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Becoming a "Bilingual" Advocate for Your Discipline and Your Graduates
What do key external stakeholders hear when we explain the skills students have developed through a liberal education? If a Carnegie Mellon physics department states that students will “develop, implement, and refine a plan to acquire new knowledge for specific scientific goals and in pursuit of new intellectual interests,” what might a state legislator make of the argument?1 If a sociology department at California State University–Long Beach describes a student’s ability to “demonstrate how social change factors, such as population, urbanization, or technology, affect social structure and individuals,” what might this mean to the head of a local planning commission?2 Do our words come across to audiences as a coherent and meaningful message, or as the equivalent of dolphin squeaks that remain unintelligible to nonspecialists?
This communication gap has serious implications for the way employers perceive higher education. According to Ron Painter, CEO of the National Association of Workforce Boards, the business world lacks confidence in postsecondary diplomas, failing to see the credentials as indicators of “anything that employers need.”3 In job interviews, the problem is made worse by recent graduates who bring high expectations of salaries, promotions, and perks, but a limited ability to explain what they can do with their advanced knowledge. And as Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, has commented, many higher education faculty believe that in order to hold true to our academic principles, “we shouldn’t talk about vocationalism” or find ourselves “getting cozy” with corporate needs and opportunities, a choice that often leaves students without much useful mentoring as they prepare to step outside the postsecondary world.4
Educators who recognize the need to clarify their programs’ goals have focused much effort over the past decade on learning outcome statements that summarize complex academic ideas in succinct terms. In a 2018 National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment survey, 66 percent of provosts reported that “all of their programs have learning outcome statements—a number on the rise from prior years.”5 For many faculty, such as my colleagues in history, this work has involved a major cultural change within their area of specialization, leading some—for the first time in their careers—to explain concisely to current and prospective students what their disciplines, majors, and curricula are meant to achieve.6 This effort can help learners come to a better understanding of their studies—and allow administrators to see how different fields complement one another.
But have the projects gone far enough? While faculty have worked to demystify disciplines and programs, the words we use can still come across like insider’s lingo. The good faith effort to make academe’s implicit assumptions explicit may still be indecipherable to many other audiences. And, as Painter suggests above, the disconnect can generate skepticism rather than support for the work of higher education.
Considering the concerns students (and parents) hold about career prospects, a good starting point would be to reframe the story with an eye toward potential employers. The aim is not to turn away from our intellectual principles or academic integrity—or to turn higher education into vocational training. The exercise is one of translation, searching for ways to describe the varied proficiencies and talents of our graduates in terms that resonate with those in position to hire, while also helping our students craft more persuasive narratives of their educational experiences. To bridge the divide between academe and employment, we must become bilingual advocates for liberal education.
Building a more compelling story of student talents
Before speaking with others, we must talk among ourselves. Faculty need to build—or revisit—the core learning goals for their disciplines or programs and come to an agreement about what their work addresses, expects, and contributes. In other words, we need to get our own story straight.
A useful question to pose to colleagues comes from the “tuning” projects that have gained prominence at US and European institutions over the last two decades. These tuning projects often ask, What should students know, understand, and be able to do after completing a major or a program of study?7 Anne Hyde, a historian at the University of Oklahoma who directs a tuning project for the American Historical Association (AHA), imagined a department meeting during which “no one talked about budgets, assessment, course assignments, or parking.” Instead, the discussion centered around the “disciplinary ideals [that] link us . . . and how we might best introduce those to our students.”8
With a clear set of goals in hand, reach out to other educators at your institution, not just other faculty. When was the last time you brought academic advisors, career counselors, librarians, and first-year experience and campus orientation teams into your discussions? All four groups are in steady contact with students, sometimes having more frank conversations about college life than anything that takes place during a professor’s office hours. Librarians can add their voices to conversations about general education, active learning pedagogy, assignment design, scaffolding, research and digital literacy skills, and assessment.9 And John H. Schuh and Ann M. Gansemer-Topf remind us that student affairs practitioners can share a wide range of experience “through their knowledge of student characteristics and attitudes, through their ability to design services aligned with the academic mission of the institution, and with their understanding of student learning outside the classroom.”10 Talk with these colleagues about the goals of your program, and find out what words they use to describe curricula, learning, research, and life after graduation.
Alumni/ae are also a great resource, and not just for monetary contributions. In fact, make it clear that’s not the reason you contacted them. Ask instead for their help in understanding the road they traveled after graduation and the ways they can teach a new generation of learners about postcollege plans.11 What aspirations did they initially hold? What paths did they eventually follow? At different career points, how did they talk about their postsecondary work and credentials? Search out information about former students’ careers. Exit interviews, graduate surveys, alumni office records, local contacts, and LinkedIn profiles can help determine the types of positions students enter and the employers who commonly hire them.12 With a sense of where graduates work, set up a conversation with hiring firms to gain a sense of the educational background and skills they value and the expectations they hold for job applicants.13
From conversations with graduates, employers, and career counselors, find out how firms conduct job interviews. For faculty whose only job interviews were for on-campus positions, the realities of the process for businesses and nonprofits can be surprising. If we take seriously the responsibility to mentor students in and beyond postsecondary work, we should have some familiarity with common practices such as “behavioral interviews” organized around CAR (context/action/result) or STAR (situation/task/action/result) techniques for examining and evaluating job applicants.14 These approaches call for responses from job candidates that are brief, concise, specific, and structured—not exactly the type of answers that many faculty colleagues and I are used to delivering. Fortunately, successful CAR/STAR interviews also incorporate a compelling story, something that instructors in liberal education should be able to demonstrate effectively to our students.
Of course, our graduates have to get their feet in the door just to have the opportunity for an interview. That requires understanding the vocabulary to use when applying for job openings, writing a cover letter, building a resume, or constructing a LinkedIn page. Human resources offices making a first cut on applications might rely on “web crawler” programs to scan documents and websites for core terms that an organization identifies as critical to its hiring needs and requirements.15 Faculty engaged in liberal education take pride in the communication skills we help our students develop. As a practical exercise, instructors and mentors might guide students in focusing on the keywords that will make their documents stand out to potential employers.
What historians learned by listening and tuning
Understandably, some faculty in humanities fields may feel uneasy about meeting with the business community, assuming that human resources offices have their gaze fixed exclusively on STEM graduates.16 However, our experience in the state system of Utah, which is engaged in a tuning project across eight public institutions, revealed quite a different story. Focus group discussions with key employers of graduates from different disciplines helped faculty understand that the skills and competencies businesses valued most highly (e.g., analytical, research, and communication skills) were strikingly similar to those that faculty prized within their fields of study. In addition, conversations helped us recognize the importance firms placed on students who had hands-on experience with internships and working on collaborative team projects.17
Historians in the focus group saw the need to explain traditional course exercises in terms that carried greater weight outside the academic world. For example, research assignments with archival collections, databases, and interpretive monographs became more meaningful for employers when described in different terms: as examples of work that displayed a student’s capacity “to investigate problems, identify reliable sources, analyze information, contextualize complex questions, and communicate conclusions in a clear and thoughtful manner.” Faculty incorporated these words into a history curriculum booklet intended to give our graduates a suggested “script” for possible interviews.18
Just by opening the door to those outside our community of discipline specialists—and listening as they responded to our explanations of outcomes and objectives—historians working with the AHA tuning project have picked up many surprising suggestions for explaining the skills of our field to a wider audience.
David J. Trowbridge, a historian from Marshall University in West Virginia, quickly learned that conversations with employers offered a valuable service to students and faculty. Recognizing the importance that the AHA’s tuning project placed on contact with stakeholders, he set up a forum with business people in his region. The historians’ discussion focused on the problems graduates faced with job prospects and interviews. One employer, listening politely to the comments, moved the conversation in a different direction by asking a question that addressed some confusion in his own mind: What exactly is it that history students do in their courses?
The fact that a businessperson would even pose such a query might come as a surprise to many historians—who may assume everyone can figure out what specialists practice in the field. Fortunately, Trowbridge had an example at hand: a recent talk with a student examining the local history of school desegregation. The student, he acknowledged, launched into the work by assuming that desegregation proceeded fairly smoothly. Trowbridge suggested the need for a deeper, evidence-based inquiry. The student identified a group of older African American residents in the community, contacted them by phone, and conducted a series of oral interviews that revealed their difficult and painful experiences as students living through desegregation. She then appropriately revised the informing thesis of her research paper. Trowbridge recalled, “At that moment, an employer broke in by exclaiming, ‘Wait . . . your students make cold calls?’”19
The phrase used by the employer surprised faculty. But the employer had simply “translated” the history skills into a term that connected with his own experience. While Trowbridge and fellow scholars were caught off-guard, they learned an important lesson about the kinds of words that “work” in the business world.
Taking a cue from tuning’s emphasis on the value of conversations with a wide range of stakeholders—particularly employers and businesspeople from diverse fields—Lendol Calder, a historian at Augustana College, recognized the need to reimagine (rather than simply rework) the arguments and approaches faculty use to communicate the value of a history degree. In his introductory history course, Calder showed a short video featuring alumni who talked about the ways they applied “historical mindedness” in the various nonhistorical jobs they held. Calder also held an office meeting with a student, helping her “translate what she did for her honors thesis into language an employer would understand and be impressed by.” The activities hardly seemed like trailblazing innovations. But Calder had not previously considered either one necessary. “Before tuning,” he wrote, “I would never have thought to do such things because I assumed the value of a history course/degree was obvious. Now I don’t. Tuning made a difference there by encouraging me to think about external stakeholders in what we do.”20
Calder’s students picked up on the same strategy. One student decided to take business courses alongside his history major. During a job interview, he told a story about his senior history capstone project, describing (in employer-friendly terms) how the research demonstrated his ability to discover a workable topic, tackle a problem without clear answers, and critically examine the evidence. One interviewer, listening to the argument, placed the student’s skills in a distinctive—if unusual—context. He “suggested I shouldn’t tell people I majored in history but in ‘information analysis,’ because dealing with conflicting, uncertain information is apparently what I learned to do.”21 The student’s interviews led to four entry-level job offers.
In a session at the AHA annual meeting, Robert Sheets, whose work at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy addresses workforce data systems, credentialing, and labor market planning, listened to three “core competencies” that a history major cultivates.22 Sheets then translated the statements to help historians communicate with outside audiences.
The first competency stated that majors understand “a wide range of historical information” and “explain continuity and change over time.” To Sheets’s ear, the argument meant that historical study develops the kind of “strategic thinking” critical in an innovation-based economy: the ability to “get outside of [students’] current context quickly and see the possibilities and constraints clearly.”
The second competency discussed the ability of majors to recognize the complex, problematic nature of the historical record. Sheets suggested that a history program provides training for students in the highly desired field of “information sciences,” allowing them to learn ways of “analyzing structured and unstructured information” and to “organize that information and present it for a variety of uses.”
The third learning objective focused on critical thinking and reading skills, formulating questions, and constructing well-written arguments. Sheets recognized that many fields emphasize communication skills. Perhaps the best way faculty can help students stand out is to build assignments allowing them “to demonstrate skills for their expected application domain, not yours.” Such student-centered exercises should be open to nonacademic goals, giving students “opportunities to develop evidence of writing in ways that are given high ratings for the domain of their use.” The session’s moderator, Norman Jones, summarized the takeaways from Sheets’s comments: “Know your audience, understand the way that they communicate, provide evidence that you, too, can communicate in that way, and show them that your critical thinking skills are applicable to their industry.”23
The conference panel with Sheets and Jones also included three recent history graduates who discussed their experiences transitioning from academic studies to careers.24 Each speaker stressed a different theme: selecting transformative courses, communicating the skills students build in their majors, and deciphering the interview process.
Hailey Horn received her bachelor’s in history from Marshall University in 2015. Enthusiastic and optimistic, she applied for eighty different positions and participated in seven interviews over the course of fifteen months. As she worked through the process, she recognized the scarcity of available “history” jobs, the challenge of understanding the requirements of other fields, and the problem of speaking (rather than writing) about the skill sets she had acquired.
The long quest led Horn to reflect back on her undergraduate curriculum for an experience that gave her a practical grounding in “doing” history: an internship with the Clio website, which guides the public to local historical and cultural sites.25 The internship integrated the knowledge and skills of classes in her major, clarifying her on-the-ground experiences “communicating with people, . . . listening to stories, being skeptical, organizing your thoughts, . . . recording every source, . . . writing something [fifty] times over because you know it isn’t good enough.” The experience led to a marketing and communications position with Service Year in Washington, DC.
Looking back over seven years of work as a fellow with Colonial Williamsburg, an aide to a member of Congress, and a government relations coordinator for Americans for the Arts, Lauren H. Cohen focused on the words that effectively conveyed the skills her historical training provided. One key was the research she had conducted as a student. The writing sample she submitted in the interview process, taken from her master’s in public history thesis, sparked both interviewers’ curiosity and admiration for her clear, compelling prose style. Equally important, the academic work framed a language of competencies that resonated with employers, allowing Cohen to discuss her “project management skills, critical thinking, and creativity.” She recognized that historical training had built within her “a no-stone-unturned mentality” geared toward “thorough research, attention to detail, and an overall sense of intellectual curiosity.”
A third panelist, Samantha Dorsey, offered the audience a reality check. A graduate of James Madison University and the Winterthur Program at the University of Delaware, Dorsey currently serves as curator of collections at George Mason’s Gunston Hall in Fairfax County, Virginia. But her career did not begin on a bright note, kicking off in 2008 at the start of the Great Recession. Each job she sought required ten to twenty-five hours of application and interview preparation, and the initial position she received came after a nine-month hiring process. The interview for that job did not simply ask for information about her interest in the job and her skills. The process also involved a behavioral examination of her responses to specific situations she had faced in the past, something she wisely anticipated, researched, and expressed in a few concise responses. Dorsey acknowledged that no single list of “buzz words” would serve job candidates well for all positions. The critical guide is the job posting itself, she said: “Use their language in your favor.” History majors, she argued, should be able to analyze that document with the same level of precision and depth that they would apply to any archival record.
Students, employers, advisors, and academics outside our fields—the wide range of stakeholders in higher education—have much to teach us about the ways we can frame and articulate the knowledge and skills our programs develop for learning, careers, and civic life. Rather than assuming that the often-complicated language of faculty-speak makes sense to the rest of the world, educators should be willing to step out of our institutional echo chambers, listen carefully to what others make of our work, and grab hold of the words they use to express the needs, interests, and expectations of different communities.
Our colleagues have worked on developing learning outcomes (through approaches such as tuning, qualification frameworks,26 or threshold concepts27) and revisiting the valuable work of the past decade to find ways to translate, decipher, and decode our campus terminology into a more widely understood lingua franca of student proficiencies. By building a “bridge” language that conveys the knowledge and abilities of college learners to the general public, we can become more effective, bilingual advocates for our graduates and our profession.
1. “Program Learning Outcomes,” Department of Physics, Carnegie Mellon University, https://www.cmu.edu/physics/undergrad-program/learning-outcomes.html.
2. “Student Learning Outcomes,” Department of Sociology, California State University–Long Beach, http://www.cla.csulb.edu/departments/sociology/programs/.
3. Ron Painter, “On the Job: Talking about History Skills with Employers” (conference panel presentation, 132nd Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, Washington, DC, January 4, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lzs4ZjealVc&feature=youtu.be.
4. Lynn Pasquerella, quoted in Michael Anft, “From Liberal Arts to Making a Living,” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 22, 2017, https://www.chronicle.com/article/From-Liberal-Arts-to-Making-a/241510.
5. Natasha A. Jankowski, Jennifer D. Timmer, Jillian Kinzie, and George Kuh, Assessment That Matters: Trending Toward Practices That Document Authentic Student Learning (Urbana, IL: National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, 2018), 7.
6. Scott Jaschik, “‘Tuning’ History,” Inside Higher Ed, February 13, 2012, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/02/13/historians-start-effort-d....
7. David W. Marshall, Natasha A. Jankowski, and Terry Vaughan III, Tuning Impact Study: Developing Faculty Consensus to Strengthen Student Learning (Urbana, IL: National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, 2017), http://degreeprofile.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/TuningImpactStudy.pdf.
8. Anne Hyde, “Tuning and Teaching History as an Ethical Way of Being in the World,” AHA Today, July 17, 2014, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-....
9. Jennifer Duncan, Kacy Lundstrom, and Becky Thoms, “Collaborating for Individual and Institutional Success: Libraries as Strategic Campus Partners,” Viewpoints Discussion Board, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, March 8, 2018, https://blogs.illinois.edu/view/915/620851.
10. John H. Schuh and Ann M. Gansemer-Topf, The Role of Student Affairs in Student Learning Assessment (Urbana, IL: National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, 2010), 12, http://www.learningoutcomesassessment.org/documents/StudentAffairsRole.pdf.
11. Sarah Elizabeth Pfeifer, “The Benefits of Establishing a Student/Alumni Mentoring Program,” The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal 4, no. 4 (October/December 2002), https://dus.psu.edu/mentor/old/articles/021007sp.htm.
12. Garrett Groves and Iris Palmer, Tracking Graduates into the Workforce: Connecting Education and Labor Market Data (Washington, DC: National Governors Association, 2015), https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED570492.
13. For an example of discussions with employers of graduates from education programs in the Utah System of Higher Education, see: David Smith, “Summary of Responses from Elementary Education Principals,” December 2012, https://utahtuning.weebly.com/uploads/1/4/6/9/14699846/principals_expctn....
14. For a convenient overview of the CAR and STAR techniques, see: “Interviewing,” Career Center, University of California, Berkeley, https://career.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/pdf/Guide/Interviewing.pdf; “Behavioral Interview Techniques–The STAR Approach,” Career Services, Wayne State University, https://careerservices
15. Anthony P. Carnevale, Tamara Jayasundera, and Dmitri Repnikov, Understanding Online Job Ads Data: A Technical Report (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2014), 3–6, https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/OCLM.Tech_.Web_.pdf.
16. Susan Dominus, “How to Get a Job with a Philosophy Degree,” New York Times, September 13, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/magazine/how-to-get-a-job-with-a-phil....
17. Bill Evenson et al., “Report on Research with Employers of Graduates with History Majors,” Utah System of Higher Education (2011), 5, 8, 9, http://history.usu.edu/files/upload/ EmployerFocusGroupReportonHistoryMajorsDec2010.pdf.
18. Daniel J. McInerney, “Tuning History in Utah: Winning Friends and Influencing Policy Makers,” Perspectives on History 52, no. 4 (April 2014), https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-....
19. David J. Trowbridge, email message to author, April 6, 2018, emphasis added.
20. Lendol Calder, email message to American Historical Association Tuning Committee, May 14, 2014.
21. Lendol Calder, “Re: The Power of Narrative,” correspondence to the American Historical Association Tuning Grant Committee, August 20, 2013.
22. Competencies were drawn from “Learning Objectives,” Utah State University History Department, http://history.usu.edu/files/upload/Learning_Objectives.pdf.
23. Robert Sheets and Norman Jones, “How Web Crawlers Help Shape the Vocabulary of Job Skills” (“On the Job” panel presentation, 132nd Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, Washington, DC, January 4, 2018).
24. Lauren H. Cohen, Samantha Dorsey, and Hailey Horn, “Recent History Graduates and Their Experiences in Job Interviews” (“On the Job” panel presentation, 132nd Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, Washington, DC, January 4, 2018).
25. Hailey Horn, “DuBois High School (1917–1950),” Clio, updated September 23, 2016, https://www.theclio.com/web/entry?id=26458.
26. Cliff Adelman, Peter Ewell, Paul Gaston, and Carol Geary Schneider, The Degree Qualifications Framework (Indianapolis: Lumina Foundation, 2014), http://degreeprofile.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/DQP-web-download-ref....
27. Ray Land, Jan H. F. Meyer, and Michael T. Flanagan, eds., Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning (Rotterdam: Sense Publisher, 2016).
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DANIEL J. MCINERNEY is professor of history at Utah State University.