better at hooking up alumni with students, which could help with this question. I signed up to be a mentor with my alumni association and actually did get two phone calls from students, but as soon as they stopped actively promoting the program, the student interest evaporated.

  4. Fellow English majors,

    Cheers.

    What a much-needed blog/forum.

    I, too, graduated with a BA in English in an already cut-throat employment landscape. Winces, shoulder shrugs, and chuckles were just a handful of the responses I received in my search to first land a job, and when it came to finding one that actually required some degree of mental capital – well, let’s not go there.

    The main ideas is this: have confidence. Use your, what some would call, “unique” background to your advantage and don’t feel as though you have to settle. It probably will not be easy.

    I think a mild level of frustration with former professors and perhaps advisors is warranted. A mild disclaimer would have been nice.

    If you are still an undergrad and reading this blog, do yourself a favor and land internships in a few different fields. It may just be the shoe-in you need to land a job in whatever it is that you come to do; it will also show you have a wider skill-set.

    Vincent

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