For several years now, I have been speaking to anyone in academia who will listen about coming changes in higher education. With the rising cost of college and shrinking funds available for public institutions among other factors market forces would seem to be encouraging the exploration of other options. Add to this the growth of online resources such as iTunes U and the growth of homeschooling and unschooling and the time certainly seems ripe for academics to offer their services to the public outside of the traditional classroom setting. However, the challenge is to show our potential clients (or should we call them customers, students?) the value of the services we can offer.
I am convinced that a good case can be made for the importance of each subject in the liberal arts curriculum. But, in my experience the arguments for the importance of learning these subjects are rarely made in the classroom and, when they are made, they are often not connected to real world application. This is usually not an issue in the classroom because marketing does not seem necessary when you have a ready supply of students who are required to be there. Also, I suspect most professors do not make arguments for the importance of learning their subject because this seems obvious. But, the reasons for studying a particular subject which go beyond merely fulfilling a requirement are not always as obvious to students.
Perhaps one could make the argument that the need for marketing will not apply to sites such as this one since students are self-selecting to be here and therefore are already convinced of the importance of learning these subjects and are also convinced that seeking out qualified experts is an important part of the learning process. Perhaps we could make that argument but we do so at our own risk. In my experience as a recording artist, it is very difficult to get people to part with their money unless you can demonstrate that you are offering something they value and are the best option for receiving what they need.
Whatever services we end up offering through UnFaculty.org we need to be sure that we clearly articulate the benefits of these at many different levels. Many students may want to focus on the benefit of relevance and I think the case can be made for the relevance of the humanities. But, we need not restrict our arguments to relevance alone. After all, what may seem relevant to a student now may turn out to be irrelevant at some later time and what may not seem immediately relevant may end up being very relevant.
One way to market the utility of the humanities (or of any other academic discipline for that matter) is to present real world problems to students and allow them to discover that the best way to solve them is by learning the subjects taught in the humanities. An example of this was recently discussed in at article on Yahoo! Finance titled “10 Companies With the Toughest Interview Questions”. These companies use problem solving questions as a way of assessing prospective employees, but these kinds of questions could be used as the basis for illustrating the utility of the services we can provide.
A few examples from the article included:
A mom-and-pop music shop wants to grow with stiff competition. How should they go about it? Calculate customer lifetime value.
You are outside a room. Inside the room there are two light bulbs. One light bulb is on all the time, the other light bulb only turns on when you open the door. How do you determine which light bulb is on all the time?
Such questions assess a candidate’s problem solving skills but questions similar to these could be formulated as the basis for an entire course in a subject. In essence we are saying to out clients: “here is a problem you are likely to encounter and by trying to solve it you will discover that you need to know about these subjects.”
My own field of philosophy has in the last few decades turned this approach into an entirely new profession known as philosophical counseling. Clients can seek out professional philosophers who, for a fee, will assist them in solving their philosophical problems. Philosophers who offer these services often do so not as conventional therapists but as educators and mentors. If philosophers can do this so can other experts in the humanities.