How ten years in a liberal arts college schooled me


As a doctoral student at a major Canadian research university I did an unusual amount of teaching: typically a double load.  Most of it was as a Teaching Assistant in small tutorials, though towards the end of me degree I got to be lead instructor in a couple of courses.  It felt like I had 'made it' in terms of teaching, in higher ed.   Finally, I was the guy on the stage.  The sage. The focus of all attention in the classroom (the academic attention anyway).  

Why did this feel like such a big deal?  The psychology of the individual aside, virtually all the signals emanating from the institution, from the Professoriate, from the culture of the Academy as I knew it, indicated that 'the lecture' was the crucial locus of teaching and learning within the Faculty of Arts.  The work I had done in tutorial settings, helping students work through a variety of sources, develop critical perspectives on texts and narratives, and  improve their written and oral communication skills, ranked a distant second in a two-horse race.

When I landed my tenure-track gig at a liberal arts college in Michigan, I harboured a smug assumption that such institutions were a sort of higher-ed lite.  In short, they would pale in comparison to the Canadian university system I knew from top to bottom.  

I couldn't have been more wrong. 

What I found was an institution focused on undergraduate education.  It was not a research institution in which teaching was (generally) viewed as a necessary distraction from the real work of faculty and therefore disproportionately left to adjuncts and graduate students.  No, it was mission No. 1.  Classes were small. In my department (History) the maximum size for a first year survey course was 30. This meant a much more intimate, personal, and interactive learning environment than virtually any I had encountered as a student. [Exceptional status granted to Dr. David Monod, WLU]. Faculty (the vast majority of whom are tenured or on the tenure track) did all the teaching and marking.  [In all but one of the courses I TAed as a grad student, the professor did not read a single paper or exam, much less mark one.]  Moreover, in the liberal arts environment many students are drawn into authentic research and creative projects within weeks of matriculation.  This remarkable degree of contact, attention, and opportunity continued for the full four yeas, giving our undergrads more consistent and meaningful interaction with faculty than most doctoral students enjoyed in my top-ranked graduate program.  Little wonder that our students tended to get into excellent graduate/professional programs and excel once they got there.

And that was really just the beginning of my higher education re-education.  The liberal arts ethos of breadth (in addition to depth) liberated me from the obsession with content knowledge that my university experiences had inculcated.   It showed me that there could be an intentional and productive balance among content, skills, and mindsets in the service of a higher project: i.e. the development of rational citizen-agents, who not only knew things, but had had the capacity, inclination, and skills required to learn new things and keep on learning throughout their lives and careers.  At our best we had not only given them fish; we had also taught them how to fish.  My previous experiences had focused on providing content [fish] and assumed that through consumption students would absorb the requisite competencies and outlooks [fishing skills] to acquire more.

This shift in perspective flipped my view of the teaching I had done as a grad student. The spotlight afforded by the lecture put the focus on me and on content, whereas the lowly tutorials had put the focus on the students and on building skills and critical mindsets they could put to use in other courses and indeed throughout their lives. In short, my priorities had been bassackwards.

This depth of this divide was driven home to me last year, when I again taught in a Canadian University.  Let me be clear, the faculty in that department (also History) are by and large wonderful, dedicated scholars who care about their students and work hard to overcome the structural obstacles to undergraduate learning.  Nevertheless, these obstacles shocked me.  Not only were introductory classes large (80-150), there were no tutorials, which is to say there were no opportunities for students to do the work of historians (synthesis, textual analysis, interpretation, argument, historiography etc). under expert tutelage; no opportunities to explore ideas and issues with their peers in low-stakes environments. 

 The impact on students of these structures was no less shocking.  A considerable majority acclimated to this culture so thoroughly that attempts to shunt them from the rails of passivity with participatory activities and exercises meet with resistance bordering on intransigence.  It's easy to condemn them as lazy, or incurious, or preoccupied with trivialities.   But are they really to blame if they have gotten the signals embedded in the institutional culture of higher education in Canada?

That most distinctive of American institutions, the liberal arts residential college, is not perfect.  And it is not cheap.  But it has a great deal to teach us about the aim and mechanics of high quality undergraduate education - if we can get past our smug superiority and embrace disruptive change within our system.   Some newer institutions [Quest] and some innovative programs within older ones [Trent's BAS], have taken important steps down this path.  I imagine that if more students (and parents) knew what they were missing, that almost empty path might start to look more like the 401 Express at rush hour.