Harvard students study Emerson's liberal arts

by Brook O'Meara-Sayen / Beacon Correspondent • November 6, 2014

A recent focus group offering students pizza for their opinions was just one slice of a much bigger pie.

The focus groups, conducted on Oct. 30 and Nov. 3, are part of a much larger case study being performed on Emerson by a class from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, according to Amy Ansell, Emerson’s dean of liberal arts.

In an email sent last week, Michael Duggan, the associate vice president for institutional research, wrote that the focus group was a forum for students to help shape the liberal arts experience at Emerson.

The class, taught by professor Richard Light at Harvard, is called Field Experience in Higher Education: Advising Campus Leaders. According to the Harvard course catalogue it is designed to look at how colleges integrate the liberal arts into their curriculum through hands-on work. The class will then use one local Boston college in a case study to look at how the liberal arts are taught and how they could be improved. The class gathers data and talks to students and faculty to develop “actionable findings,” the catalogue states.

Light contacted President M. Lee Pelton and Vice President of Academic Affairs Michaele Whelan to discuss the possibility of studying Emerson because he felt that Emerson is an example of a college integrating liberal arts and professional studies, according to Ansell.

The class lasts one semester and will end in December, at which time they will present Emerson with their findings, Ansell said.

The focus groups were led by Harvard graduate students Colin Fleming and Brandon Geller, who are both full-time employees of Harvard well as part-time students.

Geller is the program manager of the faculty of arts and science’s Green Program, while Fleming works in the Department of Health Policy and Management in Harvard’s School of Public Health.

The group’s focus, they said, was to understand what current Emerson students thought of liberal arts in general and here at Emerson.

The first session was set to last an hour, but, according to Fleming, the seven students discussed the issues they raised so thoroughly that they went well over their allotted time.

“I think we only ended up asking five questions,” he said. “The students would ask each other our next question before we had the chance to.”

Ashley Cunningham, a junior marketing communication major, said she attended the group originally for the free pizza but ended up participating in what she described as a lively discussion.

“They didn’t really have to pull it out of us,” she said. “Emerson kids like to talk, so it wasn’t that hard.”

Cunningham said the group discussed the meaning of liberal arts in general and then what the liberal arts experience at Emerson is like.

“We were really discussing whether liberal arts was really the central part of the Emerson college curriculum,” Cunningham said. “A lot of students came in with answers, and complaints. I think that was most direct the focus of the group: they had grievances about the system. We talked about those a long time and about how those could be fixed.”

Fleming and Geller said they viewed the focus group as a learning experience more than an opportunity to collect hard data about the students at Emerson.

“I know personally I’m getting insights about how colleges work, how liberal arts works, and expose to different ways of thinking about colleges,” said Geller in an interview. “For Emerson, I just hope that we are able to provide them any kind of insights that they'll find useful for certain things going forward.”

The Harvard class, they said, was broken up into groups, and each group had to do a specific part of the case study involving Emerson. Other groups looked at data provided to them by the school while Geller and Fleming came to campus to speak to students. Geller and Fleming will hold another focus group at Emerson on Nov. 12 from 6:15 p.m. to 7:15 p.m.  for students with a liberal arts minor, according to an email sent to students with that minor.

The Harvard students will end up using the information they gather to present to their class. It will then be used, along with the rest of the data the class collected, to give Emerson some ideas as to what works and what doesn’t regarding their liberal arts programs.

“What they're saying is that they hope by the end of their class that one output will be some insights for us that we could use as we continue to help develop those projects that are underway,” Ansell said. “We can take some, we can discard some, we can take part, it’s totally up to us.”

Ansell also added that the group is autonomous, insofar as they are not overseen by any Emerson administrators, and has been requesting data from different aspects of Emerson’s departments, including curricular reform proposals and information on what students minor in.

“It’s in the spirit of the learning opportunity for both sides,” she said. “We’re certainly guiding and being helpful but we’re not micromanaging and we’re letting them do their thing and providing whatever data sheets are appropriate.”