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Which is more the more worthy liberal arts course, Calculus 1 or Spanish 101? #highered #liberalarts

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Last week, I participated in a discussion on campus related to our strategic planning process. These often can be laborious endeavors that revolve around magical thinking and dreams that will never come true. This particular session did not; it was excellent, and the level of engagement on the part of the Augustana College campus community was terrific. I witnessed a great deal of critical and creative thinking and thoughtful discussion. While there were many things that stood out and are worth noting, one exchange in particular is on my mind this morning.

I had the benefit of working with faculty members from mathematics, Spanish, business administration, education and psychology. Their perspectives and inquisitive nature towards one another and me, as an administrator, was eye-opening and refreshing. The exchange that caught my attention was when a math professor asked a Spanish professor, “which course is more liberal arts-oriented, Calculus 1 or Spanish 101?” This was not a confrontational question.  It was a question that deserved (and deserves) discussion.

The response to the question was, “neither and both.” That’s a fitting answer for a complicated question and is a pretty typical answer on a college campus. It also was particularly fitting for these two faculty members who both are affable and deep thinkers. However, the answer also reveals the predicament we face in higher education today.

In my view, the question was intended to measure the two courses against what typically is thought of as the liberal arts canon. When measured against the canon it’s likely that neither of these introductory—or as The Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Jeff Selingo calls them, “commodity courses”—would contribute much to the liberal arts.

Why? In this particular case, I think it is because when we think of Spanish 101 and Calculus 1 we think about content, rather than what these courses, both of which are typically taken in the first year, seek to accomplish in regard to skill development.

Now, I have to be careful here and I know it; I am not a faculty member and I am not a guardian of the academic program. But, here’s my thought about how to make sure that both of these important courses are considered to be equal contributors to the liberal arts.

  1. Think of the content portion as secondary to the skill development.
  2. Expand course descriptions for each to include the primary and specific skills the course will develop (Peter Hart’s list of skills employers want might be a worthy guide for this).
  3. Specifically cite the student learning outcomes (from the nine identified by the faculty in 2012-13) associated with the course.

What if?

…Spanish 101 was described as, “Within the context of preliminary study of the Spanish language, students will gain: 1.  An understanding of global context; 2. The ability to work in teams; and, 3. The ability to apply knowledge and skills in new settings.

…Calculus 1 was described as, “Within the context of the study of calculus, students will gain: 1. The ability to think clearly about complex problems; 2. The ability to analyze a problem and develop a workable solution; and 3. The ability to understand numbers and statistics.

I am sure it would be necessary to say something more about the content in each of these courses, but the skills identified above frequently are cited by employers as being important in new employees. Furthermore, they represent those skills that liberal arts colleges are particular adept at developing.

What do you think? Should we connect all course offerings to the “liberal arts” by emphasizing the skills developed?

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

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2 Comments

  1. I agree that cross-cutting skills like “work effectively in teams,” “communicate effectively orally and in writing,” and “recognize nonsense” are often invisible to content-focused faculty, especially those new to teaching. “I cant make time to teach that,” they sometimes say. “Its not my job! And besides, they should already know how to do that.” This attitude happens for the same reason that the skills involved with, say, driving a manual transmission become invisible to experienced drivers. Then when they must teach a fifteen year old son or daughter to drive, it’s a frustrating experience for both because the expert driver has forgotten how hard it is to shift a stick. It’s hard to teach what feels utterly “natural.” So yes, let’s be pointing out that the skills we too often take for granted were learned at some point, which means they now must be taught in intentional ways to students. But here’s the thing. When distinguishing skills from content, can we agree that both are equally important? Otherwise, we get into frustrating and fruitless arguments about which has priority, with one side accusing the other of putting too much emphasis on one or the other. So I would amend your statement #1 to say “think of the content as being as important, but no more important, than the development of skills and dispositions.” I support the idea of rewriting course descriptions to include info on outcomes supported by the course.

  2. […] Which is more the more worthy liberal arts course, Calculus 1 or Spanish 101? #highered #liberalarts. […]

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