A better approach to career and life preparation

In this Q&A, Vice Dean Erin McGlothlin discusses the new literacies initiative for undergraduate education.

What does it mean to be literate in the 21st century? As part of a signature initiative of the Arts & Sciences Strategic Plan, the College of Arts & Sciences will soon begin to implement the “literacies for life and career” initiative for undergraduates. According to Erin McGlothlin, vice dean of undergraduate affairs and professor of German and Jewish studies, this seemingly simple reframing of how students and faculty approach the knowledge and skills already offered in Arts & Sciences courses will lead to better career preparation, more skilled and adept graduates, and, most ambitiously, the basis for a healthier society overall.

Vice Dean Erin McGlothlin meets with senior Gabi Senno at Whispers Cafe inside Olin Library.

What are “literacies for life and career”?

The idea of a liberal arts education is that it offers more than subject-specific expertise – it prepares students to engage with the world in a complex and informed way. We already offer this kind of broad preparation in Arts & Sciences, but students aren’t always aware of the skills and knowledge they’re gaining above and beyond scholarly subject areas. That’s where literacies come in. By associating particular courses with relevant literacies, we aim to prepare students to better articulate the fact that, in addition to learning disciplinary fundamentals, they’re gaining broader, more practically applicable literacies and competencies from their coursework.

Let me give you an example of what this looks like. Abram Van Engen, professor of English (and one of the co- chairs of the Arts & Sciences Strategic Planning Steering Committee), is an expert on 17th-century American Puritanism. He regularly teaches a 300-level course called “City on a Hill: The Concept and Culture of American Exceptionalism,” which focuses in large part on the Puritan origins of American culture through exploration of foundational texts. Students learn about Puritan history and political thought, but they also gain some grounding in the crucial economic organization of Puritan society, which helps them to understand some of the most fundamental economic concepts that underpin contemporary American cultural and economic life. His course transmits a form of economic literacy.

This initiative would ask instructors like Abram to identify, augment, and signpost existing literacies through the syllabus, assignments, and assessments. The idea is that any given course might have one or two associated literacy-based characteristics. When students engage in their coursework, they should understand that they’re gaining knowledge and skills that exceed disciplinary content or methodologies.

Why is it so important that students become aware that they’re gaining literacies in diverse areas?

When students learn to articulate their acquisition of literacies, they begin to purposively develop their own narrative about what they’re getting from their liberal arts education that they can then take into the post-graduate world. Consciously creating that narrative allows them, even in a cover letter to a potential employer, to say something along the lines of, “Not only did I major in biology, but I have all these other things that I know and can analyze and can do. I’m someone who understands the very complex ways in which knowledge is created and disseminated.”

Thinking this way may also help students gravitate toward particular careers or jobs. If a student sees their own interests and strengths in a particular set of proficiencies, they may be able to combine that into a sense of direction for their professional life. Our colleagues in the Career Center are very enthusiastic about this initiative.

It’s not just about living a good life or having a lucrative career. It’s about being a responsible and ethical agent in the world.

How will you put the initiative into action?

The logical place for us to start is first-year seminars and lower-level classes, many of which already feature the acquisition of diverse knowledge and skills. We can then extend the approach to upper-level, major, and capstone courses. The idea is to offer incentives to faculty so that we can slowly establish this in a phased process across the board. I’d like to build this awareness into the four-year advising process, as well. The key principles here are thoughtful integration, intentionality, and sustainability rather than disruption or change for change’s sake. This initiative can have a transformative impact on undergraduate education by leveraging the strengths of the existing Arts & Sciences curriculum rather than overhauling it.

Students attend a Spanish course led by Jody Doran, senior lecturer and assistant director of undergraduate studies in Spanish. 

How do literacies fit into the broader goals of the Arts & Sciences Strategic Plan?

I think the tide of education has turned in the last decades toward the extreme end of individualism, and it’s moved away from the contribution that universities make to society through the education of our students. We’ve mostly abdicated the goal of bettering society through the liberal arts education – not to say that was a perfect idea before, because it had its problems – but if we are framing education as something that benefits only the individual, then we’re basically asking our students to think solely in terms of what they get out of their education individually. But the goals of the strategic plan also focus on what we, as an institution, are able to contribute to the world we live in. An Arts & Sciences education can create a positive force in the world through the people we graduate, who can navigate the world’s problems in informed, nuanced, and ethically responsible ways. We as an institution want our graduates to be able to evaluate arguments, political rhetoric, scientific studies, etc., and then marshal their analysis of such information in their responses and actions. 

In Arts & Sciences, we can produce graduates who make an impact in the world, who can be a mitigating force against conspiracy theories, against misinformation, against bad-faith exploitation or manipulation of people. It’s not just about living a good life or having a lucrative career. It’s about being a responsible and ethical agent in the world. I know it sounds a little pie in the sky, but I really believe in it. We can do it through the liberal arts curriculum. We’re already poised to do that. It is at the heart of who we are.