Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Assessing Liberal Arts and Place from Multiple Perspectives: Research Findings


There is a growing body of literature that articulates the need for pedagogy that is embedded in the particularities of certain places. Throughout this project we argue that place-based pedagogies are needed because the education of citizens must have some direct bearing on the well-being of the social and ecological places people actually inhabit. “The study of place…has a significance in re-educating people in the art of living well where they are (1).”

A critical pedagogy of place encourages teachers and students to reinhabit their places, that is, to pursue the kind of action that improves the social, economic, political and ecological life of places, near and far, now and in the future.  According to Gruenewald (2003), a critical pedagogy of place aims to do two things:  first, it seeks to identify, recover and create material spaces and places that teach us how to live well in our total environments and second, it seeks to identify and change ways of thinking and being that injure and exploit other people and places (2).

In this section we explore multiple perspectives on the intersection of liberal arts education and place by sharing findings from interviews conducted with four different stakeholder groups—faculty, students, alumni, and community leaders.  We conducted in-depth, semi-structured, individual and group interviews with liberal arts faculty, students, and alumni from Calvin College and also with city /community leaders from this region.  These interviews usually lasted over an hour in length and were recorded.  Student research assistants then transcribed these interviews verbatim and each transcript was proofread for accuracy.  The data was then analyzed by a team of Calvin social scientists who examined over 500 pages of data to explore emergent themes. 

This research was conducted using qualitative methodology for several reasons. Qualitative research is useful when the purposes of the research are to understand the events, situations and life experiences of the participants in the study and the meaning they make of these things; or to understand the particular context within which the participants act and the influence that this context has on their action; or to understand the process by which events and actions take place (3).  Qualitative research enables analysts to explore the subtleties and nuances of particular contexts and to examine the meaning participants make of the situations and life experiences they encounter.

The decision to collect information from a diverse range of individuals and settings and using a variety of methods also known as triangulation (4) is based on the assumption that this technique helps to reduce the risk that research conclusions may reflect the biases or limitations of a specific method and allows a researcher to gain a better assessment of the validity of research conclusions.  “Human beings are complex, and their lives are ever changing; the more methods we use to study them, the better our chances to gain some understanding of how they construct their lives and the stories they tell us about them (5).”

In the following section, we share the results of this fascinating study where each stakeholder group identified different angles and emphasized different aspects of the relationship between the liberal arts and place.


Next: Faculty Interviews