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This op-ed essay by Jack Dougherty and Megan Faver Hartline was published online by the Campus Compact of Southern New England (CCSNE) on January 28, 2019 at

Imagine this not-so-hypothetical scenario: You’re a newer faculty member at a liberal arts college, and your dean has published an op-ed essay calling for “experiential” liberal arts “to break down the barrier between classroom learning and everyday life.” But what exactly does “experiential” mean, especially in academic disciplines without established traditions in laboratories, studios, or field work? Is this a meaningful foundational shift—or yet another higher education fad? How should newer faculty respond to this tension between philosophical aspirations of what liberal arts learning might become in the future versus pragmatic advice on how to survive and build your scholarly career over the next few years?

We wrote this essay to publicly share advice that we have offered to groups of newer faculty at our liberal arts institution, since others elsewhere may face similar predicaments. We believe that experiential learning has a place when it serves the core mission of a liberal arts education: how to think from the perspective of other people, especially when their academic orientations or life backgrounds differ from your own. For newer faculty navigating the difficult waters of higher education – and for academic leaders seeking to offer them intellectual and institutional guidance – we offer these pieces of advice:

Reflect on your motivations

Ask yourself (and your colleagues) a deeper question: Why should we integrate “experiential” learning into the liberal arts? If the answer is because a dean told you so, then your motivation will not likely last beyond the next administrative turnover. Nor are we persuaded by a purely vocational argument that liberal arts should be redirected toward career opportunities, since many of the supposedly cutting-edge technology skills we learned a decade or two ago are obsolete today. Instead, we find our motivation in experiential out-of-classroom liberal arts learning when it strengthens our ability to engage in standpoint thinking. This concept came to us from our colleague, philosopher Dan Lloyd, and other feminist theorists. Lloyd draws upon the works of Hannah Arendt and John Dewey to identify thinking “as an intrinsically social activity” where we begin to perceive the world “from the standpoint of someone else.” Therefore, if we define a liberal arts education as a curriculum designed to promote standpoint thinking, then experiential learning has a place when it promotes both cognitive skills and civic values “to expand the perspectives from which students see their world.”

Consider teaching with Community Learning

Liberal arts faculty who teach in disciplines with labs, studios, or fieldwork usually can envision some form of “experiential” learning. But it’s often harder for humanities and social science faculty to imagine this, especially those who teach at liberal arts institutions that have historically distanced their curriculum from vocational training. Consider this pedagogical option: Community Learning, which we define as experiential liberal arts learning with collaborative partnerships (that benefit all parties, both inside and outside the campus) and perspective-building relationships (to cultivate standpoint thinking). At our college, located in the city of Hartford, Connecticut, faculty across various departments have innovated for more than two decades with Community Learning by bringing students together with diverse neighborhood groups, non-profit organizations, and local change agents to co-create knowledge.

This semester at our campus, an English class is exploring prison literature in collaboration with an arts-based re-entry program for people returning from a correctional institution. Also, an environmental science class is partnering with local organizations on river cleanup and invasive species removal to better understand conservation and biodiversity. And a first-year seminar is conducting video interviews with five different local social reform leaders, to analyze their “theories of change” and also to create one-minute web videos for their organizations to use online. These courses succeed when faculty creatively blend the needs of their academic disciplines (What should students learn?) with the needs of their community partners (What types of service or knowledge would they like the class to contribute?) This pedagogical balancing act—of planning a course around the discipline, the community, and students’ developmental learning—exemplifies standpoint thinking in the liberal arts.

Listen, partner, and rethink your course

Whether you realize it or not, many liberal arts courses contain elements that resonate with the needs and interests of community partners. Even courses in the humanities, which some perceive as purely academic, are likely to incorporate liberal arts skills (like research, analysis, writing, and presentation) as well as broad themes relevant across the human experience (mobility, hope, transgression, and power). These skills and themes may be just as relevant to organizations in your local community that may have needs that liberal arts students can fulfill.

Listening means sitting down with people who are not necessarily in the academic world, but who ask questions or seek knowledge that would benefit from interacting with the liberal arts. The best partnerships arise when community members and our students pose rich questions, look for persuasive evidence, and reevaluate their thinking based on listening to other points of view. Community learning is not simply volunteering. Rather, it is co-creating knowledge from both academic and community perspectives.

To achieve this goal, faculty need to listen and consider: How do your prospective community partners define their central needs? How might a collaborative project with a partner help your students better understand the disciplinary components of your field? For example, will they see principles in action at a community site? Or practice the kinds of public writing and research that contribute to your area of study? When liberal arts students co-create knowledge that integrates both the academic discipline and needs of community partners, they become more intellectually and civically engaged.

Experiential learning in the liberal arts is not a new idea. But it is one that we can continually build upon and improve by drawing connections with national networks, scholarly literature, and colleagues across your campus. Two decades ago, one of us visited our campus for the first time at the end of the spring semester, by unexpectedly walking into a meeting room where two dozen faculty and staff were planning their Community Learning courses for the next fall. In the traditionally elite world of liberal arts education, this was an uncommon sight. A philosophy professor described teaching a course on consciousness where students spent time as companions with patients in the day room at a nearby mental health facility. A chemistry professor explained how their students detected soil contamination with a neighborhood housing renovation group. “Why are you here?” one of us asked several faculty, seeking to understand their motivations. The most compelling answer was also the simplest: “It’s a good way for our students to learn.”

That answer still rings true today as a reminder for why experiential learning matters. If we truly embrace the power of liberal arts to “liberate” our minds from narrow parochial thinking, and to expand our worlds to consider other people’s points of view, then we need a curriculum that brings our students to learn outside the campus bubble, to think more critically about the social landscape, and to cultivate richer skills in civic engagement and co-creating knowledge. In other words, experiential learning deserves a larger role when it makes us better liberal-arts thinkers and doers.

About the authors: Jack Dougherty is Faculty Director of Community Learning, and Megan Faver Hartline is Director of Community Learning, at the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research (CHER) at Trinity College, Connecticut.


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This essay was originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on September 7, 2018, and appears here with permission of the author.

Experiential education, an attempt to break down the barrier between classroom learning and everyday life, has long been a staple of professional disciplines. For the liberal arts, the partnership hasn’t come naturally. For many liberal-arts faculty members, an education should be for its own sake, not for job preparation.

Nonetheless, it is common now for liberal-arts colleges to advertise their embrace of experiential, “high impact” forms of education. These generally include place-based learning during study abroad, internships, civic engagement, and undergraduate research. Fully realized, the experiential liberal arts have the potential to transform higher education.

Large universities have taken the lead on this change. For example, my previous institution, Northeastern University, is fully connecting experiential education to the liberal arts. The university’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities has defined a model that links traditional liberal-­arts strengths (critical thinking, cross-cultural competency, etc.) with the long-established strengths in co-operative education that Northeastern is known for. In addition, it has embraced new competencies, particularly in areas such as data visualization, that clearly overlap with existing liberal-­arts disciplines.

Many traditional liberal-arts colleges, too, are embracing, if somewhat cautiously, forms of learning that would have been unthinkable in an earlier era. While business schools in those types of institutions are still rare, there has been a recent flowering of centers and programs focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. Such programs exist at Middlebury, Lewis and Clark, Bates, and Swarthmore, among other colleges.

At other liberal-arts colleges, some programs have long recognized the value of practical forms of education. Here at Trinity College, we have a distinctive, longstanding engineering program in which the very practical discipline of engineering is mixed with traditional liberal-arts skills. The logic for such a program is not simply to provide a practical route to employment within a liberal-arts context but also to bring the benefits of a rounded liberal-arts education to future engineers.

In truth, none of this should feel foreign. The value of practice, of doing, has long been taught across disciplines in liberal-arts colleges. The value of labs in the sciences has never been in question. Education theorists argue that doing is one of the surest pathways to learning. My discipline, geography, has a longtime commitment to fieldwork as a practice that reinforces the value of classroom learning.

Similarly, the arts disciplines insist on the need to actually play music, perform theater, and create sculpture as part of the education. Even in the seemingly rarefied worlds of philosophy, literature, and critical theory, there has been a turn toward worlds of practice and habit, which have too often been subordinated to the heady life of the intellectual.

Fully integrating experiential learning into the liberal arts is a bigger step, although with clear benefits for the employability of liberal-arts graduates. Employers point out that the kinds of things they are looking for in prospective employees include meaningful internships, global experience, civic engagement, and collaboration in addressing real-world problems. These are all features of experiential education.

But the benefits of the experiential liberal arts go well beyond employment in specific jobs. When students are encouraged to reflect on, and learn from, an array of experiences, they gain the skills to navigate their way through life and multiple careers.

To be most effective, the experiential liberal arts need to follow the general lead of experiential education and go beyond the academic-affairs divisions of our colleges. A successful experiential liberal arts will connect to the admissions and recruitment processes before students arrive on campus and to the career-advising and student-success divisions once they arrive.

Centering an admissions process on a series of numerical indicators derived from SAT or ACT scores is clearly not consistent with the goal of John Dewey, father of experiential learning, to include places other than the classroom in the concept of learning. The admissions process needs to take a more rounded view of the skills, talents, and varied forms of knowledge that are likely to signal an aptitude for integrated learning across a continuity of experience — a principle that means, in Dewey’s words, “that every experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after.”

Such a process must recognize that valuable precollege experiences are not simply those that can be bought by well-to-do families, but also life experiences over which students often have little power, such as helping to raise siblings or dealing with an ill parent. Career services and student-­success programs play a role, too. A career office generally fails if it becomes simply a place to visit when you are close to graduation. Offices of career development and student success must be fully integrated into the learning experience throughout the years of college.

Administrators and faculty and staff members across all divisions of a college need to go about the business of curating an educational experience that creates the habits of mind conducive to continuous reflection and lifelong learning — habits that promote exactly the kind of self-knowledge that advocates of the liberal arts have always promoted.

Tim Cresswell is dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs at Trinity College, in Connecticut.