Scholarly Expertise vs. Liberal Arts Teaching

Terry wrote a response to my previous post in which she explores the conflict between disciplinary expertise and true liberal arts teaching.  What follows is my response to her.

There is a genuine tension between scholarly expertise and liberal arts teaching. It is not trivial to be both an expert in a field and an excellent teacher of the liberal arts. Compare the average faculty member at an R1 institution where research productivity is the preeminent value with the average faculty member at an institution like St. Johns College where the preeminent value is the ability to engage students in the millennial long conversation about how to live the good life, and where research expertise, as it is defined in R1 institutions, has little place. To say that it is difficult to do both is not to say that it’s impossible. That is in principle what the Ivy League colleges are supposed to offer. But it is not easy, and in my view it can’t be done by focusing exclusively on one’s discipline or that discipline’s methodology in one’s teaching. Faculty who teach with such a focus inevitably fail to satisfy the liberal arts ideal which requires one to think more broadly.

At the same time, we are disciplinary practitioners and so it makes sense to teach in the context of our disciplines. What each discipline has to offer is a particular and distinctly useful way of looking at phenomena. That’s certainly what I do.  At the same time, I try to regularly remind students that this is only one framework for viewing the world, that other frameworks exist which can provide another view, and that by looking at an issue through multiple frameworks, one is more likely to fully understand it.

It’s hard to imagine a multidisciplinary or true interdisciplinary Ph.D. which trained one in the liberal arts. General education, tends to give one a breadth of knowledge across the fields, but expertise in none. A person trained in this tradition is unlikely to be both a scholarly expert and an excellent teacher of the liberal arts.

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1 Response to Scholarly Expertise vs. Liberal Arts Teaching

  1. Pingback: Scholarship of Teaching and Learning « Compos(t)ing

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