5 ways literature class can help student careers

Literature courses for non-majors can come off as unnecessary and even irritating requirements on the already time-consuming and expensive path to a college degree. In a world where “transferable skills” is a buzz phrase, students often believe literature lacks buzz.

I do not blame them. Does identifying a flat versus a round character matter in the job market? Do you really need to read John Updike’s A&P to get a job? Well, no, of course not. But unlike most technical curriculum, literature is dedicated to stories, ideas and human experiences that invite an opportunity for students to reflect on workplace preparation with imagination and fun. With a few tweaks, a literature classroom can become both a practical and enjoyable experience for the career-minded student. Below are five ideas for how to make that happen:

  1. Encourage students to apply the lens of their majors and interests to both course discussions and writing assignments. A student majoring in organizational leadership, for example, might want to assess a character’s leadership skills. A criminal justice student can examine criminal behavior in a story by applying a relevant theory. A student studying psychology or counseling can imagine a character walking into their office looking for advice on dealing with the story’s conflict. This approach gives students a chance to bring a sense of expertise to the less familiar realm of literature.
  2. Take this one step further by reimagining writing prompts to include resumes, cover letters, memos, emails and other types of correspondence that bridge literary analysis with professional communication and writing. Have students write resumes and cover letters directed at fictional companies, or a memo recommending a character take a particular course of action different than they did in the original story. There is no reason we can not mix up the traditional essay assignment with other modes of communication to encourage such practice across the curriculum.
  3. Ask students to evaluate characters as potential workplace colleagues. This can help them reflect on professionalism in a whole new way. For example, when I’ve taught Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, I always challenge students to compare two characters in it – Donovan and Powell – for how well they communicate in the workplace. Donovan, a hot head, often makes rash decisions that put people at risk, while the more patient and level-headed Powell successfully responds to workplace dilemmas. When so many positions require employees to work in dynamic, fast-paced environments while remaining calm and resilient, these characters become a concrete way to illustrate what that looks like and why it’s important.
  4. Switch things up by asking students to defend the value of taking a literature class, even if it means they want to argue against it. Start by having them find a few job ads related to their career fields, and inevitably there will be an emphasis on written and oral communication, teamwork and collaboration. In a nutshell, they need to be able to talk, write and understand people in addition to having career-specific competencies. This will be especially important if they are going into fields such as nursing, teaching, human resources, management or marketing (to name just a few).

    Students are now primed to see the course as a relevant opportunity rather than a hurdle. Check in with them throughout the course, asking them to connect course activities to the workplace skills they’ve identified. It does not hurt that the activity asks them to develop a thesis (a literature class does / does not enhance skills for the workplace), provide evidence and defend it.

  5. Invite students to practice telling the story of their own lives and career pursuits using literary techniques. I enjoy introducing this as a discussion early in my literature courses, because it makes contributing easy and quickly demystifies literature as something beyond their ability to talk about. The job search process – from networking to writing cover letters to interviewing – is made up of storytelling, so literature can provide a valuable toolkit for creating one’s own compelling story.

    What kind of narrative do they have to tell, and how do events of their past shape the future? What kind of “character” are they in this story? Consider having them pick a fictional character they relate to as one way to help them identify their own strengths and values. Like a good work of literature, it’s also important to have a focused theme and message, something that concisely captures who they are and where they want to go. What “theme” has defined their career and future goals?

The literature classroom does not need to be the fifth wheel in college degree programs. If we promote reading and critical thinking through literary study while also showing students we are in tune with their career goals, students can leave the literature classroom feeling empowered, rewarded and better prepared in more ways than they expected.

Olivia Burgess teaches literature courses at the undergraduate and graduate level for Colorado State University Global.

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