Wednesday, September 25, 2013


The Liberal Arts Sampler Plate

A few of us have started bouncing an idea around on campus, and I’m thinking that my wise and worldly readers could be helpful in adding perspectives.
Although it’s the single largest major on campus, our “liberal arts – transfer” major suffers from an identity crisis.  Students who don’t know what else to do are often shunted into it, on the (largely correct) theory that starting off with a bunch of general education courses will keep plenty of options open, and give the student more time to decide.  The major is less structured than many, so there’s room for students to try different things.
The idea behind the major is to be the first two years of a four-year degree in a liberal arts discipline.  If you want to go on to major in, say, history, you’d major in liberal arts-transfer here and probably use some of the electives to take history classes.  You’d knock out your gen ed requirements and build the skills that would come in handy when you get to the junior level.
The major accomplishes its intended purpose brilliantly.  Over the years, we’ve developed a strong transfer pipeline to Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, Cornell, UMass – Amherst, Brandeis, and Hampshire, among others.  But many of the students in liberal arts aren’t in it because they have the classic transfer goal in mind; they’re in it for lack of any better ideas.  It’s the “default” setting.  And, as the default setting, it has a fair number of students who don’t really know what the major is supposed to be about.
So here’s where the “bounce an idea off my readers” part comes in.  Unlike many majors, liberal arts has plenty of room for electives, which means there’s room for a new requirement.  Some folks on campus have made a case for some sort of freshman seminar, and liberal arts would be an easy place to pilot that.
What if the freshman seminar for the liberal arts major were structured as a sampler platter?  Since the most common academic challenge among liberal arts students is figuring out what they want, what if the seminar were structured specifically to help them figure out what they want?
I’m imagining something like this, across multiple sections.  A cadre of professors from various disciplines comes up with small modules to give students a flavor of the kind of stuff that people in that discipline do – here’s something you might find in psychology, here’s a little bit of art history, here’s a taste of poli sci, etc.  They swap in and out of the various sections over the course of the semester.  Eventually, students – possibly armed with “interest inventories” or something similar from career services – choose the sample that grabbed them the most, and do some sort of final project on that.
In a way, it’s an attempt to make the curriculum legible.  Many students arrive with little sense of what “anthropology” means, or the difference between, say, economics and business.  Yet we structure programs on the assumption that students know from day one what they want.  That works relatively well in clearly defined programs, like veterinary technician or culinary arts.  But in liberal arts, we just can’t assume that level of clarity.
The literature on student success is pretty clear on the point that students who have a goal tend to be more tenacious than students who don’t.  That makes intuitive sense, and it matches what most classroom instructors see.  So why not spend some time helping students identify goals?  If some of them figure out that what they really want is, say, business, then so be it; I’d rather have a motivated business major than a liberal arts dropout.
Wise and worldly readers, I know this may seem crass and simplistic, but the problem it’s attempting to address is real.  What do you think?  Is there something here?   Can we structure classes to help entering students identify longer-term goals?  Or is there a better way to help students who chose a major by default to get clarity on what they’re doing?

I would have hated this in college, as I already knew what I wanted to do. Should students who already have a clear idea of what they want to do be forced to take it? How do you distinguish between liberal arts transfer as a goal, and just taking the default option?
We had something similar as a freshman honors seminar at my large state school. It was set up as something like a TED talk, where different faculty came and presented some cool work they were doing in an accessible way. There was a little bit of career advice, some Q&A, and we had to do some related follow-up writing about their field as homework. There was a discussion section where a lot of information about campus services was presented (tutoring center, career placement, libraries, study skills, etc.), and we did some team-building stuff to get to know our classmates. It was sometimes tedious, but I got to know a lot of faculty and fellow students quickly.

I think the "getting to know each other/the system" part was helpful across the board, even for those of us who knew were sure (at the time) that we knew what we wanted to do. As it turned out, I changed my major several times, and I often thought back to that seminar when making that choice. Go for it.

The only thing that I would think would be different at a community college is that most presenters (if they were faculty) would be talking about work that they used to do, or that others are doing, instead of their own active projects, which is a little less exciting. But, it is still worth it to get students to know the faculty, I think.

There were 300+ students in the seminar, and this was the mid '90s, if that makes a difference.
Logistically I see some pitfalls to what you describe. If this is a required *course* what are the student learning outcomes? What will the methods of assessment be for students? For the course itself? And who will be the "instructor of record" in a particular section, the one responsible for grading/meeting with students/etc.? If they do a final project in a particular area of interest, would the faculty member in the discipline do that grading? If so, what if nobody is interested in English but you have throngs gravitating to Political Science? If that happens, isn't there an incentive for faculty members involved NOT to engage students, so as to lighten their grading burden? If you don't have the grading of the final projects linked to the specialists in the discipline, how can a faculty member in English be qualified to grade a project in Political Science? There is also a potential workload issue for faculty: Would someone participate in this pilot as an overload to their regular teaching? Or would this be in lieu of one of their regular courses, in which case they would get the equivalent of a load reduction because they would teach two weeks of material, say, rather than 15 weeks, substantially reducing prep/grading/administrative teaching work. From a student's point of view, would they be spending a course listening disconnected lectures without clear transitions, and how is that any more illuminating than taking actual courses across the liberal arts disciplines?

I'm saying all of this not to object to the general idea you propose (our intro to the major course does similar work, but we ultimately rejected the idea of having instructors from each of the subfields come in for the reasons that I list above), but I think these are issues you'd need to identify and address before getting to the point of a pilot.
What Dr. Crazy said. I'd add to that: in the contemporary climate of quantifying everything, getting either classroom star or distinguished research professors from four or five disciplines to participate in some sort of freshman seminar would cost more in internal politicking than any benefits it might produce in the form of student success.

Which is a shame, because there's a lot that's involved in being part of a faculty in an institution of higher learning that defies quantification: serving on a committee (provided there are only a few), attending a research workshop, advising a student, coordinating the book and journal subscriptions with the librarian, or participating in an interdisciplinary freshman seminar.
I was puzzled by your very question, because my college only has a single AA degree rather than the dozens you appear to have. I was told that we do this so we don't have to deal with having to document each of those degrees separately. Do you get around this with your "options"? I don't see how, since there is one place where you assert that students will demonstrate an "ability to engage in life-long learning" in the engineering science option, implying that this program has an entire set of outcomes and assessments that need to be tracked and tabulated distinct from other options/majors.

Probably off topic in this thread, but I'd love to hear more about how this "option" structure works because I see it as very desirable when trying to get students on track so they don't waste time and credits on non-essential classes.

And our math people would be totally jealous that you can teach linear algebra and discrete math as lower division CC classes. How did you swing that? !?!

In answer to your question:

Because we only have a single degree, we have your problem on a large scale and deal with it (to some extent) by having a course that is a mix of career info like you describe and advising to help ease the transition to college. Our advising task would be much easier if we had the neat tracks you have for the STEM majors. Ours are mixed in with everyone else.
Yuck. I can see the appeal of what you are suggesting, but I think the course would suffer from the same underlying problems as your default-option liberal arts major suffers. Just on a smaller scale.

As a student, I would have hated, hated, hated the enforced show & tell quality of such a class, and the necessary shallowness of such an approach. I would have been disappointed to see that this is what college was like (actually, we probably agree that it isn't what college is/should be like, but if this is going to be a mandatory first-year experience, well, yuck is all I can say).

Also, I think the "success" of such an approach would be even more heavily dependent than usual on the personal charisma or edutainment abilities of the professors who participated. In that regard, it is sort of boutique-y. Maybe it works ok when you have a small group of cheerleader professors, but is it sustainable when you scale it up?

That said, I see the very real problem you are trying to address. More later - I'm off to teach a gen ed class now.
The goal underlying your suggestion is to introduce students more clearly (with concrete examples) to a selection of options from which they must, eventually, choose. I think this would be a good optional low-credit course (like 1cr if a regular course is 3cr), but probably not a required full-credit course.

Additionally, a lot of people going to community colleges don't have enough experience to know what they want to do, as a function of age/maturity or just a point in their life (maybe they started or left a family unexpectedly, or something else happened and they're just floating for the moment).

Perhaps it would be harder but more appropriate to request that gen-ed course teachers include some elements of "introducing the options" during the semester, and follow up with a campus-wide "career fair" style introduction to majors/career pathways?

Good luck!
It sounds like "liberal arts" at your institution is like "general studies" for four year institutions. It's the major for people who don't know what they want to study/do. And, having worked at liberal arts institutions for a good long while, I see students like this all the time.

Frankly, I don't think a single course is likely to impart academic clarity to most of those students, for reasons others have listed (too broad/shallow, many students will change their minds anyway, etc.).

Speaking as a career counselor, I think that if you want students to get a better sense of what they might want to study, have them take a required academic and career discernment course. With this course, you can help them articulate their interests (I guarantee that students have interests, even if they don't know their major or future job) and help them understand which academic programs and experiences might provide a path for them. Have them do informational interviewing, write about it and present it to the class. They'll gain valuable information and skills that will be useful in their academic and professional career.

As a career services person (and a liberal arts product myself), I see a lot of knee-jerk negative reaction in the media to "useless" liberal arts degrees. The issue isn't that they're useless--the issue is that students don't know how to apply them appropriately to their life after college and/or articulate the value to others. Any efforts your institution can make to link student interests and goals to the liberal arts will help them in their academic career.

We have what is supposed to be such a course, but it's too scattered. Coherence (as well as depth) is a huge challenge in such courses. I could see a kind of thematic course/freshman seminar, maybe where the instructors of sections all give
lectures on the theme from their disciplines perspective- so every student works with one instructor over the semester on reading/writing stuff, but is getting lectures from others, so being invited to think about other approaches. And ideally, those lectures tied to some common reading. (In the CC context, the lectures might be recorded.)
This sort of thing sounds like what the web is for. Don't your academic departments describe, in broad outline, what they spend their time doing, someplace prominent on their website? You could have a central depot leading to these sites somewhere on your main site.

You could also have advertising displays somewhere in your advising center for students to look at while they're waiting for their turn. It would have to be done well, but it could be.

The course just seems to be begging for people not to take it seriously. Although there are certainly plenty of people who don't really know what they want to study, there are very few who have no idea what they don't want to study, and forcing them to sit through all of that for an entire semester is pretty harsh. It's bad enough getting students to sit for an hour to take a math or English placement test.
Maybe you could come up with naturally cross-disciplinary topics and have faculty from a variety of fields talk about how their field approaches it? "Consciousness" from the perspective of psychology, philosophy and biology. "Democracy" from the perspective of history, economics, and sociology. "Language" from the perspective of English, foreign languages, neuroscience, philosophy and speech.
The best aspects of my own liberal arts education had these kinds of places where different disciplines dealt with these topics, but it would have been fun to get some of those conversations happening in the same place. I'm sure there are other possibilities for other topics that would make sense. I suspect it'd also be good to see the arts incorporated more- there's an article out there about interdisciplinary studies that mentions a first year seminar on "fear" that mixes up neuroscience and film studies, among others... it sounded fun and interesting. I think giving things a topical theme can give some coherence, and really highlight what "liberal arts" can do.
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