Plenty of value in an arts degree

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Last week Cristina Almudevar’s editorial levels some harsh criticism at the courses taught in the faculty of arts and at its professors. Among other things, she suggests that the material taught is useless for job interviews since “my interviewer will not care that I can deduce the role of a female character by the colour of her dress” (take that English!).

She also concludes that professors go off topic to talk about their personal lives or go “rambling on about a poet’s sex life” (is that another poke at English?) and one professor even admitted “they hated the subject matter they were teaching” (sad).”

She even states that most professors have been teaching for 30 years (incidentally, not true); and the faculty is out of touch with the pedagogy that is most appealing to today’s students. Ouch.
So where to start? We might start with the role of an arts education in promoting an educated citizenry willing to challenge authority. This is something that many believe is a necessary precondition for democracy.

An arts education can also lead us to become engaged in finding solutions to the pressing problems of our time, like the growing inequality between the rich and the poor; environmental degradation etc. Certainly arts graduates have taken, and will continue to take, the lead in confronting such problems throughout the world.

But since I see no rewference to these issues, pro or con, in Ms. Almudevar’s article let’s start with something she does mention: job interviews. No one in this faculty, that I’m aware of, has ever argued that the content taught in our courses (whether it involves colour symbolism in Shakespeare; the tactics associated with tank battles in WWII; the implicit gendering of scientific activity etc.) will be critical in job interviews.

What will be critical are the core transferable skills—like the ability to communicate clearly; to think analytically; adaptability and the ability to work cooperatively in groups. These are staples that have always been conveyed by an arts education. How do we know that these things will be critical in job interviews? Employers tell us so.

For example: in a recent survey, 450 Canadian Employers indicated that what they valued most were communication, analytic ability, a strong work ethic, teamwork and problem solving and co-curricular involvement.

But does an arts education really convey these core skills? Good question, and one that has been raised often. Academically Adrift (2010), for example, analyzed American data that compared test scores on analytic ability at the beginning of the first year in university and at the end of the second year.

The finding that got most play in the press was that a substantial number of students showed no improvement, and that is obviously problematic. But another finding was that the students who did show improvement were more likely to be in arts rather  than in business, social work or education. A part of Ms. Almudevar’s article that—undeniably—merits serious consideration has to do with pedagogy.

There has been much discussion of late about the flaws associated with the sage on the stage model of lecturing and with the need to engage students more effectively with active learning pedagogies.
This discussion seems to resonate with Ms. Almudevar’s concerns. The arts faculty of course have always taken pedagogy seriously. The next time you’re in the Bricker Academic Building look up at the pictures on the wall of Laurier’s outstanding teachers and take note of how many are from arts. But we know we can do better still.

This is why the faculty of arts is engaged in a number of initiatives aimed at pedagogical reform. Some that include: the construction last year of an active learning classroom (one of the few in Canada), our first year seminars (established two years ago), residential learning communities, and classes that use teleconferencing to link Canadian students with students elsewhere.

We’ve also begun plans for student participation in the Inside/Out program which plans to start next year in which arts students will share a class with students from a women’s prison.
All of these reflect that goal, and there are more projects under development.
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