Assessing Liberal Arts and Place from Multiple Perspectives: Research Findings


There is a growing body of literature that articulates the need for pedagogy that is embedded in the particularities of certain places. Throughout this project we argue that place-based pedagogies are needed because the education of citizens must have some direct bearing on the well-being of the social and ecological places people actually inhabit. “The study of place…has a significance in re-educating people in the art of living well where they are 1.”

A critical pedagogy of place encourages teachers and students to reinhabit their places, that is, to pursue the kind of action that improves the social, economic, political and ecological life of places, near and far, now and in the future.  According to Gruenewald (2003), a critical pedagogy of place aims to do two things:  first, it seeks to identify, recover and create material spaces and places that teach us how to live well in our total environments and second, it seeks to identify and change ways of thinking and being that injure and exploit other people and places 2.

In this section we explore multiple perspectives on the intersection of liberal arts education and place by sharing findings from interviews conducted with four different stakeholder groups—faculty, students, alumni, and community leaders.  We conducted in-depth, semi-structured, individual and group interviews with liberal arts faculty, students, and alumni from Calvin College and also with city /community leaders from this region.  These interviews usually lasted over an hour in length and were recorded.  Student research assistants then transcribed these interviews verbatim and each transcript was proofread for accuracy.  The data was then analyzed by a team of Calvin social scientists who examined over 500 pages of data to explore emergent themes. 

This research was conducted using qualitative methodology for several reasons. Qualitative research is useful when the purposes of the research are to understand the events, situations and life experiences of the participants in the study and the meaning they make of these things; or to understand the particular context within which the participants act and the influence that this context has on their action; or to understand the process by which events and actions take place 3.  Qualitative research enables analysts to explore the subtleties and nuances of particular contexts and to examine the meaning participants make of the situations and life experiences they encounter.

The decision to collect information from a diverse range of individuals and settings and using a variety of methods also known as triangulation 4 is based on the assumption that this technique helps to reduce the risk that research conclusions may reflect the biases or limitations of a specific method and allows a researcher to gain a better assessment of the validity of research conclusions.  “Human beings are complex, and their lives are ever changing; the more methods we use to study them, the better our chances to gain some understanding of how they construct their lives and the stories they tell us about them 5.”

In the following section, we share the results of this fascinating study where each stakeholder group identified different angles and emphasized different aspects of the relationship between the liberal arts and place.

Faculty Interviews: Moving “rootless professors” into rootedness

Much has been written about “rootless professors” who move from university to university in pursuit of career advancement with little attention paid to the particulars of any given place. Group interviews were conducted with 25 Calvin faculty members from all four academic divisions of the college—social sciences; languages, literature and arts; contextual disciplines; and natural sciences—to explore this phenomenon and to investigate how ‘place’ is conceptualized in their academic, theoretical work.  These interviews also explored faculty understanding of how the liberal arts tradition contributes to the common good in a particular place as well as how this particular place influences and shapes the way we teach the liberal arts and/or how we do scholarship and research at Calvin. As one respondent said, “We’re on a unique trajectory for a liberal arts college.”   In these interviews Calvin faculty describe many ways that the college has connected itself and disconnected itself from this city.  An interesting aspect of this research explored the connections between faculty members’ professional lives (including teaching and scholarship) and their personal commitments. The findings reveal that faculty members employ widely differing disciplinary ‘lens’ through which place is conceptualized and this impacts their understanding of their academic professional life.  Many describe inherent tensions that exist for faculty yet many also articulate that an emphasis on place offers opportunities to enlarge the scholarly imagination. See Appendix A for a bulleted summary of key themes uncovered.

Different disciplinary perspectives lead liberal arts faculty to view and interpret ‘place’ in very diverse ways and, as might be expected, this leads to a wide variation in how place is conceptualized. What is interesting to note is that each faculty group was asked the same questions but the conversations unfolded in widely differing ways.  The variation in response was quite interesting to observe, particularly the chosen focus of each group. Those in the social sciences spoke primarily about human community when they spoke about place, the city, the region.  Those in the natural sciences spoke more about the physical resources of the place.

“[If] you go from a place which is rich in glacial morraines to the southwest side of town which is all outwash and flat as a pancake… that dictates changes in how the land was settled to variations in agriculture … I can describe that place almost as if people didn’t exist but we are talking about place also as a setting for community and its depth of history and all of that…when we ask the question about sensitivity to place some people will be oblivious to their physical surrounding, let’s say geological surroundings, but have a very strong sense of community.”

Some faculty members spoke about power as in who decides and controls what happens in a place articulately outlining why these are important questions for liberal arts study.  These varying disciplinary perspectives provide particular lenses through which they viewed the world. 

Some expressed the ways in which they felt  part of the city and used the language of inhabitation and dwelling while others used language implying that we are separate from and often described the ‘other’ when referring to the city.

“I feel like one of the primary problems that we face in Grand Rapids is this notion of structural isolation and then isolation is coded by class and race…I know my students talk about the inner city of Grand Rapids, which is sort of curious in a city of about two hundred thousand people…we aren’t an urban center, so they are again using coded language but language that is informally very common to this area…what my students, I think are reflecting is the ways in which linguistically we have separated, isolated, divided, moved ourselves apart.  That makes even more ‘other’ that particular group… we further removed them from us by the way even in which we talk about them, so that the ways that distancing has happened in these populations that has continued to disempower those with less power, and keep separate, isolated and maybe not as fully engaged—I think is a primary issue.” 

Faculty used the notion of ‘place’ in multiple ways sometimes to imply connection, other times to imply isolation and disconnection.  Because some viewed the city as having problems and deficits, their comments centered on our responsibility as an institution and as individual scholars to be involved in outreach almost invoking a charity mentality.  This contrasted significantly with other faculty members who described their own ‘sense of place’ as a ‘contextually situated’ aspect of their academic work, suggesting they view themselves and their work as a part of the place, using language of inhabitation. Interestingly those who used language of inhabitation crossed many disciplinary backgrounds (including philosophy, biology, art, sociology, history) and those who used the language of separateness also came from many disciplines.  So it would be simplistic to assume that a person’s academic background or field of scholarship definitively frames and shapes the contours of their view of place.

Another disciplinary difference of particular note is the tension articulated between the abstract and the particular.  Some disciplines very intentionally focus on universal and abstract knowledge, not rooted in particularities.

“In general economists are abstract from the place. It’s just the way economists approach problems to say the world is too rich to comprehend as it comes, you have to abstract out to which of the salient things for a particular issue you are thinking about.  And things like gender and race and place tend to get abstracted out often…[Focusing on place] is not like an across the curriculum movement.  I think it might be hard to approach place the way you approach writing for an example.”

A number of faculty described a ‘cyclic’ movement within their own scholarly process—starting initially with something particular then moving to abstract theoretical considerations and finally returning to the particular for application of theory.

“There’s a tension always though with locational research in that the idea of research is that it’s at least potentially expandable, so you might do research in a specific place…but you need to also be testing something that is more broadly applicable to maybe lots of other places too... I think the real life of a research project comes out of asking a specific question which is often to a degree couched in a specific place and you might learn, you might be able to apply some broader understanding to other places but you also might need to further test in other environments at the same time.”

The breadth of perspectives and multiple emphases conveyed by the faculty interviewed reveal that there is no single interpretation of the notion of ‘place’ for the liberal arts classroom.  Yet it is precisely this variation in perspective that led to such rich conversations and a number of faculty commented on the generative nature of the dialogue.  New ideas from colleagues led them to think differently about their teaching and scholarship. Such creativity is not without certain tensions.

Almost all faculty members interviewed described inherent tensions that exist within their professional lives. One tension faculty highlighted was the challenge of placelessness vs. being place-based.  For some, the conversation led to a discussion of how the guild trained them to be academics.

“Most of us are academically trained to be sort of placeless.  And…the argument that most academic theorizing is supposed to apply across places of all sorts and so on and in biology when you start getting placed- based then you become a natural historian as opposed to an ecologist.”

“I am very aware of people in my broader discipline who are the epitome of that rootless professor.  Who come from nowhere and are going nowhere but spending a lot of time and effort and grant money getting there. And in the mean time you are cranking out lots of publications, being very productive, on that level getting somewhere of course but really having no sense of place and no sense of how their research is embedded in places, no sense of that.”

For others they described that to be a good teacher and researcher they need to be ‘fully involved’ in the issues of importance to the city and region.  Their teaching and research is place-based (at least in part), driven by the strengths, issues and needs of the unique place where they live and work.

“I am in a professional program straddling being an educator with being a practitioner.  In the educator role, having a particular place has not been valued traditionally in nursing…It has been way more about the students than it has been about the community.  But it always conflicted with me as a practitioner because everything I wanted to teach about public health nursing is about having a place and working with the people and not coming in with this top down approach.  And so we have now shifted in the nursing department here and it just fits so much better mission wise with what we are doing as a college but also fits better with me as a practitioner within the discipline.  So… it’s easier to teach on it because I feel like now we are modeling that in our curriculum.”

Another tension described by faculty members was how to balance global vs. local concerns.  Many made comments about having a global vision but needing to live out this vision in concrete ways in their local environ.  Others talked about how their teaching flows back and forth between global and local issues and the interconnections between the two.

“If you start thinking about plant physiology, not only in the context of natural ecological settings but now in the venue of agricultural production then all of a sudden it opens up into this whole area of food and what that means…It can really inform a pedagogy I think…Why is it important to know how a chloroplast works?  And so you can talk now about  what a plant leaf is doing and what a plant community is doing in a cultural setting and what this agricultural plant community, how it relates to the natural community and then how that relates to the people who are living in these various places and need to consume this food, who is getting it and who is not.  See you find very quickly that this really narrow little area of plant physiology all of a sudden opens you out to social justice issues… But the interdisciplinary nature of Calvin College allows you to think that… Liberal arts actually... connects these things.  It allows you to see so very clearly what the connections are between what would seem to be very disparate disciplines and from an educational point of view, if you want to get a student’s attention…all of a sudden it becomes very real.”

A number of faculty members made comments about helping students to think about big questions/global questions and how that connects to particular questions in a particular locale.

“We can talk about global sustainability and how cutting down rainforest is a bad thing for global sustainability, but you know if rainforest patches are just a theoretical construct, you can do anything you want with it.  But go and park yourself in one for five days and look at who depends on it and how, and how changes in the use have affected communities, and then suddenly it enriches your capacity to think about what the global goals mean at the local level.”

“We need to be teaching our students how to root to a place, wherever they may end up, how do they engage that community and so... the big question then is—what is the intersection between being rooted in this place for a time and how does that translate into their becoming rooted in future places where they will be longer term?”

Faculty members clearly saw the importance of making connections between the global and the local—in both conceptualizing the issues and in learning to take action in ways that connect the two.  And they often talked about the need to instill in their students the knowledge and skills needed to make the connection between knowing and doing.

The professional demands on a faculty person in terms of time and attention within their scholarly focus create another inherent tension described by many faculty members in these interviews. Some described the demands they feel to be academically rigorous and the constraints this puts on a professor.

The pressure to do the kind of scholarship that will garner national, international attention drains away the resources that professors might have to serve on the board of a nonprofit here in town.”

Another described the growing professionalism of all of the disciplines as a potential threat to higher education but also to the lives of individual faculty members as well.

“I think there is a danger in the growing professionalism of all our disciplines.  Namely, that because of the priorities on specialization, publication and national reputation—there are many forces that pull us away from the rest of our lives from obligations to family and community and church and the rest.  It is triage if we have limited time we are increasingly prone to spend that time on what will bring professional reputation and advancement and this is a, potentially threatening dimension of our lives.”

Insofar as faculty perceived their local involvements as a competition to the other demands on their lives, they used words such as ‘guilt’ or ‘remorse’ for their lack of community involvement.  The mindscape of these faculty members seemed to imply they view the city as needing charity and they feel guilty that they can not be more engaged.  For others, however, they describe the place/city/region as a context in which their scholarship (in various disciplines) arises.  They do not use language of guilt, disappointment, remorse, or charity in describing place as a competing force.  Rather it is simply one context from which scholarly inquiry arises and as such it provides rich possibilities for engaged teaching and engaged scholarship. Furthermore, these faculty members articulate the value of integrating their teaching and scholarship and service into a seamless whole.

An emphasis on place offers opportunities to enlarge the scholarly imagination and this was articulated in various ways by a number of the faculty interviewed. Some suggest that paradigmatic and epistemological shifts in the last several decades have opened the door to new avenues of exploration in many disciplines and therefore place and particularity become legitimate grounds for inquiry.

“I think theories can either pull you away from place of location or pull you towards it… And I think that at least philosophically when we emphasized the difference between humans and environment or between mind and body…and then the first always was more important than the second, we also discounted particularity, location, and environment.  And I think philosophy, at least my reading of philosophy [has] moved towards a notion of embodiment and not dualism, therefore we take more into account particularity and location and environment as a way to think about what it means to be human or what knowledge is and so forth—which are abstract ideas but that then pushes you more towards locating yourself in the place and thinking about the place you are located in.”

Some faculty brought up the issue of generalizability in research and mentioned the debates raging in scholarly circles about the fundamental nature of knowledge.  Not all scholars agree that the goal of research should be to discover generalizable findings.  Some argued that a study could be “compromised if we were only to think about generalizability in a more traditional sense” and made a case that studying particularities also leads to valuable and valid knowledge.

“Having multiple sources of information” also known as intertextuality was described by some of the faculty interviewed as another opportunity to enlarge the scholarly imagination and further validates particularity and place as a source of knowledge. 

“The term that comes to me is one that I use with students which is intertextuality and so it is the text of our lives and how that connects with the print text that we read, with the historical texts  how those combine at a global, national, perhaps regional and then local level.. there is an intermixing.  And that through print text the potential for… localized meaning to become global is very real, much more real than it was even, ten years ago, right?”

“This new language—the  intertextuality language… we used to talk about, there’s history, there’s the classroom, there’s the location but we never thought about them all as different kinds of texts and then linking those texts to see that, it now allows us a new language to do that.”

One of the most commonly discussed ideas in these faculty interviews was the importance of interdisciplinarity. Some faculty described rich interdisciplinary conversation among their colleagues within the college as a significant benefit for their own professional lives as teachers and researchers.  Others framed such interdisciplinary dialogue as a strength of the liberal arts and argued that this is one contribution (along with the asking of big questions) the liberal arts tradition can offer to the larger society.

“I think liberal arts has something different to offer than my experience at least of university education…  What I missed greatly was it asking bigger questions, sort of foundational questions…But I think a place like Calvin—you have an added benefit of the possibility of inter-disciplinary conversation.  So I’ve been in lots of study groups [with] anywhere from art historians, to physicists to biology people, to English people and engineers and nursing and philosophy and I have been in groups at Calvin over the last twelve years that have allowed this kind of interaction to enrich the kinds of questions that I am interested in. So I think that is a strength.  A double strength that we might offer the place that we are in.” 

“I think that’s what is really, really exciting about being here at Calvin for me personally—the  fact that I am not limited to just pressing questions within the narrow confines of my own discipline.  But I can look at multiple disciplinary perspectives and being encouraged to do so in fact.” 

These faculty interviews offer insights for understanding not only the role of liberal arts faculty can play in using their academic strengths to contribute to a particular place but also the contribution a place can make to the academic enterprise of a liberal arts college.

Student Interviews: Fostering an awareness and embrace of place

The student interviews focused on an exploration of how students learn to identify with their place, their perceptions of how their particular actions contribute to the public good or public harm, the role of their liberal arts education in helping them live as involved citizens of a particular place, and how they form ethical commitments that are transferable to other places and times.

More than 45 Calvin College students were interviewed in this stage of the study and they represent all class levels, freshmen through seniors, various racial and ethnic backgrounds, and both genders.  In particular, we were looking for evidence that reveals students’ awareness of place, an articulation of their ethical commitments and the role of a liberal arts college in fostering these commitments. The findings reveal that the formation of ethical and civic commitments by students is directly connected to (but not limited to) three things:  liberal arts curriculum, place-based pedagogical strategies and experiences beyond the classroom.  See Appendix B for a bulleted summary of key themes uncovered.

The students interviewed articulated that the liberal arts curriculum has played a formative role in their lives and this is expressed in many and varying ways.  One set of responses had to do with what could be a called a de-centering of the self, or at least developing a perspective beyond oneself.  Respondents spoke in varied ways about how their liberal arts education has impacted them.

“[My] liberal arts education really stretched and opened up my eyes to some things in the community … or [it] just helps me see things differently….” 

“The liberal arts gave me certain ideas about altruism and justice.”

“The liberal arts curriculum “increase[d] my perspective about just caring for people.” 

“The liberal arts allows for all the voices to be heard.” 

 “I’ve seen needs…how does that connect to the particular place that I’m in, in Grand Rapids and the people that live here?” 

“It just broadens your view … and it forces you to be more of a well-rounded person. …. And so you’re not as me-centered….”

“My liberal arts education has shown me that it’s important that I am involved with my community. I think in both taking up our role as citizen of the kingdom and citizens of the place we find ourselves in, I think that my liberal arts education has shown me various needs throughout Calvin, throughout Grand Rapids, throughout the US, and throughout the world.” 

These comments reveal that one outcome of a liberal arts education for some students has been the development of empathy for others and the ability to think beyond themselves. 

“The liberal arts fostered an entire mentality that I’m not out to just get a job and be well paid and whatnot but that it’s actually important to be involved with other people and interacting with the community.  … [it taught me] what it is to care about other people and not simply be focused on your own goals or your own self-affirming actions….”  

 The message here seems to be that liberal arts education had a palpable, albeit general, benefit of helping foster not only a broadening of perspective, but one which the student saw him or herself as less the center of things. Its strength, from these responses, seemed to be its ability to break through the “me first” individualism and self-serving strategic interests that a student might have first brought to his or her educational experience and generating a sense that life ought to be oriented outward.

Another emergent theme was the benefit of the integrative and theoretical character of the liberal arts.  Liberal arts helped students see the inter-connectedness of the world and of knowledge.

“I think with liberal arts education you learn a discipline but you learn how the rest of the world is working too.  You get the sense that the whole world is interconnected.” 

“[My core classes] opened my eyes to thinking [about] particular environmental problems and social problems as well”

“[My intro course in biology] helped me be a lot more, I don’t know, just aware and concerned about my personal use of certain resources that we didn’t have very much of….” 

Further in what seemed to be a surprise to the students themselves, the prototypically theoretical courses actually aided in understanding the particular and the local.

[Professor_____] ended up making it [philosophy] something that was so practical and applicable to our lives that it made it a lot more obvious that philosophy can help us become better people, but also better at interacting with people or creation or place…”  

This points to a tension in the liberal arts between the global and the local, the universal and the particular. On the one hand, the liberal arts often deal with issues in an abstract and global perspective, forcing the student into abstractions and broad thinking. The obvious benefits include a theoretical perspective that gives the student a powerful set of analytic tools to think through a broad set of issues. However, the tension shows in the surprising notations about the often ‘practical’ nature of some of these supposedly theoretical courses. By implication we might conclude that students expect the usual result of liberal arts is a focus on the global and universal with little attention paid to the local and particular. It might prepare students to be citizens of the world and think through global issues more than connecting to the particular, local issues of the more immediate surroundings.

A third theme was the general benefit of broadening one’s perspective and gaining a ‘big picture’ understanding, including learning how to think.  Students made numerous comments describing how liberal arts education has been formative for them.

“It teaches you how to think and how to live [and answer questions like], ‘What does it mean to be a citizen?’ ‘Who am I?’… The liberal arts have been so influential because it has allowed me to explore different disciplines and see these underlying themes throughout….”

 “What it brings is a more holistic perspective to what’s going in and around the city.”

 “[The liberal arts] opened my eyes to see that it’s really not only doctors that can help. A writer, for example, writing story about a family in need [can] spark a … response from people.”

 “A liberal arts education has given  my experiences a broader context culturally, politically, and socially.” 

The general story here seems to be that students feel that the liberal arts helps them develop a broadened perspective on how to live generally and to see connections and opportunities that hadn’t been considered before. When the liberal arts curriculum is a significant and central part of a student’s education, even in a professional program, it impacts how students view the world and their place in it.

For current students the relationship between liberal arts and place (in particular, Grand Rapids as the city within which they are living) is expressed in cautiously positive terms. The cautiousness comes out in the focus on general benefits – a broadened perspective, a holism, increased thinking ability, a de-centering of self – rather than on the ability to articulate a list of particular, more tangible and immediate benefits. The nature of liberal arts is such that it is a set of general studies, embedded in disciplines that are themselves abstract and theoretical. The liberal arts, at Calvin also, emphasize the global and the universal. And so it would be of no surprise that the students’ responses would reflect this. Yet they thought that the liberal arts contributed positively, in precisely that way, to their understanding of the particular and their possible involvements, if not embeddedness, in this particular place. The contrast between the general and the particular is a creative tension that is interesting and worthwhile.

Another important finding is that place-based pedagogical strategies build an ethic of care among students.  Academically based service-learning is one strategy that has been quite successful at Calvin in fostering within students an ethic of care for particular people and particular places. At Calvin, we have seen rapid growth in the Academically Based Service-Learning program in recent years. Calvin faculty have contributed to the public discourse about higher education’s  connections to contemporary civic, social, economic, and moral problems through the 2002 publication of Commitment and Connection: Service-Learning and Christian Higher Education. “Our experience has shown us that service-learning can be a bridge connecting faculty and students in concrete ways to issues and problems faced by people who, like us, struggle to make sense of their life experiences” (Heffner and Beversluis, eds. 2002, p.x).

During the student interviews many students commented on the value of the first-year orientation program, StreetFest, where they first encountered the college’s commitment to its place and to the practice of service within it.  Students noted that though this experience was generally a good introduction, it doesn’t necessarily lead students to ongoing involvement in the larger community and the issues it faces. Those faculty who utilize academically based service-learning as a pedagogical strategy provide opportunities for students to become involved with community people or community organizations and a number of students spoke about the impact this has had on them. These examples reveal something of the value the students themselves place on such experiences. 

“I had an English 101 course where we read a lot about New Urbanism and we did interviewing for service-learning and I really appreciated that. The concerns that I have about connecting with the neighborhood that I’m in now, have come from those kinds of educational experiences.”

I took a Music and Community class and [we went] to different churches or schools and did interactive music sessions with people …so it was really neat to interact with people from all different backgrounds.” 

“I did a project with my Social Psychology Class last fall with Safe Haven Ministries which is a domestic abuse shelter and I’m actually still volunteering there now.”

Interviews with Calvin students regarding the students’ perceptions of the existing connections between their college and its city revealed a range of patterns in responses. In general, students gave one of two responses to questions concerning the intersection of liberal arts and place depending on their background, current living situation, and experience with course work.  Either they drew distinctions between the liberal arts and caring for a particular place, or they were able to articulate a unified understanding of the liberal arts and place.  In other words, some described liberal arts as a balanced, well-rounded education but distinct from caring for issues and people in this place such as participation in the local economy or performing acts of service. Other students articulated a clear understanding of the connection between liberal arts and place.

“[Without a set of liberal arts requirements] I wouldn’t have gotten to take classes on Sociology and Geography and History, and just a variety of classes that have forced me to think about where I live and forced me to care about [it].” 

“The most important lesson I understand about liberal arts education is that everything is connected, every field of study, every activity, everything.  And liberal arts education encourages cultivating intellectual, personal growth in a wide variety of areas, and I guess that sort of cultivation needs to be applied.  It’s applied within the community of the school, but I think that there’s a lot of valuable things that liberal arts education offers that would sort of have external benefits more if that view is taken out of the classroom into the neighborhoods.”

Another pedagogical strategy that fosters an ethic of care within students is faculty using the local place as a teaching tool.  Faculty members in various liberal arts disciplines have used this pedagogical strategy and a number of students commented on the impact on their thinking and life.  We will describe three quite different examples here.  The first example is from a biology student.

“I’ve been involved with the Plaster Creek Watershed doing a floristic quality survey [of the plants] for one of my biology classes”

The student went on to speak with enthusiasm about the findings of this research. Discovering rare plant species that no one knew about previously not only had an impact on the student but it made a significant contribution to decision-makers working on the watershed management plan. 

The second example describes the role of the Nursing Department in addressing childhood lead poisoning, which is a significant issue of public concern in Michigan and in our city, Grand Rapids, which has the second highest incidence in the state. A nursing student said,

“Our professors work with the Get the Lead Out Coalition this year we're actually doing some lead assessments and doing some home teachings.” 

Having faculty tie their teaching to specific issues of importance to the local area, such as childhood lead poisoning, leads students to think differently about their education and the importance of the work they do.

The third example is of a sculpture student who described a project his class worked on in urban Grand Rapids and then described how this affected him.

“There is a certain energy and excitement about the PLANT! project and [we have] ownership that this is our project. We are doing something important and something special…And at the same time I have been able to apply to this sculpture project the reading that I did [in other classes].”

Some students articulate appreciation when they are able to see connections between the learning in one discipline or class and the learning in another. All these examples highlight the contribution to student learning that can be fostered when the particulars of place are used as teaching tools. Note some of these examples are described in more detail in the case studies that appear later in the white paper. 

Students also articulate that their experiences in sustained off-campus study have contributed to their developing an ethic of care and this was explained by students in several ways. One student described the empathy that she gained upon her return home for people living in the U.S. who are non-native speakers. 

“[Empathy] came mainly through my experience in Spain… The whole study abroad thing was good for so many reasons…it gave me a much more accurate and compassionate perspective about other people who are struggling [to learn a new language in the United States].”

Another student connected what was learned in a core class in biology to issues experienced during a semester abroad program and how this raised new questions upon returning to the U.S. 

“My Biology 111 class [was a] core class …in particular, we spent some time talking about environmental issues that I had never really learned very much about before.  And we did some stuff with global warming, but even also talking about,  let’s see, the amount of fresh water that’s available in the world and …recognizing the problems and issues associated with that I’d never been super aware of before…so the things that I had learned in my biology class helped open my eyes and make me more aware of the fact that even if I did have fresh water available to me here, there’s no reason why I should be wasteful with that. And then being in [Europe], in that place where suddenly I didn’t have that much fresh water available to me. It helped me understand more about, you know, like this really is a real problem.”

One key finding is that sustained off-campus study or experience, whether the place is near or far, can significantly contribute to students building an ethic of care.

“When I was in Belize we learned how to more fully articulate and develop the idea that if you feel an attachment to the place where you live it makes sense that you would want to take care of that place, serve it…and preserve it.” 

These comments point to the value of students having a extended experience of off-campus study or off-campus work in a place new to them in order to be able to recognize and identify with the strengths and issues of their own place.

The third important finding evident in the student interviews is that experience beyond the classroom fosters important connections, both to place and to people.  This can be seen in the comments they make about the influence particular faculty members have on them and in the choices students make about their living situation, their work, and their church commitments.  Faculty influence cannot be underestimated. A number of students interviewed shared stories and examples of professors who encouraged them to think carefully about how to make important decisions regarding their life priorities and their ethical commitments. This influence includes what occurs in the classroom but also goes beyond at times.

“The reason that she [a Calvin professor] has had even more impact on me is because of the model that she has set in her life and allowing me and other students to get to know her on a more personal level.”

A few of the students told stories about observing their professors’ lifestyles and noticing that they walked or rode bikes to work. Watching their professor’s arrive at school in this fashion caused some students to think about using public transportation or using their own cars less.  In addition to faculty members serving as role models, some students described the mentoring role faculty members play in their lives.

“She has encouraged me through her involvement in the community. We have talked a lot about social justice and things in Grand Rapids and figuring out how we can help here.”  

The students noted that this personal out-of-the-classroom interaction had a strong influence on helping them determine their own ethical commitments.

Students also mentioned additional experiences beyond the classroom such as work or church involvements as playing a role in fostering connections both to place and to people. For some, involvement in a local church was influential in their becoming involved in community issues.

“[Cambridge] is a church that intentionally focuses on the community…and I want to be a part of it. And through the interactions and experiences there I know I’ve grown.”

“I became aware of issues in Grand Rapids through work at [Oxford Park] Church.  They really push a lot of being involved not only in the community but in AIDS and social justice and helping to recognize problems in the world.”

For others, where they have chosen to work has been influential in their forming important connections to the place. One Grand Rapids native described an epiphany that coincided with the decision to leave college temporarily to work. 

“When I was a sophomore at Calvin, I dropped out of school and I started an art gallery on Division Avenue downtown, and I lived above it with some friends, a couple of them were Calvin graduates and some were Calvin students… I’ve been involved in the Division Avenue Arts Cooperative, the Heartside Promotions Community. I work at the Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts now.  I was an intern, when I came back to Calvin I was an intern for the RAPID, the Grand Rapids Transit Authority.  I was involved with the Grand Valley Metro Council, so I’ve been involved with the community of people interested in working in Grand Rapids, and also through that involved with the neighborhood association where I lived.”

Some students also clearly came with prior life experience that influenced their predilection to concern themselves (or not) with place or with community.  The most interesting cases in this theme were the students who had grown up in the same city as the college – Grand Rapids.  These students seemed to be either foreclosed in their understanding of where the city’s strengths and weaknesses were located or they were very surprised and interested to be discovering areas, strengths, and resources within the city of which they had no prior knowledge.  One Grand Rapids student discussed her reasons for not taking public transportation or visiting certain parks in stark terms of fear and danger.  She noted that there are

“…pockets of just not really great areas in Grand Rapids, like downtown, like Division it gets kind of gross and shady and … they’re doing a good job of starting to [improve] the kind of nasty areas, they’re starting to revamp them and make them more, you know, people friendly… But I wouldn’t want to walk there by myself or even just with another girlfriend or something through my neighborhood like towards the ML King Park side, after dark I wouldn’t do that…”   

Students’ prior experience and their stereotypes can lead them to become involved or to avoid becoming involved in their place.

It is noteworthy that a number of students referred to the impact of their choice of living situation as being influential in what matters to them. At Calvin College, most freshmen and sophomores live on campus in college-owned residence halls.  Upper-level students have three choices—they can continue to live on campus in college-owned apartments, they can move off-campus to a college-owned apartment complex close to campus, or they can move off-campus into a neighborhood.  In our study, we identified students’ choice of living situation as one of the strongest factors determining their awareness of city issues and their articulation of ethical commitments and civic engagement. For students who lived on campus throughout their college experience, their perceptions of the existing connections between their college and its city were somewhat limited. Students frequently used the image of a bubble to describe the feeling of always being on the campus, and this sentiment was almost universally used in a negative light. 

“As cute as it is that it’s a bubble, it’s also nice to get out – pop it.”

For students who chose to move off campus, their perspectives on the city and region changed significantly.

“The simple fact of moving off-campus made me much more aware of what Grand Rapids is like, what its assets are and what its downfalls are.”

A few students articulated a relationship between their place and their habits and choices.  Particularly students who were experiencing a larger percentage of their average day in urban environments understood that the images and places that they more frequently saw were more likely to enter their consciousness as places and communities to care for and about. Living off-campus can be a broadening experience for most students.  Proximity can build understanding and empathy.

“I lived on campus and everything I needed or everything that I did was either on campus or somewhere near campus. When I moved off campus as a junior that connection [to the city] became much more obvious and important.”

 “I think that once you move off campus and you get plugged into a neighborhood you realize, I’m living on this street and I’ve got a single mom and her two kids next to me.  What can I do to interact with them?” 

If you want to learn about someone you actually have to live where they are.”

As the students noted proximity to issues within the city like poverty or education was an important factor in their developing a sense of care for these issues and transferring that care into action. 

Interestingly, the students we interviewed who grew up in the Grand Rapids area but were currently living in the on-campus housing were less aware of city issues and were less involved in the city than students who currently lived off-campus.  Among the students who lived off-campus, their awareness of city issues and involvement in the city increased as their location was further from campus. 

Alternatively, some students articulated a sense in which the stress and burdens of their academic and personal lives “within the bubble” precluded them from taking full care and responsibility for any particular place outside the bubble as engaged citizens within their communities. These comments reveal the impact a student’s living situation has on their understanding of a place and its people, of what’s important and of what’s insignificant and of what demands a response and of what can be ignored.  It is interesting to note that alumni often made similar comments—that where they chose to live during college had an impact on their perceptions, their attitudes, and their decisions on whether or not to take action on any particular issue.

We have seen through these in-depth student interviews that several key themes dominate the findings. 

  • The liberal arts core curriculum, not merely the student’s major, is critical to the formation of an ethical stance to care for a particular place and particular people.
  • Understanding the particularities of one place enables students to recognize connections to other places, issues and people and helps students to build an ethic of care.
  • Experiences beyond the classroom, including living, working, worshipping off-campus in the city, greatly increase most students’ understanding of larger issues and foster empathy and further inquiry. 

These student interviews offer insights for liberal arts colleges interested in building future leaders who will act with knowledge, skills, and virtues to work towards a more equitable society.

Alumni Interviews: Setting the stage for living out life commitments in their particular communities

More than 40 Calvin College alumni were interviewed to explore their understanding of the role their liberal arts education played in their own lives and in the formation of their commitments to place.  We also explored the role liberal arts colleges play within a particular place—city or community.  The alumni interviewed represent various age groups, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and both genders and therefore offer diverse perspectives on liberal arts education. The findings described in this section are organized under three broad themes which emerged in the alumni interviews:  the benefits of a liberal arts education at Calvin, the limitations or barriers of a liberal arts education at Calvin and the opportunities available upon which to capitalize.  See Appendix C for a bulleted summary of key themes uncovered.

The alumni interviewed in this part of the study claimed that liberal arts education offers unique benefits which can foster a sense of place. The benefits of liberal arts education at Calvin College, particularly where they related to community engagement, are often intertwined with a Reformed Christian worldview.  Alumni report that all disciplines were equally valued—from the arts to the sciences—and this gave them a broad view of life.  They described how their liberal arts educational experience at Calvin College helped them see the interconnected nature of reality as understood both from a liberal arts approach and through a Reformed understanding of creation.  This foundation helps them understand the context within which they live and was described by several alumni as “understanding your place in the world.”

This interconnectedness and understanding of context could be described as a generally broadening influence from the study of history, psychology, religion, science and how they are interrelated. Another theme that arose from the interviews is that alumni clearly saw that their liberal arts education gave them the tools they need to learn how to learn or to become life-long learners. 

“I feel like the education I got at Calvin, uh, trained me to be a life-long learner. You know, the exposure to math, to science, as well as to the softer history, and political science and sociology gave me a taste of all those that can prepare me for whatever the future is.”

Another benefit consistently articulated by alumni was the role and impact of the core curriculum at Calvin which not only gave them a broad understanding of the world and of their context but also gave them understanding with a purpose.  This purpose-driven learning is what made it difficult to separate Calvin’s liberal arts and Reformed Christian perspective.  Underlying a Reformed Christian perspective is the honoring of all vocations and explorations—seen in the alumni group’s clear experience that all subjects of study were valued. This also translates into a clear sense that all vocations were ‘sacred’ callings, whether it is being a banker or community organizer.  Alumni stated consistently that they felt that everything they did for work or service had significance for the world.  Thus values were integrated with learning—the integration of knowledge, the broadening of understanding, meant you understood your responsibilities in terms, for example, of stewardship, justice, treatment of employees, and decision-making related to where to live. The liberal arts education had a clear purpose tied to a sense of responsibility and social change.  For example, one alumnus said she was taught a way of thinking that led her to see herself as not just as a bank president, but also as a community leader. A strong sense of responsibility came with her liberal arts education.

“In my position that I am in, I have responsibilities to the community.  And I serve on thirteen boards in the community.  I do a lot of non-profit work... And so I spend a lot of time today because of my position in the community working on making this a better place to be.  I also think that it is part of my responsibility as an employer that I make this a good community for the folks that work here and that is an obligation that I have to my eighteen hundred employees.”

It was clear that alumni felt that even those liberal arts courses that can be quite abstract and non-contextualized were taught in such a way as to connect with everyday choices.  Philosophy was not seen as detached, but rather involved foundational thinking that was necessary to frame decisions on the concrete outworking of a normative way of seeing the world—the connection between worldview/ beliefs and living/ doing/ being in the world.  This underlying viewpoint, that what you believe makes an impact on what you do, may or may not be unique to Calvin College

An important component to the integration of worldview and the “living and doing” was the impact of alumni seeing faculty live out this worldview in a day to day way—whether it was serving on City Council, starting the Grand Rapids recycling program, being involved in neighborhood organizations and local nonprofits, or becoming active at the state or national level.  As one alumnus stated, a liberal arts education at Calvin was ‘education with a heart’ which connected to what the hands were being asked to do. There is significant evidence from these alumni interviews that a Christian liberal arts education has led alumni to be dispersed and active in all kinds of sectors of the city and region (and beyond!) These alumni interviews suggest that one of the benefits of a liberal arts education is that it can foster a commitment to and a sense of responsibility to particular places.

Liberal arts colleges, such as Calvin College, face certain barriers or limitations in relation to place.  Some are unique to this particular institution while others are applicable to higher education in general.  Calvin College and the City of Grand Rapids no doubt have much to offer each other.  However, a pervasive sentiment in many of the interviews seemed to be the sense that barriers existed between these two entities.  Multiple respondents seemed to articulate ideas that certain ‘walls’ existed between the college and the surrounding community.  In some cases these barriers were a complex milieu of sociological and psychological reasons.  In others, it was a much more palpable understanding of a physical, geographical separation of the campus.

That physical separation seemed to have its historical underpinnings in the move of the college’s campus from an urban residential neighborhood to a farm at the periphery of the city fifty years ago.  The city eventually extended itself to include the new campus and suburbs grew up around the remaining perimeter of the college.  It should be noted, though, multiple respondents indicated that the timing of the departure – in close proximity to white flight from Grand Rapids – sent bad messages on behalf of the college.  These respondents articulated that despite plausible arguments for space needs for the growing institution, it still looked to some insiders and many more outsiders that the college was abandoning the city.

Moreover, in the fifty years that the college has resided in its newer location, it has remained somewhat isolated from the neighborhoods surrounding it.  In other words, the college is physically insular.  There are gates, trees, and roads that seem to convey a message of remoteness from the larger community.  More than one respondent indicated that the college functioned within a suburban bubble.  Whether intentional or not, the physical location and design of the Calvin College campus is perceived by many of the respondents to function as a barrier between the institution and the city.

Beyond physical isolation, interviewees also indicated that when the institution attempted to develop relationships with certain neighborhoods, it was never seen as a serious stakeholder.  Those who lived and worked in the communities in question understood the college to be a participant in certain projects, but that they would not be a serious, long-standing stakeholder in the neighborhood.  In other words, Calvin’s participation ended when the semester, academic year, or project came to a conclusion.  In essence, the transient nature of college life – both in terms of students and rootless faculty – left community partners somewhat suspicious of college involvement in their neighborhoods and programs. This contributes to the perception that the college is poor at partnership and collaboration.

That problem of transience, though, is generalizable to almost all institutions of higher learning.  It should be noted as well that respondents to this study also indicated that Calvin College was encumbered by its own unique barriers.  Interviewees frequently articulated that the college’s ethnic and religious identity often was perceived by the larger community as a rigid devotion that could be best described as a “conversation stopper.” Some perceive the college to be intolerant to difference.  For instance, some respondents wondered how the college could claim to have much invested in the city when its faculty requirements made public education verboten.  These types of issues also fed into another barrier:  perceptions of elitism.  Respondents frequently indicated their assumption that members of the larger community perceived Calvin College as a center of elitism that was not interested in dirtying itself with the problems of the city or when it does get involved, its connection to the city is often based on charity perceptions.  This perception, accurate or not, was compounded by the notion that other colleges and universities in the area were more adeptly inserting themselves into community issues so Calvin suffers from low visibility within the city as a significant community partner.

In the end, the two most dominant barriers as articulated by interviewed Calvin College alums could best be described as physical isolation and negative outside perception.  It should be noted that the college is addressing the former by establishing a presence downtown with new art studios and galleries and the purchase of the Ladies Literary Club building.  The case of addressing the latter may be more difficult.  It may require some kind of campaign to publicly acknowledge much of the good work that has, is, and will occur in Grand Rapids under the auspices of the college.  The specific barriers that Calvin faces may resonate with other liberal arts colleges.  The historical precedent for many liberal arts colleges is that they are isolated and unconcerned about the people and issues beyond their campus, but this is changing.

Liberal arts colleges face particular opportunities for future growth and development within their place. A number of themes emerged during the alumni interviews which could be embraced as opportunities. The first notable finding is that there needs to be a growing awareness of how the city enriches the college. Some alumni seemed to hold a rather vague understanding of the importance of a college connecting with its city.  Even using the phrase ‘connecting with the city’ lacked definition and clarity. Some comments revealed a charity mentality—that is, that the college should ‘do more’ for the community—but not a clear sense of what that means or why this is necessary.  On the other hand, some articulated the need for a greater recognition and acknowledgement of what the city has to offer which does and can enrich the college.  This poses a challenge for a college, like Calvin, which tends to not see itself as being ‘needy.’  One respondent argued,

“I think it’s been rare for me to be working with Calvin professors…in a community situation or a project situation where you don’t feel that they feel that they could do it better if they were in charge…  somehow, Calvin has to be needy… but what does Calvin need from the community that would really make it better?  [If you ask that question you might have] a hard time finding people that would come up with something significant.”

So a liberal arts college needs to build more awareness of what it needs from the larger community and then be able to identify its own self-interest in the growth and development of the college-community connection. 

Some alumni argued that the college needs to be a physical presence downtown so that the city’s concerns actually become its concerns, as well.  This was articulated by some alumni as a counter balance to the geographical isolation that college’s location has created.

“I think the college should have a distinct physical presence somewhere in the central city… It’s already doing a little bit with the art faculty on South Division Avenue…I think the college needs to take that model, that sort of engagement and write that much bigger.  The college would do very well to have some form of facility where it can offer classes, where faculty members might …hold offices, particularly those faculty that are engaged in some sort of sabbatical research that has to do with the city, broadly defined… But there’s a tremendous skill base within the faculty and I don’t presume to know how much they’re engaged today but … to whatever level they’re engaged today, it’s not enough.” 

This comment confirms and builds on what others have said about the important contributions faculty members can make in helping the college to do a better job of being in the public square. 

Some alumni expressed an opportunity for Calvin to make strategic long-term commitments and to become better collaborators on issues of mutual concern.  Liberal arts colleges have a tremendous opportunity to deepen faculty teaching and scholarship if they identify the key strengths and challenges their city or community faces and then carefully and strategically plan a course of action to be engaged in addressing these issues. Several alumni spoke about the changing regional economy and wondered how the academic resources of a liberal arts college can be brought to bear on this conversation.  One particular challenge for most liberal arts college faculty is their teaching load leaves little time for community engagement unless creative ways are found to connect this work with the teaching and research demands faculty members face. Finding ways to have college representatives at decision-making tables that influence the direction of city and regional issues can also be a challenge. For example, in this area there is a growing conversation about regional planning and the West Michigan Strategic Alliance has been created to be a catalyst for regional collaboration to make West Michigan the best place to live, learn, work, and play in the Midwest.  Local liberal arts colleges are not intimately involved in these conversations but they could play a significant role since colleges do have a vested interest in the economic, political, cultural and social strength of their region.

Other alumni spoke about particular challenges in neighborhoods and raised concerns about how a college interacts with its immediate surrounding neighborhood in ways that are mutually beneficial and reciprocal, rather than exploitive. Some alumni suggested that the college has a unique educational opportunity to embody its mission by focusing on upper-level students who live off-campus in city neighborhoods and fostering in them a care for the place and the people who are their neighbors.

There are a myriad of ways a college or university could become involved in its place.  The alumni interviewed generated a long list of possibilities which could be applicable in almost any institution of higher education. Their list includes inviting the larger community to the campus more; encouraging community groups and residents to use the college’s facilities; conducting survey research for community groups; collaborating more closely with the public schools;  providing English as a Second Language (ESL) services and training or serving as Spanish translators; and networking and partnering with other local colleges and universities. 

The key is for liberal arts colleges to identify the most important issues facing their city or region and then working to foster long-term mutually beneficial ways for the college to play its particular part to address them.  Liberal arts colleges need to find ways to be a presence in the place where they are embedded. The case studies described later in this paper provide ideas and suggestions for making this a reality.

City/Community Leaders Interviews: Resources from the liberal arts tradition that enliven and enrich city life

Group interviews were conducted with 20 city and community leaders representing all sectors including government, business, education, social services, urban and regional planning, health care, and nonprofit organizations.  The respondents attended colleges and universities all over the country and had vastly different experiences of higher education.  These interviews explored how the liberal arts actually shaped their perspectives and prepared them to become leaders in this place.  Our goal was to determine how community leaders envisioned their own educational experiences as having an impact on their connections to place and how their own education and experience led them to care about their community.  We also explored their views of the contributions liberal arts colleges make to the common good and whether liberal arts colleges are important to the vitality of a city or region.  We wanted to explore how a particular place could influence and shape the way liberal arts faculty teach and do scholarship.  The findings reveal that these community leaders identified their own liberal arts experiences as being influential and as important, if not more so, than technical training in preparing them for their vocational work. Faculty members were identified as playing a critical role both as resource people for a community and as models for students.  These community leaders identified a role for liberal arts colleges to be strategic partners but admit that they are often overlooked.  See Appendix D for a bulleted summary of key themes uncovered.

Liberal arts education is foundational in preparing leaders for their future vocational work.  Community leaders in these interviews described many strengths of a liberal arts education, even if the liberal arts tradition was not part of their own experience.  Liberal arts colleges draw a diverse set of people and skills to a community and these respondents claimed that liberal arts students tend to be more inquisitive and demonstrate more intellectual curiosity.  Because of their broad background usually liberal arts students develop critical thinking skills—the ability to learn how to learn—and  they often become life-long learners.  One respondent argued that his liberal arts courses prepared him better for his profession than the technical courses he was required to take.

“My degree is criminal justice, but I think my most instructive courses were lit courses. Because I figure anybody can learn the criminal justice system, just get the job and learn it. It’s just a system, it’s a technical thing.  But, but the idea of exploring human motivations and dreams and how conflicts run and why people decide—I mean that’s the realm of literature.  And I always felt that I got much more preparation for my corrections career through my English lit courses than I ever did through my CJ classes.  So that’s one point. And the other point—I mean your questions about the role of liberal arts in, in a broader community, as a broader community resource. I think it’s related to critical thinking which is maybe what we’re starting to talk about.”

Several respondents commented that when they are hiring they give preference to those from a liberal arts background because their ability to see issues from multiple perspectives and to facilitate dialogue on controversial issues can be a huge asset in the work place. One respondent argued that one role of the liberal arts was to help people focus on becoming involved—the issue is less important than the principle of being involved—that’s the transferable skill.

“But I think there’s a different way to look at it, and to me the role is that rather than focusing on the particular issue, what you focus on is the principle of being involved in the issue around you, which is then transferable.”

Some respondents described their own experience as liberal arts students and articulated that the most important learning for them was discovering that ‘You could impact change.’  They described in various ways that their liberal arts education helped them learn how to create social change in a particular place. Other respondents described the role of experiential education within their college experience as being instrumental in enabling them to gain a vision for how knowledge is connected to action and of how the study of multiple disciplines is beneficial in forming leaders who can both analyze (i.e. view the world from broad perspectives) and take steps to link their knowing with doing.  Other respondents claimed there are advantages that a community receives when students become involved in issues of importance to the place during their student years.

“There’s a payback I think to it, too, to get them as undergraduates involved in the community, learning about community, having the personal experiences, breaking down some stereotypes—It’s a real learning situation for them and I’m sure that can be replicated on and on and on [in other places, too].

City and community leaders in these interviews claimed that faculty members can play a critical role as resource people for a community and as models for students.  Many told stories from their own college or university experiences of particular faculty members’ involvement in projects within their respective communities and of the positive impact they observed. Some described the ‘dramatic turn in the last decade’ of colleges understanding that they are a part of a community and that they have a responsibility to and a role to play within the community.  One elected official in these interviews said, “There’s a good and I think a growing awareness among faculty members of their place and their involvement in the community.” Some respondents compared different colleges and universities in terms of how visible their faculty members were in the larger community, both locally and nationally.Others used strong language to suggest that faculty members can be an important resource to impact a community.

“That’s why when I think about…liberal arts colleges I’m thinking of the phenomenal resources that are there in the faculty…and their potential impact on this community.”

Numerous respondents commented on the mentoring role their own faculty members played in helping them develop a deeper understanding of the need for civic and community involvements.  These city leaders advocated for the key role faculty members play in modeling community engagement for their students. Those who made the most lasting impression were those who connected the theoretical content of the courses they taught to experiences beyond the classroom.

“There were some key professors that I had that were mentors or models for me, that went beyond just teaching in the classroom, clearly sharing their own experience in the community and the field.  But it was those professors who took us out of the classroom, into the community, took us on tours and such…I gravitated to that. I think they were the best models to me.”

“There were a few faculty that I recall… that modeled that type of community engagement… And they used their experience…and translated that into classroom teachings, and encouraged us, or encouraged me at least, to similarly get involved in our community as well, whether it  be in politics or in public administration… And that was very helpful. And so I recall that and how they related their experiences in what they were doing in their work, life and… that was really just interesting to me to see how these things were shaped and within the political context, how they really get developed.  And I took interest in that and … how they got the community engaged in that process and it was enlightening in many ways that what I was perceiving was not an anomaly, but it happens all over the place, and that was helpful to know.”

Some respondents described the struggle that students often have making the transition from being a student to being a professional and still trying to stay involved in the larger community.  One respondent suggested that colleges need to do more to help students learn how to stay connected to the larger community despite the transition from being a student to being a professional.

“I don’t think colleges do a good job of helping students transition into whatever the real world is, you know, into that career and how do you transition from a student into a professional and still figure how to balance—how do I continue to stay connected to my community and make the changes or find my niche or my passion, you know, and stay connected to a community? And I think that’s really where we really lose a lot of people after college, is that we don’t, we don’t do a good job of  helping them transition into a professional career and still staying connected to a community.”

Another topic which emerged during the interviews with community leaders was the role liberal arts colleges do play and could play in the larger community. Liberal arts colleges could be a strategic partner in a community but they are not always recognized as having a contribution to make.

Some respondents suggested that liberal arts colleges are a resource upon which to draw.  In each interview with these city leaders two specific initiatives were mentioned as evidence that liberal arts colleges are involved in active and planned ways in this region—Get the Lead Out, a community collaborative working to address childhood lead poisoning in the county and the Community Sustainability Partnership, a diverse network of community organizations in West Michigan who are working together to restore environmental integrity, improve economic prosperity, and promote social equity.  Both of these initiatives have captured the attention of liberal arts colleges and they are involved in various capacities within these projects.

“Here locally, the colleges can play and do play a really critical part in their community… You look at Get the Lead Out, some of the great partnerships they’ve had with the colleges and the incredible work they’ve done with our community because of that kind of support.”  

However there was no broad consensus among these community leaders that liberal arts colleges actually are strategic partners in addressing issues of concern for the city and region.  When strategic alliances are being formed to address the critical issues the city is facing, liberal arts colleges are not always thought of as having a contribution to make and they are often not invited to the table. This suggests that liberal arts colleges may need to make clearer the contributions they could make, whether it is through faculty research, student service-learning or college-wide institutional support. 

“[A liberal arts college is] a resource. It’s on the list that you’d go to. But where do they have strategic alliances that address … the critical issues that face the city’s life and who tends to get pulled around tables…because of what they bring to the situation. I don’t see the colleges, the liberal arts colleges, there as much.”

For colleges and universities to make a genuine contribution, they need to identify their own self-interest in working on a particular issue; otherwise their involvement can be patronizing or charity-driven which prevents a meaningful and reciprocal working relationship from being established.

Part of the conversation in these interviews led to a discussion of whether a college should initiate and provide leadership on particular issues or whether being responsive to requests for support and assistance from city and community leaders is adequate.  Respondents argued with one another and in the end agreed that colleges need to be both responsive when asked to contribute to particular needs but also to take the initiative and provide leadership on some issues.  A number of respondents felt that liberal arts colleges have a particular role to play in the public education system whether it be developing pre-college experiences for urban youth or tutoring or enrichment classes. 

“I do think that the liberal arts colleges locally, they do and they can play an incredible part in strengthening community particularly in areas where’s there’s not a lot of resources. One area I think that colleges do play a role and should play a much larger role is around education especially in an urban area like Grand Rapids. There are kids, so many kids that I work with every single day, who have had terrible experiences academically and not only can they not even imagine themselves going to college, they don’t even know what college begins to look like.  And how do we reach out to kids as they grow up, how do we not only support them, but start to teach them how to think for themselves and give them options. There’s so many opportunities and college can be this wonderful experience and this is what it looks like and how do we demystify it and make it less scary and make it seem attainable and help them academically.”

Another significant strand of the conversations in these interviews was the need for collaboration. Collaboration is very important but difficult to accomplish. Some respondents suggested that the liberal arts colleges in our city and region are not working together successfully and continue to work in ‘silos.’ However they suggested that collaborative work could make all entities stronger. Other respondents spoke about collaboration as something they wished the liberal arts colleges would demonstrate for the benefit of the larger society and spoke about collaboration as important in their own work, suggesting that colleges need to help teach this skill to students. 

“I think it’d be very helpful as a demonstration—if these colleges can do it, certainly governments can do it with churches, with businesses and so forth because all these entities that we have, these institutions that we have in our community that have a lot of resource individually—but could be even better collectively.  I think that would be a great outcome of collaborative work with or among the colleges and universities we have here. The other is to teach students as well how to truly form a collaborative partnership, that’s critical because there’s nothing that I’ve done that doesn’t involve that ability. And it’s not about competition so much as it is about partnership.”

These interviews with city and community leaders offer insights for understanding the unique contributions a liberal arts education makes in forming people with a vision for a life of service in a wide variety of sectors and how a focus on place within the liberal arts tradition is not limiting but actually creates an expansive context for the integration of learning and practice.


The participants in this study offered multiple perspectives on the importance of emphasizing place in liberal arts education.  Faculty articulated that an emphasis on place offers opportunities to enlarge the scholarly imagination.  Interviews with students indicated that place-based pedagogical strategies within the liberal arts curriculum deepened their understanding of theoretical course content and fostered within them an ethic of care.  Alumni identified how their liberal arts education benefited them in preparing them to be active community leaders with a concern for their place, but they also described the limitations and barriers liberal arts colleges face and suggested ways for liberal arts colleges to become strategic partners in their communities.  City and community leaders illustrated how the students and faculty from liberal arts institutions make valuable contributions to a place and offered challenges for liberal arts colleges to consider if they hope to broaden their impact.

This study demonstrates that liberal arts colleges can have both a global and a local impact if they are intentional and visionary.  As one faculty member said, “We are realizing that caring about place and being locally involved is a transferable skill. So we may not be educating students to [only] care about or to stay in Grand Rapids, but we hope that we’re opening their eyes to the complexity of systemic issues, environmental issues, just social structures throughout, and teaching them to love it, but also teaching them to care about it.  So we’re hoping the caring about particularity, the particulars of a place transfers in a much more global way.”

  1. David Orr, Ecological Literacy: Education and the transition to a postmodern world (Albany, NY: SUNY,1992), 130.
  2. See D.A. Gruenewald, “The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place,” Educational Researcher 2003, 32(4).
  3. See J. Maxwell, Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Press,1996), 17-19.
  4. For more thorough explanation, see N. K. Denzin, The research act (Chicago: Aldine, 1970) and J. Maxwell, Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Press,1996).
  5. A. Fontana and J. Frey, “The interview: From structured questions to negotiated text” (In Handbook of qualitative research. 2d ed. Edited by N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln, Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage, 2000), 668.