How Are Mellon-Funded "Humanities Labs" Preparing Liberal Arts Students for the Real World?

It's sad but true: For every Literature Ph.D teaching a course on Joyce's Ulysses, there are dozensno, hundredsof other Ph.D graduates not employed in their preferred field of study. The market has spoken: There's a finite amount of Joyce experts needed in today's economy.

And so liberal arts universities and foundations are thinking of other ways to prepare liberal arts students for the ambiguous road ahead. For example, we recently looked at Knight's efforts to promote a collaborative approach to teaching the liberal arts based on the "hospital model" seen in medical schools and increasingly in journalism programs.

Then there's the Mellon Foundation. As we wrote recently, it just cut a check to Pennsylvania's Juniata College to help the school modernize its liberal arts curriculum to "better reflect the needs and values of students in the 21st century."

Ultimately, it's the content of the curriculum that interests us the most, which elicits a perhaps more relevant question: What are universities doing to provide liberal arts students with real, tangible, hands-on experience that can be used after graduation?

Mellon, not surprisingly, has an answer, and it can be extracted from its $100,000 grant to Michigan's Albion College to create precisely that"hands-on learning experiences in the arts and the humanities." The delivery mechanism for this important goal will be the college's new "humanities labs."

Much like colleges emulating "hospital models" from medical schools, Albion will replicate the classic "physics lab or chemistry lab as places where students take concepts presented in class and apply them through experimentation,” said Ron Mourad, Professor of Religious Studies.

For example, one lab will explore the partnership between the college and the city of Albion. According to the college, "Students and faculty will work together on cross-disciplinary research and community-based projects to explore the issues, barriers, and opportunities that exist for revitalizing a small, post-industrial Midwestern city."

Okay, I know, that seems to have more to do with policy than poetry. But it's also tangible and impactful programming that leverages the critical thinking and analytical skills of liberal arts students within a real-world context. Better yet, it teaches students to apply these skills in a practical context before graduation so they don't have to worry about on-the-job training after the fact. Lastly, it helps build relationships with community members, creating a network that students can leverage upon graduating.

We admit, this may not be as romantic as, say, exploring how the plot of Ulysses parallels Telemachus’s search for Odysseus (and vice versa).

But nowadays, what is?