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Stuff A Computer Programmer In Your Arts Hole

Possible evidence of what I suggested yesterday regarding the need to discuss all the career paths available to arts grads comes in a post last week by Alex Tabbarok Marginal Revolution blog.

Tabbarok opens by reviewing graduation data he used in a book he published showing more students graduated with a bachelor’s degree in visual and performing arts in 2009 than in “in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined.”

So what has happened since 2009? The good news is that enrollment in STEM fields has increased dramatically. The number of graduates with computer science degrees, for example, has increased by 34%, chemical engineering degrees are up by a whopping 49.5% and math and statistics degrees have increased by 32%.

The bad news is that we are still graduating more students in the visual and performing arts than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined. As I said in Launching nothing wrong with the visual and performing arts but those are degrees which are unlikely to generate spillovers to society.

In the comments section there is a lot of discussion about the relative usefulness of different majors. The following observations about the mix of proficiencies one needs to create a successful product in computer science caught my eye.

Floccina February 4, 2016 at 10:04 am

The CS majors could be made easier. There are hard programming tasks and easy programmings task, there IMO are even programming where less intelligent people can do a better job by making interface that is easier to understand. Some programing task require less intelligence and more art. So perhaps there should be an easy Computer programming major. And perhaps it would make us all better off by increasing total production.

Fill disclosure I am a programmer who not so smart. When I have a difficult algorithm to write that I cannot look up I get help from a smart person.

Andy February 4, 2016 at 11:09 am

I agree. I’m a liberal arts major in English and Information Studies (not programming), and lucked out by finding a job that trained me in administrative computing. CS majors are really needed for software engineering but for programming for basic business processes they can really screw things up, often because their communication skills aren’t that great. The setup we have at my university – train liberal arts majors in computing – has worked well because they draw smart people from areas and occupations that emphasize communication and critical thinking. I’m always hearing horror stories of young CS majors who overengineered systems to the point of unmaintainability and can’t be reasoned with.

An inch below that, someone comments that Apple was able to produce a successful product because Steve Wozinak was a genius at writing effective code and Steve Jobs knew that the user interface needed to be simple and attractive to users.

The problem with Tabbarok’s view, which is generally shared, is that it assumes a computer science major gets plugged into a computer science job hole and a psychology major gets plugged into a psychology job hole and if there are no corresponding jobs needing to be plugged into, then those majors are useless.

This ignores the fact that the value of computer programs, chemicals, medicine, etc., don’t become self-evident upon creation. Like it or not, marketing, advertising and design communicate something that draws attention and causes people to value those items. Whether that thing deserves to be valued is another conversation altogether.

Would you have even known of the existence of the original Macintosh 128k, much less wanted to buy the boxy thing if it weren’t for the iconic 1984 Super Bowl ad? Why did VHS trump Beta when the latter was the superior format? Acai berries always had the same nutritional qualities so why were they miracle berries one year and barely mentioned the next?

The value of something isn’t completely dependent or proportionate to its usefulness.

From a certain point of view, the computer science, chemistry and biology degree really only has value because the creative team at a marketing firm has made the software, artificial sweetener or drug important. Even then, the product may fail for intangible and unexpected reasons just as high budget movies do.

To some degree, more computer science jobs create more creative jobs and creative jobs help create more computer science jobs. This sort of interdependence is illustrated by the success of Amazon, Google and Facebook. Nobody would be hired in one group of jobs if the other area was deficient. (Lord knows, whoever keeps updating the TOS for Facebook has nearly screwed things up a number of times.)

This gets back to what I was saying yesterday. Everyone is done a disservice when they are told actors can only act, violinists can only be in an orchestra, psychologists can only get jobs in clinical, counseling and school psychology.

God help us if a tuba player starts a technology company!

This isn’t to say that there is no value in pursuing a discipline toward a highly specialized end. There is a lot of training, study and practice behind orchestra musicians, surgeons, major league baseball players, ballet dancers, etc. It is widely acknowledged that there are only a few such slots available to the tens to hundreds of thousands of practitioners (except surgeons, of course, I hope there aren’t that many people practicing surgery for fun).

Those who don’t have the ability and will to operate at an elite level shouldn’t have other options closed off to them by a siloing mentality if they have skills that overlap well into other areas.

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A Real Artist Wouldn’t…

Throughout my life I have frequently seen articles about all the careers you can pursue with X major. Some of the options seemed a little far fetched and based on individual outlier examples. (Though philosophy majors have racked up some interesting achievements so perhaps it is I whose vision is limited.)

Over the last few months it occurred to me that when it comes to arts careers, the “if you are not suffering, you are selling out” philosophy might be influencing mentors and educators when it comes to providing advice to young students and practitioners. More accurately, it may be less about starving as purity of practice.

I haven’t assembled enough examples to really support this thesis, but I thought I would toss the idea out there to spur some thought and draw attention to how career options are being communicated, including in one’s personal practice.

I started thinking along these lines last Fall when I was attending the Society for Arts Entrepreneurship in Education SAEE conference. One of the research presentations found that music conservatory graduates felt they hadn’t been prepared for anything but a career as a member of an orchestra or as a soloist.

This isn’t necessarily groundbreaking news. It has long been observed by both faculty and students of all disciplines, including arts, science, business and law, that more people are being graduated than there are open positions. One of the goals of SAEE is to find ways to train students to better manage their careers and make their own opportunities. It is still a fledgling effort, though.

A little more recently, I was listening to faculty from the video game design program at my university on a video conference talking about the program and career opportunities. It wasn’t until a prospective student asked what other career options existed for the degree that the faculty members mentioned there were some graduates that had gone into medical imaging and simulation and were actually making quite a bit more money than those who went into the gaming industry.

I was surprised to learn that there were good options in the medical field. It had never occurred to me that such opportunities existed. I don’t think they were intentionally hiding that fact, especially with all the other things they needed to talk about. Still, there was something in the way they spoke about the medical field careers that made it sound like the less preferential option versus the core focus of the program. Given that the program is pretty competitive and rigorous, it could only raise the profile if they touted a range of career options.

It is natural that we are all biased toward what we perceive to be the pure practice of our discipline. The question remains, are we telling the broadest, best and most interesting range of stories about the opportunities our disciplines afford?

It isn’t enough to convince people that what the arts and culture represent and create have resonance and meaning in their lives with an eye to making them consumers. There is also a need to mention the diverse ways these skills can be manifested and practiced even if they lack some elemental of idealized purity. Or if we feel some practitioners are bastardizing and demeaning an art form with lack of skill and discipline.

At the very least this would create a growing awareness of all the ways artistic vocations are practiced and improve the perception of the arts as a career path.

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Arts And The Four Year Career

An article recently posted on the Fast Company website talks about how transitory people’s jobs, and increasingly, career paths, are.

“According to recent statistics, the median number of years a U.S. worker has been in his or her current job is just 4.4, down sharply since the 1970s…Statistically, the shortening of the job cycle has been driven by two factors. The first is a marked decline in the “long job”–that is, the traditional 20-year capstone to a career. Simultaneously, there’s been an increase in “churning”– workers well into their thirties who have been at their current job for less than a year. “For some reason I don’t understand, employers seem to value having long-term employees less than they used to,” says Henry Farber, an economist at Princeton”

Given the idea that arts organizations need to be more nimble in the current fast changing environment and that corporate CEOs value creativity in leadership, it made me wonder if arts organizations might not be able to take advantage of this trend by creating mutually beneficial employment situations.

Essentially, if there is going to be a lot of employment churn, the arts might be able to benefit in both the short and long term by making sure a jaunt in the arts is included in a person’s itinerant career path.

Arts organizations experience a fair bit of turn over in their employees. (In fact, I will bet that is what you thought the title of the entry referenced.) It may be worthwhile to hire people without backgrounds specifically in the arts into positions. Since you are probably just as likely to have to replace a person with arts background as someone who doesn’t, you aren’t overly wasting time and resources by hiring and training someone without industry experience.

The potential benefit to the arts organization is introducing some new ideas and practices to the organization. The employee gets a broader experience to add to their hodgepodge resume which may make them more marketable. (Needless to say, the work environment must be such that it accepts the former and confers the latter.)

Of course, as the article mentions, the trick is to separate those who are really driven in their pursuits from the dilettantes. Arts organizations in general aren’t particularly well skilled in those type of human resource practices. It would be worthwhile to have someone on the board with the ability to provide those services in some form, even if you have no intention of ever hiring a person without an arts background.

In the long term it could be helpful if businesses started to identify arts organizations as a good training ground for the skills they seek in employees to the point where it was as de rigueur on a resume as extra curricular activities are on a college application. It also wouldn’t hurt if the experience engendered an appreciation in the arts in the transitory employee that they will carry on to positions creating business or government policy.

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Advocation For Arts Careers To High Schoolers

I was speaking about arts careers at a high school career day today. The high school had been really good about sending out information packets with suggested topics to cover with the students (what skills do you need, what type of education is required, what classes should you be taking right now).

I have done a few of these in the last couple years but it was only after today’s session that I started to think about what arts people should be doing when they get the opportunity to speak to students about arts careers. There are guides written about presenting testimony to government entities and speaking to businesses about the benefits of the arts. There is a lot written on getting the arts back in schools, but not a lot has been created on the subject of advocating arts careers, or even just for taking arts classes after graduation, to middle and high school students.

This might present a significant challenge given that the students may not have had many arts experiences or at least recognize it as such. Unlike adults who might view the arts as having value in the context of the economic health of an area even if they do not often attend themselves, students may not have developed many impressions at all.

One of the reasons I started thinking about this is that I shifted my approach somewhat mid-stream today. While I think the result was better than what I had planned, I think there is still plenty of room for improvement. Maybe those of you focused more on arts education have worked all this out already and can provide some guidance.

I worked up a powerpoint presentation with images of what we do at the theatre now, including the ways our students are making their own opportunities. I also had job descriptions from various positions in performing and visual arts – production managers, art handlers, outreach assistants, etc to show students that there were opportunities beyond just performing.

The first session went pretty well from my point of view at the time and I got through the slides. The second session took a little longer to go through the slides. By the third session I had basically abandoned the slides and only showed 2 or 3 for the remaining two sessions of the day.

Essentially I went from talking to them to having a conversation with them about what they were doing now arts wise, what they wanted to do with their careers, why they didn’t want to pursue their artistic interests as a career and for those who did want to pursue it, what factors were standing in their way. I made this shift partially out of a realization that I wasn’t practicing what I am trying to preach about engaging audiences and partially because the questions they were asking pointed toward concerns in these areas.

In the process, I came to realize that a lot of the claims about the skills and abilities of the Millennial generation are a little inflated by the media. These kids are pretty much like I was in high school, a little unsure of themselves and appreciative of the wisdom of others (and just as practiced at exhibiting disinterest). Yes, they will probably grow up and outstrip the accomplishments of those who preceded them, but we old farts still have something of value to offer at present.

We had discussions about parents not being supportive of aspirations and wanting their kids to be lawyers. I talked about developing portfolios of your work and creating speculative pieces to showcase talent since they won’t necessarily have pieces they have created for a job. We talked about creating your brand both online and with face to face networking and housing your portfolio of work online for people to reference. (Which surprisingly didn’t seem to have occurred to many of them.)

I also gave them some tips about how to create opportunities for themselves to exhibit their talent. How to approach people with resources they may need, what those people may expect from them and how and work out mutually beneficial arrangements.

What was interesting to me was that in this age of television shows like American Idol which make it seem like success is achievable in terms of weeks rather than years, there were really very few students who were absolutely sure that they would make it. While there were a few people who said that they wouldn’t pursue their artistic interests as a career due to impracticality or low income potential, most simply lacked confidence in their own abilities.

My underlying message to everyone was to stay in school (naturally) and the benefits of different disciplines for their careers – liberal arts and social sciences so you can understand what motivates people; science to gain the skills to examine situations objectively as well as understand the properties of materials one might work with as an artist; business and law/contracts to understand how to protect your interests.

Ultimately, of course, I kept pressing the idea that you had to nurture your artistic passion and creativity in whatever you pursued. Fortunately, the teacher had a guitar in the classroom which helped to reinforce that concept.

So what else can you say to students preparing to go to college who may not have ever really experienced or thought about the value/place of arts and creativity in their lives to awaken their minds to the possibilities?

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