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Creating a Culture Conducive to Integrative Learning
Over the past decade, Carleton College has fostered several interdisciplinary, integrative curricular initiatives. This article will focus on three initiatives, past and present, and will provide recommendations to help faculty develop and sustain similar programs.
Visualizing the Liberal Arts (Viz), a three-year initiative that culminated in a national conference in 2012, aimed to foster the distinctive skills needed to create, interpret, and employ visual images, media, and models across the curriculum. Viz succeeded in integrating visual learning throughout the curriculum and influenced new initiatives.
QuIRK (Quantitative Inquiry, Reasoning, and Knowledge) aims to cultivate numeracy in students by fostering the use, analysis, and communication of quantitative evidence. QuIRK faculty have collaborated on the creation of learning goals and detailed rubrics for assessing quantitative literacy. Students are required to take three QRE (Quantitative Reasoning Encounter) courses in order to graduate. More than two hundred such courses are offered each year.
The Carleton Global Engagement Initiative (GEI) encourages awareness of global issues and facility in thinking across boundaries (both geographical and metaphoric). It integrates foreign language study, area studies, and off‐campus study through interdisciplinary capstone projects, internships, and civic engagement opportunities in global contexts.
An Increasingly Complex and Interconnected World
Despite their external differences, these three initiatives sprang from similar motivations. Most fundamentally, our educational mission is to prepare students to understand and contribute to a world that is increasingly complex and interconnected. The range of skills they need to navigate that world includes competence in analyzing quantitative data and using that data to construct arguments; the ability to understand, create, and interpret visual representations of knowledge; and an appreciation for cultural diversity and comprehension of issues that transcend national borders.
But there have been pedagogical motivations, as well. The intellectual skills at the heart of a liberal arts education must be developed in, and then applied across, multiple contexts—in different courses, in a variety of disciplines, using a range of modalities. Just as students do not learn to become effective writers by taking a single “first-year comp” course, they will not learn to be numerically, visually, and culturally proficient unless these skills are modeled and reinforced throughout the curriculum. Students will not really appreciate the power of quantitative reasoning if they think it only matters in their math classes; so too, if they think visual learning is only for the artistically inclined and cross‐cultural literacy only for those studying foreign languages. These exercises in integrative learning encourage students to reflect on how and why they should learn these skills, as well as how they might apply them in novel contexts.
A Sense of Community Among Faculty and Staff
There are some factors specific to Carleton that have spurred this work and contributed to its success. Carleton has a robust and highly respected learning and teaching center (LTC). The LTC sponsors weekly lunch programs and occasional book groups at which faculty and staff gather to learn with and from one another. Faculty members involved in Viz, QuIRK, and GEI have all presented at LTC sessions, which served to inform colleagues of their work and promoted further involvement. In general, the LTC fosters a sense of community among the faculty and staff that encourages people to take an active interest in one another’s work and nourishes a sense of common purpose.
For many years Carleton’s extended December break has been a time when we have held multi-day faculty development workshops. This is the venue where much of the work associated with Viz, QuIRK, and GEI has been planned and where faculty and staff have become engaged. Faculty participation in these workshops is extremely high; well over half of all regular faculty members attend at least one workshop each December, and many attend two or more.
Creating Powerful Integrative Learning Experiences
Each of these initiatives has been successful—as measured by the assessment of student work, the diffusion of quantitative reasoning and visual learning throughout the curriculum, and the extent and depth of faculty engagement. Collectively they highlight certain aspects of the faculty culture that are both preconditions for and fruits of this integrative learning. Overall, Carleton faculty see themselves as responsible for providing a liberal arts education, not solely for teaching their specific disciplines. The late Shelby Boardman, professor of geology and former dean of the college, said he had the privilege of teaching the liberal arts in the context of geology. That perspective underlies the desire to create powerful integrative learning experiences for our students. It also reinforces three activities that we regard as essential to successful integrated learning.
Collaboration. Integrative learning depends on integrated teaching. Each of these initiatives began when colleagues across disciplines talked with one another about what and how they were teaching. Strong administrative support and a willingness of faculty to view staff members as collaborators have been essential.
Risk-taking. Every new curricular initiative is experimental; not every creative assignment or interdisciplinary project succeeds. Faculty must be willing to see some failures as the price of trying new pedagogies and charting new curricular terrain. In workshops, faculty are encouraged to move out of their comfort zones. It is the willingness of faculty to stretch that has made each of these initiatives possible.
Modeling. We cannot ask our students to do what we are not willing to do ourselves. This sometimes means modeling something less than mastery and so positioning ourselves genuinely as co‐learners with them. It also means that we cannot simply send them off to another course or expert to gain skills and then expect them on their own to integrate what they have learned in different places.
The Challenge Ahead
We are proud of these initiatives, but we are keenly aware that sustaining this work remains challenging. First, this sort of creative and integrative work is very time‐intensive for both faculty and staff. Integrative initiatives do not simply remain in motion after they are launched; they must be nurtured over time.
Moreover, we need to remain nimble and responsive—to changing student needs, evolving educational goals, developing technologies, and personnel changes. Integrative learning projects are thus inherently unstable insofar as they depend upon particular configurations of people with particular interests and commitments and particular institutional structures.
Finally, assessing the educational outcomes for these integrative projects is especially difficult. No one metric would completely capture the combination of reflective, applied, cross‐disciplinary, creative work that we identify with integrative liberal learning. How and where we measure the success of these efforts remains somewhat elusive.
Our experience has reinforced one overriding lesson: integrative learning is as much about pedagogy as about curriculum, as much about the culture of learning and collegiality as about specific programs. At Carleton, integrative learning thrives when faculty and staff working collaboratively and with strong administrative support see themselves as collectively responsible for the learning of their students in ways that transcend specific courses, departments, or programs. The distinctive practices of integrative learning are not self-sufficient or easily transferable from one institutional setting to another. They thrive only in a context where collaboration, risk taking, and modeling are actively fostered and rewarded.
Louis E. Newman is the associate dean of the college and director of advising; Scott Carpenter is a professor of French; Nathan Grawe is a professor of economics; Susan Jaret-McKinstry is the Helen F. Lewis Professor of English—all of Carleton College