Friday, July 08, 2011

Floating an idea: The Humanities Academy

So Tenured Radical has moved over to a new blog at the Chronicle, where she has a fascinating post up. The central question is how might we in academia employ a development model based on a liberal capitalism that privileges long term infrastructure growth and smart innovation (rather than a privatization model that rewards short-term growth often at the expense of long-term institutional health).

She makes two assertions in particular that I want to pick up on here:

1) "Recognize that some students will feel well-served by [the humanities] and others won’t. Ask the students who feel served by the humanities why, and invest in those students. Release the others from humanities requirements."

2) "Look around your institution, find something that doesn’t work as it should, and fix it. This requires dedicated faculty-administration partnership."

So BRU is a fairly large state flagship institution that is currently going crazy over STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in a geographical region where the cultural values are generally pretty suspicious about liberal study anyway. The message that I as a humanities scholar lately has been that while my place at the university is basically important and sound, the amount of resources coming our way will be shrinking, and that we must continue to justify any new initiatives, faculty hires (including line replacements), and even some maintenance procedures in relation to the privatizing logic of money making; We have more than once been asked, then, to frame ourselves and our needs as subservient (not just below, but in service to) the more lucrative STEM fields that the university loves right now. As we lose literature faculty lines, for example, we gain technical writing lines.

At the same time, the students who are coming to my mid-level English classes are sharply divided: English majors looking to fill in electives sit on one side, while majors from engineering or journalism sit on the other. Classes are often initially at least split into affinity groups, and meeting the needs of each of these groups is a juggling act, and often only really successful in isolated moments.

There are a lot of other factors that contribute to the particular ways that humanities are being constrained from thriving most majors can only count 42 hours from a single discipline toward graduation, which means that we end up losing our most dedicated majors at the end of their junior year because they've maxed out their English credits and are off to fill out a second major.
So what I'm looking for is a way to shore up the humanities, not just for their own sake, but for the good of the undergraduate students in our program (who are often literally not permitted to get the kind of humanistic education they come to desire), and for the institution.

We are also an institution that is sufficiently isolated such that we cannot follow TR's suggestion to share faculty among institutions, which also means we're the only (reasonably competitive) game in town for at least an hour in any direction. There are, in fact, very few SLACs in our state, and frankly, none of any particular prestige.

So forgive me while I float an idea here, a pretty half-baked one, but still...

The Humanities Academy
The idea of a humanities academy somewhat follows the model of the Living/Learning communities that popped up in the 90s, the idea of the small college within the large university. But whereas those had students beginning their university careers within small academies, and then moving out into the larger university for their upper division work, this would have students doing some or even much of their general education work early on, and then entering a smaller, more concentrated SLAC-style program within the larger university. In short, I'm imaging starting a new SLAC that draws on the resources of its host flagship state u.

Let's say we admit students during their third semester, having completed (or enrolled in) at least 33 of the required 41 credits of general education (That leaves 2 or 3 of their gen-eds to fulfill over the course of the remaining 5 semesters). With the remaining 75-90 credits (depending on how expediently they move through the program, and how well they planned their pre-academy courses), they take 4 semesters of an additional language (already required by BRU's College of Arts and Sciences) and take a double major, one of which is a traditional major and the other of which is a multi-disciplinary humanities major.

Many students already follow this path, actually, but there would be add-ons here:
1) Every semester, students enroll in a 1-or 2-credit humanities discussion section where faculty from each of the participating disciplines run open-ended discussions on trans-disciplinary topics that are guided as much by what students are taking in their other classes.

2) Students would get guided advising that guides them specifically through their home-department's most rigorous options and through a thoughtfully planned selection of other participating disciplines.

3) Home departments would offer one or two sections per semester that were limited to Humanities Academy students, which would help create the kind of small-college community that is currently sorely lacking in this large university.

4) Although students are currently required here to take a capstone in their home department, the Humanities academy would offer interdisciplinary sections of the capstone course that would have students from different home-disciplines working together on somewhat more rigorous final projects than they might otherwise.

5) The initiative of the Humanities Academy might also allow our current (very small) multi-disciplinary studies program to hire one or two dedicated faculty to teach in areas that we currently don't have departments to fully support. I'm thinking particularly of Classics here (Latin is taught at BRU by a retired chemistry prof.), but other fields that might specifically supplement a humanities education that couldn't otherwise thrive in a STEM-crazy flagship might could also be useful.

If we were able to make such a program fly, we might be able to concentrate together our most talented humanities students, allowing them to reinforce each others' interests and habits of mind instead of having them always suffer silently in the corners of rooms stocked largely by gen-ed students who are frequently working hard but are just not at the same level. It would also provide a focal point for the university to highlight student accomplishments in the humanities, instead of finding them dispersed across academic departments where they are too isolated from one another to achieve much in the way of critical mass.

Such Academy-dedicated classes would also likely be invigorating places to teach as well, and could provide a bit of a cyclical boost for faculty (tenure-track and "teaching-track" alike) who spend many classroom hours in lower-level courses.

What would it require? A lot of work, first off. Buy-in from participating disciplines, and especially from individual faculty from each discipline, whose participation in the academy would help anchor a sense of real scholarly community. More time resources than fiscal ones, though in terms of faculty hours, those are interchangeable in some ways.

So that's the rough sketch for a big idea. Is it anything more than a nice idea? Problems of potentials I haven't seen yet?


Jenny said...

This sounds to me, in many ways, similar to Plan 2 at UT. Am I reading you correctly?

Horace said...

Yeah, Jenny, that's the sort of thing I'm thinking of, though I hadn't imagined it as having a science component (though I like the idea), and I don't necessarily imagine it as an honors program, per se. I suspect that here it would need to be pitched as an exclusive thing--while the humanistic bent of the program would likely draw some of the more ambitious students here, I can imagine such a curriculum being rewarding for hard-working students who often only earn B- grades...

But I like that there's a successful model out there...

Horace said...

I meant *NOT* need to be pitched as an exclusive thing. duh.

Tom said...

I don't know if this dovetails or not, Horace, but I found myself this last year once or twice encouraging students to find a way to get their hearts into their work, as well as their minds. I like the idea of a 'humanities academy' where students are constantly engaging their hearts and minds. Something in what you wrote made me think there might be a linkage, or a marketing strategy, or something there.