Intellectual Connections

Association of American Colleges and Universities highlights integrative liberal learning at annual meeting. But what is it?

January 23, 2015

WASHINGTON – Integrative learning. It sounds good, and it’s a cornerstone of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) initiative to advance liberal education. But what is integrative learning, exactly, and how can liberal arts advocates use it to make their case for a broad education – especially in an increasingly jobs-focused environment? A series of sessions focused on that question Thursday at AAC&U’s annual meeting here.

Most of AAC&U’s essential learning outcomes for its LEAP initiative are pretty self-explanatory. Through a contemporary liberal arts education, students are supposed to gain knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world; intellectual and practical skills; and personal and social responsibility. But the last outcome, integrative and applied learning, is little less obvious – even to educators in the liberal arts or or advocates of general education.

AAC&U describes integrative learning as “synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized skills,” demonstrated through the application of “knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems.” It’s the kind of cross-disciplinary thinking or connection-making ability that the liberal arts are supposed to ingrain in students to prepare them for a career and the complexities of life – not just a first job. Put another way, it’s the connective tissue between disciplines. But, administrators said in a session called “Helping Students Connect: Integrative Liberal Learning and the Future of Liberal Arts Colleges,” faculty members don’t always know what integrative learning is or how to impart it to their students. 

“If faculty are not able to do this integrative work themselves, it’s unlikely that they can model it,” said Ann Ferren, a senior fellow at AAC&U who visited dozens of campuses to study integrative learning for the organization. “Faculty have to develop a capacity for it,” by knowing what’s going on elsewhere on campus, looking at other course syllabuses, and talking to students about internships and study abroad experiences, for example.

Eleanor Townsley, a professor of sociology and associate dean of the faculty at Mount Holyoke College, said her institution redefined its curriculum based on the concept of integrative learning as a result of questions from parents and students about the value of a liberal arts education in the post-recession era, as well as participation in a Teagle Foundation- and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded project on the topic. The idea was to center the undergraduate experience on a “curriculum-to-career model” that valued internships and cross-disciplinary experiences as more than just "add-ons." At the same time, the liberal arts curriculum wasn't watered down. It wasn’t easy, she said – but it’s turning out to be worth it.

“Faculty were split,” Townsley said of reframing the curriculum around integrative learning and more “intentional” pathways through the liberal arts. Some faculty members rightly thought they already were doing some of this work already, and others didn’t think they had much of a role to play, she said.

Despite the “hothouse political environment,” administrators and faculty members involved in the project began by auditing “not-always-aligned” programs that offered experiential learning, Townsley said. They also offered professional development retreats and strategic planning meetings, and supported any initiative that “brought students out beyond the gates.” They began to help students Skype with alumnae and professionals, too.

Still, there was tension. During a seminar on integrative learning with 20 faculty members, Townsley said, “people were really frustrated with each other.” Faculty members “didn’t really know what other people were doing, and it got edgy,” she added.

Later in 2012, there was a career summit centered around a hypothetical student named “Gabby” who kept falling through the cracks in her internships. That seemed to bring home the goal of the initiative to some faculty members, who kept invoking her name long after the seminar, Townsley said.

Eventually the program got a name: “The Lynk.” And halfway through its second year, Mount Holyoke started to see “spontaneous curriculum innovation” among faculty members, and departments started to launch their own Lynk initiatives. They offered alumnae panels, career planning and credit for doing internship reflections.

“Communication was a challenge but it is getting better,” Townsley said. Lessons learned include the importance of communicating “iteratively” with faculty members over time, using “honest” faculty brokers, and keeping to the faculty seminar tradition.

Two years out, Townsley said, she’s seen a “cultural tipping point” in both faculty buy-in and student participation -- through greatly increased visits to the career center, for example.

Another session, called “Interdisciplinary Models That Support Interconnectivity,” focused on faculty-based attempts at integrative learning. Erica Bastress-Dukeheart, associate professor of history and director of leadership in teaching and learning at Skidmore College, talked about a one-credit add-on seminar course aimed at increasing scientific literacy. She's taught the seminar for the past several years with three other faculty members across the disciplines. The first iteration, focused on the apocalypse, touched on plagues and people (Bastress-Dukeheart teaches medieval history); the post-apocalyptic world and sustainability; depictions of apocalypses in literature and movies; and “death from the skies,” dealing with astronomy.

Bastress-Dukeheart said the logistics of planning were “messy,” but each professor took on about 10-20 students, for a total of 67 students in the first year. But much more importantly, she said, both faculty members and students shared the “joys and dramas of crossing disciplinary boundaries,” and sharing pedagogies. "And it was fun," she added. Topics since have included monsters and aliens.

Integrative learning was also the subtext of a panel for college presidents called “Higher Learning is Now Essential, But to What Ends? What Leaders Can Learn from National And State Advocacy Efforts for Liberal Education, the Liberal Arts and Educational Quality.”

John Churchill, president of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, said his organization has focused increasingly on a “pithy” message that a liberal arts education "expands opportunity, drives ingenuity and innovation, and makes a strong investment in America" by preparing graduates for “all of life, and the follow-ups.” It’s “sound-byte” treatment of a “process that is intended to prepare people for a life of overwhelming complexity,” he said.


Back to Top