Wednesday, April 21, 2010

not drinking the kool-aid

I never attended a liberal arts college. I received at BA, MA, PhD, and two post-docs from major state universities. Before I came here, I had no personal familiarity with SLACs.

I really like the teaching environment here, and I think we provide an exceptional education. I understand why the faculty are proud of what they have accomplished, and of their students. Still, I'm frequently annoyed by the attitude that many of my colleagues have, basically, that no other form of education is worth-while.

I think this school has many advantages - small class size, undergraduate-focused education, strong community spirit, focus on extracurricular and interdisciplinary education, etc., etc. If a student just wants a degree, any degree, in order to get a middle management job, or because having a BA is a prereq for being middle class these days, I think they can't do better than this college. There's no skating through with the minimum level of effort here; faculty hold students to a very high standard, and the classes are so small you can't just hide in the back row. Students are pushed into doing their best, and they are more engaged in the learning process than students at big state schools.

That said, this isn't the perfect education for everyone. It certainly wouldn't have been a very good environment for me. If a student is interested in pursuing a research career, this school doesn't have sufficient depth or breadth of opportunity, in or out of the classroom; you won't make the right kinds of connections, and you won't have the right kind of intellectual pedigree. Even for students whose interests are more professional than academic, there are limits to the programs were are able to offer. When a student tells me they're really interested in veterinary medicine, or forensics, or linguistics, or going to a seminary, I wonder why in God's name they came here, where we don't offer majors/courses to fully support those interests.

Do not try to tell most of the faculty here that a Liberal Arts education is not for everyone. Not unless you want to be crushed by the giant chips on their shoulders. In their view, state schools are full of professors who can't teach their way out of a paper bag, and automaton students with no real interest in education.

I was reminded of this today, when Crazy Colleague sent out an e-mail supporting a student's petition to transfer a Theory class from an R1 university to stand in for the course that CC herself teaches here. CC spent a full page assuring us that no lecture course could ever compare to "the Freirian pedagogy of horizontal communication among a community of learners sharing their ideas that undergirds [her] course". (I kid you not, that's a direct quote.) She complained that the professor did not require enough writing, discouraged open debate, and did not spend enough time on feminist theory. Still, she finally admitted that a well-established anthropologist at a major research institution might possibly be capable of teaching basic theory well enough that his course was acceptable for our students.

Is it fine to be pro-SLAC? Of course. Should we be blind to the fact that research universities do actually provide a good education for some students, depending on their interests and abilities? Of course not.

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