The AGLSP Blog

Celebrity Academics?

from on Tuesday, April 23, 2013 16:06

What do we think of academics who become influential outside of academia?   How does influence outside the academy translate into authority within the community?

Jared Diamond is, without a doubt, an interdisciplinary scholar.  Originally trained in physiology, he later (according to that authoritative source Wikipedia) developed interests in ornithology and ecology.  Eventually, he developed a third specialty and became a Professor of Geography at UCLA, with an emphasis on environmental history.  Much of his work draws heavily on anthropology and evolutionary biology.

With his incredibly successful 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond reached a wide, non-academic audience; two subsequent books have also been influential.  Below are two reviews of Diamond’s most recent work, each from a very different perspective.

Economists Daron Acemoglu (MIT) and James A. Robinson (Harvard), writing in Democracy: a Journal of Ideas, critique Diamond, but see him as making a major contribution to the ongoing intellectual conversation.

Writing in Bookforum, cultural and intellectual historian Jackson Lears (Rutgers), on the other hand, sees Diamond’s ideas as flawed and as outside the concerns addressed in the mainstream academic conversation

What do you think?





Using Facebook effectively

from on Wednesday, March 27, 2013 11:09

Debbie Finkel writes: At the AGLSP conference in October 2012 I got fired up about making better use of the Liberal Studies Facebook page for our campus. Facebook can fulfill two purposes for a GLS program: recruitment and retention. Our FB group is currently a closed group (only invited members have access) and I use it primarily for retention: developing a sense of community among our GLS students. I don’t post things twice as day (as the conference speaker suggested) but I do manage to post about 4 times a week. Things I’ve discovered to post include:

  • Comics Friday: cartoons from the New Yorker or or or, etc.
  • There’s a Word for That: interesting words from the OED, culled from Reading the OED, by Ammon Shea.
  • Any news article or Facebook post related to interesting news in science or the arts or, especially, some combination of art & science, such as a New Yorker post about the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton, a post about art awards for science photography, or photos comparing city grids to neuronal grids.
  • Any time a student submits an approved thesis proposal or defends a thesis.
  • All MLS events: colloquia, dinner events, holiday parties (including photos if possible).
  • Any campus or local speaker events or film series that may interest the students.
  • Updates about my own or other faculty member’s scholarly activities: photos of faculty presenting at conferences (“see, we do it, too”).
  • Comments about what I learned at the AGLSP conference.
  • Interesting FB items that cross my “newsfeed” – I admit that I check FB every day and I have “liked” pages like “The New Yorker” that provide fodder for the GLS FB page, as do some of my FB friends.

The response has been mixed. The good news: because FB tells me who has seen each post, I know that a large percentage of the members of the group are seeing each item. The ultimate success is when I get a few “likes” for a particular item. The bad news: I’m having difficulty encouraging students to participate by commenting or posting their own items. Asking open-ended questions (e.g., read any good books lately?) gets some response, but not as much as I would like.

Given the success I have had generating content for the GLS FB page, I am considering opening the group so that I can use it for recruitment as well as retention. I will need to be sure students are willing to have their photos displayed on a public FB page. Since recruiting is always a challenge, this new method is worth a try.

Debbie Finkel, Indiana University Southeast

If you would like to share ideas about using social media in a GLS program, we’d be happy to hear from you by email and we can post your comments and suggestions here as well. Contact ksmith at iusb dot edu to contribute–thanks.

Reflections at the end of the degree program

from on Wednesday, February 6, 2013 11:15

Stephen F. Gambescia, a recent graduate of Tiffin University’s Master of Humanities program, was kind enough to record for us the talk he gave before an audience of fellow graduate students, faculty, friends, and family there entitled “Reflections on Formal Study in the Humanities.” For ease of use, we have divided the audio into five parts, each one introduced briefly here with the audio link:

Part 1. Graduate students side-step the usual “What are you going to do with this degree?” question with the help of other good questions, such as “What is man?” “What is my relationship to the world?” “Who am I?” Guest appearance by Niccolo Machiavelli!

Part 2. How people responded on the commuter train when the author was seen reading B. F. Skinner, St. Thomas More, or Karl Marx. The diversity of graduate students in the program; the diversity of reading; the diversity of connections to the world around us.

Part 3. Part of the challenge in our courses was to find a fresh thing to say about touchstone works from the ages. At the same time, these works when read closely illuminated so much of contemporary life.

Part 4. Yet the question of vocation and practicality stayed with us. We graduate with a sense that beauty and use are not alien to each other, and that the intellectual skills we practiced are the foundational skills of thinking and communicating.

Part 5. We found the sometimes lonely quests of many of the writers we read to be sobering at times, and felt a little of it in the solitude of our own studies. But in that solitude, as well as in the skeptical exchanges of our courses, we gained a new confidence for having thought about the enduring questions.

If your program has celebrated the values of graduate study in a lively public talk, we’d be pleased to have a chance to share the text or audio here.

Online learning in GLS?

from on Thursday, January 3, 2013 13:21

Will MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) such as Coursera change the nature of higher education?   This was a topic overheard in many conversations at the AGLSP Convention in October.   Since one of the roots of Liberal Studies is an “open university” ideal of lifelong access to learning, this is an issue that many GLS faculty and administrators take very seriously.   While many GLS programs are centered around traditional seminar classes, some programs feature online courses, or a mixture of distance learning and traditional classroom learning.

What is the mix of your program?  Does it fit with your program’s mission?  Is technology bringing us new ways of fulfilling our mission as educators?

In case you missed it, here is a link to a recent MIT Technology Review essay by information technology scholar Nicholas Carr on the ways in which online learning may — or may not — change the University.





Science vs. philosophy?

from on Tuesday, December 18, 2012 12:16

Can the sciences answer all our questions now?   What is left for disciplines such as philosophy in a world which is understood more and more in scientific terms?

In this essay from The New Atlantis, University of South Carolina biologist Austin L. Hughes weighs in on an age-old issue — and cautions that there are objective questions better answered by philosophy than by science.   The Folly of Scientism raises a lot of issues of interest to Liberal Studies and other interdisciplinary programs, from ethics to metaphysics to epistemology.



Preserving — and decoding — knowledge

from on Friday, November 30, 2012 11:27

In this age of Wikipedia, it is perhaps more important than ever for those of us in academia to ask “How is knowledge constituted and how are ways of thinking made culturally available?”

For example, scientific thinking was not always ubiquitous in Western culture.   Such ways of thinking required the growth, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of scientific societies that offered a forum for sharing ideas and discoveries, and provided members with a network of colleagues with whom to correspond.  This scientific networking created a feedback system that allowed scientists to build on the discoveries of others, and to focus their own work where it was most useful.

But the way was prepared for this work by a complementary network.  We now know that the secret societies, such as the Freemasons, that arose during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were about more than just secret handshakes and rituals.   Many of them were actually institutions for protecting and nurturing unorthodox ideas.  They created a social space in which it was safe to discuss newer, more secular, democratic or scientific ways of thinking during a time when those ideas were considered politically or socially dangerous.  These groups practiced secrecy not so much for its own sake, but for the sake of protecting their members and preserving their ideas.

A recent article by Noah Shachtman in Wired notes:

These societies were the incubators of democracy, modern science, and ecumenical religion. They elected their own leaders and drew up constitutions to govern their operations. It wasn’t an accident that Voltaire, George Washington, and Ben Franklin were all active members. And just like today’s networked radicals, much of their power was wrapped up in their ability to stay anonymous and keep their communications secret.

Shachtman’s article describes a fascinating detective story which involves the recent decoding of the writings of one of these secret societies.  Along the way, it engages with intellectual history, material history, linguistics and cryptology; it also features excellent photographs of some of its texts and artifacts.



Books Are Us

from on Friday, October 26, 2012 12:35

In “My 6,128 Favorite Books,” Joe Queenan admits to reading 100-200 books per year, claiming that he once knocked off Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat “during a nine-hour Jerry Garcia guitar solo.”   If you’re somebody who reads a lot of books, Queenan notes, it’s probably because “at some level you find ‘reality’ a bit of a disappointment.” Here’s the link: The essay was adapted from Queenan’s One For the Books, which was released Thursday. My favorite line: “the real message Bram Stoker sought to convey in Dracula is that a human being needs to live hundreds and hundreds of years to get all his reading done.”

Books and reading are on my mind because last week brought many of us together in Portland for the annual AGLSP conference.  The theme for this year was The Crisis of the Book: Worlds of Opportunity, Worlds of Change.

One of the keynote speakers was William Diebold of Reed College, who used the historical transition from scroll to codex (a bound book with separate pages) to represent two different ways of looking at the world.  The information in scrolls – which he associated with the Judaic tradition – is embedded in a continuous story from which it is not easily extractable, while the information in codices – which he associated with the Christian tradition of typology – lends itself more to comparison and recombination.   Our latest technologies give us yet newer ways of accessing information.  How will they affect the ways we think about meaning?

Keynote speakers were not limited to academics, but included Molly Raphael, the 2011-12 president of the American Library Association, and Michael Powell, one of the founders of Powell’s Books – now a Portland landmark and familiar internet presence.  Both gave us interesting perspectives on the role of books in people’s lives and in the marketplace.

The pre-conference workshop for program directors focused on issues such as marketing, preparing new graduate students for the program, and dealing with administrative, faculty and student challenges.   (Many of the conference materials will be available later on this site.)  Many thanks to Barbara Amen and Reed College for a well-organized and successful conference!




New ways to tell stories

from on Monday, September 24, 2012 9:53

Interdisciplinarity is absolutely fundamental for Mark Hansen of UCLA. This computer scientist sought a university department where there would be an expectation of interdisciplinary projects. He builds bridges between computer science and journalism in order to create “new forms of storytelling” that take advantage of the wealth of data that is available today. His current seminar is on data visualization for architecture and journalism students. (, 9/23/12)

On being able to find things

from on Tuesday, September 18, 2012 9:31

In a column by that title, Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor and president of University of Warwick, muses on an information-glutted world (ours!) where interpretation, persuasion, and interdisciplinary methods grow all the more important. He writes:

But what is clear is that it becomes even more incumbent upon academics to be able to interpret and communicate information. Thus, a thorough grounding in what are usually interdisciplinary methods has now become an ever-more-important aspect of academe in both the social sciences and the humanities.

See what you think of the fresh examples late in his brief essay. (Chronicle of Higher Education online, 9/17/12)

The making of an actual book

from on Monday, August 6, 2012 9:31

Looking ahead to the October conference…a two-minute video shows the artful process of printing and binding a hardback book.