Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

As this white paper describes, this project at Calvin has been large and multidimensional.  We have learned multiple lessons - both theoretical and practical – over the course of the project.  Here we summarize some of the lessons learned for our own practice, lessons that we believe are transferable to other liberal arts colleges.

Some lessons learned: 

  1.  Trajectory matters. The place based education described here has been supported by a long trajectory of community involvement by alumni, students, faculty and staff.  Student volunteer work led to service learning, which led to deeper academic engagement and faculty research involvement.  The Teagle grant project allowed us the opportunity to look at the state of our current involvement, and to understand our involvement in terms of a theory of “place based education.”  We have found this theory to offer a deep well of resources for understanding both our scholarly and our educational work.   But we would not be at this point without a strong tradition of community connection, defined, not as strictly social service, but as academic inquiry. 
  2. College mission and identity matter. Calvin College is a place where ideas and theory are vital.  Even our professional programs contain a strong emphasis on the liberal arts.  It is not hard to convince faculty and students that “big ideas” matter in the conduct of civic life, because we teach our students in almost every course that underlying worldview assumptions influence practice.  Through this project we have been able to show students how practices, in turn, affect worldview. 
  3. “Local” and “Global” are intertwined.  Calvin is known for its global interests and initiatives, and at times both students and faculty have noted that the global message and focus has taken them away from local interests.  But we have found that strong local involvement around specific issues (e.g. water quality, food networks) has prepared students to better appreciate local concerns in their off campus programs. And many issues identified as important locally, for example food production, race and immigration, water quality, have global connections. 
  4. “Place” is a rich metaphor and grounding reality for fostering interdisciplinary collaborative work.  Faculty value collaborative work that honors their disciplinary resources, expands their imaginations, unleashes their creative capacity, and celebrates their work together. We have found that this central theme has resonated with other divisions of the college as well. For example student life and financial services have changed practices based on the conversations about place related to this grant initiative.
  5. Developing interdisciplinary teams around central issues related to place has proved to be an effective faculty development strategy.  For example, work being done on watershed issues or the urban-rural connection  have helped faculty new to the community to identify strategic initiatives for their scholarship and has helped move them into strong local networks that have a stake in their success. 
  6. “Place” is a valuable tool for building partnerships with other colleges and institutions in the community.    External networks have been built around specific local issues (for example, childhood lead poisoning) and as the college becomes a part of those networks, they come to value the perspective of the liberal arts. 
  7. Assessment of student learning is important. We chose to do qualitative interviewing for our assessment of students and we found that this assessment/interview process served to focus student attention on the process and result of their education in relation to place. The results of this student learning assessment have inspired faculty to make changes in  teaching. 
  8. Use the power of ritual to shape campus commitments.  We have found that a yearly celebration of our campus partnerships and community-based research has served to galvanize faculty, student, alumni, and community interest in our academic commitment to our locale.  Every year there are more partnerships and more research to celebrate.  In the past we have had an afternoon of celebration; this past year we celebrated with a week of “Embrace Our Place” activities. 

 

Recommendations:

Our exploration of place, both this specific place and the abstract concept of place, will continue far beyond the period of the Teagle grant, because it has become an important part of our understanding of our role in the city. We offer these recommendations for our continuing practice with the hope that they are generalizable to other liberal arts colleges:

  1. An Office of Academic Community Engagement, located in the Provost’s Office, has been essential to this work and should continue.  Linking faculty with external networks, gathering faculty, staff, students and community members together to foster scholarly work around local issues, helping groups of faculty do strategic scholarship planning, and so on, are all resource-intensive projects and profit from central coordination. 
  2. The strategic planning initiatives that have been taking place throughout the institution on the college and department level will include greater explicit attention to and planning for the ways that place informs our efforts at the college.
  3. The cultivation of community partners remains a vital part of both educational and scholarly work in the community.  We do our best work when we are working on research questions defined, at least in part, by community members, and when our educational efforts on behalf of students demonstrate genuine partnership with regional residents.  We need to call each other to accountability in this area – it is too easy to lose this emphasis on partnership. 
  4. If we want to influence both student and community thinking about the importance of the liberal arts, we must use care to connect our place-based work to the particular liberal arts mission of the college. In both our internal and external communications, we should make the links explicit between liberal arts questions and methods and matters of concern to our community.
  5. The Office of Academic Community Engagement should continue its sponsorship of a yearly bus tour for new faculty and invite new faculty from area colleges as well.  This topically oriented tour is designed to invite new faculty into scholarly networks focused on particular city issues and to foster opportunities for collaborative research among and between faculty and community partners. 
  6. The Office of Academic Community Engagement should continue to foster interdisciplinary reading groups, speakers, and faculty research focused on community issues and opportunities.
  7. The Office of Academic Community Engagement should continue its yearly celebration of place-based scholarship.  We should explore making this a regional celebration, with invitations to other regional liberal arts colleges. 
  8. We should strengthen our ties with both alumni groups and other community groups involved in local issues and continue to move more faculty (rather than primarily administrators) into collaborative relationships with these groups.
  9. The recent staff development day that was held within the Student Life division (including city walks, and an experiential introduction to city issues) should be expanded for all administrative divisions of the college.  One way to promote this is to keep senior leadership of the college directly involved in our conversations about place.