To begin you need to know that I am 100% in favor of integrating career preparation into undergraduate degrees. I think that quality micro-credentials can bolster short- and long-term goals for our students opening doors and providing timely economic opportunities while they are pursuing their degrees. Experiential learning opportunities of all kinds make good the promise of connecting theory to practice and they open up professional pathways. Stackable credentials allow interests to grow and evolve while supporting some immediate learning and employment goals. From entry level certificates to post-graduate certifications, the stackable credential model can be truly transformational.
I also need to state clearly that this should not be at the expense of liberal arts education. The learning experiences that focus on a narrow set of skills or those that endeavor to transfer classroom learning to the workplace are a piece of education that can be very powerful, but the long-term promise of education is a promise of transformation that transcends employment goals.
Employers know this is true. We can see it in their consistent plea for college graduates who are strong critical thinkers, clear communicators, able to collaborate with colleagues from all different backgrounds (and time zones). Even as some industries have removed the BA requirement from the check boxes that get people interviews, they are still looking for those “soft” skills that contribute to creating great colleagues. Even as they opt to offer boot camps and micro-credentials of their own, they are examining the gaps in knowledge and behaviors that these narrowly focused learning opportunities ignore.
In other words, they know it is a balance and so do we. For some insight into the balance, I recommend the most recent “What Employers are Saying About Higher Ed” in The Chronicle. This isn’t an either/or other situation. It is actually about something we hold very dear in higher education: preparation for lifelong learning. That preparation is one part technical (knowing how to find things, sort things, do things, and synthesize things) and one part magical. That magic comes with a reading, and discussion, and interaction that shakes up our world views. Magic can come anywhere in this learning pipeline, but at some point it requires a level of abstraction that helps students connect some dots and reimagine their worlds.
As I work with my colleagues to imagine how best to weave micro-credentials and meaningful applied learning experiences into our liberal arts curriculum, I want to be sure that we also attend to the magic. Since we aren’t actually magicians, that has to mean creating the conditions for magic to occur. Today, I am remembering three magical moments that I experienced as an undergraduate. These moments were so powerful that I knew even then that I was transformed.
The first magical experience was as a voice major at Hartt School of Music. I didn’t last long in this program – my eyes were focused on NYC and I soon departed. But in that very first year I studied the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For the uninitiated, IPA is a decoder ring that unlocks the sound structures of all languages. Singers study it because we frequently sing in other languages. I could see the usefulness of this decoder ring immediately (entirely practical skills). But the magic happened as I started to see the patterns of stereotypes in cartoons and films and television based on those sound structures. Caricatures of people from far flung places were built on the sounds of their languages. Knowing that made me hear the world differently. As I listened for traces of a first language in my interactions, the stereotypes I had encountered were replaced with a keen interest in not just those sounds, but also the worldviews that signaled.
The second magical moment came when I returned to college after several years of working as a singer. I was ready to finally earn that undergraduate degree and started taking classes at Hunter College as a non-matriculated student. This means I had to register last and one of the only courses still open was informal logic. This wasn’t some nice intimate lecture with lots of conversation and papers to develop. No, Dr. Freeman’s class was in a largely full 2-300 seat lecture hall, with short answer exams and only occasional input from the students. Even in that context, the material changed my life. This class organized my thinking, helped me see the power of good arguments and identify the strategies of bad ones. Where I once had intuition that something was wrong in a persuasive statement, I now had the tools to find the fallacies and irrelevant evidence. Every single class, every paper, every project, and every job I have had since has been supported by what I gained in this class. It is impossible to overstate how profound this transformation was for me. Not only did I feel more confident about making arguments, I found better ways to listen to arguments others were making.
The last experience came in a graduate class on the roots of mass culture with Dr. Stuart Ewen. We discussed a fascinating range of topics from laughter as a subversive act to the power of electricity to reorganize culture, but the moment of transformation came when we watched a video about graffiti artists in NYC. The documentary interviewed people who were painting walls, subways, and well, the city (it was the 1980s). We were tasked with writing a response paper and for some reason I was struck by the swearing. I am no stranger to swearing and it was not taboo in my home growing up, but it seemed to form an important part of the identities of the people interviewed. In my paper I asked why this was the choice. Dr. Ewen responded directly and concisely, “It is also choice not to swear.” My world shifted. I had yet another decoder ring that illuminated class structures and social rules and stereotypes.
These moments were magic. Some of that magic was in the professor and the material. Much of it was in the way I connected it to other classes and the world around me. None of the classes had careers attached and only one of them was a requirement. Each of them transformed me into a better citizen, a better employee, and a better person. These were serendipitous experiences, fortunate moments in an education that had room for a little exploration. They helped me see the world from different perspectives, which undoubtedly gave me very practical skills. They also enriched my life.
I would not have minded a few courses that focused on some immediately marketable skills in my undergraduate experience. Like many of the students I serve now I had no money, so an obvious connection to a job would have been helpful. But I am also grateful to have had the opportunity to explore the more abstract, theoretical, and just plain interesting. Those experiences have served me well in my career and in my life.
So, as we think about weaving career connections into our liberal arts curriculum, I think it is important to acknowledge that both things are transformative. Let’s not pit credentials and career experiences against the liberal arts; let’s figure out how to get the balance right. I think we can if we just think it through. We need to map it out, test the arguments, examine the evidence.
Dr. Freeman, I’m using your class again.