Industry needs the humanities – yes, REALLY

The University of Waikato is in the middle of a 20% teaching staff reduction in the following humanities courses: Anthropology, Geography, History, Political Science, Linguistics, Music, and Screen and Media. Is demand for these subjects drying up, or is there a widespread perception that humanities graduates won’t get jobs?

If the liberal arts degrees truly didn’t lead to jobs for graduates, I’d have sympathy for this perception, and for reluctance to invest in the liberal arts. But, arts graduates do get jobs, and good ones. Anyone reading the TechCommNZ Salary Survey can see that a very large proportion of our members, almost all of whom are in well-paid work, have a background in the humanities.

If study that is not overtly vocational is deemed unworthy of funding, then those who care about the humanities need to do a better job of explaining career pathways. I submitted the following email to Acting Dean, Professor Allison Kirkman, at the University of Waikato.

Dear Allison

I am writing to you as:

  • President of the Technical Communicators Association of NZ (TechCommNZ)[1]
  • Writing Teams Manager of Streamliners[2]

The purpose of my email is to urge you to understand that liberal arts graduates are vital for the economy, as it’s recently come to my attention that some useful programmes at your institution are under threat of being lost. Andreea Calude, a lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Waikato, recently joined TechCommNZ and contacted me to ask whether my profession is a suitable career path for linguistics graduates. Of course I said YES (I’m a linguistics graduate myself). As part of our correspondence, Andreea explained that the University is currently reducing staffing in the liberal arts and humanities. I am appalled and exasperated.

Technical communicators, many of whom come from a liberal arts or humanities background, contribute directly towards making the technology sector flourish, as we ensure products and systems are understandable and usable. This diverse career field plays a crucial role in supporting business and innovation in New Zealand.

I’ve attached the most recent TechCommNZ Salary Survey for your interest. You will note that most of our respondents are tertiary-qualified with degrees ranging from STEM to Arts subjects. Linguistics is a particularly suitable background for a technical communicator because it combines extremely strong writing skills and understanding of grammar with a highly analytical, logical approach. This is crucial, as we don’t just write. We manage complex document sets (whether printed, online, or both), that have a long life and usually a large amount of shared content. Like librarians, we nurture valuable business assets – namely, organisational and product knowledge. Unlike librarians, we have to plan and implement content management strategies that facilitate rapid updates, extensive and smart content re-use, affordable content translation, and well-written, consistent text. We use special tools and have our own body of knowledge. It’s a very big job, and widespread but not widely-understood.

Employers don’t mind whether technical communicators come from Anthropology, Geography, History, Political Science, Linguistics, Music, or Screen and Media. In fact, these focus areas often teach the critical thinking and analytical abilities required for technical communicators to be successful in their field, and provide skills that aren’t taught in other degree programmes. I am in charge of writer recruiting at Streamliners, and I can tell you that we have staff with all of these backgrounds (and more) who are helping us to export high-quality content to the world.

You can’t have a successful technology sector if everyone is a programmer. The teams bringing technology to the world need a wide range of skills, including soft skills that are learned from engaging with subjects and ideas beyond those directly related to a computer screen.

I urge you to keep educating people in their chosen field of interest. Please focus on providing high-quality vocational post-graduate career paths that reflect the real jobs that arts and other graduates do. Humanities and liberal arts programmes have real value, and produce graduates who bring much-needed (and difficult to acquire) skills to a variety of industries.

Yours sincerely,

Emma Harding

[1] TechCommNZ is the only member association for technical writers/communicators, information designers, and content developers in NZ. There are similar member associations in most other countries. TechCommNZ currently has about 500 individuals covered by various membership types. We run a conference every two years, several workshops and webinars each year, and local branch events in Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, Tauranga, and Christchurch. We maintain strong links with experts in technical communication in Australia, the USA, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Europe. You can find out more about us by visiting our website: https://www.techcommnz.org.nz/.

[2] Streamliners is a technical writing company based in Christchurch. We employ 80 staff, most of whom are technical writers. Our clients are in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK.

[3] Some light reading if you have time/inclination:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/georgeanders/2015/07/29/liberal-arts-degree-tech/#745d2458745d

http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/turn-liberal-arts-degree-great-tech-career/

https://www.fastcompany.com/3034947/why-top-tech-ceos-want-employees-with-liberal-arts-degrees

https://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2014/01/22/majoring-in-the-humanities-does-pay-off-just-later/#655b1f1c655b

A call to action

Things you can do:

  • If you hear of the humanities subjects being under threat in any NZ tertiary institute, please urgently contact thepresident@techcomm.nz so that TechCommNZ can send a rallying call to our members.
  • If you have ideas on other things we should be doing to support the teaching of the liberal arts in NZ, please comment below or write to me.

 

One thought on “Industry needs the humanities – yes, REALLY

  1. Thank you Rachel for sharing this talk from Prof Jonathan Le Cocq – What if… Studying Art were the best thing for the Economy?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGN8-kouw3g&index=24&list=PL1D0DE06F56864BA4

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