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  • Writer's pictureAmy Bass

The Primacy of the Liberal Arts: Keeping Students Together...When Apart

The following is a longer version of my oped for The Hechinger Report, entitled "As the coronavirus drives students apart, one college devises a course to keep them together," which ran July 6, 2020.


The day that an admissions staffer sent the email to accepted students first offering them our free, two-credit course focused on COVID-19, the six of us at the helm held our collective breath. The course, a love letter of sorts to the Class of 2024, a group of students who graduated high school from their cars or on their phones, celebrating via Zoom or car parades, was meant to welcome these young adults and acknowledge their lived experience of the past several months, and to share our passion for what the liberal arts can do given the time and space it deserves.

“Twelve students so far,” came the missive a few hours later. Okay, we thought, so we at least can run one section. Then the number jumped by another dozen. Then another, and another. By the time we called it, almost 100 students had said “yes” to an idea that only two months earlier felt like a pipe dream, hallucinated by a faculty weary from a semester of migrating curriculum into emergency online contingency formats, balancing work and family in the most intimate of spaces, and supporting students who felt like their entire world had crashed and burned.

The course, “Manhattanville Together…at a Distance: Coming together as a community in the age of COVID-19,” brings together faculty from their dining rooms and living rooms to explore the ongoing pandemic and its effect on our lives through the lens of sports, arts, sciences, history, literature, and other fields. It exemplifies the way the liberal arts help us break down complex moments, attempting to make sense of the pandemic in real time. This course will help students to create connections with each other and with us; explore the uncertain landscape upon which they are starting college; and support their transition from high school to college.

The road to this innovative collaboration began with just six of us sitting around a table at the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship as part of an interdisciplinary working group. Under the guidance of our facilitator, Professor Megan Cifarelli, we spent the early part of the spring semester dreaming up an on-campus institute for interdisciplinary pedagogy and scholarship.

Our last in-person session took place on March 4th, a few hours before the campus would empty for what we thought would be spring break. Commuting to campus from my home in New Rochelle, I attended the meeting with some trepidation, wondering if my colleagues would keep me at arm’s length, the news of New York’s first coronavirus case only hours old, and my own community’s ascendance as the first “hot spot” on the East Coast yet to come. But the conversation that unfolded amongst us – two art historians, myself a historian in sport studies, a microbiologist, a writing specialist, and the director of the library – laid the foundation for an idea that we had circled around without realizing it: we understood the rapidly unfolding scenario of coronavirus better when we talked about it together, each offering input from our own disciplines and perspectives, creating new knowledge that could not exist without one another.

On the other side of spring break, increasingly clear that we would not return to campus, we forged ahead. Even as our workloads exploded with online learning curves, we found that extra hour. These sessions had become a highlight in our week, a time to let creative juices flow, to learn from one another. And in the midst of those first online meetings, the idea for a multi-faculty, interdisciplinary summer course for first-year students emerged.

The reality of what COVID-19 may mean for small, private, liberal arts institutions is grim. Short of a federal bailout, the three million people employed by institutions of higher education, never mind the communities that surround them, know they are in precarious situations. How, we wondered collectively, could we create something that would enable incoming students to feel like they are part of an engaged, compassionate, and curious campus community, a place they wanted to commit to?

After sketching out what the course could look like – online, short, pre-recorded modules of faculty in conversation around various topics accompanied by live, weekly discussion sessions and some kind of short assignment – we put out a call to our colleagues: did anyone want to participate? The work, we acknowledged, would be a labor of love, uncompensated, but an opportunity to come. To our delight, about a quarter of the college’s faculty – some 30 people – answered the call, raising their hands from the School of Arts & Sciences, the School of Education, the School of Nursing and Healthcare Sciences, the Center for Design Thinking, and the Library.

The four-week course showcases the best of us: collaboration, expertise, and generosity. Each of the four modules features podcast-style conversations designed to help students understand the ways that different fields look at evidence and draw conclusions, expertly woven together by our talented moviemaking colleague in Communication and Media, Michael Castaldo. They cover remarkable ground: Humanity and Natural Disasters; Intersections of Social Media & Science; Pandemics, Inequality, and the Environment; and Coping & Caring for our Communities. Along with weekly discussions, we crafted assignments to help students understand their role in creating what will be the history of this moment. Each week students submit a found “artifact” – an image, an object, a news story, a meme – that encompasses both their learning in the course and their personal experience of COVID-19. As their final project at the end of the course, they will create an artifact of their own, curating the aspects of this situation we can and should remember. The artifacts will be part of a permanent, online collection of COVID-19 materials in the college’s special collections department of the library. As Lauren Ziarko, archivist and special collection librarian reminds us in the first module of the course, “What people will know about the COVID-19 pandemic is what we tell them…Now is the time to document our story.”

“In decades of teaching,” Professor Cifarelli shared with the group we assembled, “I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

Indeed, as we created something that would help students make sense of the changes they are witnessing and experiencing at this moment of transition in their lives, we gave our exhausted selves a raison d’etre for what we do, a much-needed reminder that 100s of hours of work when motivated by the right reasons can create something nothing short of spectacular.

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