A blog about teaching history at Dickinson College

Digital + Liberal Arts = Employability?

In an insightful recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“No More Digitally Challenged Liberal-Arts Majors: How to give B.A.’s in arts and humanities more career options without abandoning the life of the mind”), William Pannapacker relates a number of conversations he has had with employers and institutions providing internships for students at Hope College, where he teaches. In short, they stated what many of us already recognize: liberal arts students have learned how to write well, synthesize large amounts of varied information, read carefully and critically, and bring a curiosity and ability to learn quickly. Yet many liberal arts students share one critical flaw that plagues students at all kinds of institutions: although they are users of some social media, most students today struggle tocreate meaningful content and to actively use computer-related skills that are essential in many modern workplaces.

I posted the article on Facebook and asked alumni to comment on the article and how it relates to the training they received at Dickinson College and how it prepared them for life after college, and the responses were fascinating.college-student-computer

Courtney Cacatian, a policy studies major who is now Marketing Manager at Arlington Convention and Visitors Service noted that learning to make effective presentations, in addition to other practical skills, made her a more attractive hire. However, she agreed with Pannapacker and his call for colleges to provide other technical skills. Employers expect today’s graduates to know social media and often digital marketing. A history alumnus who is now an administrator at a private college elaborated, saying that he looks to hire people who have a “digital win” on their resumes. They should either be able to organize and analyze data in spreadsheets and databases, complete on online project such as a blog or webpage, or be familiar with industry-specific software. Alicia LeBlanc could not agree more, and she made the important observation that as much as technical skills are important now, they will only become more important in the future. Although she had some technical skills before coming to Dickinson  College and acquired more while majoring in French and English, see argued that “it’s about applying the curiosity and confidence we liberal-arts majors gain in research & critical thinking to a different format: technology. Frankly, it’s the same process.”

In my mind, Alicia hit it on the nail and reflects my view (and Pannapacker’s it seems) about the value of the liberal arts. What we do best is to nurture students’ curiosity and provide them with broad-based research and critical thinking skills. Rather than training students for a specific job or even profession, we give them the tools to succeed in any job or profession because they have learned how to learn throughout their lifetimes.

So, how can we liberal arts schools meet the professional needs of our students? The history major suggested that the best option would be for departments to “actively replace papers and tests with digital projects that can be demonstrated” after graduation such as constructing digitized archives, making QR codes for cemetery headstones that are no longer readable, creating projects that, for example, create a statistical analysis of average grades for papers based on time of submission.  Alicia agrees that if technical skills are not taught in college, where will they be? A good friend of mine who studied history with me as undergraduate at the University of Missouri, chimed in. For nearly two decades he has been in management and training positions in a number of companies and is now a director of brand and international operations, so he certainly has a sense of what employers today need and want. Of the comments of Pannapacker and my former students, he simply said, “I can’t agree enough! Digital skills (beyond the basics in spreadsheets, presentations, documents and social media) is so important, no matter what you end up doing.” The last word goes to Alicia and her desire for greater dialogue with employers. Alicia argued for a “greater overall marketing campaign … (and we all partake in this, in living our lives as successful, in any sense of the term, liberal-arts people) to remind people of this usefulness of liberal arts.”

Hopefully the conversation on this topic will continue. Although liberal arts institutions are not (and in my mind should not) narrowly train students for particular professions, it is incumbent upon us to continue providing our students with the broad range of skills that can allow them to be successful in their lives after graduation. Whereas we once could teach students to read deeply, analyze critically, and write persuasively, these skills are not enough. They are still essential and provide the foundations for all else, but we must also begin to think of ways that we can introduce technical skills into our classrooms to complement the training we have long provided.

I encourage all readers to continue this conversation at the Dickinson College Digital Humanities Advisory Committee’s blog and on my Teaching History blog.


  1. Linda Ivey

    As a Chair of a History Department in a large state school, this conversation comes up more and more regularly everyday. A year or two ago, as we talked about introducing more digital projects primarily through our Public History program, we were feeling cutting edge. Hah! How quickly that changed…

    I’d add two things to this conversation:
    1. I’d say that now these digital skills are not only good for strengthening graduates for “regular jobs,” but for being historians as well. Think about how dramatically our ways of researching, professionally presenting and publishing have changed in the last few years. Even a traditional academic track is increasingly requiring such skills;

    2. For me, this is also the path to funding and attention from STEM-focused administrations, who don’t worry much about starving out disciplines perceived as esoteric (i.e., history) but provide engineering, business and computer science with all the resources they need. Digital Humanities are a way for history (or other humanities/social sci) departments to stay in the game. In fact, we are hiring a tenure track position this year — our first since 2005-06 –for a “Digital Historian” (with preferred expertise in the Ancient World in small print). No one wanted to fund somebody to talk about Ancient Greece — but calling it something different gained immediate traction.

    In both cases, it’s like what you said Karl – the same devotion to training thinkers, just with some different dressing.

  2. Karl Qualls

    Thanks for the response, Linda.
    Regarding #1: I couldn’t agree more. Both the process of researching and disseminating our findings will become more and more digital, so those who want to remain relevant will have to adopt/adapt in some fashion.
    Regarding #2: A few people in my department have discussed have an advanced methods course on digital history that would rotate among 2-3 of us. Hopefully we can get this going in the next few years. It would be good training for our students, but also for those of us who teach it.

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