Since we began this blog a little less than a year ago we have profiled a variety of college graduates who were willing to discuss how they have applied their education to jobs in which writing plays a significant role. Almost all emerged from programs that featured the development of writing abilities. But it is also true that no set curriculum can anticipate all the possible turns and directions the careers of the profiled writers have taken and may take in the future. Their college educations must provide them with the ability to both learn and embrace the unanticipated regarding knowledge and skills. Research, analysis, and application are practices that must become habitual in the lives of our students.
At Slippery Rock University recent graduates are surveyed annually by the Career Services Office to determine if they are pursuing further education, are employed, and are employed in a job of their “choice.” It is difficult to determine the basis upon which a graduate determines she or he is employed in a “chosen” job, and a significant percentage of the graduates indicate they are employed in “another” rather than a “choice” position. My instincts tell me that we shouldn’t be surprised if many graduates report they are employed in activities not anticipated by their college curriculum. While the great majority of our students attend college for the expressed purpose of professional development, and often choose majors based on economic calculations, as well as a desire to pursue what holds their interest, those interests have a tendency to shift over time, as do the prospects for employment in certain areas.
Right now our most popular undergraduate major is Exercise Science, which draws close to a tenth of the university’s current enrollment. Upon reflection, it seems obvious that not all of those students will end up as employees or proprietors of fitness centers or athletic clubs, or as teachers of the field, or as trainers, or as physical therapists. Many will, but many will not. So it behooves those of us who contribute to the experiences those students have at Slippery Rock to make sure the curriculum provides them with flexibility and the ability to continually educate themselves. If we so focus on the content of exercise science that the development of the aforementioned traits is neglected, then we have done a disservice.
It may be that even major programs more clearly oriented towards specific vocations than the ones traditionally associated with the humanities will come to function in ways similar to those humanities programs, as gateways to a larger world, a world of research, intellectual deliberation, and knowledge formation, but not necessarily as gateways to a lifelong career. In doing the research, in doing the deliberation, in understanding varied material, students will become valuable, first to themselves and also to others. That experience will have economic value, but that value will not be a simple correspondence between course work in an undergraduate major and paid work.
I sometimes share with students my own interesting path through my twenties. During college I was a History major. It was study I enjoyed—the reading, the research, the writing. But when I got to my senior year I experienced something of a crisis. Did I really want to go on to graduate school in that subject? Instead, I applied for and was accepted into a Masters program in Journalism, following that up with employment at a couple of newspapers. In the meantime, I also spent five summers working at summer camps with children ages eight to sixteen. So when I experienced my next crisis, and wondered if I really wanted to spend the rest of my life in a newsroom (or, as it later turned out for many journalists, sporadically employed), teaching seemed a viable alternative. And when I began preparing for my certification, it would not be in History but in English, and more particularly written composition. From there I proceeded to a Ph.D. program and to stints teaching high school, then two-year college, then university. If someone suggested to me back when I was 18 or 22 that this was how I would occupy my life, I would have been incredulous. At the same time, that practice of inquiry, deliberation, and expression that occurred while I was an undergraduate certainly did prepare me for what followed.