Helping Students Discover the Take Away: Literature Classes and Transfer Skills

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Today's featured guest blogger is Lisa DuRose, Professor at Inver Hills Community College

As the semester winds to a close, I know the students in my Short Story class are growing a bit weary: they have read more than thirty short stories, written nearly three pages of weekly informal posts, completed literary research projects, and undertaken exams that require close readings of quotations. Now is the ideal time to reflect on the take away—helping students connect the dots between the skills they acquire by taking a literature course and the skills they will need in any career.

As an undergraduate, I could not articulate the career path of an English major beyond teaching or (in bigger dreams) creative writing. The career options for English majors wasn’t a topic of conversation among my professors either. But more and more I see how the skill set we practice in a literature course—interpretation, critical reading, and analysis—are vital to any profession that demands acute communication and writing skills along with a global mindset.

As any student of literature knows, one of the key characteristics of reading an imaginative work is the way it transports us to other places, invites us to consider other experiences, and broadens our worldview. What employer wouldn’t want an employee who possesses the ability to move between multiple perspectives and viewpoints? And what’s more, someone who can clearly and accurately articulate these multilayered ideas? “It’s easier to hire people who can write—and teach them how to read financial statements—rather than hire accountants in hopes of teaching them to be strong writers,” says Liz Kirschner, head of talent acquisition at Morningstar Inc., a Chicago investment-research firm in George Anders’ article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Good News Liberal Arts Majors: Your Peers Won’t Out-earn You Forever” (Good News Liberal Arts Majors).

And yet, this message—how enrolling in literature courses can enhance career readiness--has not reached the mothership. Partly, I think, the fault rests with those of us who teach these courses. When I started my teaching career, I made several unfounded assumptions about my students and the value of literature. For starters, I thought, like me, students understood the innate value of literature to make them better readers, thinkers, and interpreters. I also thought it wasn’t my job to talk about career preparation, a task best left to the experts in career services. I was also, and still am, highly resistant to seeing my students’ education as purely training for work. However, when I invite my students to consider, through reflective writing, how the skills they develop in a literature course will transfer to a variety of professions, I am emphasizing the relevancy of the course. Embedding a time to reflect on the transferable skills gained in liberal arts classes is one way I hope to correct the gap between what students learn in courses like mine and how well they articulate that learning to future employers. This is an idea I address elsewhere in "Lost in Translation: Preparing Students to Articulate the Meaning of a College Degree."

In my Short Story course, this opportunity takes the form of a final reflection. Students consider how the skills they’ve practiced in the course—including critical reading, analytical writing, inference and interpretation, and the application of literary approaches-- has helped prepare them for their career pathway.

The responses I receive are as varied as the career paths students enter:

So often in my English career path I’ve been taught to analyze, but only to find the hidden meaning or symbols inside a text, never to try and view a work from a different perspective. These critical approaches were a fresh new way for me to interpret everything in my life, not just reading. The career path I’ve chosen with English and Marketing completely revolves around the method of analyzing, forming questions and digging deeper or further into what I want to accomplish. My marketing solely revolves around reader-response criticism and I’ve never really noticed until taking this class. My job is to collect feedback on what is and isn’t working when attempting to market off products and ads. I listen to the feedback, I analyze what should be done about it and then I act for a new plan or a better one.

First, this course improved my critical thinking skills and these are very important in any career, especially a medical career because you must figure out what illness or condition a person has based on symptoms, that it isn't just clear to you what somebody has. It also helped me by making sure I take many perspectives and look at the situation from many points of view so then if one solution doesn't work I try it from a different direction. Reading and analyzing literature helps to cultivate humanistic qualities which will help me imagine being in the patient's place and understand what they could be feeling not just physically but emotionally. This will also help me to question, explore, and understand the patient's journey.

I am hoping to have a major in engineering so this class really helped me in developing the analytical thinking skills I will need is this field of study. I learned that just reading a text and trying to explain what the overall meaning is does not essentially give you all the combined information you need. Examining outside information about a text, for example using the biographical or historical critical approaches, in order to understand the author of a piece of writing or the basis of what influenced a text historically based on the time in which it was written and the differing cultural values exhibited provides for a more structured review of a literary text.

Creating space for students to draw connections between the skills they practice in literature classes and the skills they will need in any profession reinforces the relevancy of the vital work we do to prepare students for their future.