Liberal arts’ next chapter

Reading groups now forming to show faculty and staff how they fit into the Strategic Plan’s first goal

Anne Kelsch

Anne Kelsch, faculty and staff development director of the Teaching Transformation and Development Academy at UND, with others on campus will be convening reading groups centered on creating a strong undergraduate liberal arts foundation. Photo by Connor Murphy/ UND Today.

When Anne Kelsch and her colleagues began brainstorming ways to engage the UND community in a discussion of the liberal arts, they noted one concept in particular that would draw the interest of faculty and staff.

Just offer them a little something with a hard cover, freshly inked pages, and ideas to spur culture-shifting conversation.

“Can you be in higher education and not love books?” Kelsch asked with a laugh. “It’s great – when I bring a new stacks of books to faculty study seminars, people hold theirs close and page through it immediately. Some write their names in it. So, in my experience, a book is a welcome gift.”

Kelsch, faculty and staff development director of the Teaching Transformation and Development Academy (TTaDA), and her One UND Strategic Plan Goal One implementation teammates have announced spring reading groups centered on the main mission of their goal – providing a strong undergraduate liberal arts foundation.

The series of simultaneous book discussions is open to all, using four different titles as guides for cross-discipline dialogue:

The Provost’s Office will provide the books and TTaDA will provide group coordination – it’s up to campus bookworms to provide the insights, arguments and reflections.

And the time to get involved is now – groups will begin in the coming weeks on a first-come basis.

“We want to get started!” Kelsch declared, adding that those interested should reach out to her directly (anne.kelsch@und.edu) or through an online survey. “We’ll work around people’s schedules and try our best to figure out a time that works for everybody.”

Why liberal arts?

It’s a growing and sometimes polarizing national conversation – the role of the liberal arts in preparing students for their post-college lives.

Why would an accountant need classes in the social sciences? Why would a nurse waste time with intensive writing courses? Why should a civil engineer take philosophy?

Debbie Storrs, College of Arts & Sciences dean

Debbie Storrs

College of Arts & Sciences Dean Debbie Storrs, who serves as captain of Goal One, says the answer is simple. No matter the course of study, from engineering to aviation, evidence shows that graduates won’t have the skillset to be leaders in their fields – clear communication, critical thinking, cultural competence, etc. – without the liberal arts.

And everyone must spread the message.

“We have advocates for the liberal arts across colleges. They’re not just in Arts & Sciences,” Storrs said. “We need to bring those individuals in as part of the discussion on campus, to heighten the level of understanding and advocacy.”

Kelsch says she wants to connect those diverse, cross-college voices in the reading groups to generate engaging discourse and practical solutions. She urges participants to consider choosing a book that doesn’t necessarily fall in their realm of expertise, in order to deepen the perspective set of each meeting.

“We’re having to advocate for the liberal arts in new ways, in a higher education environment that’s much more geared toward what people see as an immediately pragmatic approach – ‘a degree that will get you a job the minute you graduate.’” Kelsch said.

“The reality is,” she continued, “that’s also true of a liberal arts degree – it may take more intentionality and thought at the early stages of degree planning and more creativity when you think in terms of career development.”

The book group leaders hope to equip participants with a deeper liberal arts knowledge base to better advise their students and plan curriculum.

“We’re interested in educating students as whole people … who can thrive in terms of being members of communities and being forces for positive, constructive change,” Kelsch said. “There’s no instance in which someone who touches a student’s life on this campus shouldn’t be actively interested and engaged in this conversation.”

First step

These eye-opening reading groups are just one step in Goal One’s multi-pronged plan to provide the liberal arts base students need.

Representatives from TTaDA are hosting a series of spring workshops to show faculty how they can best integrate high-impact practices (HIPs) like undergraduate research, internships and intensive writing into their teaching. Kelsch is also leading a University-wide effort to define, assess, and inventory the HIPs that UND already has in place, given the Strategic Plan goal of requiring three high-quality HIPs on every graduate’s transcript.

“If all students are going to have three of these experiences, they really need them to have the impact that we hope they do. So we’ll examine the intensity of the experience for the student, and the kind of engagement that we can get,” Kelsch said.

Storrs said fully achieving Goal One will take time, effort, and teamwork, with faculty engagement central to effectively crafting the necessary liberal arts courses and training.

And it could all start with a book.