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Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Assessing Liberal Arts and Place from Multiple Perspectives: Research Findings

Faculty Interviews: Moving “rootless professors” into rootedness

Much has been written about “rootless professors” who move from university to university in pursuit of career advancement with little attention paid to the particulars of any given place. Group interviews were conducted with 25 Calvin faculty members from all four academic divisions of the college—social sciences; languages, literature and arts; contextual disciplines; and natural sciences—to explore this phenomenon and to investigate how ‘place’ is conceptualized in their academic, theoretical work.  These interviews also explored faculty understanding of how the liberal arts tradition contributes to the common good in a particular place as well as how this particular place influences and shapes the way we teach the liberal arts and/or how we do scholarship and research at Calvin. As one respondent said, “We’re on a unique trajectory for a liberal arts college.”   In these interviews Calvin faculty describe many ways that the college has connected itself and disconnected itself from this city.  An interesting aspect of this research explored the connections between faculty members’ professional lives (including teaching and scholarship) and their personal commitments. The findings reveal that faculty members employ widely differing disciplinary ‘lens’ through which place is conceptualized and this impacts their understanding of their academic professional life.  Many describe inherent tensions that exist for faculty yet many also articulate that an emphasis on place offers opportunities to enlarge the scholarly imagination.    See Appendix A for a bulleted summary of key themes uncovered.

Different disciplinary perspectives lead liberal arts faculty to view and interpret ‘place’ in very diverse ways and, as might be expected, this leads to a wide variation in how place is conceptualized.   What is interesting to note is that each faculty group was asked the same questions but the conversations unfolded in widely differing ways.  The variation in response was quite interesting to observe, particularly the chosen focus of each group. Those in the social sciences spoke primarily about human community when they spoke about place, the city, the region.  Those in the natural sciences spoke more about the physical resources of the place.

“[If] you go from a place which is rich in glacial morraines to the southwest side of town which is all outwash and flat as a pancake… that dictates changes in how the land was settled to variations in agriculture … I can describe that place almost as if people didn’t exist but we are talking about place also as a setting for community and its depth of history and all of that…when we ask the question about sensitivity to place some people will be oblivious to their physical surrounding, let’s say geological surroundings, but have a very strong sense of community.”

Some faculty members spoke about power as in who decides and controls what happens in a place articulately outlining why these are important questions for liberal arts study.  These varying disciplinary perspectives provide particular lenses through which they viewed the world. 

Some expressed the ways in which they felt  part of the city and used the language of inhabitation and dwelling while others used language implying that we are separate from and often described the ‘other’ when referring to the city.

“I feel like one of the primary problems that we face in Grand Rapids is this notion of structural isolation and then isolation is coded by class and race…I know my students talk about the inner city of Grand Rapids, which is sort of curious in a city of about two hundred thousand people…we aren’t an urban center, so they are again using coded language but language that is informally very common to this area…what my students, I think are reflecting is the ways in which linguistically we have separated, isolated, divided, moved ourselves apart.  That makes even more ‘other’ that particular group… we further removed them from us by the way even in which we talk about them, so that the ways that distancing has happened in these populations that has continued to disempower those with less power, and keep separate, isolated and maybe not as fully engaged—I think is a primary issue.” 

Faculty used the notion of ‘place’ in multiple ways sometimes to imply connection, other times to imply isolation and disconnection.  Because some viewed the city as having problems and deficits, their comments centered on our responsibility as an institution and as individual scholars to be involved in outreach almost invoking a charity mentality.  This contrasted significantly with other faculty members who described their own ‘sense of place’ as a ‘contextually situated’ aspect of their academic work, suggesting they view themselves and their work as a part of the place, using language of inhabitation.   Interestingly those who used language of inhabitation crossed many disciplinary backgrounds (including philosophy, biology, art, sociology, history) and those who used the language of separateness also came from many disciplines.  So it would be simplistic to assume that a person’s academic background or field of scholarship definitively frames and shapes the contours of their view of place.

Another disciplinary difference of particular note is the tension articulated between the abstract and the particular.  Some disciplines very intentionally focus on universal and abstract knowledge, not rooted in particularities.   

“In general economists are abstract from the place.   It’s just the way economists approach problems to say the world is too rich to comprehend as it comes, you have to abstract out to which of the salient things for a particular issue you are thinking about.  And things like gender and race and place tend to get abstracted out often…[Focusing on place] is not like an across the curriculum movement.  I think it might be hard to approach place the way you approach writing for an example.”

A number of faculty described a ‘cyclic’ movement within their own scholarly process—starting initially with something particular then moving to abstract theoretical considerations and finally returning to the particular for application of theory.

“There’s a tension always though with locational research in that the idea of research is that it’s at least potentially expandable, so you might do research in a specific place…but you need to also be testing something that is more broadly applicable to maybe lots of other places too... I think the real life of a research project comes out of asking a specific question which is often to a degree couched in a specific place and you might learn, you might be able to apply some broader understanding to other places but you also might need to further test in other environments at the same time.”

The breadth of perspectives and multiple emphases conveyed by the faculty interviewed reveal that there is no single interpretation of the notion of ‘place’ for the liberal arts classroom.  Yet it is precisely this variation in perspective that led to such rich conversations and a number of faculty commented on the generative nature of the dialogue.  New ideas from colleagues led them to think differently about their teaching and scholarship. Such creativity is not without certain tensions.

Almost all faculty members interviewed described inherent tensions that exist within their professional lives. One tension faculty highlighted was the challenge of placelessness vs. being place-based.  For some, the conversation led to a discussion of how the guild trained them to be academics.

“Most of us are academically trained to be sort of placeless.  And…the argument that most academic theorizing is supposed to apply across places of all sorts and so on and in biology when you start getting placed- based then you become a natural historian as opposed to an ecologist.”

“I am very aware of people in my broader discipline who are the epitome of that rootless professor.  Who come from nowhere and are going nowhere but spending a lot of time and effort and grant money getting there. And in the mean time you are cranking out lots of publications, being very productive, on that level getting somewhere of course but really having no sense of place and no sense of how their research is embedded in places, no sense of that.”

For others they described that to be a good teacher and researcher they need to be ‘fully involved’ in the issues of importance to the city and region.  Their teaching and research is place-based (at least in part), driven by the strengths, issues and needs of the unique place where they live and work.

“I am in a professional program straddling being an educator with being a practitioner.  In the educator role, having a particular place has not been valued traditionally in nursing…It has been way more about the students than it has been about the community.  But it always conflicted with me as a practitioner because everything I wanted to teach about public health nursing is about having a place and working with the people and not coming in with this top down approach.  And so we have now shifted in the nursing department here and it just fits so much better mission wise with what we are doing as a college but also fits better with me as a practitioner within the discipline.  So… it’s easier to teach on it because I feel like now we are modeling that in our curriculum.”

Another tension described by faculty members was how to balance global vs. local concerns.  Many made comments about having a global vision but needing to live out this vision in concrete ways in their local environ.  Others talked about how their teaching flows back and forth between global and local issues and the interconnections between the two.

“If you start thinking about plant physiology, not only in the context of natural ecological settings but now in the venue of agricultural production then all of a sudden it opens up into this whole area of food and what that means…It can really inform a pedagogy I think…Why is it important to know how a chloroplast works?  And so you can talk now about  what a plant leaf is doing and what a plant community is doing in a cultural setting and what this agricultural plant community, how it relates to the natural community and then how that relates to the people who are living in these various places and need to consume this food, who is getting it and who is not.  See you find very quickly that this really narrow little area of plant physiology all of a sudden opens you out to social justice issues… But the interdisciplinary nature of Calvin College allows you to think that… Liberal arts actually... connects these things.  It allows you to see so very clearly what the connections are between what would seem to be very disparate disciplines and from an educational point of view, if you want to get a student’s attention…all of a sudden it becomes very real.”

A number of faculty members made comments about helping students to think about big questions/global questions and how that connects to particular questions in a particular locale.

“We can talk about global sustainability and how cutting down rainforest is a bad thing for global sustainability, but you know if rainforest patches are just a theoretical construct, you can do anything you want with it.  But go and park yourself in one for five days and look at who depends on it and how, and how changes in the use have affected communities, and then suddenly it enriches your capacity to think about what the global goals mean at the local level.”

“We need to be teaching our students how to root to a place, wherever they may end up, how do they engage that community and so... the big question then is—what is the intersection between being rooted in this place for a time and how does that translate into their becoming rooted in future places where they will be longer term?”

Faculty members clearly saw the importance of making connections between the global and the local—in both conceptualizing the issues and in learning to take action in ways that connect the two.  And they often talked about the need to instill in their students the knowledge and skills needed to make the connection between knowing and doing.

The professional demands on a faculty person in terms of time and attention within their scholarly focus create another inherent tension described by many faculty members in these interviews. Some described the demands they feel to be academically rigorous and the constraints this puts on a professor.

The pressure to do the kind of scholarship that will garner national, international attention drains away the resources that professors might have to serve on the board of a nonprofit here in town.”

Another described the growing professionalism of all of the disciplines as a potential threat to higher education but also to the lives of individual faculty members as well.

“I think there is a danger in the growing professionalism of all our disciplines.  Namely, that because of the priorities on specialization, publication and national reputation—there are many forces that pull us away from the rest of our lives from obligations to family and community and church and the rest.  It is triage if we have limited time we are increasingly prone to spend that time on what will bring professional reputation and advancement and this is a, potentially threatening dimension of our lives.”

Insofar as faculty perceived their local involvements as a competition to the other demands on their lives, they used words such as ‘guilt’ or ‘remorse’ for their lack of community involvement.  The mindscape of these faculty members seemed to imply they view the city as needing charity and they feel guilty that they can not be more engaged.  For others, however, they describe the place/city/region as a context in which their scholarship (in various disciplines) arises.  They do not use language of guilt, disappointment, remorse, or charity in describing place as a competing force.  Rather it is simply one context from which scholarly inquiry arises and as such it provides rich possibilities for engaged teaching and engaged scholarship.   Furthermore, these faculty members articulate the value of integrating their teaching and scholarship and service into a seamless whole.

An emphasis on place offers opportunities to enlarge the scholarly imagination and this was articulated in various ways by a number of the faculty interviewed.   Some suggest that paradigmatic and epistemological shifts in the last several decades have opened the door to new avenues of exploration in many disciplines and therefore place and particularity become legitimate grounds for inquiry.

“I think theories can either pull you away from place of location or pull you towards it… And I think that at least philosophically when we emphasized the difference between humans and environment or between mind and body…and then the first always was more important than the second, we also discounted particularity, location, and environment.  And I think philosophy, at least my reading of philosophy [has] moved towards a notion of embodiment and not dualism, therefore we take more into account particularity and location and environment as a way to think about what it means to be human or what knowledge is and so forth—which are abstract ideas but that then pushes you more towards locating yourself in the place and thinking about the place you are located in.”

Some faculty brought up the issue of generalizability in research and mentioned the debates raging in scholarly circles about the fundamental nature of knowledge.  Not all scholars agree that the goal of research should be to discover generalizable findings.  Some argued that a study could be “compromised if we were only to think about generalizability in a more traditional sense” and made a case that studying particularities also leads to valuable and valid knowledge.  

“Having multiple sources of information” also known as intertextuality was described by some of the faculty interviewed as another opportunity to enlarge the scholarly imagination and further validates particularity and place as a source of knowledge. 

“The term that comes to me is one that I use with students which is intertextuality and so it is the text of our lives and how that connects with the print text that we read, with the historical texts  how those combine at a global, national, perhaps regional and then local level.. there is an intermixing.  And that through print text the potential for… localized meaning to become global is very real, much more real than it was even, ten years ago, right?”

“This new language—the  intertextuality language… we used to talk about, there’s history, there’s the classroom, there’s the location but we never thought about them all as different kinds of texts and then linking those texts to see that, it now allows us a new language to do that.”

One of the most commonly discussed ideas in these faculty interviews was the importance of interdisciplinarity. Some faculty described rich interdisciplinary conversation among their colleagues within the college as a significant benefit for their own professional lives as teachers and researchers.  Others framed such interdisciplinary dialogue as a strength of the liberal arts and argued that this is one contribution (along with the asking of big questions) the liberal arts tradition can offer to the larger society.      

“I think liberal arts has something different to offer than my experience at least of university education…  What I missed greatly was it asking bigger questions, sort of foundational questions…But I think a place like Calvin—you have an added benefit of the possibility of inter-disciplinary conversation.  So I’ve been in lots of study groups [with] anywhere from art historians, to physicists to biology people, to English people and engineers and nursing and philosophy and I have been in groups at Calvin over the last twelve years that have allowed this kind of interaction to enrich the kinds of questions that I am interested in. So I think that is a strength.  A double strength that we might offer the place that we are in.” 

“I think that’s what is really, really exciting about being here at Calvin for me personally—the  fact that I am not limited to just pressing questions within the narrow confines of my own discipline.  But I can look at multiple disciplinary perspectives and being encouraged to do so in fact.” 

These faculty interviews offer insights for understanding not only the role of liberal arts faculty can play in using their academic strengths to contribute to a particular place but also the contribution a place can make to the academic enterprise of a liberal arts college.

 

Next: Student Interviews