Brains in Maine

I just got back from an engaging visit to the College of the Atlantic. Even though its curricular project and general atmosphere are 180 degrees opposite from St. John’s College, I think it occupies a similar place in the universe of small colleges, a bold embrace of a very distinctive, divergent design that doesn’t try to be all things to all people. I’d like to see a lot more College of the Atlantics and St. John’s Colleges in the world of U.S. higher education.

The college doesn’t have departments, and its faculty try very consciously to branch out and explore connections between different kinds of knowledge and methodologies. There is a lot of emphasis on guiding students towards independent study and in changing the curriculum to respond to new problems and shifting student interests. They focus on what they call “human ecology”, which I think is potentially specific enough to give the curriculum a clear set of boundaries while flexible enough that it doesn’t get stuck in a particular place and time or in a specific social or political project like a fly in amber. (I think that’s a danger for them, as well as for St. John’s, despite the fact that COA’s roots are manifestly in the late 1960s while St. John’s likes to claim its roots are in classical Athens.) The students I met, as well as the faculty, also seem to have a very clear drive towards applied and practical uses of what they teach, though not at all narrowly vocational. The emphasis on student independence pays off, from what I can see: the students I talked to were among the most confident, uninhibited and yet non-snobby undergraduates I’ve met.

Also, I don’t know how much being scenic is worth exactly in terms of salary or tuition, but whatever it’s worth, College of the Atlantic has that in spades.

I’m still thinking about some of the issues that the visit raised for me, but here’s two of the big ones that occurred to me as I was wrapping up the trip.

1) Lately, Swarthmore faculty have started to talk about the labor market in particular disciplines and wondered whether we need to make special accommodations for the difference between disciplines. For example, given that economists and chemists not only may be in demand within academia, but have many non-academic options for employment, do we or similar institutions need to acknowledge and adapt to that difference to get the faculty that we want?

Seeing the College of the Atlantic made me think about the issue of the labor market in academia from another angle. Ideally, the faculty at COA ought to be polymaths of some variety or another. The design of the curriculum practically requires it, because not only do they need to teach an ever-shifting array of subjects, they also need to advise students about where and how to acquire specialized knowledge that no one on the faculty is competent to teach directly. A faculty member in that case needs to have a good intuitive map of disciplinary or academic knowledge as a whole.

I persistently argue for the value of generalist faculty in a liberal arts institution, and a good generalist is distinguished by having a similar map in their head, by being a polymath of some kind or another. The problem is, if you want (or need) to hire faculty of this kind, how can you possibly recognize them during a search, if most of your candidates are newly minted Ph.Ds? How do you know you’ve got one once you’ve hired them? And do you recognize their value in market terms? I don’t think they’re common people, inside or outside of the academy. (The Mythbusters, again, strike me as a good representation of this ideal.) They’re not in demand in many labor markets the way a skilled chemist might be. On the other hand, I think people with multiple skill sets and a mensch-y personality (especially scientific or technical ones) tend to be people who come to be viewed as indispensible in any given organization, academically or otherwise.

So if you’re College of the Atlantic, and you know roughly what kind of personality and knowledge base functions best in your institution, how do you recruit and retain? You can’t just solve that problem with money (though I think money helps).

2) Some of the faculty at COA had read my idle musing about a redesign of liberal arts institutions. They’re doing a lot of what I thought about. I think with a larger endowment, they could do still more along the lines that I was sketching out, such as calling upon an associated “braintrust” of professionals to guide independent study. (Anyone who is going to drop $100 million on their wealthy alma mater might want to consider dropping at least a small proportion of that on COA or similarly worthy small institutions where it would make a far bigger difference to what can and cannot be done.)

However, looking at some aspects of that design realized made me think again about how much structural design alone can produce some of what I’d like a liberal arts education to be. Function does not follow form.

When I was briefly at Emory at the start of my career, I was in a workshop on interdisciplinarity. After many of the junior people there duly celebrated interdisciplinary study, a very wise, interesting senior professor, a classicist, stirred himself. “You guys,” he said, “don’t have a beef with disciplines. You have a beef with departments. Everybody’s interdisciplinary in some respect in their scholarship. It’s departments that cause the problem by raising the barriers to interaction and discussion”.

I think he was right, but getting rid of departments doesn’t fix the problem magically. Faculty at College of the Atlantic not only have to deal with the poor fit between the external structures of academia and their curricular outlook, but with defining and maintaining a distinctive habitus in their own institution. In the end, for all of us who chafe at excessive departmentalization and balkanization in academia, this is a problem of culture, attitude, practice and orientation. Cultures change slowly and organically, and you can’t rush those kinds of transformations even by the radical redesign of underlying structures.

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6 Responses to Brains in Maine

  1. Carl says:

    I’m so glad to hear COA is going well. I’ve admired that place from afar.

    You’re right at the end to doubt the sufficiency of institutional interdisciplinarities. The structures in play turn out to be much more complex. I’ve had direct experience with three such attempts:

    1. I taught for several years in an interdisciplinary human development program. The design was inspiring: the faculty was interdisciplinary and team-taught a core symposium, the purpose of which was to introduce students to a variety of perspectives on issues in the human studies. Students were expected to dynamically adapt to this cognitive ambiguity and develop flexible interpretive strategies.

    And they did, to a striking degree. The problem? With few exceptions, the faculty did not. Instead, they bunkered up in their disciplines and grew ever less willing to talk with each other.

    2. I interviewed at a boutique college within a larger university. The college had been founded by human ecology radicals in the 60s mold who favored holistic development of the students in relation to our complex environment. In due course, as they aged, they hired a new generation of exciting young scholars at the cutting edge of postcolonial, feminist, and race and ethnicity studies to carry on the radical vision.

    And they did, but it was a different radical vision. The old white men who founded the place found themselves othered as liberal, privileged, romantic pseudoradicals by the younguns, who abandoned the environmentalism and righteously indoctrinated their students in race/class/gender oppression dogma. The hallways dripped with tension and they were unable to come to agreement on anyone to hire.

    3. At another, newer interdisciplinary program (this time, a visionary interdisciplinary revitalization of a whole university), the founder told me regretfully that I was a “polarizing candidate.” The problem? I was actually able to operate in a variety of discourses, and therefore the ‘politicians’ in the faculty who controlled the decision were unable to figure out whose faction I would belong to. And they didn’t trust that I would agree with them on the stuff they took for granted – fairly enough, since I showed them amply my inclination not to take things for granted. (That had probably been a problem at #2 also.)

    I’ve since come to take interdisciplinary advertisements less naively at face value. In practice, interdisciplinarity works against the political and affective structures of turf and identification that interactively shape our senses of place in the fields of academe. As you say, it does take a kind of mensch-iness, a willingness to constantly be displaced, an ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ that’s a lot easier to apply to others than live for oneself. And because there are no hard and fast rules of right and wrong, valid and invalid, good and bad, (or because there are diverse such) interdisciplinarity requires enormous commitment to patiently holding questions unanswered and talking things through with trust and care, again and again. In real life, people like things more settled.

  2. prof.e says:

    As a long-time reader, but someone who rarely comments, this one has finally prompted me to ask a couple of questions. First, when were you at Emory?

    On a more serious note, I’m curious about whether you have ever considered taking an administrative tack in order to put your ideas into practice. Or, let me put it another way, have you considered the best institutional ways of actually changing an institutional culture so that its function and form more closely match. I loved the earlier post about your ideal liberal arts institution, and have no doubt that you could design a wonderful college from scratch, but how to go about changing one?

    — Michael E. (Emory English)

  3. Doug says:

    Carl’s point 2 reminds me of the problem of succession in any utopian comunity (and to a lesser extent in things like family-owned businesses). So few of them outlive their founders or their founding generations. The specific examples that came to mind were the myriad Christian socialist experiments in the 19th century US, but I’m sure there are plenty more examples of the general question of how to propagate an ideal-driven community through time. There’s probably even a comparative literature or at least thoughts on generalizing this question, but unfortunately I don’t have any suggestions.

  4. Timothy Burke says:


    I was briefly in an administrative post in the Institute for Liberal Arts, in the spring of 1994, just before I got the offer to come to Swarthmore.

    I think the problem with me as an administrator is that I don’t think I’d do a good job at the nitty-gritty of administrative work.

  5. Carl says:

    Doug, that’s a neat connection.

    It’s interesting to me that the faculties were the miserable ones in these scenarios I’ve described. They all wanted things to go their way, and of course couldn’t agree on what that way was. But they all knew there should be a way. The students didn’t have a way yet, so they were very happily enjoying the benefits of the more open approaches the faculties were bound into by the structures of the programs. Each of these programs seemed to be working quite nicely at the student level.

    I don’t want to clutter up TB’s thread here so I’ll just point to some further thoughts on that and other aspects of interdisciplinarity I’ll post soon over on my own site, Dead Voles.

  6. Lynn Boulger says:

    Tim – As COA’s Dean of Development, I feel it would be very remiss if I didn’t say to you: Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. For those of you who want to immediately take Dr. Burke’s advice and donate to COA’s endowment, please go to!

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