How do we define student success in the Humanities?


I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “student success.” I like the way it pushes us to define our terms and ask questions about metrics: What does student success look like? How do you know that what you’re doing will make your students successful? How do you measure whether they are successful?

We do better by students when we track them —that is, when we start to examine more closely how they are affected by what we teach and how we structure the university. Which course in a major has the highest failure and dropout rates? Why do students take longer to graduate in one major than they do in another? Why was the retention rate so much higher last year than the year before?

When your major leads directly to a career — through licensure (as social work) or through a natural pipeline (such as criminal justice), it’s relatively straightforward to track students’ success. Did they get placements in social-service agencies? Are they working in law enforcement or elsewhere in the justice system?

But as a dean of humanities and social sciences, I am well aware that postgraduate success isn’t so clear-cut for many degree recipients in my college. Which careers they will or should pursue is not so obvious. The humanities curriculum centers on content rather than practice. What does the content of a history curriculum add up to if you don’t want to be a history teacher? A chemistry major becomes a chemist. What does an English major become? (Yeah, we’ve heard it before: “a barista.”)

Measuring student success means more than tracking retention and graduation rates: How successful have we been if a student graduates in four years and four years later is still unemployed? But success also means more than job placement. We don’t want to produce unhappily employed 25-year-olds whose work doesn’t draw on anything they learned as philosophy or theater majors.

To try to wrestle with these questions, a group of folks from two- and four-year institutions in my region is getting together as a working group, focusing on student success in the humanities. It started because I’d been trying to get colleges together to host a national gathering of English department chairs. As I started canvassing interest in that event, I noticed that the department chairs and administrators to whom I was talking weren’t super enthusiastic about the idea until I started talking about its theme for the event — student success in the humanities.

None of us knew exactly what that meant, but everybody seemed to think we’d better decide soon, before someone decides for us.

I like the idea of a seminar of English department chairs leading the way on defining student success in the humanities. I’m biased, of course, but I think English often takes the lead amongst the humanities in taking on new, big issues (for better or for worse — think digital humanities or high theory). Sometimes we can be late to the party, too, and I think that’s been the case with English, and the humanities more generally, when it comes to departments embracing a culture of identifying learning outcomes, gathering data, and discussing the relationship between what we do with students before they graduate and what they do afterward.

So with the excuse of organizing an event around this topic for 2017, we are beginning the discussion of humanities success here in southern New England. Community colleges and four-year campuses, public and private, we’re starting to ask: If student success in the humanities includes success after graduation, how does that change what happens before graduation?

In my own college, I’m trying to make connections between employers and faculty, bringing CEOs or HR directors to campus as well as going out to them — and not just to ask the standard “What do you want to see in an applicant?” questions. I get a bit tired of the claim that the humanities are great because we train students in “soft skills.” What the heck are those? And why would you want your major to be associated with squishiness?

I want us to take charge of the discourse about what humanities grads bring to careers. We should be talking to employers about what our students do, and learn, and offer. We should brag about our best assignments — the ones that require students to really stretch — and about the work our students do in response.

We should be letting employers know that our majors are project managers, able to juggle many elements of a task at once, keep to a timetable, work in groups, and produce written reports and oral presentations. We can make clear that our majors use data all the time, and they can represent it graphically as well as verbally (at least mine could, when they were presenting their work on literary reception studies that spanned decades — and I doubt I’m unique among English professors).

To have a real conversation with employers about what a successful humanities graduate has done and can do, we need to work it out for ourselves first. We may need to do some translation for employers: A multipart assignment completed over the course of weeks is the equivalent of project management. A senior seminar paper is evidence of research, synthesis, analysis, and communication skills.

But we may also find, in conversations with employers, that we could be shifting what we ask of students in ways that would work for both employers and for us. For example, employers may want graduates with basic skills in web design. We don’t have to teach those skills ourselves, but we could offer students the option to present research in new digital forms instead of standard essay format. We can send students to courses and programs on campus that could help them to produce graphic representations of data or design interactive web pages. The students could then submit their work in formats that would be just as good, if not better, at conveying the information we want to see. We don’t teach them to type; we grade their typed work. We don’t have to teach them digital formats in order to ask them to produce work in new ways.

I’m excited about having the conversation about student success in the humanities, fighting over “workforce preparation,” fending off accusations of irrelevance or elitism, defending the value of what we do. Student success in the humanities is a slippery concept, or a bunch of slippery concepts. But humanists are the ones to work it out. We’re very good with slippery.

Author Bio: Paula Krebs is dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University.