Saturday, November 15, 2014

What are You Going to Do with That?

Dear Anthropology Students and Liberal Artsy-Folks of all Kinds,

Thanksgiving break is coming. For many of you, this means a delightful feast of turkey, prayers of thanksgiving shared around the table, and an unending, and seemingly incomprehensible conversation that goes like this:

Aunt Hilda: Anthropology? Is that dinosaurs?
Student: No, that would be paleontology. "Anthro" means people, so ANTHROpology is..
AH:  Do you go on digs?
S: No, that's "archaeology," which is part of anthro…
AH: [Now with conspicuous side-eye to the foolish parents who allowed such a major] So what are you going to DO with that?

There is it.

"What are you going to do with that?"  Bring on the McDonald's-themed "Do you want fries with that?" liberal arts jokes.  Commence sad head shakes and worried adults-who-know-the-world expressions. No, I'm not going to be a college professor.  No, I don't have a business minor to "fall back on."  Yes, the job market is scary but not because I'm majoring in anthropology; it's because wealth inequalities have ruined the economy and limit opportunities in the middle class. [OK, leave out that last one unless you want a Thanksgiving food fight to break out with your uncle passing out the pumpkin pie.]

There are a lot of ways to answer this question about what you're going to do with your liberal arts education.  Good, thoughtful answers about the relevance of liberal arts skills to the wider job market.  Good responses based on the sorts of things anthropology majors learn to do and ways they learn to think that allow them to address the most commonly sought-after abilities named by employers.

But let's be honest: you rarely get to these thoughtful discussions. Most people - people who love you and just want to know you won't be living in a van down by the river - want to know what job you are being groomed to land in that month following graduation.

The problem is most of you don't know what job you want yet, and, unless you're a second-semester senior, you haven't thought too much about it. (For the record, you should start thinking a bit more specifically now. Come by my office hours. We'll talk.)

So given that you don't have your ten year plan worked out yet, here's the answer I recommend. When Aunt Hilda asks "What are you going to DO with that?", you get a kind of wistful look on your face and say, "I haven't decided yet.  There are so many options that I'm still trying to narrow down the choices."

Because it's true. You just haven't decided yet.

It's hard to pick a job if you're not actually in the job market.   What I have heard from many students - anthropology majors, biology majors, piano performance majors - is that their first job or two reveals a lot of things they couldn't see this side of graduation. They figured out how importance geography was.  Others discovered how much schedule, flexibility, or camaraderie meant in their job. Still others figured out what they needed (or didn't need) in a salary (see "geography" above). All these are very difficult criteria to measure out before actually having a full-time job and living life on your own.

So what should you be doing now before you get those first few jobs?

Talk to people with jobs. Network with alumni, parents' friends, friends' parents' friends, and anyone else living on their own with a job. Do an internship to see some work-a-day life in person (but don't expect that this is really like having a full-time job.) Study abroad in a way that helps you experience life as a grown-up-type person.  If you're in college now, take advantage of the mock interviews, job fairs, and career center activities early in your time in college to help you visualize various possibilities. Recognize that this won't always provide clarity - it might muddy the waters - but it will help you discover options out there.

What are the options for an anthropology major? Pretty much the same as the history major, English major, biology major, and international relations major.  You're going to figure out what is important to you in your work life, and you're going to work towards a job that meets those criteria. You'll likely need further education; most careers today have built in limits if you don't have a master's degree, or professional credential of some sort. You'll change jobs. Perhaps a lot. Some jobs will satisfy few of your criteria, but you'll gain skills and contacts that move you further along. Most of all, you'll make decisions about what you're good at, what you love, where you want to live, how important proximity to family is, and which opportunities you should take.

So, what are you going to do with that?

You're going to make some decisions.

But not just yet. Please pass the potatoes, Aunt Hilda. We're hungry.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

How to Make a Better Cop: Hire Liberal Arts Graduates

Two nights ago I sat riveted and horrified by the LiveFeed coming out of Ferguson, MO.  Police advanced like shock troops against protesting citizens and journalists doing their jobs.  For days, no one in the police department of St. Louis County seemed to have any idea what to do except bring out heavier and more intimidating equipment.

Facts have emerged about the Ferguson cops that make some of this conflict more understandable – e.g., only 5 of the 53 officers serving the mostly-black suburb are black. But I also wondered how these officers view the situation. How did their leadership (mis)understand what was going on?

My colleague in the Sociology and Anthropology department here at Wheaton College has studied crime and race for many years.  In a brief conversation, he noted reports from 1968 (40 years ago!) produced after major American riots explaining the relationship of political disenfranchisement and violence. He talked about the insufficient training police receive in community relations and social dynamics. He noted the lack of nuance law enforcement leadership regularly exhibit when they seek to explain complex social contexts.  History, social science, empathy. Complex problem solving, critical thinking, curiosity.  These were patently missing from the police response in Ferguson. And these are exactly what we, in the liberal arts college, teach our students. 

This raised the question for me: How do we get our students to become cops?

I had a recent student, a bright and engaged young mind, who choose to do a short ethnographic study of policing a few years ago. He did a ride-along with a cop in a nearby suburb, interviewed the officer and several others, and observed dynamics of police culture and those they served. He found the whole thing fascinating. But when I suggested that perhaps he’d found a career path, he brushed it off. “It was fun for a project,” he said, “but I could never become a cop.”

Why not? 

My students want to serve. They want to make a difference in people’s lives. They often point to the social problems and underserved communities currently suffering from inept and unjust policing.
At the same time, police work has a reputation as blue-collar, almost grunt work.  It’s masculine in traditional ways that intimidates the bookish sort and offends the feminist.  It has a kind of class context that my soon-to-be college graduate students are seeking to avoid (or escape) rather than enter. 

There needs to be a shift in who is recruited to be police, and how we, in higher ed, talk about law enforcement as a career.

The police should be actively recruiting my students because they have the skills and dispositions to become the kinds of leaders who will understand Ferguson and the thousands of communities like it.  They should be seeking out majors in anthropology, sociology, students of literature, and physicists who graduate with liberal arts backgrounds. They know how to study new situations and understand them, read human behavior, and think critically about problems. 

For our part, we in the liberal arts should demonstrate the relevance and importance of law enforcement as a multi-faceted career. From prosecuting attorney or public defender, to officers on the beat with the potential to rise in rank and responsibility, we should be encouraging our graduates to consider these as valid career fields.

Our nation is only becoming more complex and diverse. We need police prepared to interact with complex and diverse people.  Training in tactical procedures and weapon use, without a comparable ability for the police to think differently, learn quickly, and engage complexity is an invitation for more chaos. 

Liberal arts graduates, if you want to make a difference in the world, consider this: become a cop.