On teaching an interdisciplinary career course

Here’s a question for my post-graduate readers: Looking back on the story of your own career, what do you wish that you had known during your college years about yourself, about your education, or about the world of work that awaited you upon graduation?

career-cartoon-smallThat question is precisely what I’ll be trying to explore with over 250 undergraduate students this semester, as the faculty member in charge of the College of Letters and Science’s newest one-credit course: INTER-LS 210, “Taking Initiative.”  Better known as “the L&S second-year career course,” the idea is to introduce students not only to the instrumental skills of the job search (preparing a resume, writing a cover letter, and developing an online persona, for example), but also to the conceptual knowledge background of high-skill labor markets, the critical reflection practices of discovering one’s strengths and goals, the information evaluation processes of researching occupations and majors, and the expert resources available across the UW-Madison campus — all of which are necessary to help students to turn a simple “job hunt” into a comprehensive “academic and career development plan.”

I approach this course knowing well that my own thirty-year academic and career development path since first starting my undergraduate education in 1985 was anything but predictable.  My first college degree, taken at a public research university much like the one where I work now, was in computer science.  Of course, at the time I didn’t know that would be my “first” degree; it took several jobs in both the for-profit and the non-profit sector before I realized that algorithm development and technology consulting were only part of what interested me in the world.  So, sometime in my late twenties, I returned to university, first part-time and then full-time, to earn a doctoral degree in two fields which might seem as far from computer science as possible: history and geography.  Yet the end of this story — so far at least — is that my resulting combination of professional training in technology and liberal arts training in the humanities and social sciences has served me extraordinarily well for the past fifteen years in my second career as a university professor.

It’s these sorts of stories of “planned happenstance” that drive my interest in teaching this new career course.  Throughout the semester we’ll be taking students through a structured process of critical reflection intended to demonstrate to them that the various components of their “Wisconsin Experience” — both inside and outside of the classroom — provide them with a rich menu of high-impact educational options that will prepare them for a wide variety of important and rewarding careers (including many that haven’t even been invented yet).  One of the secrets of turning academic curiosity and excellence into success on the job market, though, is being able to tell the story of your educational accomplishments to a hiring decision-maker — convincing a for-profit, non-profit, or public organization that you can add value, energy, and creativity to their mission.  So storytelling in this class isn’t just a pedagogical tool we choose as the instructors — it’s a learning outcome for the students as well.

I say “we” in terms of instructors because this class, part of the new L&S Career Initiative led by Dean John Karl Scholz and Assistant Dean Rebekah Pryor Paré, represents the most broad-based division of educational labor that I’ve ever had the good fortune to be involved with. Like many large classes of over 250 students, we have the standard team of graduate teaching assistants leading small discussion sections which complement the engagement of students in my large lectures.  But besides the TAs, each discussion section will include a professional UW academic or career adviser, on hand to help students with questions and assignments in realtime.  These UW experts come from L&S Career Services, from the Cross-College Advising Service, and from several major departments.  And still there’s more: each discussion session will be paired with one of nineteen volunteer UW alumni, who will participate in the conversation via remote conferencing three times during the course of the semester.  Many of these fantastic alums are not only taking precious time to engage with our students as mentors, but also underwriting the costs of the course through generous gift donations.  I can’t thank them all enough.

Take a look at the final syllabus for the course, if you’re interested.  And please contact me if you’re a UW-Madison student, faculty colleague, staff colleague, or alum who would like to become more involved in this innovative, interdisciplinary effort.