May 21st, 2010 | Brian Croxall
It’s no secret that the humanities are in a crisis in higher education. Those who are leaving graduate school are faced with one of the worst job markets in more than a decade. Many of those who are lucky enough to find a job will be working as lecturers or adjuncts at inequitable wages. Those securely ensconced on the tenure track face smaller budgets, dwindling enrollment, and charges of irrelevancy. Undergraduate students are entering an equally difficult employment environment, lacking skills that prepare them for specific work opportunities.
And so forth. Because it’s no secret that the humanities are always in crisis. (In fact, soon there will likely be a crisis for those who like to observe that the humanities have always been in crisis as they realize that their own genre of writing has also always already been in crisis. Watch for the Downfall parody soon.)
Having dispensed with the standard alarmism on the state of the humanities, I think it is still worth noting that we’re in a tough employment market. My own #jobmarket experience bears out the difficulty of such a search. But I’ve been lucky enough in this past semester to have had several interviews and job offers. Interestingly, all of these interviews have been for positions that Bethany Nowviskie and others have taken to calling #alt-ac: alternative academic careers. (See also Tom Scheinfeldt‘s 2008 post on “A Third Way.”) These #alt-ac job interviews weren’t concerned so much with my dissertation research. Instead, they were interested in how I use emerging technologies. This knowledge and skill set (which to be honest isn’t all that amazing compared to most of my fellow THATCampers) was developed in a rather haphazard way throughout my graduate school career, as I found myself in different fellowships or simply following my own inclinations. But no matter how I acquired these skills, it’s what got me the job. It’s what allowed several different employers to visualize me as making an impact on their organizations, despite my Ph.D. In other words, what I suddenly found myself equipped with was a set of transferable skills.
What I’d like to discuss at THATCamp is how we can go about teaching humanities students–both undergraduate and graduate–more transferable skills. This isn’t to say that the skills we traditionally teach humanists–critical thinking, analysis, clear and effective writing, etc.–are not transferable. Rather I want the “more” in my previous statement to be understood quantitatively rather than qualitatively. If we’re teaching X number of skills right now, X+5 might be more useful. That’s certainly been my experience.
One of the ways that I’ve worked to teach my students transferable skills is by the sorts of assignments I create. These assignments give students working with emerging tools (and some that have already emerged) such as wikis, Google Wave, Twitter, Zotero, browser-based social gaming, online timelines, and simple GIS tools. Each of these projects asks students to engage in work that is part of a standard humanities education–reading, writing, discussion, and more–with the goal of making an effective argument about the text under consideration. But while they’re polishing those skills, they are also learning to use new and different tools. For example, my timeline assignment asks students to populate the timeline’s data in a simple Google Docs spreadsheet. They learn how to do simple historical research, but they also gain experience working with a useful online tool and and learn what it means to work within the constraints of a database. In short, they do traditional humanities work, learn how it can be informed by new information technologies, and get a crash-course in those technologies.
I’m going to guess that the idea of teaching students transferable skills won’t be a hard sell at THATCamp, but I’d be intrigued to have a discussion for best practices for doing so. Moreover, what skills should we be teaching? Is my emphasis on Web 2.0 tools enough? Should we be teaching humanities students programming languages, as Stephen Ramsay and others do? How can we best integrate these skills into traditional humanities curricula?
At the last, then, I’d like to take the question one step further than Dave Lester does when he asks in his THATCamp post, “What if digital humanities centers were more like hackerspaces?” I’d like to know to what degree we can transform humanities classrooms–or humanities departments themselves–into hackerspaces?