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Engaging with the World: Diversity in the Practical Liberal Arts at Wagner College
Lesley Coia, Assistant Professor of Education and Julia Barchitta, Dean of Experimental Learning, Wagner College


Located on Staten Island with commanding views of the New York harbor, Wagner College is a small comprehensive institution with a strong and abiding commitment to the ideals of a liberal arts education. Wagner enrolls approximately 2,000 undergraduate students. The college is currently involved in a curricular reform initiative designed to further its mission and reassert A commitment to the goals and ideals of liberal education in the context of a changing world.

One of the principles guiding Wagner's curriculum reform efforts is the belief that a quality liberal education must involve integral connections between ideas and experiences. As Wagner's provost, Richard Guarasci, explains:

To reach its mission, liberal education requires of its students a particular method that includes both the acquisition of knowledge and the habit of critical thinking. This necessarily involves students and faculty in continual engagement with the world around them. Liberal education always asks students to integrate ideas and experience as a means to create, while critically assessing, new knowledge (1997).

After much campus-wide discussion, faculty approved a new curriculum development plan called "The Practical Liberal Arts" designed to bridge the gulf in the traditional curriculum between ideas and experiences. The new curriculum combines several pedagogical forms and curricular structures including learning communities, community-based learning, writing-across-the-curriculum, experiential learning, and diversity education. The centerpiece of the new curriculum design is our reinterpretation of the concept of learning communities. The entire plan is also grounded in an understanding of the need to prepare today's graduates to live and work in diverse communities.

New Curricular Architecture

All first-year students at Wagner enroll in one of eighteen Learning Communities (LC's). Each LC includes two carefully articulated courses from different disciplines linked by a common theme. Enrollment in each LC is restricted to students assigned to both courses, with between twenty-four and thirty students co-registered for each one. The arrangement provides the students with a community of learners from the beginning of their college experience.

In addition to these two courses, students enroll in a third Reflective Tutorial (RFT) of approximately twelve students. This course is taught by one of the two full-time faculty responsible for the disciplinary courses in the LC. The RFT reinforces course integration around the common theme as well as writing and research skills.

One of the most exciting innovations of the Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts is the requirement for thirty hours of fieldwork directly related to the course theme. At present, students are placed at over sixty community sites in the New York/New Jersey area including Ellis Island, The Bowery Soup Kitchen, Public School Literacy Programs, the New York Urban League and a variety of other social, cultural, and environmental organizations. In the RFT, students discuss issues raised in the courses and field experiences and are given time to critically reflect on what they are learning.

All students also repeat this curriculum pattern in their sophomore or junior year with Intermediate Learning Communities, and then again in their final year with a Senior Program. This latter program consists of a Learning Community, combining a major course and a Reflective Tutorial with an internship.

Learning In and From Diverse Communities

One of the primary motivations for initiating this extensive curricular reform was to further the goals of diversity education by making use of Wagner's location in a remarkably diverse geographic area. We believe that it is imperative for all students at Wagner to learn about diversity issues in diverse settings both on and off campus. Many of the First-Year Program LC's explicitly address issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and social class. As part of their RFT, all first-year students attend a three-day co-curricular component of the LC on American diversity. In addition, most field experiences involve students working in diverse settings and students are encouraged to reflect on intercultural issues that arise.

Learning Community Topics

Each of the eighteen first-year LC's approach diversity in a variety of ways. The following provides only a small sample. ‘The Evolving Self,’ an LC that includes an English course and a multidisciplinary humanities course, addresses concepts of humanity presented by classical and modern theorists with particular attention given to the construction of individual and ethnic identity. The two courses are "Introduction to Literature: Born in the USA," and "Perspectives on Human Nature."

In this LC, students are exposed to a wide range of personal experiences as they explore the formation of personal and social identities through novels, films, and autobiographies. The course content is brought to life through reflection on the community experiences encountered by the students in their various field placements. Most students in this LC are working in social agencies providing services to children and adolescents of various socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. The students are encouraged to integrate their field experiences and course work in the RFT where they focus on the development of ethnic identity by examining the civil rights movement through such texts as Martin Luther King's "Why We Can't Wait" and the film, "The Road to Freedom."

A totally different approach to diversity is used by faculty teaching "Living on Spaceship Earth: The Balancing Act Between Biological and Economic Systems." This LC includes a biology and an economics course. Rather than have the students participate individually in community agencies, students are engaged in a single field-based research project focusing on environmental issues faced by a local community, Toms River, New Jersey.

This LC explores the relationship between biology and economics, business and community relations, and issues of the environment and human welfare. The students participate in community meetings with representatives from various interest groups including politicians, business executives, citizens, environmental agencies, and health agencies. They interview individuals personally affected by industrial chemical plants within the community and examine the data concerning the placement of chemical plants in relation to socioeconomic residential areas. The very presence of students creates an increased awareness of the magnitude of local environmental problems and inequities, and their impact on different communities.

What Students Gain

In evaluations of the program, students have commented positively on how the LC's provided them with a better understanding of those different from themselves, while simultaneously generating a greater sense of being part of a "family." By developing a liberal education curriculum that connects ideas and experiences within an ethical framework, we are preparing students to lead socially responsible lives in the various diverse communities in which they live and work.

Sources: Guarasci, Richard, "The Wagner Plan: The Pragmatic Liberal Arts," Unpublished paper prepared for the faculty at Wager College, (Staten Island, NY, 1997).


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Communication Tips
Learning communities are an innovative new approach to liberal education. Because they have not received much media attention, reporters may be interested in reporting on them or on other similar initiatives. If you have an innovative new program on your campus, consider publicizing it.

Begin by contacting your public information office to see if someone there can help with media outreach. Then think about who would be the best spokespeople on the initiative. They might include faculty members who designed or oversee the program, students who are participating, a college or university president who supports the program, community members affected by the students' work, or others. Consider submitting letters to the editor or op/ed pieces (guest editorials) about the program. Post information about it on relevant web sites. Propose that producers of radio talk or television public affairs shows cover the program. Explore whether the education editor at your local newspaper is interested in a story on it. And remember to contact specialty newspapers--student or alumni publications, ethnic papers, or newspapers that serve seniors or others affected by the program.