What happens when you gather a dozen early-career faculty from across the country for a weekend workshop on teaching in small liberal arts colleges? They form an intimate cohort and quickly begin learning from each other. They “talk shop.” They compare teaching contexts and experiences, and they commiserate about the jarring shift from graduate school to teaching at a small liberal arts college.
These faculty were gathered in January, under the aegis of the Nielsen Center for the Liberal Arts, with full funding for accommodations and travel for the first of three weekend workshop retreats on the Eckerd College campus on the Gulf Coast in St. Petersburg, Florida. They were selected from a broad and diverse applicant pool because they showed great promise as teachers and future leaders on their small liberal arts college campus.
They learned that some of the issues they are facing are idiosyncratic to their local college campus, and that other issues are more endemic to Gen Z students and small liberal arts institutions. They learned that the diversity of their disciplinary formations did not limit their conversations. In fact, these differences gave them valuable perspective on the liberal arts project. And they discovered that articulating lofty learning outcomes for liberal arts education is much easier than actually designing courses that intentionally contribute to those goals.
The Nielsen Center for the Liberal Arts was founded in 2021 through a generous gift from retired Eckerd College trustee and philanthropist, Helmar Nielsen – concerned that the small liberal arts educational experience that was so transformational in his own life is under siege today, when its promise and gifts are all the more important for students and the world. Now more than ever we need small liberal arts colleges to prepare students as effective leaders, problem solvers, and citizens to meet the growing global crises, such as pandemic, climate change, illiberal government, disinformation, social media, and the breakdown of civil discourse amid calls for democratic renewal and social justice. The Nielsen Center was founded to support faculty in this crucial project, extending the vitality of liberal arts education on small college campuses.
The liberal arts tradition thrives through student-centered pedagogies of discovery and interdisciplinarity, leading to intellectual integration and personal transformation. The faculty enabling this educational experience for students also develop and sustain themselves through growth in their own self-understanding and insights into the transformations of liberal education. Hence, the Nielsen Center supports faculty teaching at small liberal arts colleges by providing a space for sustained conversation about the purposes and processes of liberal arts education and the vocation of the liberal arts educator. The Nielsen Center provides space for a liberal arts experience for liberal arts faculty.
The Nielsen Center will be hosting two workshop cohorts of early career faculty in 2023. Applications are due in September but are already available online.
The goals of the workshop, extending over three successive weekends, are:
- to gain professional and vocational support through formation in a learning community of faculty teaching in small liberal arts colleges across the nation;
- to learn to internalize the processes of critically reflecting on teaching practice, student learning, and the vocation of teaching in specific liberal arts college contexts;
- to improve course design and assignments;
- to develop increased confidence and skill in the classroom and in campus leadership;
- and to build capacity to explain and advocate for liberal arts education to various stakeholders.
In the January gathering on the Eckerd College campus, the Nielsen Workshop Fellows read and discussed Andrew Delbanco’s book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton, 2014). They compared the various gen ed curricula of their different schools, drawing connections to course requirements and the goals of liberal education. And they studied their own syllabi, and compared it with their partners’, through a day-long series of prompts that started with “What are you asking your students to do, how are they going to do it over the course of the semester, and why?” and ended with “How are your teaching persona, priorities, and practices expressed through your syllabus?”
The whole weekend was an intense and enriching experience that launched a tight-knit learning community. To sustain the workshop’s camaraderie until their follow-up gathering in May, they have formed conversation-accountability triads to check in with each other every few weeks and report on a specific issue each of them has identified for particular focus. This summer they can apply for a stipend for projects such as developing new assignments and classroom activities, or exploring the literature on pedagogical theory and student cognitive development. Then they’ll be back together for another three-day weekend at the end of October having designed topical workshop sessions for each other to share what they’ve learned.
The goal is to develop a habit for the creative intellectual work of critically reflecting on their teaching practice – to become lifelong learners reflecting on their vocation as liberal arts educators. The Nielsen Center identifies and nurtures committed teachers at the beginning of their career to help them transition from their professional development as graduate school researchers to a new formation as liberal arts educators in the particular small-college context in which they teach. They are the future leaders on their campus, reinventing liberal arts education for the next generation of students.
If you have an early career colleague who would be interested in becoming a Nielsen fellow, applications are now available online for Nielsen Center 2023 Workshops for Early Career Faculty. You can find out more, here (https://www.eckerd.edu/nielsencenter/workshop/). And look for future announcements of topical programming as we launch this bold and innovative project in support of liberal arts teaching