The Duck of Minerva

So You Want to be a Liberal Arts College Professor: Is there a Future for the Liberal Arts?

11 April 2014

Last year I wrote a post titled “So You Want to be a Liberal Arts Professor.” At the time, I promised a series of pieces on the subject, but then my job as a liberal arts college professor got in the way…. Oh well. Among other things, I got mired in a faculty committee examining the future of the liberal arts, developing our college learning goals, and revamping the college’s distribution and graduation requirements.

Throughout the process, we spent a lot of time looking at the literature and debates on question of the relevance of the liberal arts in the 21st century – and especially on the instrumentalization of knowledge and the concerns about the practical turn in higher education.

And, while I’m concerned about many of the trends in higher ed – the corporatization of the academy and the emergence of a new managerial class — one thing that has struck me about much of this debate about the relevance of the liberal arts is how divorced the discussion tends to be from what many of us actually do in the classroom.

As I see it, the primary role of the faculty in a liberal arts college is to teach students to understand and engage the world around them. Our job is to teach our students to think analytically and critically by questioning assumptions, to evaluate evidence, and to articulate well-reasoned arguments in both written and verbal expression. This includes simultaneously requiring students to develop disciplinary depth AND intellectual breadth through study across disciplines and divisions and through exposure to different modes of thought and theoretical and methodological inquiry.

In this regard, liberal arts teaching is far more than simply prepping materials from our respective disciplines, walking into the classroom, and lecturing or replicating our graduate school seminars. It is a profession in which the best teacher/scholars have to constantly survey the landscape of real world issues, trends, and practices, develop deeper understandings and mastery of our disciplines, study and make connections to a wider set of literatures outside our primary disciplines, and learn and adopt new and innovative ways to teach and transmit new, and increasingly specialized, knowledge to our students. In order to do this well, we have to get to know and understand our students, be tuned in to the world, and often move outside of our core intellectual training – and often intellectual comfort zones.

Here’s just one example from a course I’m teaching this semester. It is a linked course that I developed with my colleague Rogelio Minana a professor of Spanish, Latina(o), and Latin American Studies. My course is an advanced seminar titled International Human Rigths Advocacy in Theory and Practice. Rogelio’s course is an advanced seminar taught in Spanish titled The Other and the Media: New Media and Otherness in the America’s.

The concept of a linked course is to bring students together for a portion of the semester. Normally our seminars meet for three hours/week over the course of a 14 week semester. In this linked class, our respective seminars meet for three hours per week, but within that our two classes meet collectively for half of our regular sessions — 90 minutes — for ten of the 14 weeks.

We’ve assembled syllabi in which each of us assigns a set of weekly readings along with one or two common reads. Our students read and discuss the materials separately and then come together to discuss the shared texts from different foundational theoretical and disciplinary materials. It makes for a much richer discussion. By unpacking and debating the multi-disciplinary foundations of various texts we’ve found that our undergraduate students can access and understand deeper and more complex methodological and epistemological assumptions in the texts.

But, we do more than that. We also have the students apply this knowledge by developing a set of real-life practical skills — including speaking in public, coordinating and working in groups under tight deadlines, navigating across cultural and linguistic difference, and blending analysis, creativity, and technology. We do this in the final project of the course. Two of my students and two of Rogelio’s students work in teams of four to form their own fictitious human rights NGO, build a bi-lingual website, and create and launch a specific human rights campaign using the website. This semester we gave the students the choice of choosing from three different topics: migration/border identity issues in the Americas; gender rights/gender-based violence in the Americas; or indigenous rights issues in the Americas.

The challenge for the students (and for us) is to produce a project that blends the substantive, technical, and linguistic components. Rogelio and I have to work pretty hard to ensure that all three phases get equal attention from the groups and that the technology and linguistic components are organic to the project and not simply add-ons. We also have to work pretty hard to make sure the groups work well together as a team – not an easy task as students fill up more and more of their schedules and find it difficult to coordinate common times to work collaboratively outside the classroom.

[Here’s a brief clip from the last time we taught the course:]

Once the students develop their NGOS, campaigns and websites, they are required to deliver two formal presentations. The first is a presentation on the technical and visual elements of the website to a panel of technical specialists. The student websites are evaluated on the overall visual aesthetic, the sophistication of graphic design, the integration of multi-media and social media, and the functionality and ease of use and navigation.

The second presentation is to a panel of human rights experts. The students assume specific roles in their organization and pitch their campaigns to the panel. The students are then evaluated on the depth of their understanding of the issue, the structure and mission of their NGO, the broader normative and ethical questions involved in their campaign, the knowledge of advocacy agendas and strategies surrounding the issue, and the persuasiveness of their campaign – its feasibility, viability, and sustainability.

This week the students presented their sites and their campaigns to the technical panel. It is amazing what they can produce in such a short amount of time. We had five groups that developed highly sophisticated NGOS with clear missions and generally well-focused campaigns. Several of the groups were particularly creative in designing unique logos that directly linked to their mission – e.g. a modified monarch butterfly (a migratory species) as the backdrop to symbolize an NGO promoting migrant rights. Another group developed a sophisticated bilingual brochure in pdf format targeted to its core constituencies.

It’s also clear that this generation of students is well trained in visual aesthetics – the designs were generally clean and elegant. And, the use of technologies is impressive – the use of podcasts, original video productions, and well-developed strategies for using multi-media and social media tools in their campaigns.

Our goal is to give our students a sophisticated liberal arts educational experience that is integrated into the real world issues. My students read and are exposed to the standard range of IR and social science literatures on human rights, social movements, advocacy, and agenda setting — Keck and Sikkink, Sydney Tarrow, Jackie Smith, Clifford Bob, Stephen Hopgood, Charli Carpenter, James Ron and Emilie Hafner-Burton, Todd Landman, Fabian Klose, Leslie Vinjamuri and others. But, they are also exposed to a wider set of literatures from the humanities, feminist theory, cultural studies and critical studies. And, they are taught a range of practical skills that will prepare them to be better citizens and better contributors to the global workforce – speaking and presenting in formal settings, working in groups across cultural and linguistic difference, coordinating group meetings amid busy schedules and tight deadlines, developing and using a range of technologies, designing and using creative forms of expression, etc….

While this course is a bit unique in some respects, many of the elements are commonly found in many liberal arts college courses. And, as I see it, it’s what a lot of liberal arts colleges have traditionally done – I’ve simply adapted a bunch things from my own liberal arts student experience at Macalester College in the 1980s.

Don’t get me wrong, there are real challenges for the liberal arts colleges. And, there are plenty of faculty members who will object to my representation of the debate and the purpose of a liberal education. But, I’m convinced that these types of learning experiences (and demonstrating what many of us do in the classroom) will do far more to advance the debate on the future of the liberal arts than the current defensive debating talking points about the inherent benefits of a liberal education.