Accentuating the Positive
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently asked seven leading scholars to envision the professoriate in 20 years. Naturally, I read their responses through the lens of Dickinson’s experience and prospects. I’d like to share some of the scholars’ observations and relate them to the college. Although, in the Chronicle’s words, “the outlook isn’t exactly rosy,” let’s start with some positives.
Interdisciplinary endeavor thrives. One bright spot for the commentators was the increasing willingness of faculty to work across disciplinary lines in new, creative ways. Dickinson certainly excels in this arena. Nearly one-quarter of our students graduate with interdisciplinary majors, and our faculty work smoothly across disciplines (see, for example, coverage of our new National Science Foundation grant in bioinformatics on Page 30).
Technology enhances pedagogy. The commentators generally rated technological innovation as a positive, leading to improved teaching and more outreach beyond campus. Here, too, Dickinson faculty are moving with the trend. Most professors have course syllabi and materials online, we compare very favorably with peers in “smart” (technologically equipped) classrooms, and collaborative teaching through blogs and other social-networking venues is spreading. There are also salient examples of outreach. (For example, visit Professor Matt Pinsker’s impressive Civil War “House Divided” site at http://housedivided.dickinson.edu.)
Despite these positives, most of the forecasts were pessimistic. Indeed, the Chronicle’s “isn’t exactly rosy” is a euphemism. Consider these trends.
Humanities in decline. Most commentators predicted that the humanities, and liberal arts generally, will retreat in the face of more practical and revenue-generating fields. One might imagine that Dickinson’s emphasis on useful education and such new majors as international business & management (now our most popular) and law & policy signify that we, too, are moving in this direction.
It’s just the opposite. The humanities remain a vital component of our program, as exemplified this fall by the formation of a faculty “humanities collective” around a new Ideas that Changed the World First-Year Seminar offering. And the new majors cited above reflect not the movement of vocationalism into our curriculum but rather the application of liberal-arts perspectives to broader social issues, including career. In this sense, Benjamin Rush’s original vision of engaged liberal learning translates well from 1783 to a 21st-century response to pressures for practicality with a higher and, yes, more useful approach.
Hierarchy and specialization fractionalize the professoriate. The ugly vision here is that financial pressures will divide faculty between the privileged, tenured few and the undersupported many. Short-term appointments and reliance upon poorly paid part-time adjuncts will corrode teaching, as the handful of fully tenured professors dedicate ever more of their time to research and graduate students. Even more distinctly, in regard to the humanities, Dickinson stands in stark contrast to this trend.
The vast majority of our courses are taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty, and all of them teach at all levels of the curriculum. For example, every faculty member participates in the cycle of First-Year Seminars. Only 6 to 9 percent of our courses are taught by adjuncts, and these are often high-quality, long-term teachers or “practitioner” experts who enrich our offerings. Finally, we are committed to the teacher-scholar model in which faculty are expected to be strong teachers and productive researchers and/or performers. They bring to their students not only pedagogical excellence but also the fresh insights and research opportunities generated by their scholarly activity.
Interestingly, none of the Chronicle commentators mentions liberal-arts colleges; instead they focus on universities and community colleges. Perhaps this reflects our small segment of the higher-education community. Whatever the reason, Dickinson and its peers may well be best placed to take advantage of the positive trends in higher education and avoid the negative. In fact, our inherited, distinctive vision of an engaged liberal arts, of liberal learning in the service of society, positions us particularly well to weather the storms and respond productively to changing times.