Should the Liberal Arts Resist Marketability?

by Denise Holladay Damico

Denise Holladay Damico is Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies at Saint Francis University (Pennsylvania). She has published on the environmental and legal history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. She is currently researching the cultural, environmental, and social history of the margarita.

Editors Note: This article is a response to  “Community Engagement for the Liberal Arts?” by William H.J. Strosnider

It is certainly correct to say that many of us in the liberal arts today are concerned about the future of our disciplines as they currently exist in the academy. College enrollments continue to decline, and small liberal arts colleges and liberal arts majors have been particularly hard-hit. Those students who do attend college are encouraged, quite reasonably, to choose majors with a clear vocational track – those majors that seem most likely to result in job opportunities that will enable them to pay back their often onerous student debt.

The rhetoric and outcome of the recent presidential election only exacerbate these concerns. The once unimaginable possibility of a return to loyalty tests and blacklists poses a grave threat to the liberal arts, while the president’s choice both of cabinet members and policies on education (at least those of which we are thus far aware) bode similarly ill.

It is, therefore, difficult to argue with the first of Dr. Strosnider’s premises – that those of us in the liberal arts must try something to “break out of this miasma of negativity.” It certainly also seems true that increased community engagement offers an important path forward, both to enhance the public’s awareness of the value of the liberal arts and to increase the number of college students who choose to major in liberal arts disciplines.

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Community Engagement for the Liberal Arts?

by William H.J. Strosnider

William H.J. Strosnider, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering and Director of the Center for Watershed Research and Service at Saint Francis University (Pennsylvania). His focus is water quality protection, wastewater treatment, and the integration of technical service and research projects into undergraduate programs.

Faculty lounges are rife with gloomy discussions about the demise of the academy, and more specifically, the liberal arts. Of course, that gloom is well founded given the trends that have been playing out for decades. However, one fruitful option would be for those in the liberal arts to break out of this miasma of negativity and blaze a new path of relevance via community engagement.

Parents of prospective liberal arts majors want to know answers to questions like “What will my child do after graduation?” and “For what career will this major prepare my child?” These questions are harder to answer for liberal arts than STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) faculty because specific vocational training is not, and should not be expected to be, a significant part of a liberal arts major. Therefore, liberal arts faculty need new ways to address these questions because they are so critical to the enrollment in, and therefore viability of, their majors and institutions. Continue reading

Aftermath

Allen Dunn, Professor of English, University of Tennessee

I live in a Republican state, but the campus of the University of Tennessee where I teach and the surrounding areas in the city of Knoxville are an island of blue in a sea of red. In the recent election, faculty here (like elsewhere in America) seemed to vote overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But the campus was hardly unanimous in its support of Clinton. Although there is no exact data available on the way various segments of the campus community voted, ample anecdotal evidence indicates that the split between Clinton and Trump voters followed familiar demographic lines.

Many of the staff fit the well-publicized profile of the Trump voter: they are predominantly white members of the working class, some with salaries that are barely adequate to their financial needs. In general, their lives have been little affected by the improving economy. In the past, staff jobs were at least a stable and predictable source of employment, but recently the Republican state government has endorsed a plan to outsource many of these jobs. If this plan is implemented, it will likely mean that some will lose their jobs to employees of private companies. Some of those who retain their jobs with the University are likely to have their hours cut, and some might lose health and retirement benefits. The controversy over outsourcing has been in the news, and job security has been a constant topic of conversation among the staff. To complete the profile: most of the staff were born here in Tennessee and embrace some form of Evangelical Christianity; many of these voters will support a candidate only if that candidate opposes legal abortion.

By comparison, the faculty are, not surprisingly, more affluent, making salaries two or three times those made by the staff. In an era when financial exigency can eliminate entire academic departments with the stroke of a pen, not even tenured faculty have the employment security that they once did; however, with the notable exception of lecturers, faculty jobs seem comparatively safe compared to staff jobs. Here, as in most universities, the majority of the faculty is hired from out of state, and their academic community includes those who teach in other universities across the nation and the world. Those faculty members who profess religion are likely to belong to a liberal protestant denomination. To the outsider, at least, they would seem to fit the profile of the liberal cosmopolitan intellectual.

Of course, these profiles are the thinnest of stereotypes: not all faculty were Clinton supporters, and not all staff voted for Trump. Furthermore, it would be insulting and unfair to assume that a particular person’s vote is nothing more than a reflection of her socioeconomic background, to assume, that is, that it does not reflect deliberation shaped by commitments to a system of values. Yet, in the wake of the election, these thin stereotypes came to mark what seemed like an unbridgeable gap. Before the election, faculty and staff worked together as a cohesive community, and these differences seemed trivial and easy to ignore. In the aftermath of the voting, what had been a cohesive community was suddenly divided. Friendships between faculty and staff were shaken; the common purpose that had united us became somehow more abstract and less tangible. The day after the election, a group of demonstrators gathered in front of the library chanting “not my president,” while a small group of Trump supporters chanted “U-S-A.” People in the surrounding office buildings looked on in silence, not wanting to risk a political discussion.

Life on campus is now beginning to return to a pre-election normal, but we have yet to come to terms with what the election revealed. Faculty have been proactive in speaking out against the rise in hate speech that followed the election, and many have volunteered to work in the Campus Pride Center where LGBT students and other minorities can find support. United Campus Workers, the local union, is planning a teach-in against the outsourcing of campus jobs. Meanwhile, former Clinton supporters are scrolling through a diminished list of political options. These are all important steps for those on the left who are navigating the new post-election political landscape, but they don’t address many of the fundamental differences that divide this campus and the nation. At the moment, emotions here are still too raw and civility too precious to risk revisiting the political and social differences that divide us. It is not clear when or if this will change, but any hope for a future political transformation in this country depends upon bridging this gap.