Liberal Arts Skills in Action


Nina Namaste

Elon University


Namaste, N. (2015). Liberal Arts Skills in Action. Elon University.


The project asks students to choose a social problem or issue they’ll face as a global citizen (either currently or in the near future) and actively seek to contribute to its amelioration in some substantive way.  The final “product” is entirely self-designed—it might be a traditional academic paper, a documentary or a video, an ad campaign, a thematic unit with lesson plans, a community workshop, a campus event, a speech, etc.  It is up to the students to design and execute the “product” that best addresses the social problem (and audience) they want to address.  Due to the individual nature of each student project, modeling, scaffolding, (peer) feedback, and mentoring are essential.  As part of the process students are required to keep a written record of their thoughts, ideas, challenges, and transformations via a guided reflection.  Thus, the assignment asks students to put the best of the liberal arts skills into practice, connect it with an issue they are passionate about, and demonstrate and describe the thought process of such an application.

Background and Context

The assignment attempts to elicit and evaluate the DQP civic and global learning proficiency, particularly “Explains diverse positions, including those representing different cultural, economic and geographic interests, on a contested public issue, and evaluates the issue in light of both those interests and evidence drawn from journalism and scholarship.”  It is used in a general studies capstone course—students at our university are required to take interdisciplinary seminar courses on varying topics at the 100, 200, 300, and 400-level.  This capstone course, like the others in the Core Curriculum (general studies), asks students to integrate their learning from the totality of their university experience and find ways in which they can apply those skills post-graduation.

This course specifically investigates the history and applicability of a liberal arts education, thus the assignment’s focus on using all of the core skills foundational to living a life of the liberal arts (contextualizing an issue, seeing multiple perspectives, uncovering biases and assumptions, evaluating ethical dimensions, etc).  Since it is a general studies course I have a wide array of juniors and seniors—exercise science, theatre, political science all the way to foreign language majors—present in my class.  As such the course focuses on skills and theories that cut across disciplines.

Alignment and Scaffolding

The first half of the course is dedicated to parsing out what skills specifically a liberal arts education cultivates. After much reading and discussion, students create their own list of “liberal arts” skills (analyzing, evaluating sources, critical reading, effective communication, viewing multiple perspectives, etc.). With that base, I begin the process of working on the assignment right after mid-term. That said, we work on it in small chunks so that we can continue to read and analyze texts for the course. For instance, we look at examples, from prior students and from the public, of products that attempt to ameliorate some contemporary issue or another (Nabisco’s ads on love that advocate equal rights or Always’ video campaign about the negativity of gender put-downs–“you throw like a girl”–work wonderfully for us). Students bring in their own “found” examples as well. During class we take the reflection questions (see downloadable assignment) and attempt to answer them based on those sample products. Then, students pick a favorite product and research the topic, in small groups, to find those multiple perspectives to which the products are responding. At this stage we parse out the difference between pop and scholarly sources of information/research as well.

During class we write multiple 5-minute reflections or brainstorms about topics they are truly passionate about and over which they feel some sort of injustice or injury. Once they hone in on a topic they need to pitch the proposal to their classmates in a 3-4 minute presentation providing their full reasoning as to why the product is an appropriate one for their target audience and issue. We all provide feedback and suggestions regarding things to consider as they move from pitch to finalizing their project ideas.

Another means I use to scaffold the assignment is to create a shared GoogleDoc in which they document their weekly progress (tasks completed, tasks to be done still) and a formal project/product proposal that includes responses to the first three reflection questions (How did you decide on which social issues to address, what is the issue (on the socio-historic context and for them), and why is it such a complicated issue?). The formal project/product proposal is due roughly three weeks after mid-term. In the following weeks we discuss, in class, one-by-one the other reflection questions to help them keep progressing, investigating, and thinking about their end-of-term project. Final projects are presented to the class during the final exam hour.


So far this assignment has led to students producing excellent projects/products.  I do find the beginning stages and scaffolding intensive, but absolutely necessary so students don’t flounder so much in finding an issue and designing a product.  The scaffolding is precisely where the most change in the assignment has occurred—the first time I used the assignment I did not provide any such scaffolding and spent countless office hours questioning, prodding, and guiding students towards picking a topic and crafting a product.  The reflections, too, have deepened since I’ve intentionally set aside time to “practice” answering the reflection questions (for the sample products and their own) during class.

One particular thing to note is that, at least with my students, their biggest challenge is in integrating the ideas from the various scholarly sources and distinguishing those ideas from their own emotions and thoughts.  It takes a lot of reflection, awareness, and discussion to parse out why students believe what they do and where they are getting their ideas from (friends, community, experiences, media, course readings, etc.).  The concept that culture both shapes and is shaped by products (literary text, media, music, etc.) is a challenging one for them to perceive and process, which, thus, requires explicit attention and guidance.

While I have not explicitly asked students to take on an issue relevant to the local community since I want to tap into a topic of lasting commitment, I can easily see how a project like this could be used in a community-based justice and service learning setting.  Lastly, I have had colleagues recommend that I ask students to create their own rubric so as to further their analysis and evaluation of what a “good” product should be, I have yet to do so, but will in the future iteration of the course.

With some work and collaboration, I think this assignment could be widely applied in other courses.  I see it as useful in any level general studies course, but also international studies or even media studies.  Each discipline could provide a stronger or more directive “lens” to guide the questions and/or project, but, ultimately, the assignment asks students to integrate and apply all those skills we want them to carry with them once they graduate.

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