Community Engagement for the Liberal Arts?

Faculty lounges are rife with gloomy discussions about the demise of the academy, and more specifically, the liberal arts. Of course, that gloom is well founded given the trends that have been playing out for decades. However, one fruitful option would be for those in the liberal arts to break out of this miasma of negativity and blaze a new path of relevance via community engagement.

Parents of prospective liberal arts majors want to know answers to questions like “What will my child do after graduation?” and “For what career will this major prepare my child?” These questions are harder to answer for liberal arts than STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) faculty because specific vocational training is not, and should not be expected to be, a significant part of a liberal arts major. Therefore, liberal arts faculty need new ways to address these questions because they are so critical to the enrollment in, and therefore viability of, their majors and institutions.

While liberal arts faculty are often underappreciated and overlooked by their colleagues in other fields, those trained in liberal arts disciplines must have exceptional communication skills, and these skills (including the framing of logical arguments) transfer to many fields. While it is possible to earn a doctorate in STEM without excellent communication skills, it is impossible to earn a liberal arts doctorate without them. Given that communication skills are perhaps the most transferrable skills of all, liberal arts faculty need to showcase the fact that they are the most reliable producers of those skills in students.

The educational journey through liberal arts majors in rigorous programs gives students tremendously valuable skills and experience. However, in many cases, liberal arts faculty would improve the marketability of their majors if they focused some of their energy on engaging and serving “real-world” partners, whether in the governmental, nonprofit, or for-profit sectors. Oral and written communication skills, and the ability to properly frame and support arguments, are among the most prized—as well as transferrable—skills in today’s ever-changing job market.

The exceptional communication skills of liberal arts students could be used to offer services to real-world partners in arrangements that bring the work of corporations and into the classroom and/or engage students outside of the classroom in the context of closely mentored funded internships or ad-hoc work assignments. Foundation grants, internal university funds, and fee-for-service arrangements could support these efforts, but only if a faculty’s creative energy is put behind them. It takes extra energy on the part of faculty, administrators, students, and external partners or clients to break out of old operational norms and create these partnerships.

Examples provide the best means of explaining this idea. For instance, a local historical society might be in need of developing outreach, education, or fundraising materials. If the historical society is in regular contact with a faculty member, this need can be identified together and the small amount of funding necessary secured to support a liberal arts student to work on these materials under the faculty member’s supervision. If done well, this would result in quality deliverables for the client, the possibility for future work, and—most importantly—invaluable experience for the student. Another example could be unleashing an entire class on critiquing and proposing improvements to the content of the website for a local small business, grading the students’ analysis, and delivering streamlined suggestions to the company in exchange for a small fee to compensate the professor for the time spent setting up the unique project. Yet another example could be a faculty-student team working with a local K-12 school on a mutually beneficial grant proposal.

These experiences would allow involved students to differentiate themselves from liberal arts graduates with only classroom experience as well as demonstrate just how valuable and applicable their skills are. These student experiences, especially if in paid positions and leading to enhanced career prospects, are the best means of answering the persistent questions from prospective students and their parents about the choice of a liberal arts major.

Quite a few liberal arts faculty are trying similar approaches to what is proposed above. However, many others are not. It would be better to burn out trying exciting and challenging new approaches than to fade away. These approaches would certainly demand yet more time from some overburdened faculty. In addition, shifting paradigms would require the fortuitous alignment of faculty, administration, student, and external partner visions. Nevertheless, the long-term erosion of the academy and liberal arts calls for some sort of change.

By William H.J. Strosnider
William H.J. Strosnider, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering and Director of the Center for Watershed Research and Service at Saint Francis University (Pennsylvania). His focus is water quality protection, wastewater treatment, and the integration of technical service and research projects into undergraduate programs.


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