Students at the Famously NOT Practical University of Chicago Get Schooled in Practical Applications for their Spanish


Darcy Lear at the University of Chicago during the notoriously severe winter of 2014.

Within the humanities, there is a tension between the life of the mind and practical, professional training.  

Traditionally, the humanities are dedicated to “development of the whole person” or “learning for learning’s sake,” which  provides a solid foundation for life after college.  What the humanities curriculum has not done is explicitly address how to apply those foundational skills in professional contexts.  

Recently, humanities departments have begun to embrace the reality that they might have to do both–prepare students for lifelong learning and for practical, professional careers.  To that end, I have been training students and faculty to weave workplace skills into already existing curricula.  

Here’s what I’ll do today with Spanish students at the University of Chicago as well as some other suggestions for adding a touch of the practical to the humanities:

Can you take a 100% accurate phone message in Spanish? If so, that might grant a Spanish-speaking caller access to the organization who otherwise would be passively turned away.  And you don’t need much Spanish to do that:

  • you need to know 26 letters,
  • 10 numbers, and
  • a few good strategies–
    • “one number at a time please,”
    • “one letter at a time please,”
    • “let me repeat that back to you,”
    • “what were the last two numbers?”

For instructors, see in-class suggestion below.* 

MP900309656Can you write a clear, concise, complete email with appropriate salutation, content, and closing? In any language? Employers will love you! If you can do that in more than one language, even better.  

In the case of the Spanish students I’m working with today at the University of Chicago, their professors will love them because they are going to work on asking for letters of recommendation by email.  The requests will include these key elements that, in this case, constitute a complete message:

  • full name, course & semester,
  • summary of projects & assignments completed in the course,
  • a concise summary of how what you are applying for connects to the course you took with that professor (if there’s no connection, then you’re asking the wrong professor–but there probably is one!)

And finally, don’t forget thank you notes!  A quick follow up to say thanks and comment on some specific detail of your interaction will set you apart from the also-rans–after job interviews, networking events, or getting into that professional school of your choice.  

These are just a few of the things I cover in faculty workshops–all in the spirit of weaving professional development training throughout existing humanities curricula.

In this case, University of Chicago students are covering vocabulary of the workplace so the specific professional development training described in this post is well placed here.

The phone messages also would be well placed in earlier chapters of basic language where letters & numbers are covered.

Those are just a few examples for one Spanish class period, but similar professional development training can be woven through already-exisiting humanities curricula.

Other topics that I address with humanities faculty who wish to prepare students for the job search include:

weaving networking into classroom activities and being explicit with students about the professional applications of those skills (we’re not just practicing making eye contact, shaking hands, and introducing people to improve our linguistic and cultures skills; we’re getting comfortable with doing that kind of thing all that time so that it is a habit–simply part of what we do every day);

making every presentation practice for the job interview by imposing a few criteria along the lines of “would you do that in a job interview?” For example, “would you bring note cards to an interview?” “would you read to people in an interview?” “would you explain stuff that everyone you’re talking to already knows in an interview?”

For upper division language courses, urge students to do projects that connect to their professional studies: medical ailments and public health issues are well represented in literature (I once did a project on the rest cure in La Regenta, which has turned out to have a significant connection to later phases of my career). Commerce is similarly well represented in a lot of literary texts. This has two benefits: 1) it ensures that students are passionate about their coursework and making the kind of explicit connections we want them to make in this era of interdisciplinary and 2) it lays the groundwork for them to have a strong case for asking you for a letter of recommendation for professional school down the road.  

One final note: students, you can take these tips and use them on your own.  If you make it your standard to practice networking in your classes by remembering names, using friendly body language, and being a good listener then you will hit the ground running when it comes time to engage in professional networking. Likewise, if you treat every presentation you do in college as preparation for a job interview, you will ace job interviews while others are just starting over the learning curve that you beat back in undergrad.  Faculty, if you weave this professional development training into your humanities courses, always be explicit about the professional development training so that students thoroughly understand the purpose and benefit of the tools your are providing.


*In a language class, pass out the pink message slips for students to write the message on, then have them take a message like “Buenas tardes.  Le comunico con el Sr. López para recordarle que tiene cita con el doctor González-Lee mañana a las 3:15.  Cualquier duda o pregunta se debe dirigir al 6-37-80-22.” Finally, urge students to ask specific questions about any details they did not understand.  It’s important to be explicit with students about the applicability of this skill in the workplace. Do they think they’ll be managers who never have to talk on the phone because they’ll have secretaries?  Ask any manager if phone skills are important to their work. Ask any professional 5+ years into their career if they got to where they are without ever having to use the phone for their careers.

2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in training students to highlight their humanities studies so they stand out in the job search and workplace. For one-on-one support in preparing for your job search or to set up a workshop, contact Darcy:
This entry was posted in Career Advice, Careers for Humanities Majors, email, interview prep, Networking, presentations. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Students at the Famously NOT Practical University of Chicago Get Schooled in Practical Applications for their Spanish

  1. Ann says:

    Excellent advice, as always. But now I am really curious to know how the rest cure is connected to your life! Ha.

    • darcylear says:

      I did the rest cure project during a Master’s in literature–at the time, I had no clue I’d write a dissertation on medical Spanish after collecting data in health clinics, then go on to have a career in Spanish for the Professions and career coaching. But in hindsight, I see that those leanings were coming out even when I thought I might spend my life as a literary scholar. That’s exactly what I hope all students can do–explore their career ambitions through their humanities studies!

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