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Professionalizing Liberal Arts, and Vice Versa

January 25, 2008

Tension, fear, turf wars: The most conflict-laden adjectives of any academic career were invoked on Thursday to a packed room of provosts, deans and other administrators.

At a session of the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, several department chairs and program directors spoke about their experiences with a particularly fraught minefield of potential grief: when the liberal arts meet professional education on campuses. At first glance, neither educational approach has compatible goals or teaching methods; those in one tend to look down on the other. But what if they're forced to play together -- even to play nice?

It was a question pondered by many in the audience and dealt with first-hand by the presenters, such as Maria Stalzer Wyant Cuzzo, director of the University of Wisconsin-Superior's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and an assistant professor of legal studies. When UW-Superior joined COPLAC -- the Council on Public Liberal Arts Colleges -- Cuzzo said the campus soon split among the disciplines as professional faculty worried whether their programs would be shortchanged.

"The campus very quickly became quite divided and fear-driven, and these were some of the questions that were being posed," she said, citing concerns such as: Would professional programs be driven out? Would they receive cuts in funding or resources because their missions didn't align with the liberal arts tradition? Would professional programs lose respect and status on campus?

While the discussions "were not easy, they were not pleasant," Cuzzo recalled, they led to a new mutual understanding in light of the university's official mission. The deliberations ultimately led to a more "competency based" approach to liberal arts, she said, rather than a "discipline-based" one. As a result, the teaching of a slightly "professionalized" liberal arts would lead to a greater focus on specific skills.

Such unions don't have to be imposed. Stephen F. West, a distinguished professor of mathematics at the State University of New York at Geneseo, described his institution's math teacher certification program as a necessary intersection of liberal arts education and professional training. Since those pursuing certification from the state are required to earn a liberal arts degree in the first place, he said, "well, that requires discussion between liberal arts programs and certification programs."

"It became a turf issue to a certain extent, and that’s still a tense issue," West said. "Turf" could mean the allocation of specific teaching tasks to different departments, or the simple allocation of resources -- all bound to create conflict.

Cuzzo opened the floor to the audience and asked how many had experienced similar tension on their campuses. Many hands immediately went into the air. Some of their responses:

  • One complained that some professors believe that "only those in liberal arts are capable of thinking, and we are just preparing people with skills."
  • Another audience member pointed out that professional programs can use the demands of accreditating agencies to make an argument for more resources, which could further antagonize strapped liberal arts departments.
  • Others wondered about the implications of cooperating outside accepted academic boundaries. For example, would liberal arts faculty bristle at being viewed as useful only in the service of other, more "professional," pursuits? And who isn't "professional" in academe, anyway?

In struggling to overcome some of the obstacles to harmonious (or at least non-acrimonious) relations between the liberal arts and professional programs, participants offered suggestions ranging from housing faculty from multiple disciplines in the same building -- as opposed to sequestering them in dedicated facilities -- and working through necessarily painstaking discussions.

Sometimes, they admitted, such discussions only happen when they are forced by external pressure. One audience member suggested that getting the two parties to work together was a little like "trying to put a comforter in a suitcase": at each sign of progress, another problem pops out. The disputes can be especially frustrating when the professional side is more eager to integrate the liberal arts into its curriculum than the other way around.

Cuzzo suggested several lessons to be learned from the process at her institution and others, such as recognizing the different expectations and motivations of each constituency.

 

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