Posts Tagged ‘Liberal Arts’

Recently, administrators at my school circulated copies of the newest brochure – part of a revised marketing campaign – for faculty comments. The brochure looked great – we have some good people in charge of these things – but beyond its appearance, I couldn’t find much to get excited about. The takeaway from the brochure seemed to be that we are a liberal arts school with liberal artsy things like small classes and opportunities for students to study abroad and conduct research. What I did not notice was anything that sets us apart from other liberal arts schools in the region.

Over the past several years I have grown increasingly weary of administrators talking about our “educational brand,” our “marketing strategies,” and our “competitors.” Are there new programs, they ask, that we could create to attract students with higher academic abilities (and whose parents have deeper wallets)? Looking at the new brochure it struck me that the administration seems to be going about things backwards. Instead of focusing on who we want to be, more attention should be paid to playing up the strengths that we currently have. If our “brand” were consistent with our strengths, maybe we would be able to attract better students who are drawn to those strengths.

I’m obviously a faculty member and not an expert in marketing or branding, but looking at the current trends in higher education it seems that any small liberal arts college that wants to exist in its current state fifty years from now had better find a niche. Otherwise, schools like mine seem likely to devolve into little more than sources of online adult education, maybe with a token physical location as a loss leader. In carving out such a niche, a school’s marketing had better be closely aligned with its mission and both had better be closely aligned with its actual strengths and the students it serves. Whatever the case may have been in the past, generic statements about small classes and student research opportunities are not enough anymore.

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One of the things I’ve found interesting about higher education in the United States is that the public seems to increasingly favor specialized degrees while the job market is moving toward uncertainty, meaning that students with specialized skills are less likely to get the jobs they are trained for. For today’s job market, it appears (from my potentially biased position as a liberal arts professor) that what students actually need is a well-rounded education that will prepare them to think through a variety of potential situations rather than to perform any particular task. Two recent articles reveal that I’m not alone.

The first, an op-ed by Michael S. Roth in the New York Times, argues that the goal of any education should be to instill students with “the inclination to learn.” He states:

The inclination to learn from life can be taught in a liberal arts curriculum, but also in schools that focus on real-world skills, from engineering to nursing. The key is to develop habits of mind that allow students to keep learning, even as they acquire skills to get things done. This combination will serve students as individuals, family members and citizens — not just as employees and managers.

The second, by Barry Glassner in USA Today, reports that a national study by the Annapolis Group has found that this belief in developing one’s ability to learn and to reason is echoed by liberal arts graduates:

Among the key findings: Liberal arts students are academically anchored — not adrift — and community minded. They value supportive learning environments and teaching that stretches their abilities. Strong mentoring, abundant intern and community service opportunities, and working directly with professors rather than graduate assistants — these things matter.

So, what is the ultimate liberal arts payoff? Alumni declare they are well prepared for both graduate study and the workplace, having developed intellectual, practical and leadership skills vital to scholarly inquiry, career advancement and life as public citizens.

I wonder when the public, and those in charge of the shrinking higher ed budgets, will catch on.

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The other day I noted that my own scholarly aspirations are not necessarily in line with those of my colleagues.  This echoes a post from last year about missing the scholarly community that a large sociology department provides.  Fortunately, I have been able to fill the gap a bit with one of last year’s ASA successes.  Specifically, a friend introduced me to the leader of a reading group he is in who invited me to join.  This group’s monthly meetings have served to keep me active in reading about the research of others while giving me an opportunity to interact with productive scholars who encourage my own work.

When I was on the job market, I tried to prepare myself for the likelihood of ending up at a liberal arts school in the middle of nowhere.  Thankfully, I actually ended up at a school that is near a large number of other schools, making participation in things like this reading group possible.  While the proximity of other schools may not factor into most people’s job market decisions, it is something to consider if you want the opportunity to talk to scholars who do work in the same area as you while working at a liberal arts institution.

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Nearly everybody with a Ph.D. in sociology earned that degree at a Research 1 institution (RU/H and RU/VH just don’t have the same ring to them).  As a result, nearly all of the faculty members we interact with in our graduate programs can tell us about publication expectations at an R1, hiring practices at an R1, tenure and promotion at an R1, teaching at an R1, etc., but most of them don’t have much experience with other types of schools.  Thankfully, many faculty members have recognized that different types of institutions reward different types of letters and applications.  Unfortunately, this recognition is often viewed as a dichotomy – do you want a research job (at an R1) or a teaching job (at a liberal arts school)?

Between these extremes lies another type of school:  the masters-granting institution.  In athletics, many of these schools fall into the “mid-major” category.  In academics, large numbers of professors work happily at these schools and large numbers of students earn degrees and go on to successful careers.  Some go on to earn Ph.D.s at R1s and then get jobs at liberal arts schools in order to cover as many types of institutions as possible.

Perhaps their location in the middle of the academic continuum is the reason that these schools do not receive the attention that seems to be warranted by the numbers of faculty they employ.  Because they fall in the middle, faculty need to be better at balancing research and teaching, as demands for both can be high relative to schools with a narrower focus.  In general, it seems that teaching loads are higher at mid-majors than at R1s and class sizes are larger than at liberal arts schools.  While there are sometimes graduate programs, faculty members are less likely to have graduate assistants to help with grading.  Fewer graduate students also means that faculty have fewer chances to coauthor with others who can do a large share of the work, despite having higher publication expectations than their peers at liberal arts schools.

I have often thought of a career at a mid-major as the worst of both worlds.  Higher expectations for publishing coupled with higher teaching loads and higher class sizes seem less than ideal.  It is possible that my attitudes toward life at a mid-major would be different if I had had the opportunity to learn more about working at one during conference panels and did not have to rely on my observations as an undergraduate.  Hopefully those who accept positions at these schools are able to find out enough about them while visiting campuses for interviews to make informed choices about job offers.  For those in graduate school, however, it would be nice if there were more opportunities to learn about the full range of academic jobs.

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I have attended a number of talks over the years focused on getting a liberal arts job.  Because I did not attend a liberal arts school as an undergraduate, I took every available opportunity to learn about the expectations and intricacies of these jobs, from applications to faculty meetings.  There are several sociological liberal artists who have a tendency to appear at these talks, among them Ed Kain from Southwestern University and Keith Roberts from Hanover College.

Because I have seen him give several such talks there have been several times that I’ve heard Roberts tell an audience of grad students that he does not consider applications from students that include syllabi less than 20 pages in length because he takes this as a sign that the applicant does not care about teaching.  I remember sitting dumbfounded the first time I heard this, wondering alternately what would fill a 20 page syllabus and why I thought I cared about teaching when my longest syllabi were less than ten pages.  Inevitably, Roberts disclosed in the Q&A that his syllabi include all course assignments and that students with shorter syllabi could add an appendix with their assignments and class exercises so as not to end up in the “I will not even look at your application” pile when applying for a position at Hanover.

Unfortunately for me, the sociology department at Hanover was not hiring this year.  If it were, I feel confident that Roberts would have placed my application in the “to be considered further” pile based on the number of times I’ve heard him speak.  For every other job application, however, one cannot be so sure what the hiring committee is looking for in a syllabus.  A good way to avoid this problem is to write good syllabi in the first place and then include assignments and exercises when sending them with your application packets on the job market (just in case!).

With this in mind, Rob Wier has written a brief guide to a good syllabus on Inside Higher Ed.  The most important part is this:

A good syllabus is the organizing structure of a course, an unambiguous statement of expectations, and a professor’s first line of defense in disputes over policy, procedure, and grades. Your syllabus should lay out what you expect students to do, why you want it, when you want it, and what happens if students don’t comply. Assume nothing and spell out everything. The more you put in your syllabus up front, the less you’ll have to negotiate or explain later.

Update: Amelia at the Contexts Blog has posted some resources from the University of Buffalo.

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