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Liberal Arts Learning in Times of Uncertainty

The global pandemic has changed everything—including how we teach, how we create community, and how we introduce students to the liberal arts and sciences as the world’s best hope for our future. Two Washington College professors—both with undergraduate liberal arts backgrounds—rose to the challenge of helping students grapple with the implications of COVID-19 while transitioning into college.

This summer, Sara Clarke-Vivier, Assistant Professor of Education, and Ben Tilghman, Assistant Professor of Art and Art History, taught a seven-week course about the pandemic that modeled  interdisciplinary thinking in the midst of a crisis while introducing incoming students to basic skills they will need to navigate their first year of college. At the same time, the course helped students make connections with other faculty from various disciplines and build a sense of community among members of the Class of 2024. Based upon the success of this inaugural offering, the pair received a grant from College’s Cromwell Center for Teaching and Learning to develop a similar two-credit course to be offered every summer, built around topics of national and global importance.

Story by Marcia C. Landskroener M’02, 

illustration of coronavirus

LAST SPRING, AS THE FULL SCOPE OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC CAME INTO CLEARER VIEW, two professors recognized the challenges this would pose to students—particularly first-year students who had yet to step foot inside a classroom. In a time of uncertainty, SARA CLARKE-VIVIER, Assistant Professor of Education, and BEN TILGHMAN, Assistant Professor of Art History, held firm to what they knew to be true: that an interdisciplinary liberal arts and sciences education holds the key to solving problems such as a global pandemic, and that their friends and colleagues across all disciplines would rally to help new students integrate into the Washington College community during a difficult time.

I had the idea to get students thinking about how studying at a place like Washington College prepares them to engage with complex problems,” recalls Clarke-Vivier. “We could use the immense amount of brainpower that we have on campus and in our community to demonstrate how people with a wide range of experiences think about challenges like the ongoing pandemic.”

A lot of the motivation for this course came out of real sympathy for that student cohort,” Tilghman recalls. And it generated a lot of enthusiasm among faculty in what was otherwise a bummer of a summer. The fundamental impulse was caring for our students through the teaching we can offer them. The other part of it was introducing students to faculty members across the curriculum and helping students navigate their way through Canvas, group discussions, and writing assignments.”

In all, 22 faculty members and five community members participated in panel discussions covering topics such as Public Health Mechanics and Ethics, Arts and Advocacy, and Forms of Isolation. They posed questions such as: What is the “accounting” behind public health decisions? How do the arts create the conditions for social change? And how do we think about isolation as both a healthful and destructive force? The unifying thread was the idea of creative problem-solving as a core of the liberal arts.

illustration of idea light bulb

“We explicitly asked panelists to focus not just on the challenges of the pandemic, but to consider what kinds of solutions are visible,” Tilghman says. “Mala Misra, Assistant Professor of Biology, for instance, shared an article on how to hug during the pandemic. You can find a way. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that knowledge exists to inform what we do in the world, to be better people.”

In dark times, the class was an exercise in optimism, validation of the power of the liberal arts, and a demonstration of the academic community coming together to support one another and the students of Washington College.

 “All of the faculty echoed that aspect of how much it was energizing for them,” Clarke-Vivier says. “We love teaching. We miss it when we’re not teaching. Pretty much everyone we asked to come and do a presentation in the middle of the summer, for no pay, said yes. It was so easy to get the help we needed to make this happen.”

KATIE CHARLES, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF EIGHTEENTH-AND NINETEENTH CENTURY LITERATURE, happily agreed to participate with her colleagues in the panel discussion on Arts and Advocacy.

“We wanted to explore how art can operate, not only as a means of self-expression, but as a means for critical engagement with information of all kinds,” Charles explains. “My panel represented a fairly broad swath of research interests—Dr. Kim Andrews writes and studies contemporary poetry, Jason Patterson is a visual artist whose work engages Black history inspired by archived images, and I focus on the development of the eighteenth-century novel— but we realized that we could use a few shared questions and then apply them to different pieces of art: "Say Thank You Say I'm Sorry" (2020), a poem by Jericho Brown; "My Dungeon Shook" (1963), an essay by James Baldwin; and “First Black Graduates of Washington College,” Jason’s 2019 series of portraits of Thomas Edgar Morris ’62, Patricia Godbolt ’64, Shirley Dale Patterson ’65.  Ultimately, the question we wanted to leave students thinking about was one that we all grapple with: "What can you, the student, the reader, the viewer, and/or the creator, use art to do during this time of crisis? The answers—and questions—the students generated in response filled us all with energy and hope.”

Finding Freedom book cover

EMILY STEINMETZ, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ANTHROPOLOGY, joined Tilghman for a panel discussion of Forms of Isolation. While he talked about the power of solitude that medieval Christian monks found as they embarked on a path toward spiritual enlightenment, Steinmetz used her research experience with prison populations to talk about the pain of isolation and the constant sense of uncertainty experienced by those living behind bars. For this class, she used readings from Jarvis Jay Masters’ Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row. A practicing Buddhist, Masters shares vignettes about the difficulties and the choices he makes in practicing his faith within the criminal justice system.  

“Students were aware that we receive superficial narratives about the incarcerated.” Steinmetz says, “but these are complicated stories—women serving life sentences for killing an abusive partner, young, predominantly black men whose own uncertain social, educational, and economic prospects lead them into prison in the first place. Prisons as mechanisms of control—a simple but impractical way we deal with intractable social problems. When they sat with the human dimension for a while, they began to deepen their understanding and to ask a lot of questions that don’t have easy answers. Those conversations demonstrate how we can use an interdisciplinary approach to address the same topic, but in ways that help us expand that topic.” 

Steinmetz says a few of the students she met in the Liberal Arts Learning course are now enrolled in her first-year seminar, Liberation: What Imprisons Us and How Do We Get Free? Anecdotal evidence suggests that veterans of the summer class came into their college courses better prepared, more confident, and more adept at thinking critically.

Vivienne Sharp, a first-year student considering a major in English with a minor in creative writing, described the course as "a buffet of different subjects" that helped her step into the college experience. She became friends with many of her classmates, which helped her thrive in the online experience. 

"The class also helped prepare me for the workflow of online classes, especially in getting used to Canvas," Sharp says, "as I had never used it before this! Dr. Clarke-Vivier and Dr. Tilghman were both incredible professors and made me really comfortable with college-level work, especially in the gentle critiques they gave in the comments of each paper."

Joshua Torrence, who was first introduced to Washington College through the Cherry Tree Young Writers' Conference,  appreciated the variety of perspectives on the pandemic and the social issues included in the course.

"The class provided such an amazing opportunity to simultaneously get to know some of the faculty at Washington College and discover new ways of looking at our world and current events, through so many different lenses," he says. "I also loved how the format of the class focused on reflection, on prompting students to see how the topics being discussed affect their own lives. Panels such as “Public Health Mechanics and Ethics” and “The Intersectionality of a Pandemic” made me seriously think about how the pandemic brought out the failures of the nation, specifically failures to provide and protect disabled people and people of color. Panels like these made me think about my own contributions to my country, about how in becoming aware of these social issues I am becoming more of a citizen of this nation, one who is informed and will cast an informed ballot in elections to come."

“I think the course also helped alleviate that barrier of fear and anxiety that many first-year students feel,” Clarke-Vivier says. “In the chats, it was clear that this was an intellectual community. We also learned from our students at our Zoom Reunion that they used social media outside of class to stay in touch with one another. Their one disappointment was that they would not be able to meet each other in person this fall.”

Covid anxiety

FOR THE FINAL WRITING PROJECT, students were asked to propose a thematic panel they would have added to the course. Clarke-Vivier and Tilghman were blown away by their responses.

“Several students talked about how the pandemic is affecting people’s mental health—that was a reminder of the breadth and variety of things people are dealing with,” Clarke-Vivier notes. “Some talked about how the pandemic extended their exposure to toxic cultures at home, or what small family businesses needed to survive and thrive through a pandemic. A sailor who encountered discarded face masks on the waterways reflected on the pandemic’s impact on ocean health. Student-athletes examined how to stay healthy and fit in isolation. They brought their own lived experience.”

Recognizing and articulating the problem is the first step.

“No single discipline can solve a problem,” Clarke-Vivier says. “This course modeled the kind of interdisciplinary collaborative work that brings about change. I think we did that really well.”

Pictured below: Professors Sara Clarke-Vivier and Ben Tilghman

Ben Tilghman

Sara Clarke-Vivier