Confused at a higher level

The view from a liberal arts college physics department (and deanery)

Small liberal arts college “insiders”

Posted by Melissa on June 27, 2011

In the past few months, I have been involved in several conversations where someone mentioned that a particular faculty member or administrator was or was not an alum of a small liberal arts college (SLAC) in a manner that seemed to suggest their status as a former student of a SLAC (or not) clearly explained why the individual took the particular action or made the particular decision being discussed. (Generally the tone of the discussions has been that “good” decisions/actions are attributed to someone having attended a SLAC and “bad” decisions/actions are attributed to someone not having attended a SLAC.) I’ve heard this type of conversation before, and every time I hear it, it bothers me. Institutions are enriched by the diversity of experiences that faculty and staff bring, and the experience of having been a student at a liberal arts college does not by default make an individual a more valuable or wiser member of the community.

I am an alum of one small liberal arts college teaching at another small liberal arts college. I value the sense of community that exists at this type of institution, and I am committed to the liberal arts mission and undergraduate student-centered nature of these colleges. That being said, I feel strongly that having been a student at a SLAC does not make me a better fit as a faculty member than someone who went to a large research university. Despite my supposed familiarity with the SLAC environment, it took me several years of being at Carleton before I felt comfortable, and I still have occassional moments of feeling like an outsider. After all, each SLAC has its own character, traditions, and mores. Assuming that one can transfer a knowledge of the values and norms of one SLAC to a different SLAC is arrogant. Additionally, the institutional perspective one has varies depending on position. My interaction with the college and the college community as a student was very different than my interaction with the college and the college community as a faculty member. Perhaps if I had been involved with student government, serving on college committees, I would have gotten a sense of how the college ran, the behind-the-scenes politics, and the competing demands. As it was, my significant involvement with my alma mater came through residence life, where I was first an elected (unpaid) house president and then an appointed (paid) head resident. Through these roles, I got to see the nitty-gritty of how residential life worked at one college, but that realm intersects little with the current realm I inhabit as a faculty member.

I’d be interested to hear others’ perspectives. If you are a faculty member, do you often call upon your experience at your undergraduate institution as you navigate your current institution as a faculty member?

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4 Responses to “Small liberal arts college “insiders””

  1. acdalal said

    I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one bugged by this! My alma mater (both, actually, undergrad and grad school) is a medium-sized R1 school, so I never had the hallowed SLAC experience. One place I’ve found this to be very advantageous is when prospies visit who are considering Carleton and a larger, more research-oriented school—I can have a really frank conversation with them about the pluses and minuses of each model. Plus I feel my experience informs my teaching in a positive way. I did research at my alma mater, so I have insight into what it’s like, say, to go off to a R1 for an REU and how that’s going to differ from their experience here. I also went through a deeper, more focused curriculum, so when I talk to students about grad school, I can let them know what holes they’ll have that they’ll have to make up when they get there. “University” is not a bad word! :)

  2. SED said

    I wonder if this comes from the grad school experience of some SLAC alums: interacting primarily with faculty who don’t understand or value their SLAC background. It might explain some of the biases or skepticism, though it certainly doesn’t excuse them.

  3. Chad Orzel said

    Because I’ve got my own blog to feed, I put my answer there: link.

    You might also suggest this to the Dean Dad. It’s not exactly the same as the issues he has, but he might have interesting things to say about it.

  4. Arjendu said

    Hmm, as someone who ‘resembles the remark’, I am not surprised. I’ve certainly felt the impact of this while I was a candidate for jobs.

    I don’t think I heard a whisper of it directed at my performance during my years pre-tenure and pre-promotion.

    It may well be impacting the perception of my current job performance. There’s never been a damn thing I can do about how people choose to perceive me (or anyone else who seen as an outsider), which means that I’ve given up thinking about it.

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