Employability: the role of the academic tutor

Employability may be an ugly word, but it is increasingly an important part of teaching and learning at my higher education institution. In a world of tuition fees, student satisfaction scores and information gathering about leavers’ destinations, I imagine that its importance will also continue to grow. Whilst I am not a fan of any of the aforementioned trends, employability is something that I have been thinking about. If students are spending their time and resources on degree study because they think it will make them more employable, then they should be reflecting on what precisely it is they have learned that makes them distinct from people who didn’t attend university or who took a different course. They need self-awareness about their own development and the ability to articulate this to a potential employer in a meaningful way.

HEAIf you want to know more about employability then the HEA has a framework for ‘embedding’ it in your institution, but if you haven’t got time to wade your way through this, I can tell you that the sorts of provision that universities offer include: help with CVs; mock interviews; confidence building activities; work experience/placements; shadowing; help researching the job market etc.

Which leads me to wonder…what is the role of the academic tutor here? Is it our responsibility to talk about skills and ‘employability’ in our history seminars and lectures? Or is that something that is better left to the professionals in Careers Services? If tutors do have a role, what is it?

I don’t think there is one answer to this question, since a response must be determined by the needs of the students at a particular institution, the way that the institution is viewed by employers, and by the existing provision.

your_creative_future_wordleExeter students are already sought after by graduate employers. We also have a great Careers Service, with an innovative range of talks, training sessions and seminars throughout the year and advisors available to students at all stages of their university career. Often careers advisors do provide advice specifically tailored to students in a particular discipline (for instance relating to history graduate destinations and employers), and I certainly wouldn’t want to replicate that provision.

Yet having spoken to both careers services and students (have you guessed – I’m currently the history ‘Employability Officer’), I have come to think that a historian is in a great position to supplement more general advice with targeted and detailed information about specific skills, approaches, and ways of thinking that are fostered by their particular discipline. For who has a better overview of what the discipline has to offer than the academic themselves?

Some thoughts:

  • One of the things that Exeter students struggle with is articulating what makes them valuable to a potential employer, and expressing their academic skills and achievements in a language that makes sense to, and chimes with what the employer is looking for.
  • A related point is that when I read student job applications, I am often surprised that they fail to draw on their degree more. Surprisingly few make explicit links between the work that they have completed as part of their studies, and what they are likely to be asked to do in the workplace. Whilst past work experience and extra curricular activities are often a mine of colourful examples that precisely illustrate the person specification in the job advert, the degree can come a poor second, a mark presumably of intellectual achievement and not much more.

My current approach to employability is therefore based on the principle that my role is to encourage students to think about their studies in a range of ways.


Most employers don’t need a historian. They need a project manager. A media sales executive. A motivated digital marketer.

And here is where I think a history tutor can make a difference with relatively little effort – they just need to bridge the gap between the study of history and how its methods and approaches relate to jobs in ‘the real world’. This is of course not a new idea at all, it’s just thinking and talking in terms of ‘transferable skills’ – something universities are accomplished at, as Ted McCormick explains in this post.

So on occasions when I am talking to students I try to drop the history/discipline specific language and translate it into the ‘real world’ language of job adverts, particularly at the beginning of a particular task, activity or assignment. I try to explain tasks not only in terms of how it makes a student a better historian, but also how it makes them a better potential employee. In introductory sessions to my modules and on the electronic learning pages I try to provide specifics that will encourage them to make links. For instance:

Research skills [relating to essays, presentations, seminar preparation]

  • You can use catalogues, finding aids, bibliographies, search engines to find relevant data
  • You can retrieve information from libraries, databases and internet
  • You can collect and collate data/information – identify key information, select examples/evidence, recognise central arguments

We need students to recognise and reflect on the business of being a historian as they go along. We need to encourage them to see the parallels between giving a presentation on popular culture and the skill of ‘public speaking’. We need them to know to give the example of meeting six deadlines a term when an employer asks about time management.

Unfortunately, knowing what this book smells like probably won’t get you the job.

It seems pretty obvious when I put it down on the page, but if we always talk to our students in the terms of ‘essays’ there is no obvious reason that they would link that to report writing or précis or data management.

Reflection: the end is nigh

Where else could employability fit into a module? I hope that ‘talking in the terms of skills’ in something that can be done occasionally throughout a degree course, but at the end of the term or the academic year is usually when I invite my students to engage in some more in-depth reflection on their recent development.

Again I’m not very innovative – usually in a ‘concluding’ seminar as well as discussing key themes in seventeenth-century religious cultures I also spend half an hour or so on skills. Often I just ask small groups to discuss the skills that they have gained or developed on the module/over the year. I might invite them to think about the thing that they found most challenging or that they are most proud of achieving, and to then think about what skills were crucial in that achievement.

In these sessions I also encourage students to reflect on how being a history graduate makes them a distinct and valuable candidate. For me, their abilities as critical thinkers are their great strength – they can think/research/read/analyse/present/and write like a historian. More uniquely, they are also able to ‘think historically’ (more on what that means in this previous post), something that is undoubtedly sought out by potential employees.

milkroundI remind the students of best practice when applying for jobs. They should address each part of the ‘essential attributes’ or ‘person specification’ in the advert, and crucially, they should give examples to back up their claims. These examples can be drawn from academic experience when it is relevant (and it usually is). An exercise I have recently introduced is to pull up a job advert on the screen (from milkround.com or another graduate recruitment website), and ask them to come up with examples of skills developed on the module that match the requirements of the position.

The postscript

Since I am trained to be a critical thinker, I must add that whilst students can benefit from talking about team working, communication, leadership, critical thinking and problem solving, the fact remains that social class, race and gender continue to exert great influence on hiring practices, as does the reputation of the university that awarded a candidate’s degree.

EphemeraFurthermore, not everyone is a fan of ‘employability’, and the HEA website concedes that employability discourses encourage would-be workers to construct and identify with identities that are determined by the values of corporate managers.

So you might also want to encourage your students to consider the extent to which becoming and staying employed requires turning yourself into a ‘product’ that must conform to ever-changing market desires. This special issue of the open access journal Ephemera: ‘Giving Notice to Employability’ offers some critical perspectives that might be useful for discussion.

Concluding Thoughts

This concluding post to our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Jonathan Willis, monster-head and Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham.  Jonathan is a reformation historian who has worked on the musical and material cultures of the English parish church, in his Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England and in his forthcoming book The Reformation of the Decalogue.  Here he reflects on Collinson’s article, its influence, its relevance, and some of the challenges it still presents.

Collinson’s original lecture, which posited a shift in Protestant attitudes to religious imagery, music and drama around the year c.1580 from creative engagement (his idiosyncratic definition of ‘iconoclasm’) to ideological disengagement (‘iconophobia’) presents three challenges to historians.  Well, it probably presents more than three, but there are three in particular that I want to focus on here…

3666e534c7bdb9746caf03110c90dc4fThe first challenge, and the one which has been taken up and answered with the most gusto, in the contributions to this symposium as well as in the scholarship more broadly, has been to disprove the notion of a shift to ‘iconophobia’ through the identification and presentation of concrete counter-examples.  Religious imagery, religious music and religious drama did not cease to exist c.1580.  It is worth pointing out at this juncture that Collinson’s article (perhaps unsurprisingly) stands up much better today upon re-reading than I had anticipated.  Much of what people have challenged him on, he doesn’t actually claim.  He doesn’t speak about religious music in general, for example; just godly ballads.  He doesn’t speak about pictorial art in general, and explicitly rules out domestic decoration from consideration.  His claims and evidence are much more limited than they are often taken to be, and therefore in a narrow sense they remain more or less correct. Continue reading

Historiographical Reflections

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Alec Ryrie, Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.  Alec has expertise and has published widely in a variety of areas pusuant to the history of the English reformation, including Being Protestant in Reformation Britain. Here he offers some historiographical reflections on Collinson’s Stenton lecture and the model of doing history which it offers.

The consensus view of the workshop was that significant parts of Collinson’s argument in this lecture were, simply, wrong; but also that they were fascinatingly, provocatively and fruitfully wrong. Pieces of this kind appear periodically in historical scholarship: powerful arguments which do not necessarily command any kind of assent, but which unsettle and stimulate a wide range of scholars and end up advancing an entire field. We can all come up with a short list of works of this kind. They are a very useful part of the scholarly ecosystem. My question is, how do we encourage this kind of work? And I ask not least because I fear that it is becoming less common than once it was.

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Future Directions

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Ian Green, Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School for History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh.  Ian has expertise and has published widely in a variety of fields, including early modern print, education and domestic devotion.  Here he reflects upon some of the most fertile areas of future research in further refining our sense of the relationship between mature Protestantism and graphic depictions in visual and material cultures.

47372As Eamon Duffy and others have shown, the iconoclasts of the mid-16th century destroyed much of the splendour and symbolism of the late medieval church, and as Patrick Collinson suggested, some of the leaders of the second phase of the Reformation in the late 16th century wanted to narrow the range of religious imagery even further. But not only is it open to question whether these ‘iconophobes’ were sufficiently well-placed or organized to bring about the decisive further shift in English culture that Pat thought he could detect, but also it may be suggested that the impact of iconoclasm in mid-Tudor England had not been as severe as in Reformed churches abroad or in Scotland. This was partly because the English authorities deployed a narrower definition of idolatry, and partly because at all levels of clergy and laity there appears to have been a reluctance to go beyond the bare minimum of destruction authorized, especially if the offending objects were hard to reach or expensive to replace. As a result a significant proportion of fittings, decorations and monuments were left alone until the 1640s, or even the 19th century and beyond, as in the ‘Shakespeare church’, Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, which has two 15th-century images of Christ, scores of angels, and symbols such as the three nails used to crucify Christ, and the five stigmata of the wounds he received. Continue reading

Somerton: a Parochial Case Study

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Susan Orlik, a PhD student based in the University of Birmingham’s Department of History.  Susan is working with Tara Hamling and Jonathan Willis on the changing material culture of the English parish church, c.1560-1640.  Here she reflects upon the implications of a close case study of the Somerset parish of Somerton for Collinson’s ‘iconophobia’ thesis.

Over the last thirty years scholars have challenged Patrick Collinson’s generalised arguments on iconophobia, which he laid out in his famous 1985 Stenton lecture, and then developed in The Birthpangs of Protestant England in 1988. In the book he used the famous phrase ‘severe visual anorexia’ to describe the absence of the visual.[i] Recently the rich material evidence from local parish churches has been used to challenge his view and provide a more nuanced perspective about the visual.

Somerton in Somerset provides such rich material evidence. It has an inscribed and coloured pulpit of 1615 and a carved communion table of 1626 with some rare images on its bulbous legs. The material evidence is matched here by informative Churchwardens’ accounts: these tell of the Churchwardens raising an annual rate and also raising an additional rate for a specific purpose. In 1615 the additional rate was levied ‘for and towards the building of the new pulpit and repayeringe of defects about the church’. The octagonal pulpit has the date on it, as well as an elaborately decorated cornice with a frieze of flowers and leaves. Continue reading

The Case for Domestic Imagery

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Andrew Morrall, Professor and Chair of Academic Programs at the Bard Graduate Centre.  Andrew has expertise and has published widely in a variety of fields, including early modern Northern European fine and applied arts, the reformation and the arts, the history and theory of ornament and the early history of collecting. Here he reflects upon the field of domestic imagery, and its relationship to Collinson’s thesis.

This contribution to the After Iconophobia workshop consisted chiefly in suggesting a number of perceived blind spots with regard to Collinson’s theory of “creeping aesthetic totalitarianism” in the sphere of Protestant visual culture in later Elizabethan England, in the light of subsequent scholarship.[1] Collinson’s argument is that between the years c.1570 to c.1600, there occurred a definitive and radical shift from a visual to a logo-centric culture, during which the religious image was apparently so completely removed from the culture that it was worth the author positing the question of the generation that grew up within those years:

“What do we know of the capacity to form mental pictures of someone who has never seen an actual picture? What would our mind’s eye of Christ be if we had been totally isolated from the Christian iconographical tradition”? (p. 296).

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Fragments of Doom in Post-Reformation England

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Richard Dhillon, an AHRC M3C-funded PhD student based in the University of Birmingham’s Department of History.  Richard is working with Tara Hamling and Jonathan Willis on representations of the hell actoss the English reformation.  Here he reflects upon some of the changing ways in which the traditional ‘doom’ (or last judgement scene) continued to be represented visually after the reformation.

Guild Chapel

Fig. 1 A reconstruction of the Doom at Stratford-upon-Avon Guild Chapel by William Puddephat.

In his accounts for 1563, John Shakespeare, father of William Shakespeare and chamberlain of Stratford-upon-Avon, recorded a charge of 2s for ‘defasyng ymages in ye chapel’.[1] In a purification exercise that has become emblematic of Protestant iconoclasm, Shakespeare whitewashed the walls of the town’s Guild Chapel, covering much of the rich scheme that adorned them, including the Doom which dominated the chancel arch.[2] [Fig. 1] The scene depicted the Day of Judgment, as described in the Book of Matthew. Christ sits in majesty at the centre of the scene. To the viewer’s left are the saved, entering the kingdom of heaven, and to the right are the damned, being delivered into the gruesome mouth of hell.

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