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My life at a little liberal arts college

Stimulating, friendly and comes with work-life balance – what a surprise!


Last year, I graduated from a research-intensive university in southern Ontario and, after being wait-listed for a postdoctoral fellowship, I decided to cross the trenches and accept a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts college in Northern Georgia.

Before my experience here, I heard about teaching-based positions at these kinds of institutions discussed in hushed tones in the hallways of my university. They had the connotation of being intellectual wastelands — places where the careers of scholars went to die. For those trained in research-focused schools like my alma mater, I’m sure you can imagine the looks of concern and disappointment I received from research chairs, graduate coordinators, and other faculty members when I revealed I would be teaching four courses per term at an undergraduate college with no teaching assistants. I might as well have been converting to scientology.

For a long time now, there has been a stark division in academe, between the research institutions where faculty members often consider teaching to be a chore better left to those lower in the hierarchy and the small North American liberal arts colleges that pride themselves on student-teacher interactions and a well-rounded education. Coming from the former, the image I had of these colleges was one of lethargic, down-and-out professors who had failed to “make it” and who were now forced to conduct seminar after seminar with no academic freedom or challenges. I was led to expect low-achieving undergraduates who would leave me regretting my move to teach communication studies in this scenic Appalachian town on the border of North Carolina.

Suffice it to say, I was surprised when I arrived on campus. First, I discovered that the other new hires, far from being underachievers, included film directors, international educators, and accomplished poets. Early in the academic year, I found myself challenged by the questions students asked. Their interrogations exposed many issues I hadn’t ever thought about in graduate school. I was also amazed to realize, after talking to others in my field, that my life in the middle of nowhere seemed a lot better than my colleagues’ experiences at larger, more prestigious institutions.

Now, having experienced both the research-intensive university environment and the small liberal arts college, I can shed light on some of the misconceptions professors and their students may hold about the other side of the academic tracks.

Undergraduates are healthy skeptics

Having spent the last five years of my life discussing Marx’s concept of the species-being as revealed in the subtext of the Grundrisse and similar esoteric intellectual trends, I was at first taken aback when my students posed questions like “why do I have to read Marx?” or “if no one agrees about what ‘hegemony’ means, why do we have to use the word?” No one had ever asked me questions like these. My students simply wouldn’t accept an answer like “Marx is important” or “hegemony is a key term in intellectual debates.” Inevitably, the next question would be “why?” or, perhaps “so what?” These rebuttals weren’t hostile. They were sincere expressions of confusion about why people would dedicate their lives to such seemingly trivial disagreements. For some reason, such questions had never arisen before and I wasn’t sure how to answer them at first. While no one was pulling out obscure quotes from Lacan or Foucault, I found my class discussions challenging and enriching for both the students and me.

Freedom is difficult to quantify

When I tell my colleagues at research universities that I teach eight classes a year, they are appalled. What about your freedom to do research? They’re stripping you of your academic freedom! It’s true that I teach much more than typical researchers. And, sure, I might take on less teaching if it became an option. But there is also much less pressure on me to be the expert in one particular niche, leaving the research questions I can pursue much more open.

When I was working on my dissertation about media representations of gangs in Canada, I found myself reading so narrowly that I could hardly talk about anything else. Sure, I’d read every book, study, figure, and chart about my particular area. But ask me anything outside it and I’d have to get back to you. At the college, I teach every class on the books: Intro to Media, Media Literacy, Information Society, Audience Reception, Public Speaking, Global Media, etc. Suddenly, everything has become part of my research field. Ironically, I’ve never felt freer to explore concepts and conduct research. Now, if I want to know how 3D films work or how to read hieroglyphics, I’ll find out — never feeling guilty for stepping outside my research agenda. Last year, I read about Google’s ranking system, comic book genres, analytic philosophy, Nintendo, Disney World, artificial intelligence, lip-synching, and speculative realism. All of which I bring into my classes in one way or another. Now, I’m free to pursue anything and everything that interests me. Quickly, I’ve become much more interesting at parties.

Quality of life matters

I’ve seen many pre-tenured professors almost die from heart attacks and similar stress-induced maladies. Most of these people live in major cities, spending far too much time in traffic and not enough enjoying the benefits of their metropolises. And they never seem to smile.

Conversely, everyone at my college walks around with huge grins, greeting one another warmly and always taking time to chat. I think this comes down to the difference in goals of the little liberal arts college. There are not a lot of inflated egos here. If someone at another university wants to be the go-to person in a field, that’s fine. If jaws don’t drop when we mention our school’s name, we’re okay with that. (I’m a first-generation university graduate; I had to explain to my parents that Cornell and UCLA were highly regarded schools. I’m not invested in prestige). While not all liberal arts colleges are the same, I feel like most of the people at these places have things pretty well figured out. Rather than emphasize elitism and status, the focus is often on experiences. Many of these schools are located in small, beautiful towns like my own, where the campuses have diverse, well-attended events that are just as likely to discuss developments in quantum physics as they are to present techniques for hiking local wilderness trails. There is a spirit of exploration — in all senses of the word — that I have never experienced anywhere else.

One has to wonder who’s perpetuating some of the negative myths about the little liberal arts college. At first, I thought such representations were coming from researchers who looked down on such schools. But, perhaps they’re not. Perhaps it’s the liberal arts professors at these small colleges, knowing they have a good thing going on, who are spreading these ideas so as not to attract too much attention to their little oases. While I may be letting the metaphorical cat out of the bag, I wanted to share my findings, particularly with those graduating from research-intensive universities who feel they are somehow betraying their causes or failing to live up to expectations by applying to positions at small liberal arts colleges. I definitely don’t feel anything but thankful for how things ended up for me.

Chris Richardson teaches communication studies at Young Harris College in the Blue Ridge mountains of northeastern Georgia.

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  1. Sue Sorensen / July 3, 2013 at 11:22

    It’s great to read a piece like this, and I echo everything that the author says. I teach at a small but feisty and incredibly friendly Christian university here in Canada, and the happy and supportive atmosphere on campus is unlike any workplace I’ve ever inhabited. And yes, my students and colleagues are just as stimulating and sharp-witted as elsewhere. I have sacrificed nothing by coming to Canadian Mennonite University, and gained so much.

  2. Andrew Gow / July 3, 2013 at 12:21

    We Canadians are far too focused on our Prussian-inspired research universities, and fail to realize that there is another model of post-secondary education in North America that has been successful for centuries: the American liberal arts college. As Dr. Richardson points out, if prestige is not at the centre of one’s academic universe, there are thousands of great places for scholars to teach and lead a relatively normal life, almost all in the United States. Research universities are almost all in the centre of big, expensive cities, and most rsearchers have little to no choice of where they will live–the job market dictates that. And research universities do require scholars to specialize very narrowly and to become *the* go-to person on their topic. That comes at a high price in personal, social and even intellectual terms. I sometimes regret having spent my career at a research institution — but there are considerable rewards, too: my opportunities to supervise graduate students, my funding, my access to a first-class library and my comfortable salary and pension make up for *some* (if not all) of the other costs… Ultimately, one makes one’s bed and one lies in it. My advice to newly graduated Ph.D.s is to think carefully about family, immediate and extended, their ages, needs and and so on, and not to move far away just to take a ‘great’ job: the familial and personal costs can be extremely high and don’t become apparent until it is too late to do anything much about it. If it is the *only* job you are likely to get, ok–fine, take it. But living thousands of kilometres from your family and spending all your vacation time and money (esp. on a starting salary) to visit family ‘back home’ for a ‘better’ job is a false economy. And then there are the challenges of raising children alone, with no family members within reach. In any case: go in with your eyes open!

  3. Diane Enns / July 3, 2013 at 16:29

    Great article! I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned “inflated egos.” Such a hazard of the profession, and very much tied to the prestige of research and lack of interest in teaching. Just as important, you raise the issue of narrow research agendas, which leads us all to publish just as narrowly – for other specialists rather than for the broader public (a public that includes students).

    But that everyone smiles… isn’t that because you’re in Georgia?!

  4. Claire Campbell / July 4, 2013 at 05:43

    My partner and I are moving from a mid-sized “research-intensive” university to a small American liberal arts university this summer, and so thank you for an encouraging article that confirms our sense of our new workplace! There have certainly been some advantages to working where we have done, but the tone and outlook of the new school seems very different, very appealing, and sounds very much like yours.

    A recent graduate of our PhD program, now also employed at an American liberal arts school, not only loves teaching there but encourages more Canadian graduates to look to that field as a possibility.

  5. Stuart McKelvie / July 4, 2013 at 10:46

    There are traditional liberal arts universities in Canada. Four that come to mind are Bishop’s (where I am), Mount Allison, Acadia and St. Francis Xavier. We also offer a programme that is focused primarily on the undergraduate – with attention to high-quality instruction by accessible professors who personally grade essays, project and examinations.

    At Bishop’s, with approximately 2400 undergraduate students, this all takes place in a supportive admininstrative and staff environment where assistance comes with a smile. We also have a healthy number of francophone students, who bring their own questions to the mix.

    Moreover, research and publication are not forgotten and, like the scenario sketched out above, occur with considerable freedom to explore without undue pressure of having to produce today. All this comes with heavy involvement by undergraduates. And along with our smaller size come many opportunities to discuss ideas and cooperate with colleagues in other departments.

    Added to this is a campus and setting where the scenario is, dare I say it, unrivalled (as he sits at his window overlooking the St. Francis river and countryside beyond).

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