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.

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.

Death of the Author?: Some Thoughts on Ethical Research

This week, as we are discussing ethics, and in particular conducting ethical research, I explored the “Case Summaries” from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity. Because I study the way language and discourse circulate, operate, and leverage power, I was of course drawn to a specific case study entitled, “My Lab Boss Puts His Name on My Paper and Proposals,” which I’ve linked here.

In this particular case study, “Ana”, an international scholar who is worried about her ability to write and publish in English, begins asking colleagues to review her manuscripts. While many of her fellow research faculty seem interested in consulting her work, she is surprised to see her manuscripts returned with the names of her readers listed as secondary and tertiary authors on her own manuscript! Although this development infuriated me, “Ana,” fearing that she would “stir the pot” too much and disrupt the fragile ecosystem of her lab if she said anything, did not intervene in this crisis of authorship.

Unfortunately for “Ana,” her authorship authority was further compromised by her direct supervisor, as her boss put his name on her paper and completely co-opted a proposal she had been writing. While some other colleagues reacted with disgust at this development, “Ana” felt completely unsure of what to do.

This case study made me think of Mikhail Bakhtin, a famed 20th century philosopher whose influence on rhetoric and composition (my field) has been immense in the past quarter century. Within Bakhtin’s extensive body of work, he frequently discusses the difficulty of authorship and ownership over language, essentially arguing that “your words are not your own,” suggesting that every phrase or “utterance” we speak / think / write, does not really belong to us, but was borrowed / learned  from someone else, in fact many, many “someones.” While theoretically, Bakhtin’s work is fascinating, it does complicate this particular case study, making me question whose work is “Ana’s”? Has Roland Barthe’s famous essay, “The Death of the Author” come to full fruition?

While “Ana’s” case prompted a rich theoretical rabbit-hole for me, I think the issues of power within this case make the issue quite clear. Because “Ana’s” boss never consulted her as he placed his own name on her paper, he is at fault. Similarly, because “Ana’s” colleagues who consulted her English did not ask her if they could be added as authors, a simple request she likely would have granted, they, too, are at fault. In this sticky social situation, it seems “Ana” should consult her department head for assistance.

Mission Accomplished? A Personal Analysis of Higher Education Mission Statements

This week as we are thinking and reflecting on mission statements, I chose to highlight two institutions of great importance to me. Firstly, my undergraduate alma mater, Wofford College, a small, private liberal arts college in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The second mission statement listed below is copied from Virginia Tech, my current institution, in Blacksburg, Virginia, where I’m completing my doctorate in Rhetoric and Writing within the Department of English. In this post, I am considering whether or not these mission statements, as they intersect with my own experiences as a student, can be deemed “mission accomplished.”

Wofford College Mission Statement

“Wofford’s mission is to provide superior liberal arts education that prepares its students for extraordinary and positive contributions to society. The focus of Wofford’s mission is upon fostering commitment to excellence in character, performance, leadership, service to others and life-long learning.”

Adopted by the Board of Trustees, May 5, 1998


As an institution focused on teaching and student development, it is not surprising that Wofford’s mission statement is so focused on personal development and preparing “students for extraordinary and positive contributions to society.” As a student body, the majority of Wofford students are often connected to community service or service learning in some capacity.

The liberal arts focus of the college’s curriculum also stands out in Wofford’s mission statement. In fact, this component is what largely drew me to select Wofford as my undergraduate alma mater.  As a student there, I took  advantage of this innovative curriculum by majoring in both History (B.A.) and environmental studies (B.S.). In addition to a wide variety of courses for my own major, I also took courses ranging from Calculus to Religions of the world, all of which enriched my thinking and learning process.

As a personal approximation of Wofford’s mission statement, the component that means the most to me, the phrase that makes the fight song play in my head, tears come to my eyes, and sends warmth to my heart, is the phrase “life-long learning.” Although I have not been away from Wofford from very long, falling in love with learning and thinking of myself as a life-long learner makes me miss that small college something fierce. Life-long learning is almost a secondary de-facto mascot at Wofford College, rivaling the institution’s official emblem, the Boston Terrier. At opening Convocations, Graduations, and even in the classroom, a love of learning is emphasized around every turn at Wofford. As a new alumni of the College, I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to continue this love of learning even at Homecoming events, participating in the College’s “Classes without Quizzes” seminars during Homecoming weekend, learning about topics ranging from climate change to the 2008 financial crisis.

As I read Wofford College’s mission statement, I would absolutely agree that it is a “mission accomplished.” I don’t interact with this statement as a superficial manifestation of institutional propaganda. Instead, I feel as though I lived it.

Virginia Tech Mission Statement

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) is a public land-grant university serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to its mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.

2001 Mission Statement adapted in 2006, by the Board of Visitors


Virginia Tech, my current home, is a large, land-grant university focused on serving the Commonwealth of Virginia and in fact, the world. Last year, at the orientation programs for new graduate students, I was struck by Dean DePauw’s and other administrators’ emphasis on Virginia Tech’s place in the higher education landscape as a “global land grant university.” Coming from such a small private College as I did, I was so excited to enrich my own learning and personal as well as professional development as part of such a community.

My favorite component of Virginia Tech’s mission statement must be the institution’s dedication to the “discovery and dissemination of new knowledge.” Attending Virginia Tech as a doctoral student, I am so proud of our university’s commitment to research. In fact, the research of my academic mentor, Katrina M. Powell, who studies the rhetoric of displacement in connection to land use controversies, is what drew me to Virginia Tech, initially. Over the past academic year, pursuing my own research on the rhetorics of grassroots environmentalism has helped me maintain my passion as an academic and helped me see how I may use my own research to excite students and help them think critically about the ways in which narratives, language, and landscapes intersect to shape societies.

The concluding line of Virginia Tech’s mission statement offers me a guiding light for how I want to practice the art of teaching. Just as Virginia Tech aims to create, convey, and apply knowledge, to “expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life,” so too, do I hope my writing courses will do the same for my own students. Virginia Tech’s mission statement for me represents both a “mission accomplished,” as well as a “mission-in-progress,” offering me guidelines to keep working toward on my path of personal and professional development as an academic, a writer, and an educator.