Liberal Arts and the Internet

The technical side of the Internet is based on well written explanations of easy to understand and flexible protocols and methods of usage (see RFCs). It is as much a labor of love on an unbelievable scale as it is a technical wonder. Liberal Arts Majors (Libarts) have had no trouble applying their skills in the technical field. In the technical field alone I can think of some obvious work most libarts can do competently:

Many famous computer scientists are in fact libarts majors.

If you want to do computer work, you could also proactively plan ahead and aim for a double major or pick something computer-related as your minor. This way you could not only have liberal arts background but also something computer-related. (See MIS/Information Technology/Computer Engineering/Electrical Engineering/Computer Science/Telecommunication Engineering.)

Computer-related skills comes from lots of hands-on interactions but at time it can be pleasantly cerebral.

Some computer folks notice that they have to keep up with their math in order to solve some of the tougher problems they come across in their work. Math is no mystery, but there are some strange characteristics of the learning process, it's hard to appreciate grade 9 math without first understanding grade 8 math, for example.


Here are some of the jobs I interviewed for and/or was offered, as a history major with an Asian Studies minor and absolutely no job experience:

- Administrative assistant at several tech companies--salary $30-42k
(Whywait?: Yes, they sounded both uninteresting and stressful, but at least one included free programming training as well as party planning, and that one was the highest-paying one, too...)
- Publishing assistant at Stone Bridge Press--$35k
- General adminstrative at Good Vibrations--$32k
- Publishing/design at the Berkeley Daily Planet--$27k
- Admin at the Asian Art museum--$14/hr
- Salesperson at upscale art gallery--$27k + commissions
- Tour planner--$not telling, because that's the job I took ;p

I won't get rich anytime soon, but for entry level jobs these aren't bad. And I only applied for stuff I thought was interesting. I still plan to go to grad school, but it was gratifying to see the variety. This was only a week or two of jobhunting, too. Okay? It can be done. I was pretty panicked for a while, as you can see if you read my daylogs, so I want to pass it on: You are not doomed to flipping burgers. And if you're getting freaked out, /msg me and I'll try to help you with your cover letter and resume, because liberal arts geeks have to stick together.

I am currently a sixth year junior at UNLV majoring in Anthropology. I know six years seems long, but I only go to school part time, so give me a break. My Room mate and close friend graduated with a BA in Anthropology about my second year in school. I saw the work he was getting. I was disappointed. I decided to get work performing tasks that had previously been my hobby. I am now a Network Technician and Netware Admin for UNLV. It pays well. I will probably graduate with my own BA in Anthro within the next couple of years. I will undoubtedly never get a job using that degree. I'm okay with that.

Wintersweet: I appreciate and understand your attempt at making us Lib.Arts feel better about our crummy potential, but you were indeed wise to choose tour operator. Four of the jobs you went for were administrative, and take it from me, the self-proclaimed Queen O' Temps: administrative assistantships are SHITE!!!

Basically, you're an indentured servant to everyone in the office, and if you prove to be decent at your work (as have I) you *might* be promoted to the lofty heights of executive assistant (as have I), so instead of being everyone's peon you're reserved for the boss's micturating pleasure. While some extremely shiny and bright personalities might be promoted out of an admin position within 6 months, chances are more likely that THUNK you've hit the admin glass ceiling and unless you leave the company, there you will stay for the rest of your sad, sad life.

I have an interview tomorrow for a non-administrative marketing/development associate gig for a non-profit arts organization...fingers crossed.

The most valuable thing you can do in college is learn how to think. As an employer (and I am) I don't care what you thought about, but I do care how well you learned what you did. In particular, I care that you are bright, that you can explain abstract ideas clearly to others and that you can write well. That can come only from thinking about a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. (For more on this from an employer's (that would be me) perspective, go read The best interview advice I received.)

I write software, and do some math, for a living (my other degree is in math). The fact is that most good programmers don't learn what makes them good programmers in their undergraduate majors. They learn it by doing, being curious while they do it, and thinking about their mistakes. What's hard about coding is design, and design is a funny mix of engineering, experience, aesthetics, and seat-of-the-pants instinct and intuition. It's about thinking in abstractions, and this is exactly what the liberal arts were intended to teach. The original trivium was: grammar, rhetoric and logic. Then as the ancients discovered the importance of numbers and added the quadrivium. They didn't think about these as distinct catalogues of knowledge to be learned so much as ways and modes of thinking.

Sometimes people ask me what books to read to become a good C++ programmer. I usually recommend:

You will notice that none of those are about C++. This is because the details of the language are the easiest thing about programming in it. In fact, I then suggest they learn a pure-OO language like Smalltalk first (though not everybody buys this approach).

Of course, the above is all about programming, but it applies equally well to any job (in fact most jobs require fewer specific skills). The point is that it's the breadth that is important. That's what liberal arts has come to mean in the modern context: the span of thought from architecture to zoology. So study economics, statistics, math and CS (all but the last are classified as "liberal arts", btw), but also study anthropology, 17th Century poetry, the visual arts, and comparative religion. Not only will it make you a more interesting person, but it will give you the ability to do the quality and breadth of thinking and writing that will make people want to hire you for whatever career you choose to pursue. Because the rest is just details.

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