March 12, 2020
Many people have the impression that the liberal arts majors are easy, inferior or useless. The value of these studies is often undermined while those such as accounting, mathematics or engineering are hailed as the worthwhile and important ones. However, students in Michigan State University’s College of Arts and Letters, Aspen Smit, Joey Warren and Ian Hawthorne understand the value of their education in the liberal arts. Smit is majoring in graphic design, Warren is majoring in professional and public writing (P2W) and Hawthorne is minoring in art history. While those in the College of Arts and Letters are often underrated, these students are examples of those defying false perceptions.
Aspen Smit is currently a senior. When she graduates, she hopes to find a job with a design firm, but her career in graphic design stemmed from her interest in and love of drawing. Now, Smit often works with software such as Photoshop, InDesign and Adobe Illustrator for her class projects. She loves her classes because they let her be creative, and don’t stress basic memorization and regurgitation; instead her classes are project-based instead of revolving around tests, which allows her to be hands-on and experiment with her own ideas. A lot of people don’t fully comprehend what graphic design is: not only is it everywhere, but according to Smit, people do not realize how big the field is. Her graphic design studies have covered a range of topics such as web design, typography and motion design — the latter two being the topics of some of her favorite classes. Although, Smit has come to learn that graphic design is not all fun and play, as some might believe. She describes graphic design as “identifying problems, ensuring accessibility and inspiring people.” Smit has to problem-solve and think critically to create quality work; her CAL major does not mean her work is easy.
But a huge help in her professional career has been professors and classmates. Every professor she has encountered has shown enthusiasm in helping students like her learn and grow, and seeing the work other students produce is inspiring. Her work is not simply about a grade or meeting a deadline; Smit says what she turns in is something she is truly proud of. Graphic design allows students to be very creative and approach a problem in distinct ways. Smit noted that it’s amazing how twenty people can be given the same project and all do it in their own unique way, and she loves seeing all the different outcomes from one assignment.
Joey Warren is a senior with plans to work with nonprofits upon graduation, although she didn’t begin this way. Entering P2W, she had an interest in being a food and culture writer, but the fluidity of her major helped her realize what she truly loves. This is one thing she admires about the P2W major: it has more pathways than people know. With the same core classes, people are pursuing a variety of industries such as editing, writing, grant writing or nonprofit work. There’s a lot of room for someone in P2W to choose and change their mind; there’s no predetermined, single path for these students. P2W students can also learn things such as coding, something Warren noted is rarely known, so just because ‘writing’ is in the major’s name does not mean that this is all P2W majors ever do or learn.
Warren has learned to be careful with her voice. As she stated, “When I write anything, from emails to stories, I think about the impact of my words, images and actions.” Her classes are not only teaching her how to write, but how to reach different audiences and how to make specific choices that will have a particular outcome. At the same time, Warren is still able to be creative; she doesn’t have to follow laid-out rules when creating content. To her, this is a huge advantage because she knows “creativity and business can mix, and in fact, should be working together in today’s world.”
Warren also believes that the CAL faculty and professors are some of the most attentive and understanding professors at MSU. Her professors have actively worked for her, helped to get her name out in the world and helped her make connections. Not only do they know her by name, but they strive to remember her and check in with her. In a small major, it’s very likely that students will see the same professors, so it’s a comfort to know that these professors care not only about their students’ success, but their overall wellbeing, too.
It’s not only the majors that reap these rewards, though. Ian Hawthorne is currently a junior. He paired his art history minor with a major in economics, which gives him a very unique insight into how the different colleges operate. Many other economics majors are minoring in political science or business, but Hawthorne wanted to continue to develop his passion for art and have fun during his college experience.
The small classroom size of art history allows him to engage more deeply with classmates and professors and create stronger relationships with them, something that can easily be missed in an economics class with a 1:100 (or greater) professor-student ratio. Another striking difference between economics and art history classrooms is the freedom of ideas. Generally, economics is more cut-and-dry with clear yes or no answers, but art history doesn’t always have direct answers. Students can offer new opinions and insights and have a quality discussion about them with their peers. Hawthorne’s art history minor has brought him closer to art and taught him to appreciate it beyond a personal level.
He realizes many people view art history as blow-off classes, but what they don’t realize is how much work actually goes into each one. Not only are there many different influences, movements and artists to know, but it’s highly analytical. Studying art history is also more than simply knowing artists’ names or “getting art,” it’s learning about art’s influence and placement in society and the power it has in people’s lives. Through studying art history, Hawthorne has learned to listen, be patient and understand what people are trying to express. Hawthorne said, “You learn a lot of really valuable skills through studying [art], and even though people will say ‘art history isn’t going to get you a job’ the techniques you learn in terms of analysis and critical theory and thinking deeper about things are very valuable.” The skills he’s obtaining are applicable to much more than only artwork. His economics classes might have strict objectives and concepts he needs to know, but art history allows him to think for himself.
As Smit, Warren and Hawthorne have proven, the arts and humanities are not a waste of time and should not be dismissed so quickly. The majors in MSU’s College of Arts and Letters teach invaluable life skills while simultaneously allowing students to pursue their passions and turn them into realities.
Katherine Marchlewski is currently a junior studying professional writing with a focus on editing and publishing, and minoring in film studies. After graduating, she hopes to find a career related to editing and publishing, ideally with fiction novels. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, watching movies, and scouring Pinterest.