Elevating the Humanities Through Cohort Programs

During National Arts and Humanities Month, we celebrate the power of coming together to discuss great books and big questions. Through our survey, we’ve learned that several institutions have recently launched humanities cohort programs, which guide a select group of students through a curated series of shared curricular and co-curricular learning experiences. We’ve been reaching out to program directors to learn how they designed programs to attract students hungry for community, facilitate experiential learning, and elevate the humanities on their campuses.

English Department Chair Joanne Diaz instituted a program for first-year students to generate more enthusiasm for the humanities at Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU). She crafted the program not only to help students get the most out of college and contribute to the campus but also to model lifelong learning and public engagement through rich off-campus experiences.

Now in its third year, the First-Year Humanities Fellows program begins with a course on the history of the university, the aims of liberal arts education, and guiding ideals of truth, beauty, and justice. Meanwhile, students connect outside the classroom through poetry readings, intimate discussions with invited speakers, and field trips. In the Spring, students clarify their own educational goals and develop a detailed plan for their remaining college career as part of a half-credit course. They write about and discuss creative performances on campus in preparation for Humanities Immersion, a 5-day tour de force of cultural institutions of Chicago over spring break. Afterward, students discuss strategies for articulating their humanities skills to future employers with career center staff and present individual research projects.

The program has catapulted fellows’ college careers and enriched cultural life on campus. Students have so thoroughly enjoyed it, they have volunteered time to mentor subsequent cohorts. The IWU provost wholeheartedly supported the Humanities Fellows program, and has recently expanded the model with nine additional cohort programs, including additional humanities-oriented tracks like “Global Titans,” “Justice Scholars,” and “Titans for Change.”

While IWU’s programs focus on enriching the first-year experience, Hendrix College freshmen of all majors are encouraged to apply to become Murphy Scholars to pursue advanced study in literature and language over their remaining three years. Now entering its fifth year, the program was created by Director of the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation and professor of English and Creative Writing Hope Coulter to foster intellectual community and facilitate student-driven experiential learning opportunities.

The “linchpin” of the program, according to Coulter, is the Oxford-inspired tutorial course. One to three students meet with a faculty member for in-depth exploration of a topic of special interest. “It’s really popular with the students; they love the bonding that happens,” Coulter says. “They say things like, ‘this really makes me feel like a scholar.’”

All Murphy Scholars gain access to $4,000 to fund at least three co-curricular experiences—such as study abroad experiences, internships, service-learning projects, and original research—and are invited to compete for additional funding. Meanwhile, Murphy Scholars participate in a variety of community-building events, including intimate conversations with guest speakers, visits to local cultural institutions, and student readings of original work. Three post-doctoral Murphy Visiting Fellows lead these activities, mentor student projects, and teach in their home departments.

Murphy Scholars’ experiences of intellectual community help elevate the humanities at Hendrix more broadly by highlighting their power to create meaningful connections among students and faculty. “The program makes the humanities a focal point,” says Coulter. “[It] helps lift up the humanities so they get more public attention and visibility.”

Obviously, such cohort programs demand significant investments of time and resources. Coulter and Diaz both emphasize that launching these programs is a labor of love that requires support and resources from upper administration. More modest models are easier to implement.

The Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington recently piloted the Katz Scholars in the Humanities program to better reach undergraduates. Guided by a doctoral student facilitator, Katz Scholars prepared for extensive engagement with a guest speaker. They met beforehand to discuss readings selected to enrich their experience of the public lecture and enjoyed an intimate conversation with the visiting scholar the following day.

Students later reflected on the experience and shared feedback with Assistant Director of the Simpson Center Rachel Arteaga. One hundred percent of participants recommended the center continue the program and further expand outreach to undergraduates, and the center staff and board are responding. “The beauty of this model is that it is affordable and achievable—it could be done at the department level—yet it was very substantive and high level,” says Arteaga. “All you need is one speaker to get started.”


Photo Credits

Feature image: Although Murphy Scholars come from all majors, they often win distinction in literature and language fields—as shown by these Murphy Scholars being recognized for excellence in English at Hendrix’s annual honors convocation. Photo courtesy of Hendrix College.

Thumbnail image: Murphy Scholars Roshaneh Ali and Leah Headley rest from their explorations of Madrid during a four-week Spanish immersion and language study. Photo courtesy of Hendrix College.

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