Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Transcript: An introduction to Liberal Arts

The first question that you might be asking yourself, or in fact that others might be asking you if you've told them that you're applying for degrees in liberal arts is ‘What is liberal arts?’ Now the first thing to really be aware of is that obviously it's not a subject in the way that English or Sociology or Economics is. Instead, it's an approach to learning. Because of this, liberal arts courses differ hugely from university to university, from department to department, so it is worth really taking the time to dig down and find out about the philosophy and the teaching and the organisation of different degree programmes, so that you can find one that suits you.

Unlike many liberal arts programmes, Liberal Arts at Warwick isn't a generalist ‘pick and mix’ degree where you just pick different random modules from across the university, without paying any attention to how your learning might all connect together. Our programme is much more focused and much more structured than that. Yes, our students do have the opportunity to take up to 50 per cent of their modules in different departments from all around the University, but also at the same time our programme is designed very specifically to train students in interdisciplinary learning and research.

So what is interdisciplinary learning? Well, what this means to us is that we believe that it's not always helpful to divide learning up into separate subject categories. Partly this is because the lines aren't always clear - it's difficult to say, for example, where sociology stops being sociology and starts being history. But it's also because we believe really passionately that our understanding and our knowledge is much richer, much deeper, when we draw on ideas and methodologies from all different branches of knowledge. For example, I teach an interdisciplinary module on Consumption, which both Emily and Izzie (Liberal Arts student ambassadors) have taken or are taking. This module draws on ideas from sociology, from cultural studies, from literary studies, film studies, sustainability, economics, marketing, and psychology. This is what we mean when we say that Liberal Arts at Warwick is an approach. It’s a process, not a discipline. We teach students how to analyse and combine a whole range of sources, information, and ideas in a way that's useful for them for the particular module that they're studying, or for their particular assessment needs. This doesn't limit them to any particular disciplinary perspective. This means that students take an active role in their own learning and it enables them to make really original interventions in problems. These problems might be academic problems, or they might be contemporary problems.

This learning philosophy really depends on a few key principles. So the first is the ‘long view’ and this is the idea that you cannot possibly understand how we got to the point where we're at - the present - until you understand the history of that and how we got there. For example, you cannot understand racial inequality in Britain, until we begin to understand the evolution of ideas about race and how we began to categorise people in that way and particularly how this has been described and applied in the British historical context.

The second key principle is the ‘broad view’. So this is basically the idea that we can't solve problems with only one set of knowledge. Let's take climate change for an example. We can't solve this only using the knowledge of environmental scientists (as important as these people obviously are to this topic). We also need to draw on people who work in psychology, so the psychology of consumers perhaps. We need innovators, we need people who understand policy, we need economists…I could go on.

This connects to our third key principle and this is to do with ‘collaboration’. This is the idea that the sum of our collective learning is greater than the individual parts. We set loads of tasks where students go in, they do their own individual research and then they come back to class and they work in groups to combine their different sets of knowledge and to teach each other really in order to produce a response. Our students, we know, have taken modules from all across the University, and they're developing expertise in different areas. They then get the opportunity to bring this back into the classroom and to use it together, collectively.

Finally, we do all of this in order to make an ‘intervention’. We explore how ideas about different human experiences have evolved, how they're circulated in different contexts - whether this is scientific discourse, ideas kind of move from that through to political discourse and then we see it moving through again into cultural expressions like literature or TV programmes - and we study this circulation of ideas in order to better understand and critique the present, the time we're living in now, and also so that we can make responses or interventions that will actively shape the future.

This whole teaching and learning philosophy, this translates to a model of teaching and learning which we call Problem-Based Learning. In this model of teaching learning, students examine problems from a whole variety of different disciplinary perspectives. They conduct independent research, to then share ideas and work together to produce a response. The problems that we consider, you can basically think about them as research questions - big questions - and these might be questions that concern our current society. For example, there might be problems to do with sustainability or to do with equity or social justice. Or, they might be academic problems and these are problems that concern what we think and how we think about a particular topic, whether this is 18th century German culture or whether it's the philosophy of mathematics. In different ways, all of our Liberal Arts modules ask you to collaboratively identify and then explore a whole range of problems from different perspectives. We ask you to go out, do your own research, we teach you how to do all this so that you know how to do your own independent research, and then you work together to produce a response.

Our course really does give you the freedom and the flexibility to study a whole wide range of modules, but it also gives you the strong foundation that you need to approach different kinds of knowledge and then go out and participate in all different kinds of classrooms across the University with confidence. You're trained how to approach any kind of information from a critical and analytical perspective and to draw out the expertise from others in the room. That's really important when you go into different classes, is to be able to learn from your peers who are just doing that one subject.

Crucially, though we don't believe in disciplinary boundaries, what we do believe is that you should come out of your degree with a specialism. We think that you should come out of your degree having expert knowledge in one area. Depth is important as well as breadth. What we do is we help our students to curate their own degree depending on their academic and personal interests. They choose modules from all around the University that speak to each other in different ways.

The way that we do this is through our pathways structure, so this is something pretty unique to our programme. Students build their own degree around a pathway. The way to think about a pathway is that it's just an area of interest or expertise. You don't have to know what this will be before you start the degree, but over your first year and into your second year you begin to identify the focus of your degree. This will help you to build up both breadth of knowledge and an expertise in one particular area.

We have two different options for pathways. The first (and this is what I would say two-thirds of our students take) is a Specialist Interest pathway. This means that you find an area or a topic that you wish to pursue further and then you take modules from different departments which somehow speak to that theme. I’ve given you some examples there on the slide (07:35) - these are just examples there are tons of others that you can choose from. These are really broad, umbrella topics, so you can interpret these pathways in different ways. For example, taking Social Justice, one student might be really interested in applied theory and practice and they might take modules primarily from the Sociology Department and from Politics and International Studies. Whereas, another student might be much more interested in creative expressions and culture, so they might choose to take a module on Protest Poetry from English Literature and a module on Gender on the Screen from Film and TV. You can also refine these general topics. To give you a couple of examples from last year's cohort, one student who is interested in sustainability devised a pathway that was to do with corporate sustainability. That student took modules mainly from Global Sustainable Development, from Business, and from Marketing. Whereas another student was much more interested in sociological and cultural ideas, so she defined her pathway as Critical Socio-Political Ecologies and she took modules from Sociology, Politics, Global Sustainable Development, and she ended up writing a dissertation on eco-art and activism in different countries in the Middle East. If none of these pathways interest you that's fine as well, you are very welcome and encouraged to devise your own and students do every year.

The other option, if you know that you have a strong interest in one particular discipline but you don't want to commit yourself to studying it 100 per cent of the time for the next three years, well you could do a Disciplinary Interest pathway. This is where you would take half of your modules with us (Liberal Arts) and the other half with the other department. This is a bit like a joint degree programme, but we train you really specifically to analyse that subject area in a problem-based way. One of our most popular Disciplinary Interest pathway is Economics. A lot of students are really interested in that discipline, but they also want to study more perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences as well over the course of their degree. You have the ability to choose from a huge range of optional modules across the University and we also offer a whole range of bespoke interdisciplinary optional modules in the Liberal Arts Department which you can choose if you want to - I teach one on Utopia's, for example.

On this slide here (10:10) you can see what this looks like in terms of the structure of your degree. In the first year, you only study 25 per cent of your modules out of Liberal Arts, but by the final year you study 75 per cent of them [outside of Liberal Arts]. This is because in the first year we want to give you the support and the skills that you need in order to be able to succeed in the second and the third year, when you go out more extensively into other departments. As your degree progresses you just get more and more freedom to pursue the topics and the kind of areas of study that really interest you. In fact, in the final year the only module that you have to do in Liberal Arts is your year-long dissertation or research project, which is a real capstone of your degree and helps to round off your pathway with studying something that you're interested in.

At this point, Emily (Liberal Arts student ambassador) you could jump in. So both Emily and Izzie are following pathways in Culture and Identity. Maybe Emily, you could explain how you've interpreted that and talk about one of the modules briefly that you've taken.

Emily: Broadly speaking my pathway would be Culture and Identity, but more specifically I’m looking at the globalisation of the pop music industry and its impacts on communication interculturally. I've been taking some modules in linguistics and beginners languages like Italian and Japanese. I also took a module last year on the Science of Music, so that gave me a different perspective on the way that music theory operates. Then Consumption which was a core module in second year, really tied well into the consumer aspect of popular music. I feel like I’ve been taking a lot of modules from very different areas to then link them together to what I’m really interested in.

Kirsten: One thing that we're really proud of in our Liberal Arts programme is our community and our support. We really do pride ourselves on being a community that's kind, a community that's friendly, and a community where we know our students and where they know each other. We have high expectations of all of them and we support them all to achieve the best that they're capable of. We do a lot of work in the Department around equity issues. We know that a lot of the problems that we see in society to do various kinds of inequality can be replicated within higher education systems and we commit fully to tackling these head-on, to educating ourselves, and to make sure that we continue to provide an education which is both fair, accessible, and equitable for all of our students.

There are loads of different ways that we can build our sense of community and that we support our students. On the slide (12:57) are just a few of them. One thing that's I think really crucial to our offering is that we have a departmental base and facilities. What we mean by this is that as Liberal Arts tutors we are all employed purely as Liberal Arts tutors. We're not splitting our time between say the English Department or the Economics Department and Liberal Arts, we don't just teach an odd module or two. We're dedicated experts in interdisciplinary learning and dedicated experts in liberal education.

We also have a physical home. We have department building, we have offices, and we have a common room that in non-COVID time students can use for socialising and for study. This really means that students in Liberal Arts, even though they're going out to all these different departments to take their modules, they have an academic home and they feel like they have a community that they belong to.

We provide support through staffing in different ways. Every student has an academic personal tutor who stays with them for most of their way through university and helps to answer any problems that they might have to do with academic studies and helps them to navigate different kind of support that's available. We have a Director of Student Experience who has specific time in his workload just to meet with students, find out how people are doing, help solve any problems, support any student initiatives, all that kind of thing. All of the module tutors have advice and feedback hours which you can use to discuss your ideas for your essays or anything that's come out the modules that you're particularly excited by or enthused by. This is really your time to use in a way that you want, in the same way as Peter was talking about in regards to the Global Sustainable Development Department, we have a Student-Staff Liaison Committee which is where students feed forward their ideas for how to improve the Department, how to change the curriculum, any ideas that they've got.

We all take responsibility for evolving this community together, and shared with the Global Sustainable Development Department, we have a dedicated Employability and Placement Manager. We think this is really important. We know that employability is really a key issue to many of you. What we are absolutely determined is that every student gets the opportunity to develop their professional networks, to get a whole load of professional experience if they want to before they enter the world of work and that this shouldn't be dependent on who your parents know. Our Employability and Placement Manager helps with this - she helps to organize internships, she helps you to articulate your professional and personal skills to talk about how your academic studies prepare you for the world of work. This kind of interdisciplinary problem-based learning does prepare you well for the word of world of work. I could talk for a long time about that!

I don't know if either Emily or Izzie have any other comments they want to make about community and support? Maybe Emily, if you've got anything else you want to add?

Emily: I would say that the fact that the Department is quite small actually really helps for everyone to feel a better sense of community and belonging. I feel like I know all four main tutors really well and can go to them with any issues that I have and that does also help with the issue that I think some people who I know who study liberal arts at other universities have found where they don't really know who to talk to when they have an issue because everyone's kind of spread out across different departments. In my year, we've got about I think 25 of us and so because of the core modules we all know each other really. I think that definitely that helps.

Izzie: I was going to say basically all the same things and I think also and there's so much group work which means, I think we have around 25-30 people [in my year group], and you get to work with every single person so I feel like I know everyone really well. It's just so collaborative.

Kirsten: Our model works, we know it does. Student feedback tells us that - in the 2020 National Student Survey, 100 per cent of our Liberal Arts students agree that they felt part of a community of staff and students. We scored 100 per cent in overall student satisfaction. We can certainly critique these metrics, but what they do indicate is the fact that our students do feel deeply connected to the programme, they do see the value in our models the teaching and learning, and they do feel a strong sense of belonging in the Department and this is what's indicated by some of the quotes on the slide (17:27) and that's certainly something that we take a lot of pride in and that matters a lot to us. That's the end of the presentation. I’m sure that we can answer any questions that you've got in the Q and A afterwards thank you [please feel free to email us with any of your questions:].