From Professor of Education Mark Sidelnick: COPLAC Summer Faculty Institute

“Logic will get you from A to B.  Imagination will take you everywhere.” –Albert Einstein

While it may seem a straight line from freshmen courses to the completion of one’s senior year and graduation – outlined as a simple list of sequential courses on a 4-year plan of study – Einstein seems to have understood the value of a nonlinear approach to learning and life. Liberal arts institutions recognize that there are many different routes between A and B, or perhaps ways to bypass B altogether and blaze one’s own path. By engaging students’ critical thinking skills and the creative process, liberal arts graduates often end up “everywhere.”

In early June, COPLAC (The Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges) sponsored its 13th annual Summer Faculty Institute on Liberal Learning in the Disciplines at its headquarters at UNC Asheville. Each summer institute focuses on a different academic area. This year’s institute was titled Adaptations: Working in Art Departments at Public Liberal Arts Colleges. This summer’s institute brought together over 30 people including studio artists, art historians, graphic designers, museum and gallery directors, and other educators in the arts. Unlike typical conferences where presenters highlight their individual research or projects, the summer institute had no predetermined agenda and participants took turns leading discussions on a variety of topics.

COPLAC was established in 1987 to advance the aims of its member institutions and drive awareness of the value of high-quality, public liberal arts education in a student-centered, residential environment. Membership currently consists of 30 colleges and universities in 28 states and one Canadian province.

In this year’s summer institute, following a seminar format, folks discussed their program’s successes and challenges, and shared effective strategies for improving the undergraduate experience on their campuses. Issues emerged organically across

the two days as folks made connections in an informal and conversational setting. Issues included working in relatively small departments, providing authentic arts experiences across the general education curriculum, political and budgetary concerns, working with community arts organizations, and the value of the arts and the creative process in today’s society.

Participants identified a set of “best practices” in art and art history instruction, and a plan of action for reaching the identified goals. Results from the Institute were presented to the COPLAC Board at the annual summer meeting in late June, with the expectation they be delivered to and supported by the administration at each COPLAC campus.

Core tenets highlighted by this year’s institute included:

Art Departments are central to the liberal arts experience by promoting creative thinking through creativity, collaboration, and community-based work. The type of creativity manifested in Art Departments – drawing on multiple disciplines to identify problems and implement and evaluate innovative solutions – is a key leadership skill in a democratic society.

Art Departments visibly model the rigorous research, revision and critique of the creative process, which promotes innovation through risk taking, resiliency, and a focus on written, oral, and visual communication that maintains an awareness of the audience.

Art creates a safe space in which to moderate encounters with sensitive topics, heal, and effect collaborative change.

The COPLAC summer institute’s statements on the role of the arts in higher education mirrors much of UNCA’s own mission statement, which reads in part –

Our liberal arts educational approach emphasizes life skills including critical thinking, clear and thoughtful expression, and honest open inquiry. Students undertake concentrated study in one area while simultaneously developing an understanding of the connections among disciplines. We encourage students to clarify, develop and live their own values while respecting the views and beliefs of others. In addition we cultivate an understanding of the dimensions of human diversity while recognizing the common humanity of all. We believe a quality liberal arts education enables our graduates to be lifelong learners and to lead successful, flourishing lives as leaders and contributors to their communities.

One of UNCA’s student learning outcomes is critical thinking: Critical Thinking is a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of ideas, issues, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion.

That is what is great about the COPLAC summer institutes. Nobody came with a predetermined agenda, an angle to push, or manuscript to promote. Each person was able to engage openly on many topics without the trappings of a dais or microphone or raised platform to elevate any one voice over another. That too, is what exemplifies a liberal arts education, which might be succinctly summed up by Marva Collins, who stated, “The purpose of a liberal arts education is to learn that a person can like both cats and dogs.”

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