Tuesday, May 3, 2011

History Majors and the Job Market: What Can Faculty Do?

Gabriel Loiacono

Today's guest post about the post-college world for history majors is from Gabriel Loiacono. He is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. He is currently working on a book titled Paupers and Overseers: Five Lives Shaped by the Poor Law in Early Republican Rhode Island. Welcome Gabe!

A few weeks ago, a student from my introductory U.S. history course came to my office to talk about careers that he might find as a history major. I’ll call him “Rocky.” Rocky told me that his brother had graduated from a nearby university as a history major, but is now unemployed. A friend of Rocky’s, also a graduated history major, found work as a janitor, but Rocky is hoping to find work that could more directly make use of his history degree. Rocky, to say the least, is worried.

He came to me because I have volunteered to be my department’s “jobs czar” (which is my term and one that did not win consensus in my otherwise quite congenial department). This is not to say that I hand out jobs to our graduates. Would that I could! Rather, I am beefing up our web resources on careers for history majors and organizing events aimed at helping our students tackle the job market. I also talk to a lot of students, perhaps one or two a week, about the job market. I feel like a cross between a cheerleader and a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman. “Your history major,” I tell students, “can clean almost any surface”

Well, of course, I’m not glib like that. I’m quite serious. I am a believer in the power of history majors to write well, to think critically, to read analytically, and to succeed at a wide variety of careers that require those skills. I parrot the American Historical Association which, in its webpage asking the question “What can you do with an undergraduate degree in history?” answers “Many, many things.” In previous incarnations of this webpage, the AHA’s response to their own question was: “the short answer is anything.” By comparison, the newer version sounds a bit wiser and more chastened. It is still pretty optimistic, though. The AHA goes on to say “As a liberal arts major, of course, the world is your oyster.”

The world is your oyster? Of course?

Now don’t get me wrong. I really do believe that a history major’s skills can equip her or him for many careers. And I tell my students to think broadly about potential careers: they don’t have to be teachers or museum curators, as wonderful as those careers are. They could also be insurance claims investigators or even physicians. Over at the blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home, John Fea has been gathering examples of history majors with great but unexpected careers. Many others have also made the case for studying history very eloquently, on this blog, at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and at the AHA’s Perspectives, where AHA President Anthony Grafton has articulated the value of having scholars at work in history as a defense against “attacks” on history as a discipline.

But I think that members of the AHA, the Historical Society, others, and I need to do more to make the world feel more oyster-like for history majors. Rocky, my student, has chosen a history major because he already believes in the innate value of studying history. But he also needs a job when he graduates, and he could use our help. I think he deserves our concerted efforts to show the rest of the world that he and other history majors will be great new hires, in a variety of professions.

It is good to cheerlead, to remind society of the value of having scholars working in history, and to remind history majors of the useful skills they acquire in college. We should also, though, be working harder to demonstrate to a largely skeptical world that history majors succeed in many careers. How can we help history majors market themselves? How can we be sure that employers know the gem that a well-trained history major is? How can we help more students to make the brave choice that Rocky has, to major in history despite his very concrete concerns about his employability in a couple years?

11 comments:

Randall said...

Gabe: You must be reading my mind. I've been thinking a lot about having a couple of sessions every year to talk to majors, and those who might be interested in the major, about what they can do with the degree when the pass through the gates one last time. How many bright kids, interested in history, say no to the major because they don't want to "teach history"?

I usually point students to our dept alumni pages:

http://www.enc.edu/history/alumni.html

There students will find those who've gone on into business, the military, politics, law, teaching, archive/museum work, non-profits, the ministry, journalism, etc.

One particular major, Lee Stetson ('67), is a professional actor who has portrayed conservationist John Muir at Yosemite National Park for over twenty years. Stetson was one of the main talking heads in Ken Burns's National Parks doc. Not all will opt for the re-enacting thing! But, does show that the world is pretty open and that with a bit of imagination a grad can carve out a career in something that interests him or her.

hcr said...

All Hail The Jobs Czar! Thanks for this posting!

You're right, of course. The skills we teach-- expository writing, research, analysis, argument, the way society works-- are precisely the most valuable skills anyone can carry into business, consulting, journalism, law, and so on. We really do teach the basics of how to participate in society.

Part of claiming that expertise, though, means keeping in view the larger picture of how the skills we teach fit into the world. Explaining to students that they're writing a research paper to enable them to learn how to collect information, evaluate it, and make an argument about it because those are skills they'll need in the future seems often to elicit more enthusiasm than telling them the world needs one more essay on Andrew Jackson's Bank War.

So part of convincing the world is marketing. Part is also exposure. There are more and more historians showing up in public debate these days, and that can only be a good thing.

PW said...

It's a similar battle for all humanities majors. When I lecture English majors at a small, private liberal arts university, I typically focus on practical topics such as "How to Build Relationships with Editors" or "The Four Principles of Getting Things Done", rather than extolling the virtues of Wordsworth's "Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey."

I think the problem with many humanities syllabi is that they focus on improving theoretical skills without bridging the gap to how these apply in the "real world." This is as much of a problem for English professors than for history instructors.

As your posts reveal, HCR and Randall, another challenge is kids' self-limiting perspective, and those of their peers who choose "practical" courses such as (gulp) business before they think (perhaps correctly) that it will get them a "good" job. But, who's to say what a "good job" is? Middle management at a faceless big-company, where you sit in meetings for 38 out of every 40 hours and don't create anything? Yikes.

Personally, doing a year of business school about killed my soul. Switching to an impractical, frivolous, "So you're going to be an English teacher" degree was the smartest career move I ever made.

Maybe we need to harness the campaign slogan of our President when talking to these kids: "Yes, we can (fill in blank for career aspiration). Despite what their skeptical business major buddies might tell them to the contrary.

Terry said...

I have a couple suggestions:

First, be explicit in all your classes about what types of skills you are teaching that are transferable to the job search, such as critical writing, reading, presentation skills, etc. That way students will be able to articulate those things in interviews.

Second, work with you campus career center. These are experts, and they most likely want to work with faculty in helping students in all majors get jobs. Partnering with these services will be a great way to help students, and break down some campus silos while you're at it.

A True Historian said...

Great blog. I have been going thru this issue myself. I even went to Grad school with hopes of getting a job teaching. So far I am still there. It seems boards of education want teachers to master jamming state selected items into kids rather than a master of History.

David said...

I'd add that getting identifiable office experience can smooth the transition into the rest of the world. If a student can do work-study in a college office or similar work (or as part of a internship or the like), they really should do it even if it means less time for history. Arguing in AHA language what a history major can do in the real world won't get our majors in the front door, where they can show off their skills.

Randall said...

Check out John Fea's post on Gabe's piece. Fea uses it to discuss some really helpful hints for history grads & the job market:

http://www.philipvickersfithian.com/2011/05/more-thoughts-on-finding-work-for.html

Gabriel said...

Well, these are all great responses to my question: "what can faculty do?"

Organizing sessions for history majors on this topic, compiling lists of what history alumni have done, being explicit about the skills history students are learning, marketing those skills both to students and the broader public, emphasizing practical skills, working with campus career centers, and urging history majors to gain broad work experience are all very useful ideas.

That these ideas came out on a blog post chimes with my experience so far as "jobs czar." Many of the best resources I've found have been blogs.

I wonder, though, if it would be a good idea to try to make a central web resource for history majors and their advisers. In my searches I have not found one! Perhaps the Historical Society would be willing to host such a site? We already have a link entitled "Resources for Teachers." What about a link entitled "Resources for History Majors and Their Advisers" at which we could bring together some of the best ideas and internet sites on the subject?

Randall said...

Gabe:

That sounds like a great idea! And we'd be happy to post it. I'd be glad to get suggestions from all of you. We could include a list of those who helped think of ideas for it.

Felicia said...

I am not faculty but was a history major and transitioned quite easily into a business career. I majored in economic history - letting me enjoy history as a liberal arts major but also giving myself some grounding and credentials in economics. As you all have said, the training to think critically, synthesize information, and make a clear argument serve as foundational skills for many many careers.

Gabriel said...

Felicia,

I am so glad to hear that you've made this transition work. It's a relief to hear that it works in practice and not just in theory.

Randall, I'll be in touch about this compilation of resources. I'm glad you like the idea!