The purpose of this document is to provide those of you entering Liberal Studies in second or third year with some of the philosophy behind the Liberal Studies Program. While most of it applies to all courses in Liberal Studies, no matter who is teaching them, some details are of more limited application. Nevertheless, reading this will let you know much about how your team thinks of the whole endeavour of which we are all now a part.

Goals of the Program

The normal, though not the only, entry-point to the Liberal Studies major and minor is LBST 250, which may also be taken as LBST 350. This is the first in a series of three 6-credit, semester-long, multidisciplinary core courses which, together with a related series of 3-credit companion courses, constitute the normal program of study for the BA Major in Liberal Studies offered by Vancouver Island University. LBST 250 is open to all students, LBST 350 to those who have successfully completed almost two years of university study.

The Liberal Studies program aims to provide, within the framework of an established learning community, a sound general education of lasting value for people who will be active participants in contemporary society. Consequently, the courses in the program focus on two interrelated goals: critical skills and integrated general education.

Critical Skills: The first is the continuing development of intellectual and personal skills which are necessary for a successful and satisfying life. These include:

  • reading a wide variety of challenging material with understanding;
  • thinking creatively and critically;
  • addressing complex issues precisely and cogently;
  • speaking and writing clearly and effectively;
  • using computers to contemporary workplace standards;
  • working cooperatively and productively in groups.

To develop these skills, the program focuses on close reading and frequent discussion of important books and other materials from many fields in the arts and sciences. Seminars are the main method of instruction, and these provide practice in thinking quickly, speaking in public, and working purposively with colleagues.

There is also a series of written assignments which encourage students to respond to their reading in a personal but informed way. Online resources are integrated into the program delivery.

Integrated General Education: The second goal of this program is to set a clear direction for the continuing development of a broad background in the arts and sciences. No program can offer an opportunity to learn everything we need to know. What a good program can do, however, is engage us in thoughtful consideration of some of the truly important issues and achievements of the culture in which we live, and thereby provide the confidence and impetus for a lifetime of further learning, appreciation and enjoyment.

This program proceeds historically, but it is not a history course. It introduces us to science without any pretence at making us scientists. It includes contributions from many disciplines, but it does not aim to produce, for example, literary critics, political scientists or philosophers. Instead, it tries to help us to be intelligent about the whole range of human intellectual endeavour. We seek what every good liberal education seeks: not the knowledge of the disciplinary expert but the understanding of the informed generalist, the well-educated citizen, who can grasp the essence of complex issues and see subjects in their relationship one to another. It seeks the understanding of a liberated, empowered mind, an understanding which results in better knowledge of ourselves, appreciation for others, and reasoned judgments about how we ought to live.

A Learning Community: Fundamental to both of the above goals is the creation of a thriving learning community in which students and professors work together in a variety of ways, with a particular emphasis on cooperative and useful discussion among all participants. A condition of the successful formation of such a community, we think, is that its members share a common intellectual experience. The program provides this in the first case by requiring everyone to read the same books and to engage in the same class activities.

In addition, there are other kinds of intellectual experience which you will share with your colleagues. For example, we may organise or visit arts events to complement the academic activities. Art, including performance art, is essential to the kind of education we are aiming at. 

Faculty: The faculty are of course as much part of the community as the students. The core courses are team-taught in a real sense: the faculty have spent and will spend much time together discussing the structure and content of the program, and meet regularly for their own seminars on the content. They have been chosen for the program because they combine disciplinary expertise with a generalist outlook, and because they are devoted to student-centred learning. This means that the rôle of professors in the program is different from their rôle in traditional courses of study: there is much less emphasis on the profession of a body of material, and much more on the facilitation of learning. Occasionally, professors will be lecturing and leading discussion on material which is in many ways new to them, giving them the chance to model the processes of achieving understanding. Think of them as guides and coaches, not as fountains of truth.

Difficulties?: If you are experiencing difficulty with any aspect of the program (the mark on an essay, attendance, and so on) or if you are wondering more generally about your involvement in the program, you should take the problem immediately to the relevant faculty member. If this recourse is not satisfactory, consult the Department Chair, currently Maureen Okun. If this too fails, talk to the Dean of Social Sciences, currently John Black. Following this protocol should ensure that you get the most appropriate help.

Class Activities: Core Courses

Liberal Studies involves a number of different types of educational activity, so that students with different learning styles will be able to develop both their understanding and a wide range of skills in a variety of contexts.

Lectures: The lectures will have one or more of a number of purposes. These include: to initiate discussion of the readings; to provide some understanding of the context (historical, political, social or intellectual) in which the text was created; to relate a number of texts to a specific issue. The lectures are in no sense to be interpreted as giving the final word on any matter: they are food for thought, not declarations of fact to be digested and regurgitated. [For students outside the Nanaimo campus, the lectures will be made available online.]

Seminars: The seminars allow students to discuss in depth their understandings of the readings of the day and the issues the latter raise. It is a good idea to come to the seminar having prepared a couple of focused questions about the text. Once discussion begins, the professor plays the same rôle as any other participant, except that s/he has a duty to ensure that discussion stays on topic and does not degenerate into anecdote, triviality or name-calling.

The following are primary assumptions of the Liberal Studies Program: 1) that students must be free to express their views without fear of intimidation from professors or peers, and 2) that it is the responsibility of all participants in a seminar, and not just of the professor, to maintain an atmosphere of respectful politeness in which sincere and serious discussion can flourish.

There are many characteristics which contribute to less than optimal discussion. Various individuals are shy, overbearing, unwilling to listen, unable to articulate; some have difficulty remembering what has been said, staying on track or producing captivating ideas to order. None of this is unusual, and it may take a while for the intellectual friendships you will make in the program to be firm enough to allow you to overcome these various tendencies, should you suffer from them. We must all do our best to provide an atmosphere of trust in which even if you are shy your thoughts will be appreciated, and in which if you tend to dominate you will be politely but firmly reminded of the fact. Again, it is the responsibility of the group as a whole to maintain this atmosphere.

Remember that good participation is not merely a question of how much you say, but also of the value of what you say as a contribution to debate and shared understanding. We expect participants to have done the necessary preparatory reading and to have spent time thinking about the issues it raises. It is important to make contributions which allow the group as a whole to stay focused on the topic of the discussion, to listen attentively and to respond effectively to what others have to say. Taking notes during seminars is discouraged: it is likely to interfere with your ability to follow what others are saying and to become involved in the discussion. You may jot down the odd reminder, but that is the limit.

Class Activities: Companion Courses

Each companion course is an exploration of selected topics. Through a variety of texts, in participatory seminars and hands-on activities, we investigate the enormously influential contributions of thinkers in various disciplines, including art, architecture, literature, philosophy, mathematics and science. We will also be interested in examining how these contributions have continuing relevance today.

In the companion courses we will not always simply discuss issues and ideas as they arise out of specific texts. There is often an additional hands-on component, involving, for example, exercises in reasoning, working through geometrical demonstrations and problems, replicating scientific experiments, analyzing and creating art. By doing these things, not only will you have an opportunity to develop some important skills, but also your experiences will provide a source for developing a more critical understanding of these skills. As with all components of the program, no prior experience is necessary; a willingness to participate fully is.

Activities Outside Class

Fine Arts Performances in the Community: Art is no less vital a part of culture than science, philosophy, literature or any form of academic inquiry. Accordingly, an important goal of Liberal Studies is to enrich your experience and appreciation of the fine and performing arts by encouraging you to attend live performances in music, theatre, opera, and dance and to visit art galleries and museums.

Department Colloquia: From time to time the Department will organise guest lectures and discussions on interesting themes which all students and faculty are encouraged to attend.

Special Events: The Department may also organise concerts, film nights and other events in which you may participate as audience-member, planner or performer.

The Escalation of Expectations

The Liberal Studies Major is a challenging program, and you will be expected to do significant work. It is important to have no illusions about this. The program calls for a high level of effort in reading, writing and thinking; it also demands a high level of performance, in terms both of quantity and quality. There is no room whatsoever for dilettantism. The payoff for the hard work thus entailed comes in the excitement of the learning process and the enhanced skills produced.

It is also to be expected that the demands will change as you progress through the program. Here we shall try to explain some of the ways in which more sophisticated skills are introduced as more basic ones are acquired.

Overall: Many courses contain a balance, which may change as you move from course to course, between ungraded work and graded work. The purpose of the former is to help you enhance your skills without penalty for initial lack of development; gradually, however, it becomes important to demonstrate that you have acquired the skills and can manifest them without a great amount of rehearsal. The first semester is one in which a great deal of overt attention will be paid to the basic skills of intellectual inquiry; correspondingly, you will be expected to be in possession of those basic skills by the time you start your second semester.

There is an overall increase in the level of depth required in all aspects of the program, such as reading, writing and seminar discussion. Likewise, you will be expected to become more self-reliant, to take more initiative in the direction of your education within the framework offered by the program. These kinds of changes in expectation are reflected in the detailed implementation of the program as follows:

Writing: The most obvious way in which the writing assignments change is in terms of length. For some students, the culmination of the program is the Senior Project (LBST 400), an undergraduate thesis of approximately 7500 words, or Major Essay (LBST 451), both written in the fourth year. To bring students up to the levels of depth, focus and coherence required for such a substantial undertaking, the program phases in greater demands for length, and hence depth, as the semesters go by.

In many courses you will begin with a number of weekly short written assignments, called seminar notes.  Additional essay writing takes place with much opportunity for revision: in the beginnign courses the longest papers required are essays of approximately 1000 words; in many cases you will write multiple drafts before a final mark is assigned.

It is very important to keep in mind the goal of increasing the depth of your papers. The point of a longer assignment is not to force you merely to write more words, but to allow for a substantially deeper approach to the topic. One of the most prominent, though not the only, dimension of depth in a piece of writing is the extent to which the thesis, or main conclusion, is supported by sophisticated, reasoned arguments.

For advice on any aspects of your writing, consult your peers, your professors, the College Writing Centre and a writing manual such as Fit to Print or Essays and Arguments: A Handbook on Writing Argumentative and Interpretative Essays by Ian Johnston.

Reading: Different sorts of texts demand different sorts of reading, but in Liberal Studies all demand close attention to detail. As you approach the end of the program, it will be expected that you notice more about the texts you are reading, although they may be no more intrinsically difficult than those you encounter in the first month. For advice on reading, the reading manual How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, may be valuable (except of course for those who can't!).

Discussion: At the beginning of the program the emphasis is very much on getting everyone involved in seminar discussions, and you will be expected to play your part in encouraging others to speak. The professors too will introduce activities aimed at increasing involvement. After the first semester, however, you will be expected to have overcome general hesitations about speaking up; if this is not so you should seek advice from your seminar professor. Similarly, any tendencies you have to monopolize the conversation should be eradicated as soon as possible.

The purpose of seminars in all semesters is careful, focused, critical and respectful conversation about issues raised by the reading. In later semesters, the standards by which this is judged are raised, so that more and more emphasis is placed on the quality of the discussion.

Critical Thinking: Despite its tendency to be used as somewhat of a buzzphrase, "critical thinking" refers to a real collection of mental processes and attitudes which it is the purpose of the program to enhance. It would take up far too much space to give a definitive explanation of this concept; what would be helpful instead is mention of one important context in which critical thinking is at a premium in the program.

Because Liberal Studies is based on the assumption that mutual respect and tolerance for difference is essential to promoting understanding, it is easy to reach the conclusion that all opinions whatsoever are equally valuable, correct or true. This view, often called "subjectivism," is passionately held by many people - far more passionately, in fact, than could be appropriate if it were true, for then, of course, the opposite view would be equally true! The alternative view which underlies the program agrees that it is essential to allow for the expression of a variety of opinions, but that it is possible to decide in many cases which opinion is more valuable, more correct or closer to the truth. Making this decision depends on the evaluation of arguments for and against differing opinions: it is rational to place more credence in opinions which are well-supported than in those which are not. This component of critical thinking is essential to success in the program.

Education and Change

Most students completing a degree experience profound changes during the process; Liberal Studies students are no different in this regard. Especially because you move through the program in the company of the same students and professors, there is a tendency for important life-issues to come to the surface, and to be reflected in your interaction with other members of the learning community. In the general atmosphere of critical learning, you may come to challenge some of the basic assumptions you have made about many aspects of life.

In the diversity of viewpoints on political and other matters, you may find conflict arising between your views and those of others, and it is even possible for such conflict to become personal. In a program which places demands on your time, effort and intellectual honesty, you may find yourself excited or bewildered by personal change.

Although the situation is not perhaps as dire as this warning suggests, experience shows that the warning is not without foundation. Be prepared to be challenged, and to change, and make use of the resources which are available to you as you negotiate change. Talk to others about your impressions of the program; do not be silent if there is something you need to say.

Your strongest support must come from other students in the program, who share many aspects of your own experience with you. A lively discussion about the ends and means of the program is one of its healthiest characteristics. The professors too are concerned to help you with any problems or issues you have of an educational or pedagogical nature. They are not, however, trained counsellors, and if you wish to seek help with issues of a more personal nature, you should contact the Counselling Department in Building 200.

Most important of all, you should keep firmly fixed in your mind the fact that education works best when there are as few limits as possible on the range of alternative understandings under consideration, and should try to be as tolerant as you can of the idiosyncrasies of others, as well as of your own. If, for example, you are a feminist whose views are challenged by other students, or a traditionalist whose views are challenged by feminism, you should try to use the opportunity as one for developing a deeper and more comprehensive justification for your own view, or for changing your mind. Intellectual tolerance and honesty require courage, but promise great rewards.

Bearing all this in mind (no easy task, we admit!), you are about to launch yourself into a great intellectual adventure. We recommend that you re-read these briefing notes at the start of each semester, to remind yourself of the theoretical geography of the journey you are undertaking.  And we wish you every success in the challenging yet rewarding endeavours ahead!

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