2. Can we restructure and still be liberal arts?

  1. Are there ways we can restructure ourselves that will still allow us to deliver what we deem to be an essential liberal arts curriculum? 
    1.  Could we, for example, think about majors and/or graduate programs with fewer requirements? Majors vary from 10 credits to 16 or 17 — can this discrepancy be reduced?
    2. In smaller departments, are there still ways that we can combine smaller classes, have them offered less often, combine senior seminars, or the like?

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at MinervaProject.com. I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

3 thoughts on “2. Can we restructure and still be liberal arts?”

  1. A possibility not raised in the question is to have a more deliberate mix of large and small and long and short classes. In sociology, for example, there are many subfields, areas, topics, what have you that make a lot of sense to include in the major but that do not need to be studied in a 15 week long course. Under the 15 week regime, the best we can hope for is for students to round out their major with 5-7 topics (and maybe fewer since we have multiple electives on similar topics – X in the US, X in comparative perspective, etc. But if we offer half-semester courses on elective topics a student might take in a single year modules on sociology of the family, stratification, education, formal organizations, art, and medicine in what would have been 3 semester long course slots.

    The savings comes because it's often been in pursuit of variety that we've had to hire adjuncts (either to teach these substantive electives or to teach core requirements so a TTT could teach these).

    I favor this style thinking because it's oriented toward enriching the curriculum rather than on thinning it and motivated by pedagogical creativity rather than mandated austerity.

  2. Of course the answer is YES. With the possible exception of English and Mathematics and a very few others, you can probably find bona fide liberal arts programs with and without all sorts of things that we have.

    One thing to do is look for potential convergence. What I mean is, imagine two programs, each with its own list of major requirements and electives and each ideologically committed to the uniqueness and disciplinary specialness of its approach to the material, teaching methods, values, etc. Historically, each has had an incentive to create more and more barriers to its students using courses in the other to fulfill requirements.

    Simply put, that has to stop on both sides (or just on one side if it's mostly present there even while absent on the other side).

    But there might be some room for convergence and generosity. Convergence would mean that the instructor in program A gives some thought to adapting her course for students in program B and the faculty in program B relax some of their gatekeeping stringencies in accepting the course for their majors. In this, I think the greater responsibility for flexibility is on program B. The reasons:

    * our disciplinary and programmatic idiosyncrasies are just not as fine grained as we like to think
    * to believe otherwise is to take too seriously the socially constructed borders between disciplines
    * gigantically few of our students go on to graduate programs in which disciplinary impurities in their training will make a difference in their educational or professional outcomes.

  3. Again, I suggest letting go of the “liberal arts” frame. Then the question becomes, can we restructure in ways that allow us to provide a high (or even higher) quality of education and that are more efficient. I believe the answer is yes — Dan has made some relevant suggestions.

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