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?