Hundreds of years ago, college leaders were faculty members who regularly taught undergraduates alongside their administrative duties. Even a century ago, someone might go from full-time professor to president, with teaching experience fresh in mind, and then return to the faculty.
Today, college presidents’ time is easily consumed by a wide range of responsibilities: fund-raising; media, community and government relations; routine and crisis communication in a world of social media and a constant news cycle; cheerleading for the institution to a diverse constituent base; showing up at countless campus events; managing budgets; improving morale and reputation; providing strategic leadership and vision; and more.
Because the work of presidents has grown exponentially, taken on relentless speed and become increasingly distant from the classroom, many believe that presidents no longer have any place as professors. Although I had been an award-winning, tenured full professor for many years, and more recently as a dean and provost guided doctoral research and taught a graduate seminar, I had to persuade my faculty union to approve me to teach at my current university. And, once approved, even though my only experience teaching freshmen was well before our current class of students was born, I was limited to a 100-level freshman class (designed to teach critical thinking, analysis and effective communication). No problem -- I wanted to teach a first-year seminar because I suspected I would learn a great deal from doing it, and I did.
Freshmen feel vulnerable. I developed a new course with attention and care, and took it through the steps of the curriculum review process, but walking into a classroom with 17- and 18-year-olds, I felt like they did. I was nervous and uncertain of my ability to succeed even though I interact regularly with freshmen in formal and informal settings outside the classroom and even became a student and took a bagpipe class with undergraduates last spring. What if I couldn’t create with them the safe but challenging learning community I envisioned? What if no one participated willingly in discussions after I made them move the rows of desks into a circle and posed well-designed, thought-provoking questions? Or if they hated the book I selected? What if their entire experience of school had programmed the freshmen not to think for themselves, not to look at their own experiences objectively and not to consider others’ views? At some point in the semester, each of these what ifs and many other unanticipated challenges occurred, forcing honest reflection and ongoing revision of plans.
Lesson learned: As presidents protected by layers of institutional bureaucracy, we forget how vulnerable our students feel and how much their uncertainty displaces engagement with learning. Standing in front of a class strips away the layers of protection and develops empathy that is important when we are confronted in the president’s office by students in crisis and frustrated families.
Freshmen need hope of success. Characterizations of traditional-aged freshmen can be disheartening -- they are always plugged into devices, have limited face-to-face social skills, are overprotected by hovering parents and care only about their future earnings. Indeed, these characterizations were true of some of my students some of the time. More importantly, as I was trying to guide them into the lofty ideals of liberal education that underpin the first-year seminar, they were still developing cognitively and emotionally. This often masquerades as a lack of commitment -- at times they misjudged, couldn’t anticipate consequences, didn’t perceive others’ perspectives and seemed incapable of self-regulation.
Although there were many moments when I questioned it, they taught me that freshmen do, in fact, care deeply about college. They care because college costs a lot, even at a public university, because they understand the role of higher education in preparing them for better professional and personal lives, and largely because they are trying to convince themselves that they can succeed socially and academically in college and in life. This was not easy for my students (half of them first generation and from low-income families), who have seen too many counterexamples of college graduates working low-wage “high school jobs” and teenage single-parent dropouts.
Lesson learned: Presidents worried about retention should not overlook the importance to freshmen of simply nurturing the tenuous hope that they can succeed in college.
Many freshmen aren’t prepared for college. The first-year seminar is intended to guide students into understanding college expectations, thinking critically and analytically, problem solving, communicating effectively, and handling difficult and challenging material. At Edinboro University, like many other colleges, these outcomes are approached through various topics that engage freshmen because they are “relatable,” as my students were so fond of saying. My seminar topic was College: What, Why and How, and we read pseudonymous anthropologist Rebekah Nathan’s book, My Freshman Year, as our core text alongside higher education and popular news and social media. These texts launched honest conversations about the purpose and culture of college and about national issues in higher education, and students enjoyed reading and talking about topics so close to their daily lives. But they also got bogged down in more difficult sections of the book.
They found the related research, statistics and other contextual information to be “boring” and “useless,” missing the way in which this information illuminated and provided insight and texture for their lived experiences. In high school, many had learned to “just skip the hard parts” and one admitted he had never read a book before, relying on plot summaries instead. Later in the semester they laughed when I said that I expected “a short essay answer, not just two or three paragraphs” on the final exam. In high school, they explained, three paragraphs constituted a full essay. By “essay” I was suggesting the deliberate construction of a coherent, well-reasoned argument, and they saw it as a demand to pen three paragraphs.
Lesson learned: Faculty concern about current freshman students’ poor preparation is not just nostalgic grumbling; these concerns are valid and presidents need to understand how intensely challenging and time-consuming it is to work with students who may be capable but whose high school preparation is sorely lacking.
Freshmen learn a great deal outside the classroom. We read about how the students Nathan studied balanced academic and social activities, and we talked about achieving the balance. When I asked my freshmen to go around the circle and state the percentage of time they spent on classes, homework, projects, studying and the like, the overwhelming majority stated that they spent only about 25 percent of their waking hours on anything academic (some even less), and this was probably inflated given that the question was asked in a classroom setting.
They dedicated their time primarily to social and occasional extracurricular activities and relaxing with Netflix. “Hanging out with friends most of the time” was justified as allowing them to “network for future jobs.” I cringed at these revelations, which too often were reflected in the quality of some students’ weekly writing assignments. But I also noted that even though they said they had come to college primarily to pursue a major that would prepare them for a good job, most also observed that they learned more outside of the classroom than in it. And, of course, that’s an important benefit of face-to-face residential college education. Learning to get along with strange roommates from unfamiliar places, to be a member of a much more diverse community than they were comfortable with and especially learning to manage their time wisely were all significant and necessary tasks for the freshmen.
Lesson learned: As an academic I had always assumed that what happened in the college classroom was primary. Presidents need to be reminded that what students learn in college is much broader than their classroom performance.
Freshmen change and grow dramatically. Managing their time in the context of extensive freedom and responsibility (they had, for the first time, to do their own laundry or control spending on entertainment) was a major stumbling block for my freshmen. And then there were new friends -- for many the first peers they had ever met who, unlike high school classmates, were “geeks” or “artists” or “different” like them and understood and accepted them for who they were. Even though the freshmen knew they should set aside time to study, many didn’t have the motivation and self-regulation skills to manage the pull of the social and were always behind on schoolwork. More than once I received a weeks-late assignment from a student with the message, “I know this is too late to count but I wanted to do it anyway.”
At the beginning of every class I had students do a brief informal written assignment related to the reading for the day, because I knew they needed a lot of practice with writing and because it signaled for them that they had to do the reading assignments and show up on time. And it gave everyone a chance at success -- if you were in class and had done the reading, you could do this assignment and do it well. Informal writing also allowed them to see that they could think and respond critically and thoughtfully to the reading and that they had something to say, so it laid the groundwork for overcoming an aptly misnamed “hate dread” of speaking in class. For nearly all, in their writing and in class discussions, opinion was conflated with fact and critical analysis of ideas and acceptance of complexity were new. Still, throughout the semester many openly, sometimes with shame, recognized and tried to shed their own stereotypical and ungrounded notions and develop academic habits of mind and inclusive attitudes.
Lesson learned: As presidents we talk a lot about the transformational impact of an education at our universities. Teaching freshmen lent credibility to what I say. They do grow and change significantly over even one semester -- we are, in fact, changing lives.
Freshmen do some of their best work for peer audiences. I worried that my freshmen’s long-term project presentations might be a disaster, because as hard as I tried to structure their presentations by requiring them to meet with me to discuss topics, submit information resources and determine a mode of presentation well ahead, multiple students’ project topics changed a day or two before they were signed up to present. Yet over the course of four full class sessions, they surprised me with very creative and interesting presentations that were courageous, honest and powerful, on topics that were very close to their hearts and minds, including suicide, sexual health in college, being LGBTQ on campus and being physically disabled as a college student. I was surprised to discover that presentation to an audience of peers is a powerful motivator that resulted in some students doing their best work of the semester.
Lesson learned: It is easy for presidents to question the motives of professors who devote significant amounts of class time to group work and presentation by students rather than “actually teaching,” but for many students the goal of presenting effectively to peers drives engagement and success. Further, they have surprisingly high standards when evaluating peer presentations.
Teaching a first-year seminar was an enormous amount of work on top of my “day job,” but I relished it. As a university president, I miss the challenges and rewards of teaching. Many of my freshmen regularly came to class 20 minutes early just to talk. They worried if I wasn’t there early myself and once sent a student looking for me five minutes before class started. They asked if I’d teach another course for them next year or continue the class into the spring -- flattering, but I worried maybe I wasn’t challenging them enough. They even reflected with empathy on what they read in the assigned text about professors planning extensively and then feeling like failures when students don’t participate in class. Still, I experienced a recurring feeling throughout the semester that I was working a lot harder than my freshmen.
In some ways I was, because I insisted on providing specific written feedback on all of their weekly assignments and because I wrestled constantly with what to do about cell phones in class, how to engage the perpetually disengaged, and similar challenges. It was difficult to give a poor grade to students I liked and cared about even when that grade was indisputably earned. And when I faced an instance of plagiarism, I felt like my trust was violated to its very core. I worked hard because I cared deeply, but my students worked hard, too, and I saw it demonstrated in so many ways throughout the semester. That made the planning, responding to writing, emotional and academic support, and personal investment not only worthwhile but also essential.
Essential to remembering why we choose to work with college students to begin with, essential to respecting the depth and intensity of faculty work when you haven’t done it in a while, essential to appreciating the striving and the dreams of even our most aloof undergraduates, and essential to recognizing how important it is to have professors who simply but genuinely care about their students. “Going off that,” as my freshmen often said, I’m now a better professor and a better president because of lessons I learned from the undergraduate classroom.
Julie Wollman is president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.
In this month's edition of Inside Higher Ed's podcast The Pulse, Greg Golkin, head of platform innovation at Echo360, discusses Echo 360's Active Learning Platform and how the company has expanded beyond lecture capture.
This is not the best of times for faculty members. Many of the problems they face are beyond their control. And yet there are some they can address, especially if they are fortunate enough not to belong to the growing numbers of non-tenure-track, part-time, contingent faculty, but to those who can reasonably expect a secure future in the academy.
First and foremost is how they can transcend the barriers dividing them in finding the best way to serve their students, coming together not just as scholars in the same field and comrades in arms against administrators they perceive as soulless, but as a community of teachers. How can they achieve this by expanding their concept of what is, in fact, “their department”?
For one thing, how might they expand their thinking about the goals of their disciplinary departments themselves? For another, how can they go beyond a focus on their respective departments to contribute to the mission of the wider institution of which they are a part (and which, by the way, pays their salaries)?
We might begin by asking: Are faculty members taking an overly provincial approach, both intellectually and professionally, to their respective departmental programs? Insofar as an undergraduate major is focused on what a student will need to enter a graduate program, it is more properly seen as vocational training than as an integral part of a liberal arts education. Majors with relatively heavy requirements lead to a level of specialization that may be desirable for some students, but unnecessary and premature for others, many of whom will never seek a graduate degree in the field of their major. It is always possible to serve the interests of those heading to graduate school in the field by providing special curricular enhancements.
Faculty members should also consider how undergraduate departmental majors can connect more organically with one another and with the wider curriculum of the institution. This interest is not served simply by creating new interdisciplinary programs, since too often these have simply resulted in a proliferation of departmentlike entities and have failed to create greater intellectual coherence in the undergraduate experience as a whole. So, for example, in the place of separate ethnic studies programs and departments, one might instead see greater multicultural sophistication in the United States history curriculum, not to mention stronger collegial ties among faculty -- and hence students -- in the departments of history, anthropology, sociology and literature. The outcome might also yield a course or courses deemed desirable for all undergraduates.
If, in the spirit of John Donne, we wish to believe that no department is an island entire of itself, that every department is a piece of the main, we are no longer in a position to follow Donne’s next move and argue that if a single program be washed away (presumably, by the administration), the institution is less. As an institution continues to add programs without ever subtracting any, the curriculum comes to take on the aspect of a zombie movie in which the living cohabit with the undead and much frantic bumping into one another ensues.
On occasions when faculty come together for the lengthy, intensive process of an institution-wide “curriculum review,” the outcome too rarely justifies the time and energy expended. (I believe comparative research would show that, in general, the more elite the institution, the more modest the results.) Aside from their ritual dimension, such processes commonly involve the kind of logrolling especially familiar to political scientists, in which faculty members approach “general” or “distributional” requirements in terms of how their respective departmental interests are being served.
And yet, there have been some curriculum reviews that actually aim to make the student experience intellectually coherent, providing room for varying interests and passions while creating a student community that reflects the mission and identity of the institution. And apparently succeed in doing so. Some of us in the foundation world have been in a position to encourage this process, supporting those who are doing the real work.
How might graduate programs also better serve their students’ interests? Leaving aside the question of preparing graduate students for careers outside the academy altogether, graduate programs need to consider preparing them for the range of institutions within the universe of higher education in which they may find themselves. This means focusing on preparing students as teachers and not just as researchers, especially since their students’ chances of getting positions in research universities are clearly shrinking (though, even in such universities, better preparation as teachers would stand them in good stead).
Given that teaching assistantships are an important way of financially supporting graduate students, departmental faculty must decide whether they are viewing those students as junior colleagues or as cheap labor. This choice clearly influences how graduate students see themselves, as well as how well equipped they are for their working lives after graduation. Is responsibility for helping them develop as teachers being farmed out to teaching and learning “centers,” which are all too often teaching and learning “peripheries”? Or are there the strong collaborative ties between such centers and departmental faculty that are essential to the professional development of graduate students?
Some graduate programs are stepping up to this particular plate; more need to do so. Perhaps one way of getting their attention is to present them with the following choice: either (1) broaden the graduate program to properly prepare admitted students for a wider range of careers in higher education and beyond, or (2) limit the number of admitted students to those who are either likely to find jobs in research universities or who are interested in graduate education for its own sake and harbor no expectations about how the program will advance their future careers. Departments choosing the second option would have to find other ways for senior faculty members to occupy their time, which might possibly involve teaching undergraduates.
To put these two options in terms of reproductive biology, some species follow what is termed the R-selection strategy, in which a large number of offspring are produced and few are expected to survive. On the other hand, species that pursue the K-selection strategy produce fewer offspring but invest in them heavily, which results in their relatively high survival rate. Graduate departments, being (generally) composed of human beings, should presumably follow the strategy characteristic of our species.
And if, to continue the biological metaphor, we take note that evolutionary theory in general has come to emphasize cooperation as well as competition, we want to be sure that academics, as a population, are not so focused on departmental rivalries and individual career ambitions that they fail to have a sufficient regard for the common good.
A final point: the case for tenure is most commonly made in terms of academic freedom, which is certainly important. But the argument for tenure would be further strengthened if tenure were seen to reflect a deep mutual commitment between a faculty member and an institution -- a mutual commitment that truly serves them both.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and a former president of Barnard College.
Popular culture images of teaching would have us believe that the very best college professors speak from the front of a large lecture hall filled with eager young students listening to every word we utter. Or we sit at the head of a round table in a well-appointed seminar room peopled with rapt graduate students who wish to learn from our years of reading, thinking and writing. If cultural representations are any indication, professors are mere keepers of knowledge, the troll at the gate our students must pass.
The reality of higher education is that learning rarely happens in rows of seats in front of which stands a charismatic professor in tweed. The academic landscape has changed in dramatic ways, particularly as we use new platforms and technologies to interact with students. Innovative approaches to teaching and learning, such as competency-based education, increasingly rely on coaching models, a method of learning that challenges our popular conception of what it means to be a professor.
As faculty members in competency-based graduate and undergraduate programs, we have shifted from professors to coaches, a move that has yielded astounding results in terms of student learning, retention and graduation.
Coaching is a personalized and continuous process that facilitates student learning and development to improve performance in solving discipline-related problems. Faculty coaches question the learner until the learner acquires facts and builds ideas for creative problem solving.
The end goals of coaching include: building student awareness of how to approach complicated problems, increasing learner confidence by helping him or her figure out an individualized approach to problem solving, and motivating learners to improve performance by acting as a constant source of support. Coaching is not advice giving, mentoring or the mere act of transferring skills from an expert to a nonexpert. Effective coaches enable the development and action planning of a learner.
Coaching looks markedly different from teaching. For instance, learners in our competency-based programs meet with faculty by phone, synchronous online communication software or in person every two weeks at a minimum, with meetings lasting about 30 minutes. Coaches begin each conversation by building a connection with learners. They then proceed to a review of learner-generated action items from previous coaching sessions. Coaches and learners celebrate successes, but also have frank discussions about missed opportunities, roadblocks or negative behaviors. Coaching sessions end with learner-generated action items and clear measurable goals.
Admittedly, coaching is not a low-cost option for education. But it is a powerful pedagogy for learning, building relationships and increasing learners’ skill sets, particularly in individualized and self-paced environments such as competency-based programs. Coaching adds structure to learning. By facilitating goal setting for projects and holding learners accountable, coaches ensure that learners continuously move toward graduation. The coaching process also provides a context for learners to identify and develop skills necessary for successful careers.
Our experience with coaching has led to a variety of benefits, both for us and for our students.
Benefit 1: Coaching builds stronger relationships between faculty coach and student.
Coaching delivers results because of the supportive relationship between the coach and the learner. Good professors, regardless of the learning model, develop strong professional relationships with students. The best coaches, however, do not provide subject matter expertise. Instead, coaches provide encouragement, feedback and structure. Coaches don’t provide answers, but help students find the resources they need to solve problems. For example, one of us coaches students who are creating communication strategy plans. We might find it tempting to tell the student exactly how to research, write and present a plan, but that’s not our job. Instead, we have to ask pointed questions that prompt the student to find the resources she needs to complete the task.
Benefit 2: Coaching enhances student performance, including non-content-related performance.
Strong coaching inevitably leads to discussions beyond the subject matter. Performance coaches can help students situate what they are learning in terms of content within their short- and long-term academic and career goals. The coaching process provides personal and professional attention and detail to career planning, something more and more learners are demanding from higher education. For example, one of us coached a student who found himself in a job he hated and working for a company whose core values were the antithesis of his own. Meeting regularly with the student, the coach helped create a strategy to change career paths and help the student find employment with his dream company.
Benefit 3: Coaching better emulates the kind of relationship students will have outside the university.
Few other institutions outside of the academy will provide students with an expert at the front of the room who will present information to a large group of people who all have varying needs, interests, talents and experience. Coaching better represents the kind of guided relationships students will have with superiors, co-workers and collaborators in future environments.
Benefit 4: Coaching increases retention.
When students develop a personal relationship with their faculty coach, they are more likely to reach out when they need help and are less likely to disappear. For those reasons, we’ve seen increased retention in our coaching-based programs. Westminster College has two competency-based graduate programs -- a master’s of strategic communication and a project-based master’s of business administration. The strategic communication degree program has a retention rate of 94 percent over several years and the MBA has a retention rate of 91 percent.
Benefit 5: Coaching provides more bang for students’ buck.
Coaching models do not lower the cost of instruction. In many cases, it will increase costs. But research from the Annenberg Foundation for Education Reform shows that coaching promotes the implementation of learning and reciprocal accountability. Tuition dollars go to individualized, one-on-one instruction, providing results, something that many students are willing to pay for.
Shifts toward coaching models of education will require faculty and students to reconsider their roles. It also will require institutions to revise persistent and outdated notions about what it means to be an effective teacher. These shifts do present some challenges.
Challenge 1: Coaching requires new or redesigned evaluation processes (including rethinking tenure and promotion requirements).
Most faculty coaches must work within evaluation systems that have been created with traditional models of education in mind. For example, faculty who participate in coaching spend much more time per student, which means that large course loads are almost impossible without course assistants, especially if the faculty member is going to remain active in producing scholarship.
Because faculty coaches do their work via phone, Skype or in their offices, they are doing their work in less public venues. Faculty and administrators who review faculty performance based on face time might assume that coaches aren’t performing at the same level as more visible faculty members.
Challenge 2: Coaching, if not done right, can be disastrous for students.
Coaching cannot be done effectively without proper training for the coaches and the students. Bad coaches will not only tarnish the experience for the student, they can damage the reputation of coaching-based programs. We’ve seen problems arise in cases where faculty members simply want to transfer what they do in the classroom to the coaching venue. Good coaching requires training and effective transitions to truly benefit students.
Challenge 3: Coaching requires thoughtful scheduling and clear boundaries.
Because coaching creates a deeper relationship between faculty and student, coaches must be aware of setting clear boundaries. Students will push to make faculty available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Good coaches are accessible within reason, but they also teach students to respect time. We’ve learned that we have to set boundaries with students early in the process. First, we give them two or three choices for scheduling coaching calls. Then, we set an example by keeping that appointment, being on time for the call, staying on topic during the call and closing within the agreed-upon time. Finally, at the end of the call, we schedule our next check-in and reiterate our commitment to keeping that appointment.
Challenge 4: Coaching might be seen as an argument for eliminating full-time faculty.
Coaching can be done successfully by part-time faculty, but it cannot be done exclusively by adjunct labor. Coaches should be fully trained, regularly assessed and kept abreast of best practices and research in coaching models. Subject matter coaches are also imperative for helping students learn complex and complicated content. Such work cannot be turned over to less-qualified instructors or to robots, as faculty might fear.
Coaching won’t eradicate the problems of higher education, but it can offer students the kind of individualized and personalized learning that they need and want. Shifting to a coaching model, though, requires that we all rethink our notions about what it means to be a faculty member.
Christine Seifert is an associate professor of communication at Westminster College. Richard Chapman is a professor of economics at the college.
Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, announced this week that she will step down next June. The association, which includes 1,300 member institutions across a broad range of higher education, is the primary group with a focus on liberal education. Geary Schneider has led the association since 1998. Among other projects, she shepherded the creation of the Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) Challenge, an advocacy and research campaign. In a written statement to announce her departure, Geary Schneider said LEAP "represents our shared view of the best way to make liberal education both empowering for every student and renewing for our society at large."
With the release of his new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, journalist Fareed Zakaria became the latest commentator to join the robust debate over whether the purpose of college is to promote professional advancement or personal growth. The debate typically contrasts the self-betterment offered by the liberal arts -- usually meaning the humanities and social sciences -- against the workforce merits of applied disciplines, such as engineering. One side argues that universities ought to nurture educated, complete human beings, while the other calls for marketplace utility. The conversation has long tottered over this line, and there it remains stalled.
But perhaps it’s time finally to advance past the stale juxtaposition of the humanities versus the applied disciplines. After all, is it really the case that one is soft and the other exacting? In many ways, they’re equally complex. And while each proffers distinct rewards, the two sides have much to gain from each other if we move past these entrenchments.
A Common Complexity
Naturally, the study of an applied discipline like engineering is a steep academic challenge. The study of any complex system is difficult. To build a good airplane, biomaterial or computer program, one needs to understand the dizzying intricacies of that object’s composition and context. Materials, environment, the forces of physics, time and logic -- all of these factor into an engineer’s grasp of her subject, and the task of mastering this complexity spurs intellectual development.
Yet the study of human culture and behavior is similarly complex. Just as the hard sciences demand the grasp of intricate systems, so do the liberal arts. In the case of the humanities and social sciences, however, these systems are an elaborate mesh of history, art, geography, biology and economics -- the strands that make up our world’s DNA. Thus, while a civil engineer learns about materials and soil types and local ordinances, a classics student absorbs how the legacy of the Roman Empire shapes everything from the letters we write to the architecture of our buildings and how we structure our water supply systems. This deep contextual understanding weaves through daily life.
To take a concrete example, consider the act of purchasing a gallon of gasoline. An engineer might recognize how the fuel powers her car’s engine, or how oil is extracted from the earth. A liberal arts education, on the other hand, might inform this engineer of the history and meaning of OPEC, the convoluted economics of energy and the context of global warming. She might recall The Nicomachean Ethics and conclude that taking personal responsibility for her actions means she should drive less, or consider how hunger for resources drives civilizations to colonize and conquer. These are obviously not facile mental endeavors.
In terms of rigor, then, it’s certainly the case that the liberal arts can be just as demanding as the applied disciplines. Why, then, is it so commonly believed that an English degree, for example, will leave a graduate trapped in the ivory tower -- or her parents’ basement?
The reason may be that, in many cases, applied studies feature a strong laboratory or workplace experience, while liberal arts classes are often framed by the traditions of the essay and exam paper. This difference in mode, this boundary between the abstract and the real, may largely account for the conceit that a liberal arts education doesn’t equate to a tangible outcome, or a tangible paycheck. However, liberal arts programs can counter this misperception by reproducing the lessons from engineering laboratories or business school co-op programs and adding an experiential component. By practicing the experiential liberal arts, they would better prepare their students to engage in the world.
The Experiential Difference
What would this look like in practice? Experiential liberal arts would combine the rigor of traditional academics with active participation in workplaces, laboratories or volunteer opportunities -- especially ones in a global context. These real-life elements would heighten students’ motivation, promote practice and self-reflection, promote contextual understanding, and encourage self-direction. In other words, the experiential component would be a vehicle that leads to deeper learning.
For instance, an English major might complete a co-op with a national magazine, applying ideas she encountered in a Technology of Text class to the creation of content for new formats in publishing. In doing so, she would cement academic information into owned knowledge. She wouldn’t merely internalize lessons -- she would live them. Likewise, since many students learn by translating theoretical knowledge into generative action, a philosophy major could parlay a co-op at the United Nations Human Rights Council into a research project on how the global economy is changing the sort of moral choices we face -- for example, making us question the ethics of using electronics built with exploited labor.
To be sure, ensuring that liberal arts students have access to high-quality internships that reinforce their classroom learning requires meaningful engagement between universities and employers. Creating substantive partnerships takes work, but the rewards are mutual. At Northeastern University, for example, one of our undergraduate history majors recently completed a co-op with the U.S. Commercial Service in Mexico, where he applied his content knowledge and research skills -- acquired through liberal arts classes -- to compose a report analyzing plans to expand the Port of Veracruz. His employer then used the analysis to determine whether this $19 billion project should move forward as planned, or with changes.
Similarly, another undergraduate applied his learning as an English major to design the customer support system and perform financial analysis for a cloud computing start-up firm. “Doing financial analysis is surprisingly similar to doing literary analysis,” he told us. “When you read a poem or a novel, your professor tells you to look between the text and dig as deep as you can to find out everything the author is trying to say. When you’re looking at a spreadsheet of numbers, you’re doing the same thing: What are these numbers trying to tell me?”
The Rewards of Experiential Liberal Arts
Indeed, the marriage of liberal arts skills with experiential learning yields advanced survival skills for the modern era: creative, critical and analytical thinking, deft communication, and the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity, applying knowledge in unexpected situations. We can’t engage effectively with other human beings -- or institutions, or work assignments -- without these talents. Just as importantly, the experiential liberal arts imparts an appetite for ongoing study, training students to adapt their minds to new learning situations throughout their lives. This is invaluable in an economy that demands that workers make multiple career jumps and replenish their skills on a continuing basis.
But experiential liberal arts experiences shouldn’t be for liberal arts students only. Context, communication and a capacity for self-directed lifelong learning -- everyone needs these, including students in the applied disciplines. The most brilliant computer scientist has to thrive in the human milieu or risk irrelevance. The most trailblazing biochemical engineer should learn to weigh the social and cultural context of her work. By enhancing their courses of study with relevant content from the humanities and social sciences, programs in the applied disciplines would also better prepare their graduates to engage with the world and succeed in life.
The New Literacy
In fact, what the worn-out juxtaposition of the liberal arts versus the applied disciplines overlooks is that aspects of each are essential for living a full life, both professionally and personally. We wouldn’t say that grade schoolers should choose between learning how to read or how to add and subtract, so we shouldn’t fall into equivalent false choices in higher education. Both domains have relevance, utility and beauty, and both contain critical components of a new skill set -- a new literacy -- that students need if they’re to flourish in modern life and the global economy.
For example, consider analytics, statistics and coding -- three subjects often cited as vital for students to learn today. In many ways, the robust study of each involves drawing from concepts from both the world of liberal arts and the applied sciences. For example, one might integrate concepts from art and design into a course on analytics, so students can transform sophisticated quantitative analyses into elegant, intuitive data visualizations. Likewise, one might weave lessons from history and concepts in cultural anthropology together with technical instruction in Stata or SPSS to show more deeply how statistics can be used to investigate issues and challenges across a variety of domains.
Imagine how valuable -- and relevant -- an education students would receive if colleges and universities routinely approached the curriculum with this kind of harmonization in mind. Imagine how augmenting it with experiential component would enrich it even further.
Every scientist needs to ponder the context of her work and communicate its meaning; every liberal arts student should wrangle with the revelations of big data. Both applied disciplines and the liberal arts have much to share between them. By bleeding a little into each other, these two approaches to higher education would give every graduate a powerful, marketable education for today’s economy.
So let’s move past the false dichotomy that characterizes the current debate over the liberal arts and applied disciplines. Better to draw lessons from both, and agree that the most valuable education is one that works.
Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.
The U.S. Department of Education has granted federal aid eligibility to two new academic programs that do not rely on the credit hour -- a form of competency-based education called direct assessment. So far six institutions have earned approval from the department and regional accreditors for direct-assessment programs.
Walden University, a for-profit institution that Laureate Education owns, announced on Tuesday that the department approved its new competency-based master's degree in early childhood studies. The university offers the degree through its Tempo Learning program, in which it said "students can progress at their own pace by applying their existing knowledge and prior experience while focusing on mastering the skills they need to meet the demands of the workforce."
The Texas State College System last October got a green light from the department for its competency-based certificate in industrial systems technology, according to a spokeswoman for the system. The 27-credit program features training in electrical and computer systems. Students work at their own pace and can earn a certificate in two semesters or less. The credential appears to be the first department-approved direct-assessment program to feature face-to-face instruction.