Partnering With Humanities to Improve Job Skills in Business Graduates

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020
By Eric Litton
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Pairing liberal arts and business courses can better prepare students for a workforce that requires skills often seen as lacking in business graduates.

There is a changing dynamic in college and university majors: business administration (and business-related majors) is now the largest major, while liberal arts majors are decreasing. Despite this shift, a liberal arts education still holds value, including how it helps in business or other careers. The value is in the skill sets that humanities courses develop.

Recent events in global society—including the COVID-19 crisis and urgent demands for social justice—stress an even greater need for business leaders who can communicate quickly and adeptly to stakeholders. The risks of miscommunication or poor communication, particularly in times like these, are too significant to ignore. Leaders in these situations have had to demonstrate skills like emotional intelligence, problem-solving, and adaptability, in addition to multiple levels of communication.

However, employers do not see business graduates as being fully prepared to enter the workforce, according to research I recently conducted with a colleague. Our findings, now published in the Humanistic Management Journal, highlight this gap between workforce needs and perceptions of business graduates. We also detail one particular approach that Coker University, a liberal arts institution, is taking to strengthen the business curriculum and reinforce the value of the humanities in education.

In fact, we are not the only ones who see how better humanities and liberal arts skills can improve new graduates. Numerous national surveys, such as those published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, find that college graduates are underprepared for their first job, let alone advancing within the organization. Moreover, college graduates tend to be overconfident about their abilities. As a result, there are gaps in important skills such as communication, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence. In fact, we found communication to be so important that even after dividing it into three types (written, verbal, and interpersonal); all three types of communication are still among the top skills sought by managers.

We created a three-part approach to help close this gap for our students:

  • Introduce business KSAs into courses
  • Pair a core business course with a liberal arts course
  • Incorporate liberal arts content into business elective courses

First, we developed 10 business KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) using results from the national research as well as our own regional research that focused on the Carolinas. Business professors can focus on a few KSAs per course. “Focusing” here means reiterating the skill throughout the course by using different assignments, activities, and teaching methods. This allows us to teach to different learning styles and to reinforce the importance of particular skills through different methods. Combined, by the end of the semester students realize the many ways that each skill can be applied in their future.

Second, we began offering paired courses in which an upper-level required business course is paired with a liberal arts course that has related content. The courses have overlapping concepts, shared assignments, and a lot of teacher collaboration. Students are required to take both courses, which are taught in back-to-back time slots on the same days, in the same semester. The three paired courses are:

  • Principles of Management + Management and Leadership Skills in Literature
  • Principles of Marketing + Marketing and Performance: The Stories We Sell
  • Legal Environment in Business + The Letter of the Law

All three courses devise unique activities to engage students and encourage them to use the topics learned in the business course and apply them to other areas. Moreover, the paired courses provide even more opportunities to reinforce the business KSAs.

The first pairing utilizes an English course that reinforces managerial and leadership concepts from the business course. Currently, the English course focuses on Shakespearean and medieval literature; however, instead of reading the entire play, students will read, watch, or even act out scenes and analyze the leadership-related aspects.

The second pairing couples business marketing with a theater course. Students learn many overlapping skills that help them improve their ability to interview, present to groups, improvise and adapt, as well as engage a team of people. Additionally, the students are able to use their newly acquired knowledge to lead the marketing for the school’s main theater production for that semester.

The third pairing takes advantage of the business law course, which focuses on how business is actually conducted while teaching students relevant legal and moral ramifications. The literature course uses a variety of mediums to heighten students’ understanding of these ideas. The courses also greatly improves written communication and students’ ability to formulate arguments.

While there are different KSAs involved in each of these paired courses, students have noticed improvements in their abilities. We gave students in the management and leadership paired course a survey on KSAs that will be covered in the courses. In comparison to how they felt at the beginning of the courses, by the end of the course students reported being significantly more prepared to use their skills in written communication, critical thinking, and providing constructive feedback as part of interpersonal communication.

The third way we are helping to bridge the skills gap is by incorporating liberal arts content into business electives. It is not practical to create a paired-course structure for all business courses. For other courses, we have identified ways that liberal arts professors can help improve important skills in other courses.

This involves a business professor working with liberal arts colleagues, who act as guides or advisors, resulting in the development of unique activities and assignments or even inviting those liberal arts colleagues to be guest lecturers or co-teachers in a class session. These cross-collaboration efforts are valuable for students because they help students see the linkages that they also will be making in their future careers and can introduce students to new ways to apply their business degree.

We have been able to bring in concepts from biology, math, communication, criminology, among others. For example, the sports management concentration includes a course on facility management. Sporting events and facilities can be quite large, especially when there are multi-day tournaments. A criminology professor is helping our faculty create lessons that better incorporate group behavior into this course, including how to minimize the effects of bad actors and how to manage the flow of large crowds more safely.

Business schools should be making a concerted effort to prepare graduates who are ready for the working world. In today’s business climate, that means identifying ways to harness the liberal arts to strengthen skills that are important to business leaders. We are finding through our own efforts that, not only is this approach improving students’ abilities, but it is also providing them with a better understanding of how the real world works and where they can fit into it once they graduate.

Eric Litton
Assistant Professor of Business Administration, Coker University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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