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.