New humanities certificate offers themed pathways for students

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The University of Michigan-Flint campus in spring

The University of Michigan-Flint's College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) is offering a pathway for students to complete a portion of their general education program through an innovative 12-16 credit hour Certificate in Humanistic Inquiry in the Liberal Arts & Sciences (CHILAS) that debuts in fall 2022. 

With an $85,000 grant provided by the Teagle Foundation for planning and implementation, Jennifer Alvey, associate professor of anthropology and co-primary investigators (PIs) DJ Trela, professor of English, and Stephanie Roach, associate professor of English, led the development of the program to give UM-Flint students opportunities for "humanistic inquiry" also known as skill sets that are vital to student success on campus and beyond in today's competitive job market.

Student-centered approach

The team began work nearly two years ago when Susan Gano-Phillips, then dean of the CAS, brought faculty from the humanities and related disciplines together to learn about funding opportunities. A concept paper submitted to the Teagle Foundation led to a planning grant. "I like the way that this (planning phase) brought faculty together for conversations about how and what we teach," said Trela.

Working toward the goals of the Persistence and Mattering in Undergraduate Education research cluster, the planning steering committee, using the lessons of the Signature Assignments study team, focused on a student-centered approach in the program that incorporates three main elements: relationship-rich instruction, reflective pedagogy, and integrative learning. 

Relationship-rich instruction meets students where they are in life and ensures instruction is accessible to students no matter their background. A major component of this is being transparent with the students about educational goals and allowing them autonomy and choice around the path to get there. 

Reflective pedagogy encourages "metacognition," or thinking about thinking. It teaches students how to better understand and accept themselves as they are, which research shows enables people to embrace others for who they are. The integrative learning element helps students make their own connections among concepts and experiences for a deeper understanding to support their ability to apply information and skills to novel and complex issues and challenges. Alvey will serve as certificate program director, Roach as associate director, and Trela as transformative text coordinator. Program implementation will be further supported by a steering committee composed of the co-PIs and Daniel Birchok, assistant professor of anthropology, Kazuko Hiramatsu, associate professor of linguistics, and Rajib Ganguly, associate professor of physics.

Themed pathways

The certificate organizes general education courses into themes, providing a partial pathway for students through their general education requirements. Themed pathways include the following:

  • Humans and Robots. This centers on big questions about what it means to be human, intersections of humanity and technology and considerations for design and consequences of technological innovation.
  • Envisioning Just Worlds.  This centers on big questions about justice, discovery of limits and possibilities of justice, and local and global opportunities and consequences for arts, culture, community, and identity in envisioning just worlds.
  • Building Sustainable Worlds. This centers on big questions about sustainability in a variety of contexts, discovery of limits and possibilities of sustainability and opportunities and challenges of individual and collective responsibility in building sustainable worlds.
  • Leading by Living an Examined Life. This centers on big questions about ethical leadership and knowledge of self, intersections of empathy, emotion and responsibility in all aspects of life and opportunities and challenges for living an examined life.

Each pathway has a menu of course options available for students to choose their own adventure and is designed to help students develop into ethical leaders with the capacity to ask important questions and focus on the most pressing issues in our society in order to build a better tomorrow. Students who choose one of the CHILAS pathways will find themselves with a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, an increased ability to connect themes across disciplines and more adaptability to an ever-changing job market.

The themed general education pathways are intended to help students make connections within and between courses they are taking and develop skills that are of profound importance in the world of work. "The capacity for students to see and make new connections between courses, I believe, is vitally important," said Trela. CHILAS courses will incorporate reflective pedagogies and metacognitive practice in every course, helping students make connections through iterative reflection, and across ideas, courses and their communities as they examine how they fit into the global picture.

Transformative texts

That global picture helps students to focus on being part of a collective to support integrative learning, centered around strategies of humanistic inquiry. The program follows a model started at Purdue University that is anchored in "transformative texts," or impactful literary works and primary texts across human history. Reading and discussing these works provides students with an opportunity to broaden their understanding of the world and themselves. Transformative texts provide valuable context around students' major areas of study and foster creative thinking to prepare them to be effective citizens and leaders in their fields.

Through exposure to a wide range of transformative texts, CHILAS will help UM-Flint students ask and answer overarching questions like the underlying meaning of humanity.

"These transformative texts could have been written 2,000 years ago or they could've been written last week," said Trela. "In addition to more traditional texts drawn from western culture, we think it's important to have an inclusive definition and understanding of what we mean by transformative. The list is constantly being updated, but we strive to include women's, minority, LGBTQ and non-Western texts and voices."

Through exposure to transformative texts from these varied perspectives, students will be more empowered to come up with the questions necessary to avoid repeating historical missteps while helping to guide society toward a more equitable community.

 "We have a fantastic set of courses in our existing general education program. However, many people – both faculty and students – experience it one course at a time. We don't always have the opportunity to make explicit connections between them."

Jennifer Alvey

Alvey explains that this program provides high-impact educational practices to UM-Flint students while also building soft skills such as teamwork, communication and social awareness – attributes much in demand with employers. "The technical skills a student graduates with will not be the same skills they use 10 years later," she said. "A consistent thread is being able to think about your thinking, ask big questions, and be able to pivot with a solid base of soft skills to back them up."

To learn more about the certificate program, visit the CHILAS Course Catalog page.  To learn more about the College of Arts and Sciences, visit its webpage.

Rob McCullough is the communications specialist for the College of Innovation & Technology. He can be reached at [email protected].