The Colgate Scene
May 2001
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From the President
Realizing the potential

by Charles Karelis
This year I've been having breakfast with students in groups of six or eight. Anyone can sign up, and so far about 60 students have. The interests, ages and affinities of the groups have been mixed. The only common denominator is willingness to take part in conversation at eight in the morning.

     There are no agendas, and the discussions go in different directions, but talk often turns to the idea of the liberal arts and how Colgate is like, and unlike, other liberal arts colleges. Division I athletics, size, the Greek system and atmosphere get mentioned a lot -- all grist for future columns. The degree of student interest in the whole topic is intriguing and welcome.

     When it's my turn, I've taken to ruminating that the liberal arts college, great as it is, has potential that remains unrealized. For it strikes me that the liberal arts college is uniquely equipped to nurture a skill that higher education has too often left to students to develop for themselves, if they can.

     I mean the skill of putting together the knowledge and ideas that come from distinct specialties to gain a larger understanding -- and where these things are incompatible, the skill of weighing and choosing among them. In my experience, it is often this ability to work across spheres of expertise that marks the most effective men and women in our society and determines who will be trusted to lead. Where better to nurture this skill than the liberal arts college, with its two-century-old concern with big pictures, its lively interdisciplinary programs and the low walls that separate its departments?

     Over the second cup of coffee, I've wondered whether Colgate might distinguish itself still further among top liberal arts colleges by leading the way. This year, nearly two-dozen adventurous faculty have been exploring one route in particular -- linked courses. In this simple model, about 20 students are co-enrolled in two distinct courses, and their teachers guide them in thinking about the relation of the contents of the courses. American philosophy courses have been linked with American art courses; psychology courses have been linked with Western traditions core courses, geology courses have been linked with environmental ethics courses, and so forth.

     The linked course idea has been around for several decades, flourishing originally in the Pacific Northwest. Early assessments focused on its power to keep first-generation college students from dropping out of school. If linking courses does catch on here and at places like Colgate, it will have followed a very common path for the spread of educational innovations -- from use to engage non-traditional learners to use with college students in general. (One 19th-century example: the study of literature other than Greek and Latin classics.)

     Early reactions at Colgate have been very positive. Sample comments from assessments done by the instructors:

  • "We as professors certainly noticed that we have rarely in our teaching careers found a higher level of dialogue and conversation than we did with these students . . ."

  • "Unsolicited and unsystematically, many of the students registered their delight with being part of a linked pair."

  • "Several [students] said that they put the same amount of effort into each course as they would into any other course, but felt that they got more for their pains, in that what they studied in one course was directly applicable in the other course as well."

     One surprise: how much the students valued the cohorting itself. Finding themselves in class together almost every day, the groups seemed to form strong social ties, yielding a relaxed, productive climate. Said one instructor, the students "seemed to trust each other enough to ask the hard social and political questions that are often pushed aside by undergraduates." Might such learning cohorts have a role to play as Colgate and similar schools seek better ways to bridge the academic and social dimensions of campus life?

     Early reactions to linked courses are positive enough to justify a rigorous assessment of the linked course idea, and a qualified faculty member has agreed to do such an assessment next year. That evaluation may or may not reflect a recent controlled study at another institution (one with which we do not compete), which concluded that linked courses increased student motivation, awareness of course relationships and student learning. (My office will gladly supply copies of this report on request.) However the evaluation comes out here, the very existence of the linked-course experiment is one more piece of evidence that Colgate faculty are eager to try new ways of realizing the potential of the liberal arts college.

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