Liberal Education

Cocurricular Arts Programming and an Integrative First-Year Experience

Engagement with the arts is a fundamental element of a liberal education, especially in the first year of college. Liberal education seeks to form critical, creative citizens who can participate actively in “the various conversations that constitute a culture.”1 Engagement with the arts contributes to these ends by building “capacities for imaginative and emotional understanding.”2 Such capacities allow students to relate to one another empathically as well as on the basis of factual knowledge. When students focus their hearts and minds on novels, plays, paintings, or other works of art, they discover perspectives that may be very different from their own. This kaleidoscopic view of the world is crucial to navigating the intellectually, culturally, and socially diverse campus community. More deeply, the moments of enlightenment provided by the arts may reveal to students the previously hidden architecture of their minds. This epistemological self-awareness is the foundation of deep liberal learning and facilitates the dismantling of unexamined notions. Students often need to undertake this work before they can build more sophisticated and informed ideas.

The intellectual growth sparked by the arts serves many of the essential learning outcomes of liberal education identified by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), especially knowledge of human cultures, critical and creative thinking, civic knowledge and engagement, and intercultural knowledge and competence.3 While much of this learning takes place in the classroom, complementary cocurricular programming can enrich a student’s education, particularly during the first year.4 As generalists with a broad view of liberal education and an extensive campus network, academic advisors are well-positioned to coordinate and, in some cases, lead cocurricular arts programming. The arts programming sponsored by the First Year of Studies, the college for all first-year students at the University of Notre Dame, is a successful example of this model.

Benefits of cocurricular arts integration

Cocurricular arts programming can provide all first-year students, regardless of major, the opportunity to engage widely with the arts during the most formative time of their college careers without the constraints or divisions of the curriculum. Undoubtedly, many students will encounter literature or other works of art through required or elective courses, where they will learn how to analyze these works in specific contexts and through disciplinary lenses. These experiences, while invaluable, are insufficient. As Jeremy Haefner and Deborah Ford argue, “relying solely on the formal academic curriculum to achieve the outcomes of a liberal education shortchanges the total academic experience available to students.”5 To support “truly transformational liberal education,” institutions must also recognize and foster the learning that takes place outside the classroom.6 Indeed, AAC&U has identified intentional and coherent connections between the curriculum and cocurriculum as a principle of integrative liberal learning.7

Cocurricular arts programming serves the goals of integrative liberal learning in distinctive ways. As defined by AAC&U, integrative liberal learning “develops the whole student for personal growth, economic productivity, and responsible citizenship.”8 This holistic view of liberal education recognizes the value of transgressing traditional disciplinary boundaries and divisions between curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular activities. As reflections of human experience, the arts are inherently interdisciplinary. A novel, for instance, is an aesthetic, sociological, and historical document that can be read in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes. While a discipline-based course might prioritize a reading informed by that discipline’s approach, cocurricular arts programming is not bound by such specific learning goals and can encourage free exploration of the different aspects of a work of art. In addition, cocurricular arts programming gives students a space to connect what they are learning in their courses to an intellectual experience outside of the classroom. These types of connections are the foundation of integrative liberal learning.

Recent advocacy for integrative liberal learning has begun to reshape the conception of the role of academic advisors.9 Marc Lowenstein argues that an advisor’s primary responsibility should be to facilitate integrative liberal learning through integrative advising. For Lowenstein, integrative advising is “an academic endeavor” and “a locus of learning” that “helps students make meaning out of their education as a whole.”10 Rich Robbins similarly contends that advisors are well-positioned to teach students “the value of an integrative liberal learning education,” in part by emphasizing learning outcomes over curricular requirements.11 Although Lowenstein and Robbins focus on the advisor’s traditional role as a student’s primary guide through the curriculum, the theory of integrative advising suggests that advisors should be involved with cocurricular academic programming as well. By organizing, participating in, or leading academic programming, advisors position themselves as intellectually curious academics. In the process, they model for students the mindset of successful liberal learners, demonstrate that deep intellectual engagement is not the purview solely of specialists, and reaffirm that the purpose of a college education is holistic learning. Moreover, by encouraging student engagement with arts programming in particular, advisors can provide students with opportunities to reflect on the purpose and meaning of their lives, thus fulfilling a goal of integrative advising.

The University of Notre Dame is developing new approaches that blend the benefits of cocurricular arts engagement with those of integrative advising. This work has occurred in the context of an undergraduate core curriculum that requires all students to take one fine arts or one literature course (or, for students in the College of Arts and Letters, one of each). The Notre Dame curriculum ensures that all students engage academically with the arts for at least one semester, regardless of their majors. Nevertheless, many students approach the requirement as another item on the checklist, to be completed at some point in their undergraduate careers, while others find their interest in exploring the arts limited by restrictive curricula (for example, in the College of Engineering, where the curriculum follows an established sequence with little room for electives). Notre Dame’s First Year of Studies is using voluntary cocurricular programming to address some of these curricular limitations and facilitate students’ engagement with the arts as part of an integrative liberal education.

Cenacle and Parnassus

Arts programming in the First Year of Studies is part of the university’s NDignite initiative, a diverse slate of cocurricular events that enables first-year students to “contribute something of their own to our intellectual and cultural communities” through meaningful engagement with faculty and campus resources.12 Academic advisors in the First Year of Studies collaborate with a wide variety of campus partners to design interdisciplinary cocurricular experiences that encourage students to broaden their perspectives and view their education holistically. These events facilitate intellectual yet informal conversation among students and faculty, fostering an understanding of academic inquiry as a shared and social activity that extends beyond the classroom. The First Year of Studies sponsors two primary arts programs, the Cenacle and Parnassus. The Cenacle, a literary salon hosted by different faculty members throughout the year, aims to show students that reading and conversation are life-changing arts. Parnassus invites students to disconnect from ubiquitous screen media and immerse themselves in live theater performances and the visual arts. Over the last three years, the university has expanded these programs to give students more opportunities to encounter and respond to compelling creative works.

The Cenacle assumed its present form in the spring semester of 2015, following several years of experimentation with format, organization, timing, and location. Cenacle participants meet three times per semester on campus for dinner and discussion of a book, usually a novel, but sometimes poetry or literary nonfiction. The discussions are led by academic advisors from the First Year of Studies or by faculty members. Each session is independent, and students can attend as many or as few sessions as they wish. There is no limit to the number of students who can participate, but free copies of the book are given to the first eighteen students who register for a session. Recent selections have included Persuasion by Jane Austen, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, and Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. On average, around twelve students attend each session, a number large enough to sustain conversation but small enough to give all students the chance to speak. While Notre Dame does not have a common reading program for incoming first-year students, the Cenacle shares some of the goals of these programs—notably, to “encourage reading among students”13 and to model “the intellectual engagement with different ideas that is expected in college.”14 The first Cenacle of the year, held during the first week of classes, is in spirit very much a part of the orientation experience. This first session introduces students to the pleasures and challenges of intellectual conversation in a convivial atmosphere and helps students begin to find a home at the university during an often-stressful period of transition.

The Cenacle has given first-year students the opportunity to engage intellectually with diverse perspectives, build community, and integrate their learning. For the 2016–17 academic year, 100 percent of respondents to a survey assessing the program said that the Cenacle facilitated meaningful and thoughtful discourse among students and faculty, and 92 percent said that the Cenacle was a very valuable or somewhat valuable part of their first-year experience. One student wrote, “I really appreciate these events because [participating in them] allows me to broaden my scope of Notre Dame in connecting to different faculty members, as well as enhance my knowledge of the world through literature and discussion.” There is also evidence that the program promotes integrative liberal learning. In the discussion of The Fire Next Time, students connected James Baldwin’s classic essay on the civil rights movement to their conversations about diversity in a required first-year experience course and their experiences of race on campus. Similarly, a student described how his sociology seminar informed his understanding of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven. Reflecting on a discussion of Frankenstein, a participant wrote, “As a student who currently wishes to go into scientific research, the work is particularly relevant, and even for those [who do] not, it is highly relevant to today’s culture and scientific advancements.” Organizers encouraged participants to make these connections in a variety of ways; for example, the survey sent to students after the event prompted students to reflect on links between the book discussed and their academic or personal lives.

The university launched Parnassus in the 2014–15 academic year to encourage students to attend the many high-quality theatrical productions staged on campus. The First Year of Studies provides free admission to the first twenty-five students who request tickets for each of several plays and musicals performed throughout the year. First Year advisors sometimes collaborate with campus partners to create supplemental events that promote critical and creative thinking, such as preshow lectures by faculty members and postshow talk-backs with actors. In the first year of the program, students attended productions of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing and Macbeth, both performed by a professional theater troupe, Actors from the London Stage (AFTLS). The following year, the program included performances by AFTLS as well as performances by Notre Dame’s Department of Film, Television and Theatre, namely Wildflower, The Little Shop of Horrors, and Pride and Prejudice. Expanding on the original program’s successes, a Parnassus event was added in 2015 to Welcome Weekend, Notre Dame’s first-year orientation. Each year, the First Year of Studies provides fifty free tickets to a professional production by the Shakespeare at Notre Dame program. This early and prominent invitation to engage with the arts signals to students the centrality of the arts to a liberal education and introduces attendees to an important site of learning on campus, the performing arts center.

Parnassus has created community among students and provided opportunities for them to broaden their perspectives and integrate their learning through participation in the arts. In surveys assessing the program, respondents suggested that these events encouraged them to participate in cultural experiences that they would not otherwise have sought. One student wrote, “I am glad that the Ignite Initiative is offering opportunities to experience some of the lesser known programs at Notre Dame.... While I greatly enjoy plays, I’m not sure I would have attended both Little Shop of Horrors [and] Wildflower without the encouragement from FYS.” Parnassus also facilitates exposure to the performing arts by removing the financial burden of theater attendance, a benefit that some students noted in their feedback. Student responses point as well to the intellectual engagement that Parnassus fosters outside of the classroom. For some students, the absorbing experience of seeing a live performance generates new ideas and greater imaginative possibilities for texts they have previously studied. Considering the style of the Actors from the London Stage, one student wrote that “the performance certainly has gotten me thinking.... I had never seen a minimalist performance like this before, and I found it enlightening to watch it and then think about what the form contributed.” Another student remarked, “The actors did an amazing job bringing the play to life, something I typically have trouble visualizing with Shakespeare.” The performances have led not only to personal reflection but also to conversation with peers, as students have reported gathering afterward to continue their conversations about Jane Austen and Shakespeare.

Although Cenacle and Parnassus are successful independently, integrating literary, theatrical, and visual arts programming provides students with opportunities for richer and more sustained intellectual engagement. In partnership with the academic curator of Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art, the First Year of Studies hosted two Cenacle events at the museum in the 2016–17 academic year. The museum provided an ideal location to discuss Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, which examines how we determine artistic value and why we preserve cultural artifacts. At another Cenacle event at the Snite, students discussed Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818) alongside Marcos Raya’s painting Opportunistic Diagnosis (2004), considering how these two texts, created in different media and separated by two centuries, explore the ethics of scientific experimentation. To complement this event, Parnassus subsequently offered students the opportunity to attend the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre’s stage production of Frankenstein. Together, these Cenacle and Parnassus events invited students to encounter the same text in different forms and thereby see the novel through new lenses. Given the positive response from students, the First Year of Studies intends to continue and expand its integrated arts programming.

Successes and challenges

The arts programming sponsored by the First Year of Studies has strengthened integrative liberal learning among first-year students. But its success has depended on Notre Dame’s ability to address certain constraints. Advisors who are creating cocurricular academic programming need institutional support and time away from more traditional advising responsibilities. In addition, they need to be recognized as educators, and the cocurricular academic programming they design needs to be understood as an effective method for achieving integrative advising goals. Advisors also need the support of partners in academic departments and arts units, such as theaters and museums. Department chairs or directors of undergraduate study can provide invaluable assistance in recruiting faculty members, who may be reluctant to commit to additional responsibilities. Financial support is also critical, but there are many ways to reduce expenses: meals need not be provided during book discussions, for example, and essays or short stories can often be distributed to students electronically at no cost.

The primary limitation of voluntary arts programming is its scope. Events for small groups of students allow for active participation and community building, but their modest size means that they cannot reach most students. Significantly increasing the number of events would require an untenable investment of time and resources. Moreover, expanding programming would likely result in diminishing returns, as many students are unable to find time for voluntary cocurricular programs or are not interested in the arts. Nonetheless, through integrative advising, advisors can help even these students understand the place of the arts in liberal education and thus lay the groundwork for future curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular engagement with the arts.

The successful arts programming organized by academic advisors in the First Year of Studies at the University of Notre Dame demonstrates the value of cocurricular engagement with the arts for first-year students. In keeping with the mission of liberal education and the goals of integrative advising, these programs help students join the university’s intellectual community, broaden their perspectives, and integrate their learning experiences. The response from students has been overwhelmingly positive. In the words of one happy theatergoer, “Please keep doing this, it was awesome!” The administrators, faculty, and staff who shape the first-year experience have a responsibility to provide students with these life-changing encounters with the arts.


1. Jeffrey Scheuer, “Critical Thinking and the Liberal Arts,” Academe 101, no. 6 (2015),

2. Martha Nussbaum, “Liberal Education and Global Community,” Liberal Education 90, no. 1 (2004): 46.

3. Association of American Colleges and Universities, The LEAP Vision for Learning: Outcomes, Practices, Impact, and Employers’ Views (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2011): 7.

4. See Mary Stuart Hunter, “Fostering Student Learning and Success through First-Year Programs,” Peer Review 8, no. 3 (2006): 4–7.

5. Jeremy Haefner and Deborah L. Ford, “The Double Helix,” Liberal Education 96, no. 2 (2010): 50.

6. Ibid., 50.

7. Ann Ferren and David C. Paris, “Principles and Practices of Integrative Liberal Learning” (working paper growing out of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Project on Faculty Leadership for Integrative Liberal Learning), 3,

8. Ibid., 2.

9. See Marc Lowenstein, “Toward a Theory of Advising,” Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, August 12, 2014,; Marc Lowenstein, “General Education, Advising, and Integrative Learning,” Journal of General Education 64, no. 2 (2015): 117–30; and Rich Robbins, “AAC&U’s Integrative Liberal Learning and the CAS Standards: Advising for a 21st Century Liberal Education,” NACADA Journal 34, no. 2 (2014): 26–31.

10. Lowenstein, “Toward a Theory of Advising,” 6–7.

11. Robbins, “Advising for a 21st Century Liberal Education,” 29.

12. “About NDignite,” First Year of Studies, accessed January 9, 2017,

13. Jodi Levine Laufgraben, Common Reading Programs: Going Beyond the Book (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 2006), 6.

14. Michael Ferguson, “Creating Common Ground: Common Reading and the First Year of College,” Peer Review 8, no. 3 (2006): 8.

JAMES CREECH is an academic advisor in the First Year of Studies at the University of Notre Dame. MARYAM ZOMORODIAN is a student at the University of California–Irvine School of Law, and was an academic advisor in the First Year of Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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