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Newsletter AF: Volume 1 - Issue 4

April 11 2019: hang in there edition

The newsletter of the Aydelotte Foundation at Swarthmore College.

Inside: faculty research seminars; Frank 5 panel; what IS “liberal arts”?; college closings; student evaluations; liberal arts cooking; learning from admissions scandals; Why College? update; AF research fellows present and future.

Connect with us: Stop by the office to chat or grab one of our first two AF posters; both beautiful and educational, they make excellent décor for the office or dormitory.

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New and Upcoming

AF Faculty Research Seminars make their return next year, in a new and more flexible format - stay tuned for an opportunity to suggest a seminar or apply to convene one.

Our Frank 5 Fellows will be on campus this week on Thursday and Friday, meeting with student groups and speaking on a  SwatStruck alumni panel on April 12 at 10:45am.

We are looking back at our 18-19 public writing workshops and planning new ones for next year - please get in touch if you have ideas or want to collaborate.

We are looking forward to our summer meetings with our Advisory Board, and to sharing the conversations we have there with you at the end of the summer.

Our excellent AF Student research fellows Jacob Demree, Kendelle Durkson, Nirav Mehta, and Eishna Ranganathan are finishing up their research projects, with the support of excellent AF office assistant Patrick Gehlbach; look for their reports when our new website launches in a few months.

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On Our Minds

April may be the cruellest month, but spring is the worst semester. Like faculty and staff everywhere, we’ve been struggling to get ahead of the crush of accumulating work. Still, here and there over the last few months, we’ve been noticing some new developments in news and commentary about higher education.

At the end of January, an American Association of Colleges and Universities panel met to talk about what the phrase “liberal arts” means. That’s near and dear to our organizational heart. Like the panelists, we’ve noticed that the phrase can mean many many things,  and yet often doesn’t mean very much specifically. We find that more interesting than troubling: it’s an opportunity to dig like archaeologists through the sedimentary layers of higher education’s history to find out the histories of how “liberal arts” has meant different things to different people at different times. We appreciate why it’s a headache for institutional leaders, for admissions staff, and for communications professionals who have to correct mistaken impressions that “liberal” means “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s politics” or that “arts” means “you mean my kid is going to become a painter?”. That said, most of the time, trying to rebrand a phrase that has centuries of meaning behind it is at best ill-advised.

Digging like archaeologists is partly how we’re teaching our first-year seminar called Why College? this spring at Swarthmore. It has been an important new element of for Aydelotte, bringing students more fully into our explorations and research. It’s good for our students to understand what college has been and might become right from the outset of their time here, but it’s also important for their questions and interventions to inform our ongoing investigations within the Aydelotte office. Judging from this past week’s class session on institutional governance, where we threw open the floor to questions from the class about how particular kinds of decisions get made  - both how they’re supposed to be made and how they’re really made in practice - we’re not sure who is learning more this semester, the professors or the students. We hope to bring new faculty into the seminar when it next runs - get in touch if you are interested in co-teaching.

Why College? also connects to our Aydelotte focus on public writing. Over the course of the semester students have learned to write about higher education in the genres most familiar to public discussions of college - personal narratives,  op-eds, data-rich argumentative essays, book reviews, manifestos. Earlier this semester, some of our students attended our workshops on writing and pitching offere by Lili Loofbourow (of Slate) magazine and Aaron Bady (of Popula).

Looking at the history of higher education with our students, especially small liberal-arts colleges, is at the very least a good caution against some forms of conventional wisdom about the future of such institutions. We hear all the time, for example, that small liberal-arts colleges are unsustainable and doomed to closure. The history shows that while that may be true,  small colleges have been closing and opening and merging and changing their names and rethinking their identities all along. And there have been plenty of observers who wonder about some individual cases of present closures, who ask if they could have been avoided. We appreciated in that vein Chris Newfield’s meditation on the possible closure of Hampshire College.

Speaking of the future, it’s starting to look better when it comes to student evaluations of teaching. And it looks as if skepticism about conventional styles of assessment may be taking hold more fully across higher education.

You may have heard about a little scandal in admissions at some selective universities and colleges this spring. One of the best and most thoughtful responses to recent scrutiny of elite college admissions is by CUNY philosophy professor (and former Swarthmore Philosophy Visiting Assistant Professor) Jennifer Morton, who makes the that “If we are concerned with creating a representative elite, we shouldn’t look at just the racial or economic background of its future members, but also at their educational experiences.” She argues that while a diverse elite is essential in a democracy, “the way that this principle has been practiced is too narrowly focused on the demographics of elite institutions. Instead, we should consider whether the education of those in the elite has done a good job of furthering their understanding of a diverse swath of society.” (Morton also published a version of this essay in Aeon.) And though new responses to this latest wave of admissions scandal abound, we were reminded of our emeritus colleague Barry Schwartz’ 2015  proposal to randomize selective admissions.

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Extracurricular

At least one of us is waiting to see what happens in Game of Thrones and how the Avengers will cope with their endgame.

One of us has removed her email app from her phone.

One of us just finished reading the 2018 One Book, One Philadelphia selection -- Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn.

Two of us are watching Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat and now have miso marinade on their minds.

All of us are very happy that we are almost at the end of our website redesign project (and looking forward to sharing the result with you at the end of the summer).

One of us has been enjoying Swarthmore’s exciting student-run Culture, Computation, and Society group. (Wednesdays 12:30-1:30, contact Sydney Covitz or Keton Kakkar for info.)