WSU News

High tech ‘hearts’ humanities: Market values creativity, communication, critical thinking

By Adrian Aumen, WSU College of Arts and Sciences

Arola-K-2013-80PULLMAN, Wash. – In this time of intense focus on technology, what good is a degree in the humanities?

Plenty, say not only Washington State University professors but leading high-tech companies too. And WSU humanities alumni are proving it.

Graduating into gainful employment

Only weeks before collecting her bachelor of arts degree through the WSU Department of English (http://libarts.wsu.edu/english/) in December, Allison Hartinger walked right past a job-fair booth seeking software engineers: “I just didn’t see myself with that title,” she said.

humanities-quote-550But one of the hiring company’s managers noticed “digital technology and culture” (DTC) (http://libarts.wsu.edu/dtc/) on her name tag and stopped her to inquire.

“I told him about the classes I was taking and he told me I should go to the information session to see if I’d be interested in working for his company,” she said.

Soon Hartinger had been snatched up by an international tech giant and was given the title she never expected: software engineer. Her new employer, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), is the information technology arm of Tata Group, a multinational conglomerate that works on Microsoft projects.

Brian Claire also landed a remarkable post immediately after earning a bachelor of arts degree in DTC through the English department at WSU.

“The job I now have as a design integrator at Microsoft is a position I thought I might be able to achieve five or 10 years down the road – not a month after graduating,” said Claire, who picked up his degree in May.

Communicating, thinking critically, solving problems

Having earned a minor in psychology and a certificate in professional writing, Hartinger credits her non-technical studies for preparing her for most of what her job entails: team discussions, planning and project documentation, often with colleagues from overseas.

“You can have just a basic understanding of how things work and how to adapt for technology changes, but things like communication and working with others are what you will always need to prepare yourself and work well in a company,” she said.

heart-humanities-350Hartinger’s experience is one of DTC-Pullman Director Kristin Arola’s favorite examples of the advantages of earning a degree in the humanities.

“They hired her for her ability to creatively problem solve and for her understanding of how audiences will respond to different communication solutions,” she said.

Meeting the market’s needs

Students and parents often assume an undergraduate degree in the humanities doesn’t provide a marketable skill set, Arola said, “but this couldn’t be further from the truth.”

“Students in the humanities learn to see the big picture, to understand who is impacted by decisions and why,” she said. “They learn to evaluate how and why some answers work for some groups and not for others and ways of effectively communicating to a variety of stakeholders. These skills are incredibly marketable for a wide range of jobs.”

Michael Hanly, a WSU professor who teaches medieval literature and culture, agrees.

“Virtually all college students nowadays will have acquired some substantial technological skills by the time they graduate,” he said. “What they can learn in the humanities goes beyond that, into communication, critical thinking and the breadth of perspective needed to solve larger problems.”

Silicon Valley apparently agrees, as well.

At a recent BiblioTech conference that brought together academics, entrepreneurs and senior managers from among the world’s foremost high-tech companies, Google executives reportedly extolled the virtues – and value – of an education in the humanities.

In a talk titled, “Why you should quit your technology job and get a humanities Ph.D.,” they explored some particular benefits of studying in academic disciplines including history, philosophy, religion, anthropology, ancient and modern languages, cultural studies, literature, visual and performing arts, classics, law and linguistics. One example they cited is user-interface development; knowing how to observe and understand people is as integral to effective interface design as pure technological skill.

Google’s hiring practices also reflect the tech titan’s interest in employing from diverse educational backgrounds. According to Times Higher Education magazine, during a recent hiring surge at Google one of the company’s vice presidents (whose B.A. is in symbolic systems, with philosophy and psychology) estimated that as many as five out of every six new hires would come from the humanities or liberal arts.

Thinking beyond the bounds of tech

Microsoft, Apple and Intel also famously put a premium on people who can think outside of the tech box.

“A user-experience designer at Microsoft told me they are far more interested in students being able to see the big picture – to critically problem solve – than whether a student can perform one specific technical task,” Arola said. “She told me, ‘We can train people in ASP, for example, but what we can’t always train people in is creative critical problem solving.’”

Arola believes graduates of her program are so successful in the job market because they’re equipped with key cultural skills.

“They understand the technical pieces of Web development, video, sound and design,” she said. “More important, they understand when and why certain technologies should be employed for certain audiences in certain situations. DTC graduates, and I’d argue humanities graduates in general, carry with them a critical cultural toolbox that is especially useful to employers and to society.”

Numerous alumni of the Department of Foreign Languages and Culture (http://forlang.wsu.edu/) at WSU have found jobs with tech companies, said Christopher Lupke, who teaches Chinese.

“Silicon Valley is full of people – many in top leadership positions – who have a liberal arts education as their first basis,” he said.

Indeed, Business Insider (http://www.businessinsider.com/11-reasons-to-major-in-the-humanities-2013-6) found humanities majors at the top of many high-tech firms and in other lucrative industries. Among them, former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano, who studied English; American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, history; Sprint Nextel CEO Dan Hesse, government and international relations; and former Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy, English and journalism.

The case of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is especially compelling, Lupke said: “The most revolutionizing thing he did was to humanize computers and make them user-friendly. He was incredibly successful in melding artistic qualities with computer technology to create forms that relate well and make sense to people who aren’t into tech.”

Creating mindful citizens, driving social change

Arola smiles at the number of DTC alumni who’ve told her, “‘You know that rhetoric class I complained about because we didn’t do any technology? I use what I learned in that class all the time,’” she said. “Even in humanities classes that don’t involve composing digital texts, they learn how to critically engage with the world around them. This is an incredibly valuable marketable skill, and it helps to create mindful citizens of the world.”

For May graduate Chris Hoertel, using her knowledge to improve society and create a better world is a top priority. As creative director of media for BoosterShot in Chicago, she applies what she learned while earning her bachelor of arts in English/DTC to her daily work supporting community organizations across the Midwest.

Not so much interested in working for a corporate giant, Hoertel said her heart was always set on “being as involved with my community as I could, which is why I was elated when I found my current position.”

She develops fundraising and marketing materials for a variety of civic and charitable groups – “everything from public school extracurricular activities/sports to humane societies and rotary clubs.” At WSU, Hoertel was especially interested in learning how advertising and design can influence culture: “I only want to create things that support and strengthen community – something I think a lot of places need right now.”

Hoertel credits her studies in the humanities for helping to shape her worldview, and she hopes to see that influence grow.

“It’s an incredible turn of events to see the gears changing, slowly but surely, and to watch people – and an innovative powerhouse like Google – understanding that we really are in desperate need of re-prioritizing,” she said. “And even though it’s only in the very beginning of a very slow transition, it’s a very cool time to be a part of it.”