Erica Hannickel, Assistant Professor of Environmental History at Northland College
Northland College, a small college on the south shore of Lake Superior, where I have worked for the past five years, began its transition to an “integrated” (or “blocked”) liberal education program just as I arrived. Long defining itself as an “environmental liberal arts college,” Northland’s faculty and administration became excited about a more deeply coordinated curriculum because of how it promised to enhance our environmental mission, as well as strengthen first-time freshmen retention rates. Coming from the fields of Ethnic Studies and American Studies, I was drawn to the idea of basic college-wide interdisciplinarity. On the whole, I think most faculty here would agree that our integrated liberal education program has been a success, but that it will take a few years yet to iron out its more problematic kinks.
Our two-course and four-course blocks taught over the years include, for instance, “Sustainable Agriculture,” “Nature in Life & Literature,” “What’s Sex Got to Do With It?,” and “Climate Change and Disaster Narratives,” reflecting our college-wide focus on sustainability. The Sustainable Agriculture block, in which I have taught since its inception, includes the 100-level courses “American Agricultural History,” “Pastoral Literature,” “Chemistry of Food,” and “Biology of Food.” Our courses share several integrated assignments, for example, reading portions of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and other texts across classes, holding joint debates over GMO foods and chemical pesticides, and each course contributing a discrete assignment and portions of research towards culminating group projects on local agriculture and foodways.
The benefits, or positive outcomes, of this style of delivery of general education requirements are found at the individual student, college mission, and personal/professional levels. A tradition long upheld in American Studies, our undergraduate curriculum ideally teaches students from their first days in college that most major problems on Earth today—global climate change, the debt crisis, social justice for LGBTs and people of color—will require multi- and interdisciplinary thinking and toolkits. And, with as many as four of each student’s first-semester courses “blocked” around one issue—meaning that four professors are coordinated in their academic delivery as well as immediate watchfulness and action on behalf of struggling students—we’re more quickly, and with more precise examples, able to refer students to writing, mentoring, or mental health services on campus. Shy or reticent students also more easily make friends with people they share four classes with. Lastly, from an assistant professor’s personal perspective, it has been incredibly eye-opening to get to know faculty from various disciplines across campus (perhaps especially those that hail from the odd world of the hard sciences). I feel I’ve been better able to integrate with faculty at various stages of their careers, far more deeply and sooner, than I would have otherwise. As a professor fresh to the tenure track, it has been deeply reassuring to know that professors in other classrooms have experienced the same difficulties with challenging students as I have. So, with this new system, Northland seems to be more deeply developing some of our academic aspirations, college-wide retention goals, and enhancing campus collegiality.
Of course, an integrated liberal education program has also brought its share of difficulties for our small college. The first, and worst, aspect of this sort of teaching is the incredible amount of extra time it takes to coordinate blocked lesson plans, assignments, and grading. Unfortunately, the faculty did not push hard enough on the issue of compensation (release time or extra pay) as we transitioned to this system. So we are carrying the same course loads we had five years ago (humanities faculty at Northland teach a 3-3-1, two long semesters and a four-week May term), but with the added work of blocking our GEs. For some of us, that means up to five courses may carry an immense amount of additional labor. Second, the blocks seem to lend themselves to more regular cheating: students form close bonds early, relying on one another for more than basic assistance, and older students seem to go out of their way to befriend incoming freshmen who have chosen the same block (and give them last semester’s notes and assignments). This has created the additional burden of needing to change essay topics, tests, and assignments each year. Perhaps most vexing, a good portion of students seem to not care, nor appreciate on any level, their integrated coursework. Of course many college freshmen in America do not prioritize academic performance, but at times I have been worried that an alarming percentage of first-time freshmen just truly aren’t ready for this sort of integrated learning. Northland serves a high percentage of first-generation college students, and that could be part of the equation. But perhaps on the whole, students need a few basic, discrete courses first, before they can appreciate the nuances of cross-campus interdisciplinary learning. While stand-alone American Studies courses have been successfully delivered to students at all comprehension levels for generations, fully integrated interdisciplinary learning might be asking some freshmen to take philosophical leaps they simply cannot yet muster. To address these issues, Northland has cut our number of four-course blocks and increased two-course blocks, as well as allowed students to fulfill GEs through their senior year. (We are still working on faculty compensation, of course.) Training in American Studies has made me feel especially well-equipped to navigate the curricular adaptations of this small college in the woods.
Dr. Erica Hannickel is an assistant professor of environmental history at Northland College in Wisconsin. She received her PhD in American Studies from the University of Iowa. Her first book, Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America will be published with University of Pennsylvania Press in Fall 2013.