Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nice to see public liberal arts colleges get a little love, at InsideHigherEd.

Both the Beloved Alma Mater and Misnomer University arguably fall into this category -- or at least they did for many decades -- and I think this type of school fills a vitally important niche. I'm not quite as sanguine as Spellman about the future, because I've seen both institutions suffering under the pressure to become bigger! And more research-oriented! And more cost-efficient! And more vocational! And more standardized! And bigger! They have reacted to these pressures in opposite ways, the Beloved Alma Mater by "trying to become Princeton" as the Laid-Back Medievalist put it when I went back for my college reunion, and Misnomer U. by tipping closer and closer to becoming Yet Another Regional Comprehensive.

I'm also not as enthusiastic about vocational programs as Spellman is; I think they can work as part of a quality integrated liberal-arts program, but it takes a particular institutional culture and a lot of careful advising to make sure that they do. Students like the nursing major who took my upper-level Shakespeare class last semester, who wasn't the best writer in the class but was really talkative and enthusiastic and obviously very much into Shakespeare, even though the course probably made it harder for him to fulfill his program's requirements? Yeah, I want more students like that. But more often, I'm seeing a huge gulf in attitude and intellectual curiosity between the education, nursing, and business students and the ones drawn to more traditional arts and sciences majors, and the advisors in the vocational programs do not seem to be doing much to bridge that gap; if anything, they seem to encourage students to think of the liberal arts core requirements as a series of stupid boxes that need to be checked off. (And, to be fair, the whole structure of the core curriculum reinforces this world-view; I would like to see fewer tick-boxes and a chance for students to pursue work in a few complementary disciplines at a higher level, rather than taking a dozen unrelated intro-level courses.)

But this is turning into a nitpicking-and-grumbling post, and I don't mean it to be, because I do believe my institution is providing something valuable. I believe it is a place where it's easier for students to know their professors than not to know them, and I also believe that the features Spellman identifies as the hallmarks of a quality liberal arts education -- "small class size, close faculty-student interaction, an innovative and interdisciplinary common core in the arts and sciences, undergraduate research experiences, senior capstone projects, service learning and community engagement, and a rich and diverse co-curricular life" -- are the norm for all of our students and not just a hundred lucky souls in the Honors College. And I believe, most of all, that this type of institution needs to be an option within the state system, because for many of our students, going out of state or going to a private college simply isn't thinkable. (And yes, I know some private SLACs hand out financial aid like candy, but you have to apply first, and nobody has ever told them they can apply.)

Yeah. I think I believe in what I do. And that's a good way to feel at the beginning of a new year.


Academic, Hopeful said...

Cheers! I agree (re vocational programmes).

I hope, once I done with the thesis and settled into an academic post, I can have that warm, fuzzy feeling about what I do and where I work too.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Nice to meet you, Academic, Hopeful, and good luck!