SAS Dean’s Blog

Building Our Future

Rebecca Bushnell

Rebecca Bushnell

Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Professor of English

In the past weeks I’ve shared with you some thoughts on a range of issues that have implications for the liberal arts, from the challenges of interdisciplinarity to new technologies to globalization. If you have been following these pages, you may be ready to hear more about the practical implications—how do the observations about larger trends and their potential impacts translate into changes in how I approach the day-to-day business of building the future of the School of Arts and Sciences?

In my position as Dean, one of my most important responsibilities is making decisions about faculty appointments, in consultation with my team of academic deans. We know that the appointments that we make now may be the faculty we have 30 or 40 years from now, so we had better do it carefully—I myself am celebrating my 30th year at Penn!  There is always a great deal of risk and hope that goes into recruiting. One is called on to make predictions about the future of knowledge and teaching, as well as how a person’s career will evolve in the long run. 

I have long had two simple rules about hiring new faculty—apart, of course, from looking for the best and brightest scholars. First, we don’t hire people who can’t teach, and second, we don’t hire people who can do only one thing. That is, we must hire people with a broad range of expertise, as well as depth in one particular area or subfield. We simply can’t afford to have faculty who are hyper-specialized, who cannot talk about their work or teach outside of a very narrow range.

More recently my thinking has turned increasingly to how we train the graduate students and young professors who will lead departments, colleges and universities tomorrow.  I would like to end my series of thoughts on the future of the liberal arts with some comments about that task. If my predictions and assumptions about the changes that we will be undergoing in the coming decades are correct, here’s what we might say about how we should be shaping the faculty of the future.

First, I believe that those faculty will need to be adaptable and flexible. While we will certainly want them to be able to go deeply into an individual subject or area, they will also need to be ready to move across disciplinary boundaries. We will want to encourage in them a sense of intellectual adventure, rather than a fear of moving too far out of their comfort zone. We will want to expose them to subjects and ideas that run outside of the mainstream of their disciplines. As a means to accomplish this, one thing we could do would be to encourage more joint Ph.D. programs. Already we have students pursuing combinations from a Ph.D. in music and Africana studies to a History Ph.D. done jointly with the J.D. in Law. We could also encourage the creation of certificate programs for students to develop expertise in parallel areas: For example, our graduate students in the humanities or social sciences could complete a certificate in neuroscience (an idea that was recently proposed to me by one of our faculty members in Psychology, who has expertise the emerging sub-field of neuroethics).  Students could have teams of advisors from different disciplines, who could be learning from each other as they mentor the students in the process of their interdisciplinary graduate training.

Second, as we have seen, the faculty of the future will need to be technologically adept, ready to rethink how everything they do with their students and their research can potentially be transformed through new technologies. At Penn we already devote considerable attention to training our graduate students how to teach, but that training tends to be relatively conventional: how to put together a syllabus, how to grade a paper or exam, or how to conduct a class discussion.  But our pedagogical training of graduate students should go far beyond that. We need our graduate students to be leaders and innovators in using new technologies in both their research and teaching. We older faculty (alas) are not always the best role models for this, so we need to engage our best information technology staff together with our students, to equip them both with the skills and a vision of what could be.

Finally, the faculty of the future will need to be adept at working in an international context, in their research and their teaching, no matter what the field. These days we tend to focus on the international experiences of our undergraduates, without thinking too much about internationalizing graduate training across the disciplines. In the past, the language requirement for many Ph.D. programs conveyed the expectation that you would be involved in an international community of scholars: A graduate student had to master several languages for research purposes. While now the international language of research tends to be English, the environment of scholarship and teaching is increasingly global. This is especially true for the sciences, but also increasingly important for the humanist and the social scientist. If, as I have suggested, the boundaries that have confined the disciplines are dissolving, it is also true that you cannot pursue those disciplines in a narrow context, intellectually inhabiting only one area of the world or one point in time. So we need to equip our students with the skills to travel the globe, both literally and metaphorically.

I’d like to conclude by expressing optimism about the future—because I am, for all my professional interest in the subject of tragedy, a relentless optimist in the end. I strongly oppose those who would characterize the liberal arts as an obsolete model, unsuited to train the “workers” of the future.  A liberal arts education may not be for everyone in the world—and I fully acknowledge that—but what it can offer is the foundation for a life devoted to creative enterprise, citizenship and leadership. 

At the same time that I thus defend the liberal arts, I also see that the structure and practice of that education must continue to adapt to meet the conditions of a world that is rapidly changing. Universities and colleges simply cannot continue to teach the same things the same way. We have to open up all the borders that have defined us institutionally, whether it is the boundaries that have defined the disciplines defended by departmental structures, or the institutional practices that have impeded international collaboration. We should embrace all the power that the new technologies have to offer us, while never forgetting the value of the real human interaction rooted in the physical places that are our campuses. Why do I have confidence in the future? It is because, in fact, our liberal arts graduates excel at problem-solving, creativity and innovation. As my generation gives way to the next one—the generation of those bright students we have educated—I expect they shall take us to places we never imagined.