The idea of a glitch-free linear path from a college major to a career seems logical – even comforting. But according to Dr. Kate Brooks, the director of Liberal Arts Career Services, to find your true calling, it may be wise to wander off-course and appreciate the chaos.
Dr. Brooks teaches a unique one-credit course “The Liberal Arts Major in the Workplace,” designed to help juniors and seniors become more aware of the connection between their education and their future career. The specific majors change each semester: this semester she is teaching classes for English, Economics and History/Liberal Arts Honors majors.
The course introduces students to “Wise Wanderings,” a career coaching system developed by Brooks that helps students discover their “possible lives” and move into their futures through visual mapping techniques, scenario planning and storytelling.
“We have an ongoing joke in the class,” Brooks says. “I ask the students what their relatives say when they tell them what they’re majoring in. In unison, the students reply, ‘What are you going to do with that?’”
Steering away from dated career assessments and structured job-searching manuals that focus on a direct path from major to occupation, Brooks encourages her liberal arts students to literally map out their options.
To create visual representations of significant academic and life experiences, students design an array of personal maps including a “wandering map,” a “possible lives map,” a “major map” and a “SWOTmap,” which represents their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Through the maps students begin to connect the dots in their lives and see new relationships.
“When they look at their maps, they make new connections from the seeming chaos of their lives.” Brooks says. “One student put ‘playing pool’ on her map. She talked about how she had to learn to play well to win against her two older brothers. We joked about her potential career as a pool hustler but then she noticed that the skill she used the most in playing pool was strategic thinking. She looked around her map and found other examples of strategic thinking in classes and summer jobs. Suddenly, playing pool became a valuable experience.”
Brooks uses chaos theory rather than traditional trait-and-factor theory in her approach to career development. One popular aspect of chaos theory is the butterfly effect: the notion that a small action now can have a dramatic effect in the future. Brooks incorporates this concept into her coaching system by encouraging students who don’t have a career goal to set career intentions instead.
“Intentions aren’t quite as clear and concrete as a goal,” Brooks says. “But it does help focus the mind in a direction that usually leads to a discovery,”
Experiencing many butterfly effects on her journey to directing the Liberal Arts Career Services, Brooks has had a variety of careers, including a human resources representative at a department store, a social worker and a school psychologist at West Virginia University. She began teaching classes relating liberal arts majors to the workplace as an associate professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
“If someone had told me ten years ago that I’d be working at UT today, I would have laughed,” Brooks says. “Chaos theory tells us that, like the weather, careers are not easily predicted, unexpected variables intervene, and we often do better to focus on the present.”
Combining the key tenets of chaos theory with recent research in cognitive science and positive psychology, Brooks, who has a doctorate in educational psychology and a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, aims to present lively, fun discussions filled with movie clips, inspirational quotes and storytelling activities.
“Part of my goal is to help the students appreciate their liberal arts classes more and pay attention to the value in what they’re learning. I tell them to look for a story in everything,” Brooks says. “If they have a class they don’t enjoy, they need to discern what they can learn from it and look at it as a storytelling opportunity for job interviews.
“If students could only take away two quotes from the course, it would be to ‘do it the Chicago way,’ and ‘take out the trash,’” Brooks says.
The quotes pulled from the films ‘The Untouchables” and “A Peaceful Warrior” add emphasis to the core concepts of the course: to pay attention, focus the mind and to beat the competition by doing the job better.
“I want these students to take out the trash,” Brooks says. “I want them to wake up and look at what they’re learning and see how valuable it is, and to not let society and the media tell them that it’s not.”
To help her students learn how to do it “the Chicago way,” Brooks shows them how to write targeted resumes and strengthen their interviewing and networking skills through the art of storytelling.
“They’re competing at a much higher level than anyone else who’s applying for the same job,” Brooks says. “It all boils down to the ‘Chicago Way,’ to do it one better.”
Even students who aren’t enrolled in Brooks’ class will be able to use the Wise Wanderings system soon. Brooks’ book “You Majored in What?: Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career,” (Viking, April 2009) can serve as a guide for their wandering journeys.