BLASTER conference student session

BLASTER conference

Continuing on the theme of student experience of liberal arts education (see the recent book available through ELAI website), we are happy to report on a student panel that took place at Leuphana Universitat Lüneburg on 28th of September. The panel was part of a two-day BLASTER conference, one of three events concluding the multi-year, EU-funded BLASTER project linking five European liberal arts institutions in a joint call for reinforcing this alternative model of higher education. Over sixty participants from several countries received a special “handbook” (all three brochures would soon be available on ECOLAS website), participated in workshops, and forged new connections thanks to a welcoming milieu provided by the convener, Volker Balli, and whole Leuphana University.

The conference raised many interesting points related to the future of liberal arts model(s) in Europe, quality standards, and promotion and growth strategies. But building upon lively student activities over the last year, the organisers invited nine students from different programmes to hold an opening panel on student experience of liberal arts education. The list of students and their affiliations can be found at the end of this post.

Students’ experiences raise some important points and provide a fertile ground for comparisons for students’ themselves, faculty, and administrators in liberal arts programmes - not only in Europe. We believe that the content of the session can be of interest to those that could not participate in the conference. What follows are slightly edited for clarity, chronological, and anonymised notes covering the five structured questions and ensuing discussion. Without further ado:

Why did you choose Liberal Arts and Sciences?

  • Because of smaller classes;
  • To do it my way, to experience freedom;
  • Because of active learning, greater agency;
  • I was looking for a deeper engagement with a literary text;
  • I wanted freedom to define how to approach political science; it was also relevant that I could study in English;
  • To have the combination that is not possible elsewhere;
  • To study in different languages, not just English; there was a combination of strong departments whose leaders were experts in their fields;
  • There was an abundance of options, I could not decide and I ultimately submit 64 different applications; I looked not just for a major/minor combination, but topics/questions; switching between departments and being curious about other people.

How was your liberal education? How did you transition afterwards?

  • It was difficult, we were raised as polymaths, but masters wanted strong focus, proposals, defined research interests;
  • The questions were similar, I had good advisers during my bachelor;
  • Major gave me a structure, I could not just do anything; advising was also important;
  • I was actually fascinated by some required courses;
  • There was always some focus, but I changed what I focused on mid way, took a turn;
  • My studies had serious interdisciplinarity, but I needed to know which problems do I have to address with those skills that I have.

What would you call a liberal component in the programme?

  • It is interesting that some programmes are running on the free choice, while other on prescriptive structure; both understand themselves as liberal education; in my case I get to construct my own programme, had only four prescribed courses;
  • To keep everybody freedom secured, you need coercion or trust; both from the institution and among students themselves; we tried to do the last thin by cross-reading our theses;
  • That freedom gives you agency (or the other way round);
  • That making mistakes is fine;
  • That it is civic education (because of participating in decision making), discussing what does it mean to be a citizen (but citizen of what?); and that it is Bildung, personal development. Liberal education puts huge attention on learning environment, extracurriculars. It finally means political liberalism, growing from the fact that your students are grown citizens anyway, so they should not be infantilized in the classroom;
  • When you ask about liberalism, I tend to think is it new liberalism or is it old one?;
  • For me this is neoliberal employability – can you generate liberal education beyond human capital generation?;
  • Civic virtues – when you have just 800-900 students, you get a full community.

What was the one most important thing you have learned?

  • Confidence;
  • Small talk ability;
  • Binge reading;
  • Being self-critical, understanding that you are going to make mistakes;
  • Building bridges; learning a lot about a little, and little about a lot;
  • That others are a lot smarter, but also nice; to engage and listen; about the limits of approach and methods;
  • To value education as such; take ownership, not just pass it for external reasons; taking education as a privilege and making the best of it.

What is your next step after liberal arts education?

  • More practical Masters are for me really easy; work experience is a bonus, and I think I understand more of what I do than folks with disciplinary bachelors;
  • It was very easy actually, I saw that you do not always need to learn from A-Z during your Bachelor;
  • I now know how to sell this education efficiently to different people;
  • I went for an internship for a year, as I assume many of us did; when I was writing a cover letter, I had to describe what I actually learned; I could shape this paragraph in pretty much any way, I had no problem about presenting, I was not lying. Sometimes I feel that in the Netherlands especially liberal arts colleges are already recognized.

Some of the exchanges during the Questions and Answers session (less anonymised, some answers came from the audience):

  • Have any of you considered studying engineering or natural/life sciences? Did you do any core courses in those disciplines?
    • In our programme a student did art history major, and then went to graduate studies in architecture at TU Delft; some people did study biology, yes, but not engineering; 1/3 of all our students are majoring in sciences, some of them are regular science students and are doing LAS as a second degree;
    • some technical universities are more liberal in taking our graduates from science majors, as they have broader perspectives.
  • Do you think that it is the content (paradigm, approach) that brings the liberal education aura that you spread, or is it just people? Or maybe it is an aura of a pick and mix degree?
    • We are learning continuous questioning during our foundational year, and we always come back to those; we take 3 introductory courses from 4 available majors, and since we are still small, some 400 people, effectively you get to know everybody;
    • I think that students here spoke more about skills, not about the content.
  • Was the mobility phase important?
    • From our first cohort, some 80-90% went abroad, although it was still just an option, not obligatory move; we left for third or fourth year;
    • Some 50% went abroad (remember that 40% of our students are foreigners; I did not go to the US because I could not afford it after all;
    • We have mostly Russian students, and we mostly go abroad within Bard College Network.
  • You seem very confident, but the experience of studying liberal education is for many students confusing, causing them to become anxious; is freedom only valued after those studies are actually done? It is not always nice. When is the freedom good?
    • My programme attracts many people who do not know what to do;
    • Students like us often wanted to do everything; you need a good reason about why you want to do it in order to pass.
  • How much research was encouraged as a career path? Will this approach happen then? Is scholarship part of liberal education really?
    • A lot of careers are possible after liberal education, including research and academics; I co-authored a chapter with my professor whom I worked with as a research assistant, so in many case it worked like this.
  • You speak a lot of “communities”; is there a tension between LE community of students and the fact of dispersion to attend courses across the campus?
    • We live close to the campus, and we interact so much anyway;
    • There might be community, but there is also competition. In my case almost unhealthy competition.
  • Do you identify as a person with some of the competencies that we might want to call neoliberal? Would you change something in your programmes?
    • I would like to see more serious methodology courses, as they are expected to be covered when you proceed to masters;
    • it would be good to have more security during our studies.

Student participants:
Magdalena Burtscher; University College Freiburg
Nathan Cooper, Amsterdam University College
Jakob Dirksen, University of Oxford (alumnus of Leuphana University Lüneburg Studium Individuale)
Carsten Michael Flaig; Freie Universitat Berlin (alumnus of University College Freiburg)
Emma Groenendijk, Utrecht University
Cedric Jürgensen; London School of Economics and Political Science (alumnus of University College Freiburg)
Peter Kronenberg, University College Freiburg
Sabine Uijl, University College Utrecht
Nadezhda Vikulina, Smolny College

Notes by Daniel Kontowski

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