No more textbooks?

No more textbooks?

“Students tell us that Smarthistory does a better job than the textbook because it uses multimedia, and because it’s both experiential and conversational. They also appreciate that it’s on the web, and that it’s free. Teachers appreciate that Smarthistory uses a creative commons license so that they are free to use this content without asking permission. We also make nearly 2,000 high resolution photographs of key works of art available on Flickr with a creative commons license

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essential skills

On January 30th, 2014 Barack Obama spoke at a General Electric plant just outside Milwaukee. Commenting on the state of vocational education the US president proclaimed:

“A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career, but I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” He continued on to say, “Nothing wrong with art history degree,” [sic]. I love art history. I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying, you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education, as long as you get the skills and training that you need.”

President Obama’s disparaging remarks speak to a broader concern about the role of education and employment (I can’t even remember how many times I was asked but what can you do with a degree in art history?”) And rightfully so his comments incited a response from groups such as the College Art Association (“Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations,”) and individuals like Ann Collins Johns, an art historian at the University of Texas in Austin. Johns argued in response, that her classes challenge students to think, read, and write critically.

I know this controversy happened almost six months ago, but lately I have been thinking quite a bit about art history and transferable skills. I agree with Johns – the discipline does challenge students to think, read, and write, all very important skills in almost any profession. But what else are we explicitly or implicitly teaching when we are talking about 17th century Dutch paintings? Or the production of hooked rugs? Of any of the other fascinating topics covered by my colleagues? Upon further inspection, I have noticed that my classes incorporate all three of the critical skills identified by the Conference Board of Canada: “academic skills, personal management skills, and teamwork skills.”

Like Alverno College’s list of abilities developed in a liberal arts education, the viewing, critiquing, discussion, and writing of art improves student’s communication abilities, analytic capabilities, problem solving skills, judgment and decision-making, facility for social interaction, global perspectives, citizenship, and overwhelmingly their aesthetic responsiveness.

Similarly BCIT has produced a list of general skills that are valued by employers of their graduates. At the top of the list is problem solving and creative thinking skills. The others in descending order include: oral skills, interpersonal skills, teamwork and leadership skills, writing skills, reading skills, visual literacy, electronic office skills, and intercultural skills. These abilities are often taught as part of the “hidden curriculum” of art history.

In light of President Obama’s comments and a larger impression that an education in the humanities is less economically important (see the extensive discussion on STEM education) I think we owe it to our students to make these skills an explicit part of our curriculum. I want to emphasize to them that research projects not only improve their reading and writing skills and obviously their visual literacy, but also through connecting with librarians, meeting with curators, and increasingly accessing information in new ways they are developing their the interpersonal, team work, and leadership abilities, as well as electronic/computing skills. Furthermore many of the new ways art history is being taught fosters intercultural skills fostered through a critical exploration of the visual and material cultures around the world.

Note: This post is part of a larger assignment I submitted for PIPD 3210 discussing employability, essential skills in the classroom, and hidden curriculum agendas.

On Being Alt Academic (Part 1)

In a recent article featured in The Atlantic, Elizabth Segran asked “What Can You Do With A Humanities Ph.D. Anyway?” and found as the subtitle suggested that “The choice to leave academia does not have to mean life as a barista.” For the article she interviewed Victoria Blodgett, director of Graduate Career Services at Yale University, who explained, “People who take their Ph.D.s into other realms are not necessarily being hired for their content expertise, but for their process skills: the ability to do excellent research, to write, to make cogent arguments.” Segran concluded, “These skills, it turns out, are in high demand.”

And this is what I have found in the last year as I have explored what is now being called an “Alt-Academic” (#altac) career. While teaching a couple of art history classes at a local college means I haven’t entirely left academia behind, my current position at a credit union places me within the 75% of PhDs without a tenure track position (for more on this see Allison B. Sekuler Barbara Crow, and Robert B. Annan’s “Beyond Labs and Libraries: Career Pathways for Doctoral Students”).

In the last year of my doctoral degree I returned to a part-time job I had done before, working a few days a week at a local credit union. Not only did it bring in a bit of money to cover some of the expenses I had incurred while traveling for research, but it also brought me in contact with people, easing the isolation that often accompanies dissertation writing and most importantly reminded me that sometimes there are things more important than the exact translation of a illegible word in a seventeenth-century document.

During this time a former colleague approached me about coming to work for her, at the company’s head office, back-filling a medical leave. Although the position was temporary, she convinced me that it could (and would! See part 2 of this post next week) open doors in the future. So two months before submitting my dissertation, I accepted a full-time position. Crazy right? While many in my cohort were buckling down, on lock down in the library or sequestering themselves in hotel rooms trying to finish, I took on a brand new job I had no idea how to do. Or did I?

In “When PhDs realize they won’t be professors,” MacLean’s magazines latest contribution to the ongoing dialog on the fate of academics making the transition to the “real world,” Josh Dehaas claims “many graduate students aren’t getting the support they need to prepare for non-academic careers.” But what is stopping graduate students from honing these skills themselves? As a grad student I developed skills highly in demand in other industries. Some of my proudest accomplishments demanded close collaboration with other scholars (here is my shout out to Sarah E.K. Smith, one of the brightest, most generous academics in Canada), developed communication skills (everything from the actual writing of articles etc. to carefully worded emails to supervisors), taught me grant and proposal writing (the fine art of self-promotion and begging for money), involved networking (nothing is more awkward than conference receptions – typically the more you admire a person’s work, the more socially inept they turn out to be) and of course critical thinking (no explanation needed). Ultimately, defending my dissertation in a timely fashion was a major feat of project management.