Defining literacies for life and career

As part of the Arts & Sciences Strategic Plan, faculty fellows lead a ground-up effort to identify life and career literacies embedded in Arts & Sciences courses. Early adopters will soon be invited to participate.

Michelle DeLair, part of the implementation team for the Literacies for Life and Career initiative, leads a recent meeting of literacies fellows. 

This fall, a group of ten faculty literacies fellows have diligently worked on what Michelle DeLair, director of curricular innovation in the College of Arts & Sciences, calls a “Rubik’s cube” of a task. About every two weeks throughout the semester, the fellows met in small groups to closely examine their own and one another’s courses. In a series of lively conversations and brainstorming sessions led by DeLair and doctoral student Patricia Maurer, the group began to tease out a detailed list of skills, knowledges, and fluencies that students acquire across disciplines in Arts & Sciences classrooms.

Through the meetings and additional exercises, the fellows aim to identify the kinds of skills and facilities students obtain behind the scenes in a liberal arts education — things that may not explicitly show up on syllabi or an exam but prove extraordinarily valuable in students’ future lives as employees, citizens, and private individuals. Eventually, an agreed-upon list of literacies will be attached to courses and tracked, providing a clear, nuanced understanding of the skills and ways of thinking and knowing that students in Arts & Sciences acquire outside of subject matter expertise or a narrow course topic. 

Implementation of Literacies for Life and Career, a signature initiative within the Arts & Sciences Strategic Plan, has been purposefully measured and meticulous. In similar efforts at peer institutions, faculty have worked to fold existing lists of career skills, like the widely used NACE career readiness competencies, into the curriculum. Initiative co-directors Erin McGlothlin, vice dean of undergraduate affairs, and Brian Carpenter, professor of psychological and brain sciences, ​believe in a different approach, instead wanting to recognize the valuable skills and fluencies already embedded in Arts & Sciences courses. 

Talia Dan-Cohen, associate professor of sociocultural anthropology and one of ten literacies fellows in Arts & Sciences, brainstorms with other fellows in the social sciences. 

Without the ease of using an externally created, market-driven list of career competencies, the work of the literacies fellows has proved surprisingly complex. “We want each literacy to be capacious enough that it supplies coverage across disciplines, but not be so broad that it's almost completely meaningless and applies to every course. How do you thread that needle? That's our job right now,” said DeLair.

Jami Ake, one of the literacies fellows and a teaching professor in the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities, says the process has been “inspiring.” In her own time as a student, Ake says, she wasn’t able to fully articulate how her professors and courses changed the way she interacted with texts and with the world. “Having the opportunity to reflect on and to give some language to that kind of transformative work, especially in areas where we are not as used to naming it, can help make these many different changes more intelligible for ourselves and others in our lives,” Ake said.

“This is ultimately an initiative that will impact every course, every instructor, every student, and every four-year advisor,” added Sara Ryu, director of academic initiatives and special advisor to the vice dean. “With that in mind, we designed a process that builds slowly over time and aims for thoughtful integration and sustainability. By engaging faculty early in the process, the broader community is shaping the initiative, and it’s exciting to see their ideas develop.”

The process is expanding to include even more voices. In the current phase of the initiative, the ten literacies fellows are inviting additional faculty members to participate, first from their home departments and then from adjacent departments, leading to about 80 faculty members closely examining their own courses. Once these faculty members generate a starter list of literacies and definitions, there will be opportunities for the broader community to provide feedback. The College will also hold information sessions for faculty members who have interest in being early adopters to pilot this approach in their courses.

Sunita Parikh, associate professor of political science, and Mungai Mutonya, teaching professor of African and African American studies, participate in a brainstorming exercise. Parikh and Mutonya are literacies fellows in the Literacies for Life and Career initiative.

The initial work of the faculty fellows has been invaluable, says DeLair, and the team looks forward to bringing in more perspectives in the coming semesters.

“They are an enthusiastic bunch. They're taking it really seriously,” said DeLair. “They're also bringing a healthy dose of skepticism, which is so useful. We don't ever want this to be something that feels forced or pre-decided. It shouldn't feel alienating for faculty to engage. We want them to know from the beginning of this project that it’s not about changing curriculum or forcing some sort of assessment mechanism. It’s honoring the work that's already happening in their classes.”

Next week, the implementation team will announce a call for applications for early adopter grants for faculty to contribute to shaping the initiative by piloting pedagogical strategies that integrate literacies into their courses in the upcoming year. To learn more about being an early adopter of the initiative, Arts & Sciences faculty are invited to join the Literacies for Life and Career implementation team for an information session on Monday, Dec. 12 or Friday, Jan. 20. Both sessions will be held at 10 a.m. in the McCleod Conference Room, Cupples II, room 102.