What Color Is Your Leaden Weight?

Strictly in the department of anecdotes-don’t-make-data and a single year doesn’t make a trend, there’s been a slight acceleration in movement in enrollments this year at Swarthmore towards the sciences, particularly chemistry and biology.

Reading enrollments anywhere is hard, even over the longer term. There are a lot of variables that shape enrollments in any particular course. For example, the time that a course is scheduled for an early morning slot will inevitably have lower enrollments than it would if it were taught at another time.

Enrollments are also one of the most sensitive subjects in conversations between faculty. Attempting to compare enrollments for individual professors almost invariably leads to hurt feelings, not the least because there are some very granular and significant disparities in workloads that may be caught up in that comparison.

So with all those cautions in mind, a hesitant suggestion that if both long-term and short-term enrollment trends towards the sciences and towards more tangibly applied disciplines like economics have been observed at most liberal arts colleges, it may be time for those kinds of institutions to really have a very open heads-on confrontation with the implications of that trend.

I do not think that trend means that every subject which is not pre-law or pre-medicine needs to become a kind of remnant curriculum designed to help tomorrow’s lawyers, doctors and bureaucrats seem a bit more sparkling in cocktail party conversations. I do think it means that more of the curriculum needs to give a tangible and concrete sense of what applications it might have in life and work. Critical thinking, ethical intelligence, informed citizenship: those are nice but vague. They’re not enough. If some of those trends are real and general across institutions, they are not a sign that most students just plain love the sciences or hard social sciences and scorn everything else. They’re a sign that some disciplines do a better job at connecting intellectual knowledge, concrete skills with flexible utility, and a long-term narrative vision of what you do with a major in that subject later on.

Most of the long-term careers and life outcomes that humanistic disciplines cite as flowing from study within their precincts are in the throes of serious long-term structural transformations within the global economy. Yes, it’s still clear that tomorrow’s economy will require advanced education and that it will require flexibility and adaptability (and thus, “critical thinking”). But the security blankets provided to humanistic faculty trying to envision the careers of their students by journalism, publishing, advertising, translation, media production, civil service and so on are being stripped away at a steady rate. Sometimes they’re being replaced by other tangible professions and niches which many of us do not teach very well or at all (such as digital media production). Sometimes it’s hard to see what, if anything, will replace some of those jobs or niches.

Thinking about applications doesn’t have to involve a radical change in what you teach, I think. It’s just a shift in emphasis that leads to a slightly different selection of reading materials (more efforts to on materials which go outside narrowly specialized scholarship, or efforts to weigh the value of specialized scholarship against general-purpose syntheses). Or to more work with producing content in a wider range of ways (writing, digital media, and so on). Or more work on making skills like research methods transferrable outside the context of a specialized topic. To some extent, in the past, this is the kind of labor that faculty in many disciplines have left entirely up to students, to connect the dots of their studies and discover on their own possible applications for them. Maybe it’s time to own more of that work ourselves.

However, a curriculum that strives for more tangible connections to the world beyond its institution also is going to need a redistribution of teaching resources in the longer haul, both in terms of subject matter and curricular structure. I’ve been fretting about this kind of shift for a while. You can accomplish some it within established courses, subjects and tenure-track lines with changes in pedagogical emphasis. You can recognize what you’re already doing that is hands-on or experiential and extend that across the institution. That’s what labs in the natural sciences are for, so just consider what labs in the humanities might look like.

However, I also think you need new concepts and structures. I’ve argued in the past that a college like Swarthmore might consider bringing professionals of various kinds in for a year (lawyers, doctors, civil servants, journalists, investment bankers, entrepreneurs, software engineers, architects) to teach a “practicum”. Not to teach a standard professional-school course, but a liberal-arts reflection on what work in those professions is like, what the tangible problems and issues are, and so on. It would be hard at first to find people who have the appropriate professional experience who would also be comfortable in front of a classroom of students in the mode of teaching preferred at an institution like Swarthmore, but I think over time we’d get the hang of it.

Another thought I’ve had recently is that we could use a quarter-long, half-credit series of courses on non-disciplinary technical skills that confer no certification. (Trying to make these actual certification programs, I agree, leads to serious transformations in institutional mission). Carpentry, plumbing, computer assembly and repair, agriculture, food preparation, and so on. The practicum I’ve described above is something we could plausibly accomplish through a single major donation, because it would only be funding a single position like our current Lang and Cornell professors. This shift, on the other hand, would take some serious repurposing of resources. For some of these tangible skills, there is faculty or staff expertise available, but the institution would have to decide quite programmatically to commit more resources to this kind of teaching and fewer resources to the teaching we already do. Arguably some of this kind of instruction could be had on the cheap by comparison to tenure-track faculty.

Now this is the kind of suggestion that I expect that almost all of my colleagues would smile politely upon hearing it while privately tagging me as “far loonier than I thought he was”. Quite reasonably, one could suggest that this is the sort of teaching that other kinds of institutions do better than we do, and that students looking for this kind of knowledge can get it later on in life, as needed. But I think this is the kind of knowledge that makes the liberal arts meaningful and that would give our graduates some far better visions of what to do next in life (here I completely agree with Matthew Crawford). I think you’d be better off being working for four years as a plumber who had a wide range of interesting knowledge and training and then going to graduate school than being an underpaid and underutilized white-collar worker in a struggling think tank or community non-profit frustrated by the dysfunctions of your organization and by the drone-like quality of the work you’re assigned to do. Better off not just financially but intellectually. So yeah, I’d just as soon snatch up the equivalent of 5 tenure-track positions and put that money into a “side curriculum” of this kind.

That’s a pretty radical shift in orientation, and I don’t expect it soon (or at all). But I do think the general problem of how to make what we do seem to have tangible payoffs is a challenge that liberal arts faculty can’t afford to completely subcontract out to admissions officers and career services advisors any longer.

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9 Responses to What Color Is Your Leaden Weight?

  1. dmerkow says:

    Many colleges had/have physical education components. I wonder if this might be a way in to add some skill classes to the curriculum w/out totally messing with the mission and time to graduation and the like.

    I wonder if sub-contracting/cross-listing these courses with the local voc-ed schools or community colleges. It would also provide students with a healthy way to escape the ivory tower and perhaps weaken the tendency toward elitism.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Partnership is definitely one way to cut the costs. Some practical issues if the physical distances involved are considerable.

  3. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    So, I get the caveat, but I am still missing your point. Here is what I am hearing from you: maybe some students are going into biology/economics, the hard sciences, where people think scientifically and wear lab coats. Following the logic of supply and demand, which you imply here, the humanities have to make themselves more ‘practical.’ So now please connect the dots for me, how is teaching a student to bend nails and solder copper pipe going to change that trend?

    I spent five years between undergrad and grad school working as a technician in theater and building trade show booths. It was a great experience. If I had been any good at it, I should have stuck with it and become the boss. But I was better at reading and writing about history. So I went to grad school. While I was doing this, I met a lot of very skilled people, who have more than just manual skills like carpentry, welding, electric know how, etc, but they had planning skills and other sorts of knowledge. Many of them had a BA or a couple years of college. They learned some of those skills in theater programs in college, but most of them picked it up as apprentices and in entry level positions working in theaters.

    I think its a little presumptuous that a student at swarthmore or any other SLAC with a few credit hours in wood shop is going to be employable at anything other than the entry level. In a theater, they would have to work their way up the ladder just like everyone else, and they would still be ignorant of the mental habits of a lighting tech, for example. The case is even more tenuous for honest to god trades like plumbing, electrical work, dry wall and plastering, etc. So what is the outcome for a student taking one of your practical classes? – Proletarian class consciousness? – Improved home handyman skills for when they move to Williamsburg and start gentrifying a brownstone? – Averting a crisis of masculinity in the Accounting section?

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I’m running together several things here.

    1) Humanistic courses need to have a more applied bent in and of themselves, in some fashion that makes sense within the context of the humanities.
    2) The overall liberal arts curriculum needs to give students a better sense of how liberal arts knowledge might express itself usefully in professional and career life.
    2a) One of the more complicated ways you might do that is to have some ‘hands-on’ experiences built into the curriculum which don’t narrowly feed back into the specialized intellectual culture of the disciplines. Hence, a semester’s work with plumbing. The proposition here is not that this will qualify you as an apprentice plumber but it’s the same exploratory proposition as in teaching English or history in a liberal arts college: you might find that work “good to think with”, another arrow in your quiver. But maybe you’d also decide to do a 2-year certification in plumbing after (or while) working on your degree, which would be a good outcome too.

    You could just as well ask what’s the outcome for a student taking an impractical class in the same terms, after all. What’s the outcome for taking Renaissance literature? African history? Moral philosophy? I think there are good outcomes, some career-oriented, some not–but as outcomes, they maybe resemble each other too closely. This is about getting more heterogeneity, more possible connections to the world, more discoveries, into the mix.

  5. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    I see what you are saying about humanities courses needing to take a more applied bent. I like the idea that learning something about a trade or craft might show students that it is ‘good to think with.’

    But I am in the middle of grading ninety take home essays for my Western Civ midterms. About 20% of the students have the mechanics of writing down, and write at a fairly high level. I can teach these students how history is “good to think with.” Another 20% are basically clueless and write at a remedial level. I have to teach some of them how to actually use the ‘inset footnote’ command in MS word. They need to know what a topic sentence is. The remaining 60% have proficient writing skills, but need practice. I can teach some of these students the finer points of essay writing: how to read the question, formulate an introduction, effective use of evidence, paragraph structure, etc.

    That all strikes me as being pretty practical stuff. Sure, the content is history, but really, they are learning some of the basic skills they will need to live as adults and make a living in a service economy. If the student takes a comp class in English, a history class, a science class where they have lab reports to write up, a writing intensive course in their business administration major, then maybe they will master the skills of writing.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. Like I said, some sense of practicality or application is right at our fingertips already. But I’m not sure we’re even being entirely clear with our students what the actual work uses of writing are going to be–and some of what we tend to prefer in our writing isn’t necessarily the first or most likely kinds of writing that students are going to put into practice.

  7. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    I think you are right, most of the time we are not terrible explicit about how writing is going to help them at work or in their professional career(s). But I am not so sure we need to prepare them for the specific kinds of writing they encounter in the workplace.

    Yes, they need to know how to write an email, a cover letter, and resume to land a job. But really what can we practically teach them after that? How many different kinds of writing are there in the world? There are probably hundreds of formats for quarterly reports, sales reports, accident investigations, or technical manuals. We could never teach all of those ways of writing, but we can teach a student how to ‘crack the code’ of a particular genre. Even more important, you can teach them it is possible to start writing when they are confronted by the blank page.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I agree very much that the point is “crack the code”. I suppose what in the end I’m anxious about is that I think we don’t really do that in a very wide-ranging way, despite a lot of talk about critical thinking.

  9. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    RE: critical thinking. In my department its a kind of magical phrase. We invoke it, but its clear that we all conceive of it in different ways. I am not sure what I mean by ‘critical thinking’ anymore. I am hoping that I can teach my students to read for and recognize the arguments in their texts (primary & secondary sources). Then I’d like them to try formulating their own questions about history, and come up with some of their own answers based on those texts. But, some days I feel like I am still learning how to do this myself. But if I could get them to recognize and argument and take it apart like a clock, that would get them part way there.

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