Designing a Transition Sequence for the Liberal Arts

This summer, I began my job as a lecturer in UVA’s College of Arts & Sciences and Assistant Director of the University’s Transition Program, which helps students who are primarily from underrepresented groups adapt to college. The job has been a major transition for me, too, as I’ve shifted from my typical teaching in English, which has involved literature and composition classes, to classes under the designation of LASE, or “Liberal Arts Seminar.” These classes share three primarily goals: to introduce students to academic skills that will benefit them throughout college, from classroom demeanor and participation to appropriate ways to address Professors in emails; to help students develop and achieve academic and career goals; and to introduce students to the liberal arts, particularly the critical-thinking emphasis of the liberal arts.

In the summer, my co-teachers and I focused the LASE curriculum on a single problem: “when, if ever, is it OK to break the law?” In LASE 2110, our pre-matriculated first-years read difficult texts by figures such as Plato, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Henry David Thoreau and applied their ideas to contemporary situations of civil disobedience. Throughout the class and in their final papers, students explored a variety of complex situations, from the seemingly trivial outrage of the Jefferson Memorial Dancers and many topless protestors, to the anti-TSA rage of John Tyner, to Kenza Drider’s resistance to the French ban on face coverings, to the relationship between social media and the Egyptian revolution, to Jose Antonio Vargas’s “outing” himself as an illegal immigrant, among others. The course had many goals, from giving students a first opportunity to revise a significant paper on a topic of their choosing, to easing them into the college classroom, to emphasizing the management of multiple competing perspectives that solid critical thinking requires.

This fall, our focus of LASE 3110 moves from general “Critical Reading, Writing, and Reasoning” to “Analysis and Research.” While students will have the opportunity to write on a research topic of their choosing, the readings and examples I’ve chosen for the course center on the University of Virginia itself. We’ve started the semester by turning a skeptical eye toward sources of information related to the most recent (and probably significant) research project these students have undertaken, the college admissions process. By considering and evaluating the information students have used to make their decision, from the students’ campus visits and conversations with students, deans, alumni, coaches, and parents, to the University’s web page, to its viewbook, to the U.S. News Rankings, to the Fiske Guide to Colleges, to wikipedia and other encyclopedias, I’ve tried to emphasize to students that information is subject to significant mediation. The college viewbook is an informational tool, but it is also a marketing construct. After our focus on secondary sources, we’ll move on to a consideration of primary sources as we consider questions about the University’s past using artifacts from special collections. In the second half of the course, students will perform a significant research project of their choosing as a complement to their first-year writing classes.

As transition students in the Spring term formulate a plan for their college educations and attempt to decide on majors, we’ll together explore the (currently hotly debated) question of “What’s the point of college?” As I ask students to wade through the national (and perennial?) debate on this issue, I’ll help them decide on their own personalized answer.

Teaching this sequence at this point in my career has already been a necessarily reflective experience: reading and teaching debates on the purpose of the liberal arts has made me want to more explicitly define what I think the goals of liberal arts teaching in the humanities (and by proxy the goals of the course sequence) are. So far, I’ve tried to instill in my students values I’ve also promoted in my literature and writing classes: the contingency of knowledge; the changeability of present circumstances; skepticism toward accepted truths; the importance of questions and processes, and not just answers; the importance of understanding (but not always agreeing with) alternative points of view; and the relationship between conceptual ideas and the world they help form. I’ve begun to think that if Universities began to do a better job of formulating more specific goals for students than the vague catchall “critical thinking,” debates about the value of the liberal arts and the humanities would begin to get clearer for the public. And as I teach these courses this year, and these or similar ones in the future, I hope that be more specific with my students about what I hope they get from their liberal arts educations.