The Liberal Arts Can Defend Themselves

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Hunter Rawlings III, offered insights into key components of a liberal-arts education and why these characteristics mean we should “Stop Defending the Liberal Arts” (as the article’s title commands, because these curricula can very well defend themselves.

One of the key qualities of the liberal arts Rawlings highlights is “irreverance.” Rawlings writes that, “A liberal education is not always grave or solemn. It should be sharp, funny, curious, joyous.” For Rawlings, the irreverance of the liberal arts stems not only from the content but also from the inquisitive pedagogies associated with this curricula: “Though we have literary canons, scientific laws, mathematical axioms, landmark events in history, and other such foundational aspects of our disciplines, if we are inspiring teachers, we will try to instill knowledge of and respect for these meaningful matters, but not a stultifying reverence for them.”

Rawlings suggests that a good liberal arts education encourages students to ask questions: “A good liberal education encourages students to engage with foundational concepts in an imaginative way, not just absorbing but questioning . . . Why are we here, after all?” The act of questioning can be pleasurable, Rawlings suggests, “And yet intellectual and aesthetic pleasure is an essential goal of higher education, one we omit at great cost and peril.”

For Rawlings, a liberal education is also provocative: “it does not invite the syrupy satisfactions of agreeing with each other all the time, but the rougher, more granular process of thinking for ourselves. A liberal education demands that you decide — agree or disagree? Find the nuances in the issue and voice them. Challenge authority. Argue forcefully — and with wit and reason. Write clearly and persuasively about your research, ideas, conclusions, interpretations. Students will not learn to appreciate the qualities of things, to discriminate, to challenge, to argue persuasively, in an environment condescendingly signposted with hedges and cushioned with caveats.”

Rawlings concludes that,  “To teach students that it is a pleasure to use one’s mind and to encourage critical thought and intellectual opposition are our most important tasks as educators” and I believe, given the characteristics Rawlings lays out here, that the liberal arts is the best way to instill this open-mindedness in our students. 

Making a Living from the Liberal-Arts

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Anft offered insights into how liberal-arts colleges have recently turned some of their attention towards ensuring that their graduates can earn a living, in addition to a renewed sense of purpose and achievement, through this innovate curriculum. For example, Anft illustrates that Carleton College, in response to “the recession and continuing anxiety among parents and students regarding a tough job market” has now developed ways to “reach all of their students early and often to get them thinking about what will happen once they pack away their caps and gowns.” While Anft acknowledges that “Career planning has long made private colleges uncomfortable” but “many now concede that they must do more to support student success after graduation — including getting them to graduate-school programs if they desire.” Carleton is by no means alone in these efforts, as Anft suggests that  “Other top liberal-arts colleges, including Amherst, Bowdoin, and Colby, are also investing heavily in undergraduate career-development programs. A few have included career centers in their capital campaigns.” I attended a liberal-arts college as well and often attended my college’s career services center to find internships and summer employment. 

Anft also suggests that this career preparation endeavors have not only helped students obtain more professional opportunities, but have also helped liberal arts colleges market themselves to parents and students, despite their high costs of attendance:

“Besides helping students find their way in the world, Carleton’s emphasis on postcollege success has also helped the college better answer questions posed by prospective students and their parents, many of whom are concerned that the high cost of an education may not add up to better opportunities in the long term.”

I think these initiatives are important endeavors, especially for liberal-arts colleges. While I believe the liberal-arts are a tremendous, life-long gift that transformed me into a life-long learner, I understand why some may have qualms about this type of education’s profitability.

The Liberal-Arts fix for the Splintered Human Mind

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, William Egginton suggested that ““We in higher education have undermined the ideal of diversity be using it as window dressing to cover our role in not only failing to address rampant inequality but exacerbating it. Parents treat the education of their children, beginning at the earliest age, as an outgrowth of the opportunities afforded by wealth and privilege. Educational sorting widens the divide between the winners and the left-behind.” These statements troubled me, particularly because my academic discipline, rhetoric & writing, stemmed from the mid-20th century need to educate students about how to write well in college alongside the rampant increase in college enrollments and the connected democratization of education at this time period. 

Egginton comments on the perceptions about education connected to race and class, in that, “many badly-off whites have come to revile both the university, whose admissions policies have traditionally focused on ethnic and gender diversity, and the Democratic Party, whose platform they incorrectly perceive as oriented toward the needs of minorities. In fact, the vast majority of working-class people of all races are excluded from the upper echelon of the education pyramid. Because the goal of diversity has been deprived of its historical motivation in rectifying injustice, its reduced, cosmetic remainder ends up neglecting the economically marginalized of every group.” While the trends of public opinion Egginton comments about here are certainly concerning, he suggests that the liberal-arts tradition can be one way to overcome these perceptions about education, which he refers to as “the splintering of the human mind.”

For Egginton, “The real purpose of the liberal-arts curriculum was always to expand community and strengthen democracy.” These curricula can, according to Egginton, ” inculcate precisely those liberal virtues — tolerance of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, rejection of cruelty — that provide intellectual and ideological ballas for the protestors’ ideal. The liberal-arts tradition that such courses represent is instrumental in transmitting a political philosophy dedicated to balancing the rights of individuals against the needs of community cohesion. This tradition asks questions like: Who gets to be counted as an individual? Who belongs to a community? These are the very questions students need to be raising in order for democracy to flourish.” I am extremely excited by Egginton’s comments in this piece because I think his ideas offer us a new direction both for understanding the liberal arts, but also for understanding and advancing our democracy. 

Connecting the Classroom to Careers

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kelly Field reported that Bates College, a liberal-arts institution is offering classes with alumni, known as “practicioner-taught courses” ranging in subject matter from “Brand Culture Building” to “Private Equity.” These courses, are “meant to be more practical and applied than the typical liberal-arts fare, giving students a window into potential careers, skills that would serve them in those careers, and connections to alumni who might help them land a job.” Further, Field reports that these classes “are part of a push by Bates and other liberal-arts colleges to clarify the connections between classroom and career, and to prepare students for lives of meaningful work” all with the common goal to “increase graduates’ confidence that they can succeed in an increasingly technical work force, and to dispel parents’ and policy makers’ doubts about the returns on an expensive liberal-arts degree.” More specifically, at Bates, there are now “five practitioner-taught  courses and more than 75 ‘infused’ classes, where faculty members apply classroom lessons to real-world problems.” Additionally, Bates runs “an internship program, with subsidies for students in unpaid or low-paid posts,” as well as “a popular short class called ‘Life Architecture’ for juniors and seniors ‘who feel relatively undecided about their next steps after college.’” While many higher education institutions are interested in helping their students gain practical real-world experiences, Bates stands out from the pack because its “purposeful-work” initiative “blends the philosophical and the pragmatic, offering students both concrete skills and an overarching theory of work: namely, that it ought to have both personal meaning and societal relevance.”

On the basis of purpose, however, the goal that the liberal-arts can prepare students for a purposeful, fulfilled life, is not new and some “Proponents of [liberal-arts] colleges would argue that it cuts to the core of their mission.” However, as Fields reports, “until recently, many college leaders assumed that if they started with smart students and gave them a well-rounded education, everything would fall into place.” While many colleges, as well as many college faculty members (myself included) still maintain that the focus of college should be a college education and not a guaranteed career, “That mind-set” because “harder to defend since the 2008 recession, when widespread job losses led more Americans to approach education as a means to an end.”

I attended a small, private liberal arts college, not all that different from Bates. Although my alma mater, Wofford College, did not offer specific “practicioner-taught courses,” I felt as though the curriculum was never too divorced from real-life experiences, particularly in my environmental studies (ENVS) major. As an ENVS student I had frequent exposure to local farmers, worked part-time as a guide to community members and school groups, and also had several class periods taught by ENVS alumni working in industry. While none of these courses were quite as extensive as what Bates is doing, they all opened my eyes to the vast applications of an ENVS degree! I applaud my own alma mater, as well as Bates and other liberal-arts institutions for moving in this direction. I believe that in order to preserve the future of the liberal arts, institutions must connect this diverse curriculum to careers, not to show how the university serves industry, but instead, to show how liberal-arts graduates can re-make and re-fashion all sorts of industries.

The Liberal-Arts are Not New

In a recent, July 2018 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan offered a significant historical perspective on the liberal arts, one aimed to demonstrate that costly, private liberal-arts colleges in the U.S. are in no way the sole promoters of this type of multi-faceted and often interdisciplinary curriculum. The authors state that, “From the beginning of the 20th century, students have studied philosophy, mathematics, English, chemistry, sociology — indeed, the full range of the liberal arts — in all kinds of access-oriented institutions of higher education: vocational programs, night schools, technical institutes, adult extension programs, teachers’ colleges, branch campuses of state universities, and community colleges.” However, despite this historical reality about education in our country, the authors contend that, “public discussions of higher education increasingly imagine that these kinds of institutions focus solely on an instrumental, economy-determined training skills required for specific jobs.” Buurma and Heffernan argue that despite the fact that the liberal-arts have been taught at a wide range of schools, we allow “vocational education to be redefined to mean the narrowest kind of job training” at least “Partly because we’ve enshrined the liberal-vocational opposition in the way we talk about education.” The authors suggest that this binary does not reflect the reality of vocational education for either its teachers or its students because these individuals “know that in practice, people pursuing vocational education are learners, not only trainees, and that liberal and vocational education are part of the same story.” Buurma and Heffernan emphasize throughout their piece, that “Instead of assuming that liberal education — especially the humanities — was born in and belongs to elite schools and occasionally spreads democratically outward after the middle of the 20th century, we could step back to tell a much richer, and more accurate, narrative . . . . The liberal arts were not once pure and autonomous and only belatedly adapted to the more pragmatic needs of mass education.” I believe that this revisionist view of the liberal arts is not only beneficial for the humanities. At a time when humanities scholars and professors are across the board worried about job prospects and placement, here we see that these disciplines have always had and very much still have, a place in a wide range of institutions of higher education.

New Professionals in the Writing Classroom

In his article*, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited,” Parker J. Palmer offers that he became a professor “animated in part by the belief that education can humanize us.” Palmer asks “Does education humanize us?” and concludes, “Sometimes, but not nearly often enough” because we “turn our graduates loose on the world as people who know, but do not recognize that our justice system often fails the poor, that corporate logic usually favors short-term profits over sustainability, that practical politics is more about manipulating public opinion than discerning the will of the people, that our approach to international relations is laced with arrogance about our culture and ignorance of others, that science and technology are not neutral but rather means to social ends.” Palmer asserts that “If higher education is to serve humane purposes, we who educate must insist that knowing is not enough, that we are not fully human until we recognize what we know and take responsibility for it.”

Palmer makes the case for “educating a ‘new professional'” as in “a person who is not only competent in his or her discipline but has the skill and the will to deal with the institutional pathologies that threaten the professional’s highest standards.

Palmer mentions two important realities undergirding his “call for a new professional who can confront, challenge, and help change the workplace”: (1) “our large, complex institutions are increasingly unresponsive to external pressure, even on those rare occasions when an informed and organized public demands change” and (2) “the functions of a profession are not necessarily those of the institutional structure that house it . . . We need professionals who are ‘in but not of’ their institutions, whose allegiance to the core values of their fields makes them resist the institutional diminishment of those values.”

In seeking to answer the question of, “What would the education of the new professional look like?” Palmer shares “five immodest proposals”: (1) “We must help our students uncover, examine, and debunk the myth that institutions are external to and constrain us, as if they possessed powers that render us helpless — an assumption that is largely unconscious and wholly untrue” (2) “We must take our students’ emotions as seriously as we take their intellects” (3) “We must start taking seriously the ‘intelligence’ in emotional intelligence” (4) “We must offer our students the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities required to cultivate communities of discernment and support” (5) “We must help our students understand what it means to live and work with the question of an undivided life always before them”. Palmer suggests that overall, “The education of the new professional will offer students real-time chances to translate feelings into knowledge and action by questioning and helping to develop the program they are in . . . an academic culture that invites students to find their voices about the program itself, gives them forums for speaking up, rewards rather than penalizes them for doing so, and encourages faculty and administrative responsiveness to student concerns.”

In his conclusion, Palmer suggests that “The word ‘professional’ originally meant someone who makes a ‘profession of faith’ in the midst of a disheartening world. That root meaning became diminished as the centuries rolled by, and today it has all but disappeared. ‘Professional’ now means someone who possesses knowledge and techniques too esoteric for the laity to understand, whose education is proudly proclaimed to be ‘value free.'” Further, “The notion of a ‘new professional’ revives the root meaning of the word. This person can say, ‘In the midst of the powerful force-field of institutional life, where so much conspires to compromise the core values of my work, I have found firm ground on which to stand—the ground of personal and professional identity and integrity—and from which I can call myself, my colleagues, and my profession back to our true mission.'”

I found Parker’s piece so moving and significant, that it of course prompted me to think about how I can take advantage of opportunities within my own coursework (including GEDI) to transform into a “new professional” as he outlines throughout his article. For starters, I think I may assign this article as the first reading in my First-Year Writing (ENGL 1106) courses here at Virginia Tech next fall. I believe this piece gives students an conceptual excellent framework for understanding the need for a broad well-rounded education, including the ability to write. Secondly, inspired by Palmer’s work, I want to cultivate an environment in my classroom where my students feel free to critique the program itself. I plan to have students make some early decisions as a group about what we will study, how we will study it, and to make frequent check-ins with students to check the pulse of the class and how the learners are interacting with it. Lastly, I also hope that my writing classroom can help students develop the skills needed to cultivate and hone their professional identities, to be able to articulate their views and their opinions and needs in a clear, compelling manner.

*Parker J. Palmer “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited.” Change, vol. 39, no. 6, 2007, pp. 6-12.

Tuition Troubles and The Future of Higher Education

When I reflect on what I think needs to change in higher education, I cannot help but worry about the rising price of tuition and its threat to the sustainability of colleges and universities.

As reported in The Chronicle, many flagship institutions of higher education in the US were able to only increase tuition between less than 1% up to 5% for the years between 2016-2017 and 2017-2018. Conversely, however, when compared with the “10-year change” in tuition rates, even these colleges and universities that were able to minimize tuition raises recently, have experienced much higher raises, often to the tune of 10-11% over the past decade.

I was fortunate enough to attend a small, private four-year liberal arts college. Like many students who attend institutions of this type, I did not pay anywhere near the “sticker price” for my education. As Emma Pettit reported for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Nearly a fifth of private colleges have discounted their first-tuition by at least 60 percent.” Pettit continues that “Scholars who are skeptical of tuition discounting worry that, if left unchecked, the practice will risk the financial health of an institution.” Tuition discounting also carries with it alarming social costs as well, as many skeptics of this practice suggest that it can “undermine a college’s efforts to enroll low-income and minority students . . . because such students are often scared off by the full advertised tuition.” Sans massive endowments to fund tuition scholarships, and without careful recruitment of a diverse student body, I, too am skeptical that tuition discounting is a reasonable counterpoint to the consistent annual increase of tuition most colleges and universities implement each academic year.

Some colleges and universities have recently moved toward a Tuition-Free Policy. For example, in August 2018 New York University’s School of Medicine announced it “would provide full-tuition scholarships to all current and future students” in response to the rising tide of student debt facing many medical students and new physicians. Similarly, earlier this month in November 2018, Arizona State University announced its collaboration with ride-sharing app Uber “to provide fully-funded tuition in its online program to drivers in eight cities” adding to “a growing number of tuition-free alliances between universities and corporations.”

While the recent impulse to go “tuition free” is in some respects exciting, I am still skeptical that it will be sustainable over years or decades by institutions. Even in cases where free or discounted education is sponsored by profitable corporations, I worry that rising this process may co-opt access and ideology within higher education. In order to achieve sustainability for higher education, I believe that institutions need to raise stronger endowments through their own almuni organizations, foundations, as well as state and federal grant sources.

Open Access in Rhetoric & Composition

One of my favorite journals within my own field, Peithois open access and is linked herePeitho, which is the “Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric & Composition,” is not housed at any single university but instead supported by the editorial staff and the editorial board, which has changed leadership over time. Overall, the mission of Peitho is to: “encourage, advance, and publish research in the history of rhetoric and composition; and to support students and scholars within our profession.” Because Peitho is closely related to the Coalition of feminist scholars which created it, it works to further the coalition’s mission as a “learned society composed of women scholars who are committed to research in the history of rhetoric and composition” and more specifically, the journal seeks to “promote and foster collaboration and communication” among scholars in the field of rhetoric and composition. One way that Peitho ensures that scholarship will be promoted, is that the journal is open access, meaning it does not exist behind a paywall and individuals do not need a subscription, or library access to read the powerful research published in the journal. Althoug Peitho is open access, there is no text on the site explicitly claiming this term or connecting itself within the broader open access movement. This omission could be based on assumptions about open access within my own field, perhaps stemming from biases that scholarship that is open to the “public” is less valuable — which I think is of course, incorrect. Regardless of the journal’s explicit connection to the open access movement, the accessibility and high-quality scholarship in this journal, make it one of my absolute favorites.

Ivy League on the Internet: UPenn’s Reaction to MOOCs

In response to the “advances in technology, in online learning, in the experiences . . . faculty have had in developing MOOCs,”  Nora E. Lewis, dean of professional and liberal education at University of Pennsylvania announced that the Ivy League school will offer an online Bachelor’s Degree next fall.

As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education on September 18, 2018, this move to a fully online four-year degree at UPenn within the Liberal and Professional Studies program is aimed to serve “working adults and other nontraditional students.”

In this article, Dean Lewis further commented that this move to online education at UPenn is not simply a cost-saving stunt, but rather is indicative of broader, industry trends in higher education. Lewis commented that the move to online education is “definitely coming” and that this new degree shows a “real commitment and understanding of the need to have broader inclusion and access” to higher education and to “be able to read learners around the world.” It seems that acknowledging the democratizing, transnational components of MOOCs, UPenn sees this online bachelor’s degree as a way to imitate this particular “disruptive technology” to the status quo in higher education.

While some with a more traditional conception of the “university,” may squirm at the idea of an online degree from such a prestigious institution, I was rather inspired to learn of this development. I am excited to see the power of online learning and MOOCs be so clearly acknowledged and received by an Ivy League institution. I believe that this decision at UPenn adds legitimacy to online learning and other technological innovations within higher education. Most of all, I am elated that this move means that more students, particularly adult learners and “nontraditional” students may have new opportunities to earn higher education degrees. For me, this broadening of possibilities reflects a further broadening of access to higher education, a move which I think will benefit us all.

Grades “Never Became the Focus of Energy”: Assessment and Black Mountain College

“I doubt there is a student or teacher worth a damn who has not at some moment pondered creating his own university” my friend Leon Lewis writes at the beginning of his essay, “Black Mountain College: A Strange Spot in A Strange Spot” in Appalachian Journal (vol. 1, no. 3, 1973).  I first read this essay when I was in college, recently fascinated with the strange experimental art school that operated between 1933 and 1957 in my backyard in Black Mountain, North Carolina. There are many things that thrill me about Black Mountain College (BMC) including the lengthy list of art-world teachers, faculty, and visitors who graced the community — Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Charles Olson, Buckminster Fuller, Hilda Morley, MC Richards, Jonathan Williams, Ruth Asawa, Albert Einsten (ok, not an artist per se, but still impressive), Salvador Dali (who visited and orchestrated a film viewing), and Joseph and Anni Albers, among many, many more. Yet, like several of the contributors as well as myself wrote in the new Black Mountain College Special Issue of Appalachian Journal, BMC is and was so much more than the big names who lived, wrote, worked, and created there.

As an educator, BMC captivates me because of its almost complete aversion for grades. As BMC faculty member John L. Wallen relayed to historian Martin Duberman in “the Bible of BMC,” Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community,  when asked what kind of education BMC stood for, would reply, “We don’t have grades,” “we don’t have required courses” (275).

Further, Duberman explains that “Classes varied considerably in format, since each teacher was left to his own devices. Some would lecture or direct discussions more than others; some would settle for words, others would show pictures or play music; an occasional seminar would be jointly taught by three or four instructors, and many classes had staff members or their wives sitting in as students” (100).

While grades were not central to the College’s pedagogy, Duberman writes, “Most instructors privately jotted down grades, but only–so went the rationale, anyway–in case a student later needed a ‘record’ for transfer or for graduate school. The grades were never passed on to the students themselves, and never, therefore, became the focus of energy or the standard for evaluating self-worth that they commonly do in most schools” (100).

Back to dear Leon’s idea that many of us involved in education have daydreamed about our own utopia-inducing schools, mine, like BMC, would not be “grade-obsessed.” I am so fascinated with BMC’s lack of emphasis on grades and meanwhile, the College’s production of loads of artists and writers that had extraordinary impacts on art and culture, both in the US and abroad. Whenever the topic of grading inevitably comes up, either in my own classes as a doctoral student, when grading my own students, or when talking with colleagues, I am always envious of BMC’s approach.

This week, while reading more modern scholarship on assessment and education, I heard the rumblings of the BMC spirit within the words of Alfie Kohn.  Suggesting that the basic function of grades is to collect information about student progress and share that information with students, Kohn suggests, perhaps controversially, that: “Collecting information doesn’t require tests, and sharing that information doesn’t require grades.  In fact, students would be a lot better off without either of these relics from a less enlightened age.”

Citing research from others in education and across the humanities, Kohn establishes his argument against grades across three main findings: (1) “Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning” (2) “Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task” and (3) “Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.” 

Kohn suggests that in order to revise these deleterious effects of grades, educators should aim to “delete” or at least “dilute” grades and their hegemony in the classroom. Writing in favor of more narrative assessment, like in a letter from teacher to student upon completion of a course, Kohn adds that this change in grade format can be gradual, taking place over time, and that in the meantime, the grade-giving process can be made more democratic if students are invited to collaborate on their grade alongside an instructor, weighing in on the decision. Throughout Kohn’s piece, I kept daydreaming about my own ideal school, and feeling excited that the ideas of BMC and other experimental schools are very much still alive and in circulation through discussions of best-practices for educators.

As a graduate student, I am not quite ready to abandon grading, mainly because I’d rather not have that undoubtedly lengthy, difficult discussion with those in power in my department, at the registrar, etc. However, with the legacy of BMC and current scholars like Kohn in mind, I hope to switch to more narrative-based assessment for my students in the coming semesters.