Skills you didn’t know you learned

Question: what’s the most useful accidental skill your Arts degree taught you?

For Greater Knowledge - use your LIBRARYMe, I learned how to google effectively. Also how to keyword search libraries, use bibliographies, that sort of thing. Thing is: not everyone knows how to do that. Not every member of Gen Y can do this properly!

I noticed that I had a Transferable Skill here quite late in my time in a Real Job – I was working on a paper on the use of the internet by older Australians, and with ten minutes or so with google and some time with the Nat. Lib’s JStor, I had a small pile of studies and resources outside of the one study I’d been given to report on. And people stared at me like I’d grown three heads and taken Amazing Initiative.

Give me a topic, give me some time with a search engine or database, and I can find you information, or where to go to find information. It helps if it’s a humanities topic, but on the other hand, my housemate and I once spent an hour and a half googling the hell out of Australian customs law, just for shits. Did you know it’s illegal to import erasers without having them approved?

The fact that it was my degree that taught me this skill, though, as opposed to my age or some other factor, really hit home last semester. Of course I can out-cite any student who’s handing me an essay on Chrétien or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (in fact, I can give you a preliminary reading list of four to ten items, depending on your topic, off top of my head. I use this power to terrify students as often as possible). But I was getting assignments in on Greek mythology, on Tristan, on the Grail romances, on Arabic legends – and I’d be spotting gaps in the research. Needz moar historical background, maybe. Needz moar genre study. Whatever. Two minutes with the Fisher catalogue, and boom, I had a longer bibliography than most of the class. I’d get papers which had clearly been written with nothing but the internet, and yet, give me two minutes with google, and I could find five actual academic sources accessible from home on the internet or JStor – apparently this was a skill many students lacked.

Essay: to explain something that could have been said in two sentencesI talked through the glaring flaws in their (collective) research with my MDST classes, and a few things came up: they might know how to search the catalogue, but not how to make a cloud of associated keywords. So if you ask them about ‘honour in Arthurian romance’ and the catalogue turns up nothing but ‘essays in honour of Bob’, many of them are stuck. Actually turning ‘honour’ into a list of related concepts is a skill. Try opposites (shame, dishonour, disgrace)! Try keywords for situations where honour is at stake (war, marriage, adultery), or people who have honour (kings, knights, queens, wives). Knowing where to go to find introductions to a text or genre (Thing X: A Casebook; A Companion to Thing X; etc) is the product of familiarity but also lateral thinking (this worked last time; will it work now?). The Zen of the IMB is a learned skill. Using hard copy bibliographies is almost a foreign concept to me, let alone current undergrads.

In thinking about these skills, and trying to cram them into an essay feedback session, I realised: very few of them had been taught to me formally. Instead, I’d learned them through:

– Word of mouth: older students in MDST tended to pass down the Zen of the IMB to newbies

– One particular mentor/teacher: Mel, my Old English tutor, walked me through the use of the OEN bibliography, and (embarrassingly) taught me the difference between 829.111 and 829.1 11 and 829.1 J1 and A829.11 in my third year. I have no idea how I survived using Fisher before that, except that I did mostly history and the history call codes are less evil.

– Exposure to people who are good at research. My now-housemate K is a wizard at research (and also had more structured training in essay planning and writing than I). We research things, together, for fun. I’m pretty sure I’ve absorbed a lot of her skills by osmosis.

– Attending reading groups and CMS events eventually lead to me having people I could go to and say “hey, what should I read on Thing X?” Asking people is probably the most useful research skill out there; and I’m assuming that the number of people who’ve asked me for recommendations for things to read re: their English essays means that I nailed that skill into the heads of my students last semester. I hope they’re also asking each other, but asking me is a start!1

So I’m trying to turn these skills into a formal component of my classes. This week I’m also in charge of the universe tutorial program for the whole unit (four class groups), so I’m attempting to get my colleagues to do the same. I’m pretty sure that counts as good pedagogy; but it’s also an extension of the peer-mentoring-networking process which gave me these skills in the first place. I just happen to have a captive audience of newbies for two whole hours per week.

Of course, many teachers set out to teach these skills. But no one ever said to me I am teaching you a useful life skill. I never thought about it beyond ‘this is how I do well at this subject’. I know my students come back to me saying that things I’ve taught them help with other subjects; but I also keep repeating, as often as I can, that these are useful in Real Life things we’re doing here. I’ve no idea if they listen. I probably wouldn’t have listened, in second year. But it’s worth saying, anyway.

Open up to the floor: what are some other accidental skills you learned in Arts subjects? What else should we be thinking about teaching more deliberately, if not more formally?


1. And I ask them right back. I was asking for citations from students’ papers from week two last semester; there are plenty of second years wandering around now with essays where I’ve scribbled “OMG I need to read that!” or something of that ilk on their footnotes; and I have absolutely no qualms about firing off an email to students with whom I’ve got a good rapport and asking them “hey, have you read/heard anything about Thing X?”. This is were interdisciplinary classes are good – I’m not much of a historian anymore, but my students are!  Networking, folks – it’s not just an upwards process.


11 Responses to “Skills you didn’t know you learned”

  1. Annelise Says:

    The transferable skill I most appreciate from Arts is a more nuanced approach to recognising and dealing with perspectives and opinions. Learning to listen to ideas that at first don’t resonate with my impressions, forming understanding through ongoing conversation. Obviously this is helpful in relationships and everything else!

    It also enables better expression of the opinions that you do end up accepting or taking as foundational, since some things do have an answer- but it demands more depth than simple category. Ideas can be so intricate, contextually situated and relevant. It also helps in real conversations to be able to do the statement-evidence-application thing, where you talk about the things that form your thoughts more than you do just the conclusions themselves.

    One thing I *wish* I’d mastered in these last few years is applying myself to remembering details. I’m too intuitive/conceptual! While everything I read informs the way I can write about a topic, I often feel vague on names, dates and all the history-not-literature side of things. With a library at hand I have sufficient background to write decent essays within my broad field, but this doesn’t help the risk of generalisation. My degree has been scattered and I’m still not sure where I’ll go career-wise, which is why I think my focus is always short-term… (A pretty common Arts experience!) But if it ends up being Medieval Studies, I’ll need to focus infinitely more on deliberate remembering.

  2. Annelise Says:

    Also, A829.11? I get the difference between the other ones, but don’t think I’ve ever had a letter at the start of a call number…

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      I don’t know if there actually IS an A829.11, but if there was, it’d be in the Australian lit aisles. Ditto C for Canadian and S for South African.

      • Annelise Says:

        Wow- I obviously need a more global perspective on literature! Are these aisles on the same level as the others with the same number but no initial letter?

        • highlyeccentric Says:

          They are! It’s just a Fisher thing, I think. I suspect someone donated money to create those three sections, or something.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    I think some of what Annelise said and some of what you say both apply to me. I definitely learnt to choose keywords for web-searches out of my Master’s degree (not the undergraduate one, which was mostly pre-Google). I have occasionally tried to get this across to people, not least my son—don’t search for what you want the page to be about, search for words that you know would be on such a page—but it doesn’t very often take.

    On the other hand, it was a toss-up between my Ph. D. and my second relationship which one taught me the sort of stuff that Annelise is talking about. I was going out with someone for whom I had immense amounts of respect and who, a scientist, would readily call `bullshit’ on my usual level of arts-style blagging. Because I didn’t like that, and I wanted her to think I could think and told the truth and things, I became a lot more careful about whether I could justify claims, and learned to step away from claims I couldn’t graciously and honestly. I thought at the time that I was doing this because she meant the world to me and I’d do anything to avoid a fight with her, but of course I was simultaneously doing a Ph. D. and learning to write more precisely and critically and it’s not impossible that this also had a rôle.

    I think that the other thing my study taught me, because so much of it was part-time, was to keep a lot of plates spinning at once. This I largely did with silly timetabling systems that I then had to unlearn, and that too was significant ex’s fault, very largely. But I did learn how to deal with stuff in time for its deadlines, a skill that I had previously lacked. Parenthood also gets a look-in there, too, of course. Life and academia don’t happen separately unless you’re very lucky.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      I became a lot more careful about whether I could justify claims, and learned to step away from claims I couldn’t graciously and honestly.

      A very, very useful life skill, that. It’s funny, though, the reverse is also a necessary skill – the ability to bullshit and spin things on the spot. I think I learned the latter from my father, but I’m not sure when – or, actually if – I properly learned the former. Lawrence Warner’s *utterly infuriating* habit of playing devil’s advocate to any student idea is good training in both skills at once, though.

      But I did learn how to deal with stuff in time for its deadlines, a skill that I had previously lacked.

      … I am *losing* that skill, and it’s driving me bonkers. But I don’t think acquiring progeny would be the ideal way to fix this.

      • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

        The only thing that parenthood should be undertaken to fix is lack of offspring. As for bullshitting, I was a public schoolboy who’d then done an arts degree. I was well-equipped there already.

        • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

          s/public/private for anyone outside the UK system, sorry.

        • highlyeccentric Says:

          The only thing that parenthood should be undertaken to fix is lack of offspring.

          Duly noted. (With caveat that situations of ‘child does not have adequate parent/guardian’ are also necessary fixes.)

          As for bullshitting, I was a public schoolboy who’d then done an arts degree. I was well-equipped there already.

          *cackles* This is an important skill I’m trying to impart to my current undergrads, with the whole ‘fake conference session’ set-up for tutorial papers. One of my shyest students turned out to be a genius at extemporising on basically everything. So I made her stand up in the lecture and extemporise there, because I’m mean like that.

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