In our recent discussions at Books@Work, we have been tossing around the term “ecosystem” to help us understand the many interconnected ways our program can make a difference. We are learning to see that every partner in a Books@Work program, from the individual participants to the companies and faculty, is connected to a whole network of relationships. Our belief is that the seminar experience is able to influence in small but powerful ways all of those relationships, and the feedback we are receiving from faculty, participants and companies gives credence to that belief.
Here is one example of how that ecosystem might work. Humanities departments often debate the relationship between a liberal arts education and the work world. Some critics, like Martha Nussbaum and Frank Donoghue, argue that measuring the value of the humanities in economic terms is a mistake. For Nussbaum, such an approach devalues the important democratic function of education, while Donoghue worries that the corporatization of the university undermines the professoriate. Others, however, suggest that humanities departments in colleges and universities need to get creative about cultivating job opportunities for their undergraduate students.
This is the argument that William Pannapaker, a professor of English at Hope College, makes in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Pannapaker claims that many humanities departments gauge the success of their undergraduate programs by graduate school placement, which has caused them to neglect opportunities for students outside the academy. Humanities departments, Pannapaker writes, have done “a poor job of creating partnerships and career paths that would allow undergraduate majors in, say, English and art history to continue doing what they love, and to make a living at it without going straight into a Ph.D. program.” The idea of “doing what they love” is crucial here, as Pannapaker rejects the idea that humanities programs should be simply job training. Instead, he wants to help undergraduates see how their work in reading, writing, critical thinking and self-reflection is valued by the world of business. Instead of catering humanities education to business, in other words, Pannapaker is suggesting that this education, valuable in its own right, is also appealing to employers.
For Pannapaker, one way to help humanities students communicate this value is to emphasize digital literacy alongside traditional liberal arts courses. But he makes another important observation: although professors may want to help their students find meaningful employment, “most do not have recent experience outside of academe, and, just as important, they generally do not have nonacademic networks that can help undergraduates get job interviews.”
Enter Books@Work. Our program gives faculty members and universities an easy opportunity to cultivate those networks and even to gain some of that experience outside of academia. Faculty members who teach in the program consistently report that this exposure to working adults helps them reimagine their own teaching and research. Hopefully, these experiences can also assist them as they advise undergraduate students. Additionally, our program is evidence that employers do value the humanities, not just for its “skill set” but also for the habits of thinking it cultivates. By connecting the gown with the town, in other words, Books@Work may indirectly help faculty support, develop and promote their undergraduate students.
Beyond the practical benefits for faculty advisers and undergraduates, I think that this particular element of the Books@Work “ecosystem” might help faculty reassess the debate about the function of the humanities. Perhaps direct experience with adult workers and businesses can give faculty the chance to reimagine what Paul Jay and Gerald Graff call “either/or” thinking, the idea that humanities departments must make a choice “between vocational utility and high-minded study as an end in itself.” After all, what if study as an “end in itself” could in fact be a form of “vocational utility”? Or the reverse: why can’t we take our work lives as an occasion for serious reflection, the kind of philosophical thinking that I argue elsewhere is essential to human flourishing?
The University of Bologna. Photo by Gaspa (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.