Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Humanities

June 12

The Nordstrom Philologist

People are always nattering on about skills for the new economy, but apart from some truly unhelpful ideas like “everyone should learn to code”, they are usually pretty vague on specifics about what that means.  But I think I have solved that.

What the economy needs – or more accurately, what enterprises (private and public) need – is more Nordstrom Philologists.

Let me explain.

One of the main consequences of the management revolutions of the last couple of decades has been the decline of middle-management.  But, as we are now learning, one of the key – if unacknowledged – functions of middle-management was to act as a buffer between clients and upper management on the one side, and raw new employees on the other.  By doing so, they could bring said new employees along slowly into the culture of the company, show them the ropes and hold their hands a bit as they gained in confidence and ability in dealing with new and unfamiliar situations.

But that’s gone at many companies now.  New employees are now much more likely to be thrown headfirst into challenging situations.  They are more likely to be dealing with clients directly, which of course means they have greater responsibility for the firm’s reputation and its bottom line.  They are also more likely to have to report directly to upper management, which requires a level of communication skills and overall maturity which many don’t have.

When employers say young hires “lack skills”, this is what they are talking about.  Very few complain that the “hard skills” – technical skills related to the specific job – are missing. Rather, what they are saying is they lack the skills to deal with clients and upper management.  And broadly, what that means is, they can’t communicate well and they can’t figure out how to operate independently without being at the (senior) boss’ door every few minutes asking “what should I do now”?

When it comes to customer service, everyone knows Nordstrom is king.  And a large part of that has to do with its staff and its commitment to customer care.  Communications are at the centre of what Nordstrom does, but it’s not communicating to clients; rather, it’s listening to them.  Really listening, I mean: understanding what clients actually want, rather than just what they ask for.  And then finding ways to make sure they get what they need.  That’s what makes clients and/or citizens feel valued.  And it’s what the best employees know how to provide.

And then there’s philology* – the study of written texts.  We don’t talk much about this discipline anymore in North America since its constituent parts have it’s been partitioned into history, linguistics, religious studies and a tiny little bit into art history (in continental Europe it retains a certain independence and credibility as an independent discipline).  The discipline consists essentially in constructing plausible hypotheses from extremely fragmentary information: who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls?  Are those Hitler diaries real?  And so on.   It’s about understanding cultural contexts, piecing together clues.

Which is an awful lot like day-to-day business.  There’s no possible way to learn how to behave in every situation, particularly when the environment is changing rapidly.  Being effective in the workplace is to a large degree about developing modes of understanding and action based on some simple heuristics and a constant re-evaluation of options as new data becomes available.  And philology, the ultimate “figure it out for yourself” discipline, is excellent training for it (history is a reasonably close second).

That’s pretty much it.  Nordstrom for the really-listening-to-client skills, philology for the figuring-it-out-on-your-own-and-getting-stuff-done skills.  Doesn’t matter what line of business you’re in, these are the competencies employers need.  And similarly, it doesn’t matter what field of study is being taught, these are the elements that need to be slipped into the curriculum.

*(On the off-chance you want to know more about philology, you could do a lot worse than James Turner’s Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities.  Quite a useful piece on the history of thought). 

January 23

A Puzzling Pattern in the Humanities

Big news in Alberta the other day: the University of Alberta has decided to cut fourteen (14!) programs, in the humanities. That’s on top of a programs cull just two years ago in which seventeen programs – mostly in Arts – were also axed! Oh my God! War on the humanities, etc, etc.

Or at least that’s the way it sounds, until you read the fine print around the announcement and realise that these fourteen programs, collectively, have 30 students enrolled in them. The puzzle here, it seems, is not so much “why are these programs being cancelled” as “why on earth were they ever approved in the first place”?

For the record, here are the programs being axed: Majors programs in Latin American studies, Scandinavian studies, honours programs in classical languages, creative writing, history/classics (combined) religious studies, women and gender studies, comparative literature, French, math (that is, a BA Hon in math – which is completely separate from the BSc in Math, which is going nowhere), and also Scandinavian studies (again). And technically, they are not being axed, but rather “suspending admissions”, which means that current students will be able to finish their degrees.

Two takeaways from this:

The first is that the term “programs” is a very odd and sometimes misunderstood one. Universities can get rid of programs without affecting a single job, without even reducing a single course offerings. In the smorgasboard world of North American universities, all programs are essentially virtual. The infrastructure of a university is essentially the panoply of courses offered by departments. Academic entrepreneurs can then choose to bundle certain configurations of courses into “programs” (with the approval of a lot of committees and Senate of course). Of course, programs need co-ordinators and a co-ordinators get stipends and more importantly a small bump in prestige. But overall, programs are very close to costless because departments are absorbing all the costs of delivering the actual courses. (The real costs are actually the ludicrous amount of programming time involved in getting registrarial software to recognize all these different degree pathway requirements).

It doesn’t actually have to be this way. Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Science only has about fifty degree programs; pretty much every mid-size Canadian university has twice that. And there’s no obvious benefit to students in this degree of specialization. What’s the advantage of this? Why, apart from inertia and a desire not to rock the boat, do we put up with this?

A second point, though. Readers may well ask “why do these kinds of program cuts always affect the humanities more than any other faculty”. This is a good question. And the answer is: because no other faculty hacks itself into ever-tinier pieces the way humanities does. Seriously. This isn’t a question of specialization – every field has that – it’s a question of whether or not to create academic structures and bureaucracies to parallel every specialization.

Imagine, for instance, what biology would look like if it were run like humanities. You’d probably have separate degrees and program co-ordinators for epigenetics, ichnology, bioclimatology, cryobiology, limnology, morphology – the potential list goes on and on. But of course biology doesn’t do that, because biology is not ridiculous. Humanities, on the other hand…

There are lots of good histories of the humanities out there (I recommend Rens Bod’s A New History of the Humanities and James Turner’s Philology: the Origins of the Modern Humanities), but as far as I know no one has ever really looked in a historical way as to why humanities, alone among branches of the academy, chose to Balkanize itself administratively in such an odd way.  For a set of disciplines which constantly worries about being under attack, you’d think that grouping together in larger units would be an obvious defence posture.  Why not just have big programs in philosophy, languages and literature and philology/history and be done with it?

May 19

PhDs in the Humanities

I had the good fortune earlier this week of speaking to the Future of the Humanities PhD conference at Carleton University. It was an interesting event, full of both faculty and students who are thinking about ways to reform a system takes students far too long to navigate. They asked me for my thoughts, so I gave them. Here’s a precis.

One of the most intractable problems with the PhD (and not just in the humanities) is that it serves a dual purpose. First, it’s a piece of paper that says “you’re a pretty good researcher”; second, it’s a piece of paper that says “you too can become a tenured university professor! Maybe.”

The problem is that “maybe”: lots of people can meet the standard of being a good researcher, but that doesn’t mean there will be university professor jobs for them. Simply, more people want to be professors than there are available spots; eventually, the system says yes to some and no to others. Right now we let the job market play that role. But what if those in charge of doctoral programs themselves played a more active role? What if there was more selectivity at the end of – say – the first or second year of a doctorate? Those deemed likeliest to get into academia would then end up on one track, and the others would be told (gently) that academia was unlikely for them, and offered a place in a (possibly shorter-duration) “professional PhD” track designed to train highly skilled workers destined for other industries. Indeed, some might want to be put on a professional PhD track right from the start.

If you’re going to be selective early on in doctoral programs, then you probably want to re-design their front-ends so they’re not all coursework and – especially – comps. Apparently in some programs, it is not unusual to take three years to complete coursework and comps – and this is after someone has done a master’s degree. This is simply academic sadism. It is certainly important for students heading into the teaching profession to have a grasp of the overall literature. But is it necessary for this work to be placed entirely at the beginning of a program, acting as a barrier to students doing what they really want to do, which is research?

Instead, why not have students and their supervisors jointly work out at the start of a program what literature needs to be covered, and agree to a structured program of covering it over the length of the program? Ideally, students would have their tests at the end, close to the time when they would be going on the job market. You’d need to front-end load the more methodological stuff (so those who end up in the professional stream get it too), but apart from that this seems perfectly feasible.

Of course, that implies that departments – and more importantly individual doctoral supervisors – are prepared to do the work to create individual degree plans with students and actually stick to them. There is really no reason why a five- or even a four-year doctorate – that is, one whose length roughly coincides with the funding package – is impossible. But expectations have to be clear and met on both sides. Students should have a clear roadmap telling them roughly what they’ll be doing each term until they finish; professors need to hold them to it but equally, professors also need to be held to their responsibilities in keeping students on track.

Many people think of PhDs as “apprenticeships”. But that doesn’t imply just hanging around and watching the “masters”. Go read any apprenticeship standards documents: employers have a very detailed list of skills that they need to impart to apprentices over a multi-year apprenticeship, and both the apprentice and the journeyman have to sign off every once in a while that such skills have been taught.

Or, take another form of knowledge-worker apprenticeship: medicine. When medical students pick a specialty like internal medicine or oncology, they are embarking on a form of multi-year apprenticeship – but one which is planned in detail, containing dozens of assessment points every year. Their assessments cover not just subject matter expertise, but also the aspiring medic’s communication skills, teamwork skills, managerial skills, etc. All things that you’d think we’d want our doctoral students to acquire.

So how about it, everyone? Medical residencies as a model for shorter, more intensive PhDs? Can’t be worse than what we’re doing now.

December 04

Defending Liberal Arts: Try Using Data

A few weeks back, I wrote about the Liberals Arts/humanities, and some really bad arguments both for and against them.  As usual when I write these, I got a lot of feedback to the effect of: “well, how would you defend the Liberal Arts, smart guy”?  Which, you know, fair enough.  So, here’s my answer.

The humanities, at root, are about pattern recognition in the same way that the sciences and the social sciences are: they just seek patterns in different areas of human affairs – in music, in literature, and in the narrative of history.  And though humanities cannot test hypotheses about patterns using the same kinds of experimental methods as elsewhere, they can nevertheless promote greater understanding of thorough synthesis.  Or, to paraphrase William Cronon’s famous essay, the humanities are about making connections, only connections.  In a networked world, that’s a valuable skill.

None of this, to me, is in doubt.  What is in doubt is whether this promise made by the humanities and Liberal Arts is actually delivered upon.  Other disciplines synthesize and make connections, too.  They promote critical thinking (the idea that other disciplines, disciplines founded on the scientific method, don’t promote critical thinking is the most arrogant and stupid canard promoted by people in the humanities).  What the humanities desperately need is some proof that what they claim is true is, in fact, true.  They need some data.

In this context, it’s worth taking a look at the Wabash National Study on Liberal Arts education.  This was an elaborate, longitudinal, multi-institutional study to look at how students in liberal arts programs develop over time.  Students took a battery of tests – on critical reasoning, intercultural effectiveness, moral character, leadership, etc. – at various points in their academic career to see the effects of Liberal Arts teaching, holding constant the effects of things like gender, age, race, prior GPA, etc.  You can read about the results here – and do read them, because it is an interesting study.

At one level, the results are pretty much what we always thought: students do better if they are in classes where the teaching is clear and well-organized, and they learn more where they are challenged to do things, like applying theories to practical problems in new contexts, or integrating ideas from different courses in a project, or engaging in reflective learning.  And as can be seen here in the summary of results, the biggest positive effects of liberal arts education are on moral reasoning, critical thinking, and leadership skills (academic motivation, unfortunately, actually seems to go down over time).

So: mostly good for Liberal Arts/humanities, right?  Not quite.  Let me quote the most interesting bit: the research found that “even with controls for student pre-college characteristics and academic major, students attending liberal arts colleges (as compared to their peers at research universities and regional institutions) reported significantly higher levels of clarity and organization in the instruction they received, as well as a significantly higher frequency of experiences on all three of the deep-learning scales.”  In other words, the effects of Liberal Arts on students in Liberal Arts colleges are significantly greater than the effects on students studying similar programs in other, larger institutions.  That is to say, it’s the teaching environment and teaching practices, not the subject matter itself, which seems to make more of a difference.

Now, this does not suggest that Liberal Arts/humanities can’t deliver those kinds of benefits at larger universities; it’s just to say that for it to deliver those benefits, the focus needs to be on providing the subject matter using quite specific teaching practices and – not to beat around the bush – keeping class sizes down (which may in turn have implications for teaching loads and research activity, but that’s another story).

There are some good stories for the Liberal Arts in the Wabash data, and some not so good stories.  But the point is, there is data.  There are some actual facts and insights that can be used to improve programs, to make them better at producing well-rounded critical thinkers.  And at the end of the day, the inquiry itself is what’s important.  Humanities’ biggest problem isn’t that it’s got nothing to sell; it’s that too frequently they act like they have nothing to learn.  If more institutions adopted Wabash-like approaches, and acted upon them, my guess is the Liberal Arts would get a lot more respect than they currently do.

November 11

Times You Wish There Was a Word Other Than Research

There is something about research in modern languages (or English, as we used to call it) that sets many people’s teeth on edge, but usually for the wrong reasons.

Let’s go back a few months to Congress, specifically to an article Margaret Wente wrote where she teed-off on a paper called “Sexed-up Paratext: The Moral Function of Breasts in 1940s Canadian Pulp Science Fiction”.   Her point mostly was about “whatever happened to the great texts?”  Which, you know: who cares?  The canon is overrated, and the transversal skills that matter can be taught through many different types of materials.

But she hit a nerve by articulating a point about research in the humanities, and why the public feels uneasy about funding them.  Part of it is optics, and what looks to outsiders like childish delight in mildly titillating or “transgressive” titles.  But mostly, it just doesn’t “look like” what most people think of as research.  It’s not advancing our understanding of the universe, and it’s not making people healthier, so what’s it doing other than helping fuel career progression within academia?  And that’s not a judgement at all on what’s in the paper itself (I haven’t read the paper, I can’t imagine Wente did either); even if it were the best paper at Congress, people who defend the humanities wouldn’t likely point to a paper whose title contains the words “the Moral Functions of Breasts” as a way to showcase the value of humanities research.  The title just screams self-indulgence.

And yet – as a twitter colleague pointed out at the time – whoever wrote this piece probably is a great teacher.  With this kind of work, they can show the historical roots of things like sexuality in comics, which is highly relevant to modern issues like Gamergate.  If we want teachers to focus on material that is relevant and can engage students, and if you really want scholarly activity to inform teaching, surely this is exactly the kind of thing that should be encouraged.  As scholarly activity, this is in a completely different – and much, much better – category than, say, the colonoscopic post-modernist theorizing that was so memorably skewered during the Sokal Affair because you can clearly see the benefits for teaching and learning.

But is it “research”?

The academe doesn’t like to talk about this much because, you know, you stick to your discipline and I’ll stick to mine.   You can push the point if you want and claim that all research is similar because, regardless of discipline, research is an exercise in pattern recognition.  There are, however, some fundamental differences between what sciences call research and what humanities call research.   In the sciences, people work to uncover laws of nature; in the social sciences, people (on a good day) are working on laws (or at least patterns) of human behaviour and interaction.  In humanities, especially English/Modern Languages, what’s essentially going on is narrative-building.  That’s not to say that narratives are unimportant, nor that the construction of good narrative is easier than other forms of scholarly work.  But it is not “discovery” in the way that research is in other disciplines. 

And here’s the thing: when the public pays for research, it thinks it’s paying for discovery, not narrative-building.  In this sense, Wente taps into something genuine in the zeitgeist; namely, the public claim that: “we’re being duped into paying for something to which we didn’t agree”.  And as a result, all research comes under suspicion.  This is unfortunate: we’re judging two separate concepts of scholarly work by a single standard, and both end up being found suspect because one of them is mislabeled.

To be clear: I am not at all suggesting that one of these activities is superior to the other.  I am suggesting that they are different in nature and impact.  For one thing, the most advanced scientific research is mostly unintelligible to lower-year undergraduates, whereas some of the best narrative work is actually – much like Sexed-up Paratext – intended precisely to render some key academic concepts more accessible to a broader audience.

It is precisely for this reason that we really ought to have two separate words to describe the two sets of activities.  The problem is finding one that doesn’t create an implicit hierarchy between the two.  I think we might be stuck with the status quo.  But I wish we weren’t.

September 29

Liberal Arts Deserves Better Arguments

You may have noticed that I failed to award a “worst back-to-school” piece for the second year running.  This is because the bad stuff took a while to come out.  Rest assured, it came, and I now present two of them.

First is Heather Mallick’s little missive on Liberal Arts in the Star last week.  The utterly lazy premise is this: advances in ICT have changed the world dramatically, so what matters now is synthesis.  And by God, Liberal Arts gives you synthesis, even if it doesn’t give you science.  So, yay Liberal Arts.

Leaving aside Mallick’s utterly preposterous statement that ISIS would be a kinder and more humane organization if it took more Liberal Arts courses, there are at least three things wrong with her defence of “Liberal Arts”.

1)  The idea that Liberal Arts doesn’t include sciences.  This is a peculiarly Canadian definition of “Liberal Arts”.  Historically, Math and Astronomy are part of the Liberal Arts.  In the United States, the term usually encompasses the basic natural sciences.  For some reason, Canadians choose to use “Liberal Arts” as a synonym for “humanities”.  I have no idea why this is the case, but it bugs me.  Mallick’s hardly alone in this, though, so maybe I should cut her some slack here.

2)  The idea that Liberal Arts lets you “range widely”.  This is not a necessary outcome of Liberal Arts.  It’s true that an awful lot of Arts programs take a smorgasbord approach to curriculum, rather than present something with a smaller and more coherent offering, but there remain programs that are pretty prescriptive about the courses one must take (Concordia’s Liberal Arts program, for instance, has a pretty large set of core mandatory courses, which precludes much).   

3)  The idea that only Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis.  First, it may well be true that Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis (personally, I think it’s part of what my History degree taught me), but the actual evidence in favour of this proposition is fairly slim, partly because humanities profs are so reluctant to see outcomes such as this tested.  In fact, it’s arguable that there are many humanities disciplines (certain areas of postmodernist studies come to mind) where synthesis is about the last thing going on.  Second, for the umpteenth time, the argument that synthesis is not happening elsewhere in the academy is not only irritating and arrogant, but also it’s not grounded in evidence.

The thing is, as silly as these “defending the liberal arts” pieces are, they’re still miles better than the anti-liberal arts pieces.  The worst of which this year, indubitably, is Rex Murphy’s bilious take on the Alex Johnstone affair.  Johnstone, a federal NDP candidate in Hamilton, gained mild notoriety last week for claiming that she – possessor of a BA and MSW in Peace Studies – had no idea what Auschwitz was because if she did, she wouldn’t have made some slightly off-colour remarks on Facebook seven years ago.

Why the press believed this line is a bit beyond me: seems to me this was a transparent ploy to avoid taking responsibility for having said something stupid.  My guess is they did so partly because it would be difficult to prove the opposite, but also partly also because if it was true, then they could run chinstrokers about how terrible her education must have been.  Colby Cosh took an intellectually respectable shot at it here.  Murphy, on the other hand, went further, and in the process completely went down the rabbit hole.

Murphy’s is a bog-standard hit piece on the humanities: conjure up a few random stories about things that sound (and perhaps are) inane – trigger warnings on Paradise Losta goofy thesis title or two about Madonna and Beyoncé – and then claim, with no evidence whatsoever, that this is representative of all humanities, across all of higher education.  Then promise that the classics – apparently the only place where eternal truths can be found – shall be avenged, preferably by force-feeding Jane Austen to undergraduates.  It would be utter tripe even if he hadn’t gone to the trouble of not only calling a rape survivor at an American Ivy League school a liar, but also an airhead who also probably doesn’t know anything about Auschwitz (yes, really).

I wouldn’t worry so much about crap like Murphy’s if humanities had better defenders.  The problem is that true believers think that arguments like Mallick’s are actually convincing.  But to anyone outside the tribe, they look pretty weak.  Time for better arguments.

September 28

Are Japanese Humanities Faculties Really Being Shut Down?

You may have noticed stories in the press recently about the government of Japan asking national universities to shut down their humanities faculties.  Such stories have appeared in the Times Higher Ed, Time, and Bloomberg.  Most of these stories have been accompanied by commentary about how shortsighted this is: don’t the Japanese know that life is complex, and that we need humanities for synthesis, etc.?  A lot of these stories are also tinged with a hint of early-1990s “these uncultured Asians only think about business and money” Japanophobia.

The problem is, the story is only partly accurate.  A lot of background is needed to understand what’s going on here.

Some facts about higher education in Japan: First, “national universities” – that is, big public research universities – only account for about 20% of student enrolment in Japan; the remainder of students are enrolled in private universities.  Second, the number of 18 year-olds has fallen from 2 million in 1990 to about 1.2 million; meanwhile the annual intake of students has stayed relatively constant at around 600,000.  The problem is that the 18 year-old cohort is set to continue shrinking, and few think that a system with 86 national universities, about as many regional/municipal universities, and 600-odd private universities can make it through this demographic shift.  Re-structuring is the name of the game these days.

Now, while national universities are theoretically autonomous, they still take “advice” from the Ministry of Education, which is sometimes transmitted via circulars that explains the Ministry’s perspective on national academic priorities.  The current brouhaha centres around one such circular, distributed this past June, which contained the following statement: “With regard to the programs of teacher training, and humanities and social sciences in particular, it is encouraged to stipulate a reform plan, taking into consideration the reduction of 18-year-old population, human resource demands, expected level of education and research, the roles of national universities and etc., and dismantle and restructure organisations based on social needs”.

There’s some clunky language in there, and since I don’t speak Japanese I’m unclear as to how much of this is lost in translation.  A lot of this story comes down to the meaning of the phrase “dismantle and restructure organizations”.  Nearly all the coverage assumes that “organization” means “faculty”.  But if it means “program” (which is effectively what this commentary from a former education bureaucrat suggests) then basically the government is saying “students numbers are down, maybe you should do some program reviews”.  If this is the case, the whole thing is a lot less controversial.

There’s another aspect here, too. The original English language stories in the Japan Times and the Times Higher Education relied heavily on a Yomiuri Shinbun story – which no longer appears to be on the internet – in which 26 of the 60 national universities with humanities programs said they were closing programs, or curtailing enrolment, without ever specifying the proportions.  Twenty-six universities where enrolment in certain humanities programs is being curtailed is a very different story from shuttering 26 humanities faculties altogether.

A final niggle is that since this circular only applied to national universities, humanities in the country’s 600-odd private institutions would have been unaffected anyway.  So even in a worst case scenario sense, this is would be the fate of humanities in about 5% of the country’s universities, not the entire system.

So if the story is only partly true, why did it blow up the way it did?  A couple of reasons, I think.  First, obviously, is that there aren’t a lot of English-language journalists specializing in Japanese higher education, so there is considerable potential for misunderstanding and nuance-missing.  Second, there’s a big market for stories about humanities programs being shut down, mainly from humanities professors themselves who seem to have an endless capacity to imagine what fresh horrors the barbarians in control of the system will do next (for an example see this from the Guardian).

The third reason, though, is that there really are some big disputes between Japanese academics and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).  Academics are generally on the left, and have opposed the LDP’s recent legislation allowing the Japanese military to participate in overseas combat missions.  They also aren’t too happy about new government legislation that strengthens central administrations at the expense of faculty councils.  In a sense, the humanities row is a proxy fight: there are some in the LDP who really would like to stick it to the academy this way, and there are some in the academy who have reasons to make the government look buffoonish.

But for western readers, there’s a different lesson here: be not overly credulous in dealing with stories from countries whose languages you don’t understand.  Especially if they play to your existing prejudices.

November 13

Preparing Students for the Workforce

There’s a line I hear every once in awhile from profs (mainly, but not exclusively, in the humanities) saying something to the effect of: their job is not to prepare students for the world of work; rather, they want to prepare students’ minds to be critical thinkers or better citizens, or something like that.  Actually, it’s usually phrased less delicately, like: “I’m not preparing kids to be cannon fodder for the knowledge economy”; “I don’t give a damn what employers think, I only care about my students”, etc., etc.

Now, this is admirable, in a way.  Universities certainly shouldn’t be training people for specific jobs (and to be fair, I don’t think there are that many people arguing this).  Even where universities are offering professional education, as a rule they should be training people for diverse careers in a profession, not a particular job.

But in a way, it’s also kind of a silly position to take, for two reasons:

First: It’s not either/or.  The insistence that education either has to be “for” the labour market or “for” personal betterment/critical thinking is laughable.  For instance, most of the skills that matter for the humanities – the ability to critically appraise documents and arguments, appreciating complex chains of causation, writing clearly and effectively – are also pretty important in the world of work.  Surely it is not beyond the wit of universities to design programs fit for multiple purposes.  So why is there such a tendency within the academy to strut and preen and claim that never the two shall be one?

Second: If you really do want to put the student first, then employability skills need to be front and centre.  Getting better jobs is really why students are there – and that’s been the case for a very long time.

Every three years, since 1998, the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium (CUSC) has been asking freshman why they decided to attend university.  The top two answers have always been “to get a better job” or “to train for a specific job or career”.  The next two answers have always been “to get a good general education” and “to gain knowledge in a certain field” (See?  Students don’t think it’s either/or).  The humanities aren’t exempt from this: 76% of students in these fields say “getting a good job” is “very important” to them.

Figure 1: Importance of Various Factors in First-Year Canadian Students’ Decision to Attend University, 1998-2013 (Percentage Indicating Each Factor is “Very Important”)














Now, if you actually drill down to what the single most important factor is, the results are even starker.  In 2013, fully 68% picked “getting a good job” or “preparing for a career” as the most important reason to attend university; only 16% picked “increasing knowledge in a specific field” or “getting a good general education”.  That’s not new, either: in 2001 it was 65% and 16%, respectively.

So while it’s legitimate to want to ignore the views of employers (especially in an era when employers are getting simultaneously pushier about wanting job-ready graduates, and stingier with the training dollars), it’s not legitimate to say that higher education shouldn’t be concerned with employability and the labour market.

It’s not for the companies – it’s for the students.  It’s what they want.  It’s what they think they’re paying for.  It’s what they deserve.

September 12

Hosanna! *More* Graduate Income Data!

Okay, so I goofed on Tuesday.  Contrary to what I said, Colleges Ontario actually does publish sector-wide data on graduate incomes six months out – they just don’t publish it with the rest of the KPI data.  Instead, it’s at the back of the graduate outcomes section of their excellent annual Environment Scan (thanks to Glenn for the heads up).  So let’s take a look at what they say.

On Tuesday we noted that graduate employment outcomes for college graduates six-months out seemed to have taken a bigger knock in the recession than university graduates.  To wit:

Figure 1: Percent of Ontario Graduates Employed Six-Months Out, by Graduating Class














That said, although employment results have fallen significantly, the picture is somewhat better when you look at the changes in graduate incomes.  Now, looking at “college” outputs is always a bit tricky because colleges offer so many different kinds of credentials.  In Figure 2, we look at change-over-time in incomes for holders of each credential, and also the weighted average for all credentials.

Figure 2: Income of Ontario College Graduates Six-Months After Graduation, by Credential Level, by Graduating Class, in $2011














In one respect, Figure 2 is about what you’d expect: the longer a college program lasts, the more a college graduate makes (graduate certificates are a partial exception in that they are usually one-year, but they are meant to be delivered after four years of university, so the basic rule still holds).  But it also shows that in real terms, the diplomas, advanced diplomas, and graduate certificates have held their value reasonably well, while certificates have lost 4% (degrees have lost more – 5% – but the numbers there are tiny and therefore subject to a bit more volatility).

Now let’s see how that compares to the six-month numbers at universities, which are below in Figure 3:

Figure 3: Income of Ontario University Graduates Six-Months After Graduation, by Field of Study, by Graduating Class, in $2011














Figure 3 show a slightly different picture than what we saw with the 2-year out data back on Monday.  Humanities and physical sciences still saw the largest fall, but at six months the 2011 computer science grads were 7% up on the class of 2007 (as opposed to 3% down at the 2-year mark), and overall the decline was 6% (as opposed to 13%).  This implies that the job market for recent graduates actually got significantly worse between 2011 and 2013.

Finally, let’s compare college and university averages.

Figure 4: Income of Ontario College University Graduates Six Months After Graduation, in $2011














Figure 4 shows – unsurprisingly – that university graduates make more than college graduates six-months out.  But it also shows that college credentials seem to be holding their value better than undergraduate degrees – down just 2%, rather than 6% for universities, over the period 2007-2011.

This is one of those rare cases where employment averages and income averages are moving in different directions.  In one sense, everyone wins: in the near future, expect Ontario universities to promote themselves as a way to a safe job, and Ontario colleges to talk about how their credentials hold their value in bad times.  And they’ll both be correct.

May 06


So, there’s this cute little graphic making the rounds on the internet.  Take a look, and tell me what you see:



















If you laughed, I’m disappointed.  This joke, to me, represents absolutely everything wrong with the humanities these days.

The joke, essentially, is that scientists are narrow-minded eggheads.  They have knowledge, but not wisdom.  But your lovable humanities types?  Well, they may not know their ass from their elbow as far as recombinant DNA goes, but boy have they got wisdom.  Buckets full of wisdom, actually.  And as far as they are concerned, letting a 40-foot theropod loose in a modern laboratory is asking for trouble.  Scientists, on the other hand, are apparently too stupid to work this out on their own.

I mean, think about this for a moment: pretty much anyone with the intellectual maturity of an 8 year-old, and who has seen Jurassic Park, could understand the dangers of having a T-Rex wandering around (the reptilian ones, anyway – there are also dangers to having 70s glam-rock bands wandering around, but you need to be older to work that one out).  How arrogant do you have to be to assume that only humanities training can give you the necessary wisdom to work this out?

The thing is, scientists are actually really good at working out the ramifications of their discoveries on their own.  Take the 1975 Asilomar Conference, for instance.  When scientists gained the technical ability to start swapping DNA across species in the early 1970s, the entire biological profession took notice.  Concern about the implications of these techniques – whose effects at the time were largely unknown – persuaded the entire profession into a 16-month moratorium on its use.  The top people in the profession then came together at Asilomar to debate the issue, and come up with guidelines for ensuring the safe use of recombinant DNA techniques (summary available here).  And they did this, so far as I can tell, on their own, without help from superior, wisdom-stuffed humanities types.  Thus, the joke, at one level, stems from rank ignorance of how science works.

I get that humanities feel picked upon these days.  What I don’t get is why they react to this not by saying “humanities have their place”, but rather by exclaiming that “everyone without a humanities degree is a subtlety-free buffoon” (bonus points if you can wedge in something about humanities and citizenship, thus implying nobody else is as qualified to talk about politics).  It’s juvenile.  And it sure as hell doesn’t win the humanities many friends.

And yes, I know it’s supposed to be a joke.  But it’s a poor one, and reflects poorly on those who make it.

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