GALA Sustainable Liberal Arts Conference at Utrecht University

Posted on April 24, 2023

Feature photo: (front row left to right: Tom Gardner, Ingrid Hoofd, Amy le Grys, Georgina Andrews, Rebecca McGuire-Snieckus); (middle row left to right: Merel van Goch, Janneke Van Dis, Mattia Mantellato, Andy Salmon); (top row left to right: Jenni Lewis, Rebecca di Corpo, Anastasia Hacopian).

Utrecht University hosted the successful Global Academy of Liberal Arts Conference (GALA) on the theme of Sustainable Liberal Arts on 21 April 2023. Presenters and attendees online and in person from the Netherlands, Ethiopia, India, Hong Kong, Italy, Canada, South Africa and England explored themes of pedagogy, imagination and social justice. Following a warm introduction by Janneke Van Dis, Education Director of the Department of Humanities at Utrecht University, Rebecca McGuire-Snieckus, Associate Academic Director of the Global Academy of Liberal Arts, gave an overview of the GALA network.

The first session was on the theme of pedagogy, chaired by Janneke Van Dis.

Merel van Goch from Utrecht University presented on Educating tomorrow’s change agents: How do students reflect on the development of their ability to drive change? Driving change is considered to be one of the inner development goals: the competences that are needed to reach the sustainable development goals. Liberal education aims to educate students who have the competences (knowledges, skills, and attitudes) to foster change. But is it actually possible to teach these competences? How do students say they develop these competences? This study asked: how do liberal education students reflect on the development of their competences? The competences under investigation were: taking initiative, taking risks, and innovative thinking. Senior students in an undergraduate liberal education programme were invited to reflect on these competences and on their development in their undergraduate journey. Insights included: 1) students were capable of reflecting meaningfully and thoroughly on their development regarding these topics and the role of these topics in higher education; 2) students reflected on the domain specificity and domain generality of the competences; 3) students reflected on the fixedness of the competences: all competences were considered fixed traits by some, and variable, learnable by others; 4) students showed positive and negative affect when reflecting on the competences; 5) programme characteristics that influence competences according to the students, included: assignments, rubrics and grading, instruction, the (experience of) the teacher, and fellow students. These insights are relevant for the theory and practice of liberal education, sustainability education, and higher education in general.

Samson Mekonnen from Addis Ababa University gave a presentation on A social Media Content Evaluation: Building a Civic media Literacy Framework in Ethiopia. In response to scholarly concerns about fake news and polarization in Ethiopian context, youth media literacy interventions have emerged to teach strategies for assessing credibility of online news and producing media to mobilize others for civic goals. However, in light of evidence that practices learned in classroom contexts do not reliably translate to the context of sharing social media, this study aims to provide a better understanding of youth social media practices needed to design meaningful and relevant educational experiences. In-depth interviews with a diverse sample of 52 Ethiopian youth (18–26) provided a critical understanding of factors that guide behavior in accessing, endorsing, sharing, commenting and producing civic media. A shift toward reliance on incidental exposure and non-institutional sources when accessing information and a tendency toward endorsement and circulation of posts (vs producing original posts) when engaging with civic issues on social media are what the findings of the study shows. As participants engaged in these practices, they not only applied judgments of credibility and civic impact but also concerned for personal relevance, relational considerations and fit with internet culture. The recommendation is that an extended perspective of models that reflect one-way processes of effortful search, credibility analysis and production is important. The study propose a new dynamic model of civic media literacy in which youth apply judgments of credibility, relational considerations, relevance to lived experience, civic impact and fit with internet culture as they receive, endorse, share, comment on and produce media in a nonlinear fashion in Ethiopia.

Anastasia Hacopian from Utrecht University explored Cultures and disciplines: lessons in diversity for interdisciplinary practice. In the Netherlands, interdisciplinary studies are offered through broad bachelor degrees in eleven liberal arts and sciences programmes. Mirroring the American model, Dutch liberal arts education strives to train students as kosmou polites through a curriculum that increases cultural consciousness through regular reflection. Alemán and Salkever (2001) go further to advocate an “effectual pluralistic community,” drawing on John Dewey’s call for a pragmatic response to racial and ethnic diversity in America in the early 20th century. They present the paradigm of ‘Deweyan multiculturalism,’ which challenges the liberal notion of autonomous, individual progress occurring in an abstract, ageless vacuum by emphasizing a pluralistic community as a motor for intellectual growth. This paper examines the relationship between cultural diversity and disciplinary diversity within the context of interdisciplinary practice. Ria van der Leq, founder of the Liberal Arts and Sciences bachelor program at Utrecht University, draws a parallel between cultures and disciplines (2016): “Contact with people from other cultures or disciplines makes students think about differences and similarities, and forces them to reflect on their own values.” Philomena Essed also compares cloning of cultures to cloning of disciplines, criticizing both practices (2002). Such parallels between cultures and disciplines bring critical insights that can result in the transfer of practices that promote cultural diversity as well as interdisciplinary cooperation, like the interventions recommended by Ghoreshi (2017) to adopt ‘continguity’, or a non-hierarchical view of difference. Finally, these insights augment the intersection of culture and discipline within interdisciplinary practice. The pluralistic values of liberal education confirm this relationship: cultural diversity can result in disciplinary diversity. This paper will make recommendations for interdisciplinary, liberal arts bachelor programs to use the intersection of cultures and disciplines to promote the diversity of both within an interdisciplinary curriculum.

Jenni Lewis and Faith Binckes from Bath Spa University gave a engaging talk with reflections from their students on Speaking with Literature: voices in conversation in the contemporary classroom. Speaking about literature is a regular activity for many scholars working with the liberal arts. But to speak with literature implies different possibilities, both for ourselves and for our students. Can we harness those possibilities to increase the sustainability of our discipline? Could our students translate them into new modes of engagement with relevance to their own contexts? In these two connected papers, we will explore the development of an applied Humanities project which addresses both these questions. ‘Speaking With Literature’ is informed by a wider reconfiguration of the Humanities syllabus at Bath Spa University, although it centres on staff and students within English Literature. Its simplest goal was to support the development of a core module (‘Voices in Conversation’) that would connect the theory and practice of ‘conversation’ within contrasting literary texts to scholarly yet practice-based seminar work and assessment. This was undertaken by a team comprising academic staff and students, who piloted the concept in 2021-22 before the first iteration of the module in 2022-23. The first section of our paper will chart and analyse this pedagogical research process, from both a staff and a student perspective. How and why, for example, did we decide to place Jane Austen in conversation with James Baldwin, and what happened next? The second part of the paper will focus on outcomes that are still unfolding. These suggest the wider applications of the practice in sustaining and enriching modes of dialogue within and beyond the university, with a particular emphasis on decolonisation and inclusivity. These applications include the next steps taken by our two student research partners, as one has taken up a student leadership role with an emphasis on Wellbeing, and the other has moved into postgraduate study in the Environmental Humanities.

Session two was dedicated to the theme of imagination, chaired by Ingrid Hoofd.

Andy Salmon from Bath Spa University gave an intriguing paper titled Peculiar acts of real imagination where he related principles of surrealism to higher education. “The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real.” ― Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. how ways of using our collective imagination to fashion a more holistic higher. In this paper he explored the education system, collapsing traditional tired oppositions: education versus training, arts versus science, research versus innovation, public versus private, elitism versus inclusion. Stevens also maintained that “The best definition of true imagination is that it is the sum of our faculties.” His contention was that in so doing we devise a very different model, circular rather than linear, multi-modal and trans-level as well as trans-disciplinary. We might think that this is fanciful. Education doesn’t work like this. He argues that whilst this is undeniably and historically true, it is wrong precisely b/c the world outside education does function in non-linear multiplicity and is craving people who can do likewise. We have failed to imaginatively keep up with rapidly evolving external environments that demand solutions from ‘the sum of our faculties’. His argument is that this is exactly the groundwork of the 21 st century Humanities force field. The core act of which is the specific gravity of each human life. To see this clearly is an act of profound concentration as Wallace Stevens noted:“…the imagination gives to everything that it touches a peculiarity, and to him, the peculiarity of the imagination is nobility, of which there are many degrees. This inherent nobility is the natural source of another, which our extremely headstrong generation regards as false and decadent. Nothing could be more evasive and inaccessible. Nothing distorts itself and seeks disguise more quickly. There is a shame of disclosing it and in its definite presentations a horror of it. But there it is.” ― Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. Once acknowledged, such nobility requires very practical approaches, pragmatic design thinking, and significant evidence bases to confirm value. The last part of his presentation explored several current live acts of collective imagination at Bath Spa University: ISTART, a new National Centre for Fashion and Sustainability, and a rapidly developing Short Course Unit.

Coco Kanters and Rianne van Lambalgen presented on the topic of Co-creation for a sustainable vision in a Liberal Arts and Science Bachelor. Interdisciplinary programs bring together not only a broad range of students, but also diverse staff with a wide variety of academic and professional backgrounds. This diversity presents opportunities for a well-rounded and resilient common vision for the program; yet this does not happen naturally or automatically. In this talk we will describe our process of creating a sustainable vision of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Utrecht University (LAS) through co-creation with its staff. There is value in co-creation in higher education as it stimulates participation from staff involved in the program, as such allowing for a more future-proof outcome through the use of collective wisdom (Cizek and Uricchio 2022). It is important to co-create a vision that is supported by all staff and at the same time allows for flexibility to be further developed and improved over time. We facilitated co-creation by using the participatory backcasting method (Robinson et al. 2011) which entails participants “counting backwards” from their desired future in 2050 to today. So through backcasting, used widely in change processes towards sustainable futures (Vergragt and Quist 2011), the desirable future is envisaged first, before it is analysed how it could be achieved by looking back from this future and identifying what steps need to be taken to bring about that future. Via a process of co-creation groups work out which pathways will eventually lead up to this future. What would have to have happened 2040, 2030 and 2025 in order to reach the desired goal? The output consists of temporal maps visualising desired futures and developments leading up to that future. As such, participants develop stories of the future that open up the imagination and uncover implicit assumptions, aspirations and ideas surrounding interdisciplinarity – as well as explicating how they might differ across groups of stakeholders. In this talk they gave an example of this process and discussed how others can apply this method in their program.

Gray Kochhar-Lindgren from Hong Kong University provided an engrossing talk on The Double-Helix University: The Liberal Arts at Work. Here the Double-Helix University provides an orienting image for project-based transdisciplinary learning for all undergraduates (with implications for post-graduate work as well). Building on his leadership of The More-Than-Human-City—a Global Action Lab co-facilitated with Rick Dolphijn of Utrecht University—and Critical Zones: Gender, Cities, and Well-Being, he then explored how the Liberal Arts are “put to work” through such project-based learning. In particular students—and their mentors—develop more precise imaginations; connect across differences of disciplines, sites, languages, and cultures; combine theory and practice; and become more evocative across media from writing to videography. This, in turn, will demonstrate how the Liberal Arts—as experiences of spiraling entwinements—can make significant contributions to individuals, communities, and the larger force-of-work called for by our time of crises.

Mattia Mantellato from the University of Udine presented on Reading Literature through Dance-Theatre: Multimodal and Transdisciplinary Experiments for a Partnership World. This paper presented an inter-transdisciplinary project that mingles literature and dance-theatre with the intent to interrogate the concepts of “multimodality” (Kress 2010) and “performance” (Schechner 2002) in sustainable practices for a resilient and “partnership world” (Eisler 1988, 2002; Eisler & Fry 2019). It focused on a choreographic adaptation of David Dabydeen’s poem Turner (1994) from a “post-decolonial” (Mignolo 2011; Mignolo & Walsh 2018) point of view, thus putting to the fore the role of the Arts, and in particular dance, in intermedial experiments to challenge Western-European and Northern Atlantic “matrix of power”. Inspired by the appalling depiction of drowning black bodies in J.M.W Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840), Dabydeen’s poetic journey gives voice to those who perished in the Atlantic. In Mantellato’s production, he interacted with a selection of Dabydeen’s verses, thus highlighting the author’s ability to foster partnership and feminine visions of care, love and respect for all human beings. Drawing from the “blue turn” (Hau’ofa 2008; Ingersoll 2016) or revolution, the project embraced a three-dimensional methodology, so as to question and re-define socio-historical Western “dominator” legacies in light of a more cooperative and “tidalectic” (Brathwaite 1992) holistic approach to life. In his analysis he deomonstrated how the mixing of literature and embodied agency can enhance our understanding of alternative realities, also through the aid of the digital medium. Second, I presented the threefold transcorporeal (Alaimo 2012) adaptation of Dabydeen’s poem, which has been conducted by three different choreographic ‘voices’. Finally, he discussed how multimodal and transdisciplinary practices can be useful for engaging in proactive and social-artistic experiments to redraw the world and simultaneously the boundaries of academia.

Penny Hay from Bath Spa University gave a gripping talk on the Forest of Imagination – Hopeful Futures. Forest of Imagination is a long term partnership between Grant Associates, House of Imagination, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Bath Spa University, working alongside the creative, cultural and educational community of Bath. Each year we re-imagine a familiar space to highlight the importance of nature and imagination in all of our lives. Importantly the themes of inclusive placemaking, everyday creativity, co design and co creation, that sense of belonging, engagement and wellbeing, the connection to nature and sustainability, active citizenship and civic innovation, and essentially transformation. Forest of Imagination is a creative ecosystem that invites participation in all the arts. Spaces in an urban context are reinvented to inspire spontaneous play, to unleash imagination and heighten our engagement with nature and the city environment. Forest of Imagination shines a light on the importance of global forests and the capacity of forests to inspire creativity in everyone. Together we are researching experimental sites for pedagogical innovation to place young people’s agency at the centre. This is set against an educational system that is broken, a planetary polycrisis of war, the pandemic and ecological emergency. Forest of Imagination is an opportunity to help children and adults to think differently about the way we see nature, to imagine new possibilities. Our collective imagination celebrates the power of imagining a different world. Forest of Imagination is an invitation to explore everyone’s creativity and imagination and to make these processes visible in the world, making a real and lasting difference to children and nature. We engage with contemporary creativity, imagine new possibilities for the way we live and create thoughtful and imaginative spaces for everyone to enjoy. Forest of Imagination brings a message of hope for children and young people, for their rights and their future.

The final session was on the theme of social justice, chaired by Anastasia Hacopian.

Tom Gardner from Bath Spa University presented on Eco-versities and Social movements: Sustainability learning in decentralised networks. In a context where ever-critical narratives are brought on Higher Education institutions, specifically concerning how they seek to mitigate the effects of climate change, what learning can be drawn from education and sustainability movements created around a regenerative purpose? This presentation will begin an answer to this question by discussing an MSc Education Dissertation along with additional relevant literature. It will interrogate discourses associated with climate change education, engagement and theories of change, utilising the works of Dr Sharon Stein, Dr Duncan Green, Dr Robin Leichenko and Professor Karen O’Brien among others. It will then explore these topics from the contexts of Extinction Rebellion UK (XRUK) and the Ecoversities Alliance (EA), as well as from the perspective of more mainstream education. It will conclude with the findings of the dissertation, namely the ways in which network structure and articulation can define the nature of practice sharing and development. The EA is a network of alternative further and higher education organisations that have sought to reimagine education in the face of complex ecological, economic, and political challenges. The presentation will compare and contrast this climate change movement to that of XRUK, to stress their mutual relevance. The network is a decentralised and global group of 65+ organisations operating in close proximity to GALA institutions (two are in South West England and one is based in Amsterdam for example). These organisations face and have faced similar challenges to our member organisations, as such, this presentation will postulate that greater learning can be drawn from them and it will encourage members to explore the themes these institutions seek to embody.

Amy Le Grys from Bath Spa University gave a fascinating talk on The importance of mountain literature in representing places and people. According to the ICIMOD (The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development), in 2013, mountains home 12% of the global population and another 14% live adjacent to a mountain area. These spaces are not just locations of outstanding beauty or attractive tourist locations, but they are intrinsically linked to communities, livelihoods, ecological systems and climates. Through igniting interest in non-fiction mountain literature, a gap between science and culture can be bridged in understanding how these areas are perceived but also how they can be protected. The early to mid twentieth century saw a boom in British mountain literature that moved away from the topographical texts of the nineteenth century as well as the “climb and conquest” narrative that dominated Victorian Britain – often termed the “golden era of British mountaineering”. These texts, most prominent in the 1930s-1950s, with a particular focus on (in this paper) the English Lake District, moved towards a more considered genre that straddled nature memoir, travel writing, lyrical Romantic poetry, and modern impressionism. Not only did these texts try to give a “voice to” the mountainscape but they also attempt to give a voice to its communities, seeing them as intertwined with the mountain rather than separate from. Texts such as ‘Portraits of Mountains’ (Eileen Molony and others, 1950), ‘Off to the Lakes’ (Jessica Lofthouse, 1949), and ‘The English Lakes’ (Frank Singleton, 1954) all see the mountain and its communities as an intertwined geographical space. This paper argues that these Lake District mountain texts address the lack of mountainscape literature within the literary canon and emphasises the importance of the humanities in academia by engaging with critical discourse on the changing environment.

Rebecca di Corpo from Bath Spa University captivated the audience with a story and meaningful description of Mission Humanities: designing an integrated, multi-faceted, future-facing centre for the humanities in the twenty-first century. (Re)configuring a university for the twenty-first century is not a straightforward proposition. It requires a strategy that can work with, and withstand, the predicaments of our era, that actively facilitates public private civic cooperation for public good, and that enables new ways of joined-up thinking, operating – and being. The inter-dependencies of vision, action and impact have never been so apparent, and while accountability may rest with few, when it comes to systemic change the responsibility is everyone’s. (Re)imagining, then, Bath Spa University’s Centre for Humankind in the twenty-first century is both perplexing and enthralling. The rumbling discourse of a humanities ‘in crisis’ has, arguably, been overridden by the humanities ‘in need’. A steady stream of fresh evidence on critical future (humanities-related) skills and the emergence of the SHAPE campaign (The British Academy and The Royal Society’s counter-balance to STEM as the ‘Social Sciences, the Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy’) promulgate new policies of possibility for the humanities; horizon-scanning civil servants call for the integration of humanities and technological research and development as predictions and desires for ethical, inclusive, educated, safe and healthy hybrid (real/virtual) societies plays out. (Re)minded of Mazzucato’s ‘mission economy’, which calls for democratic capitalism to be inclusive, sustainable and driven by innovation that tackles complex but concrete problems, the Centre for Humankind is designed to deliver against its core mission: to place the humanities at the heart of decision-making, for a better world, better lived. Firmly rooted in its city/region, with an international reach motivated by social impact, its portfolio of work is organised as a matrix structure to ensure relational activities across pedagogy, policy, placemaking and profile. It is an integrated, multi-faceted, future-facing arena; future-proofing the humanities, in context, in place.

Patrick Leroux from Concordia University provided a rousing key note on Sustainability and the Performing Arts: A Case for a More Sustainable Development of Contemporary Circus. In this talk he considered sustainability in contemporary circus through the prism of ecological sustainability, economic development and sustainability of an ever-evolving art form, and finally, the sustainability and viability of the circus artist’s career as it progresses from an elite sports training environment to one of high physical wear and constant mobility. For all their captivating liveness, educational reach and social transformative potential, the performing arts remain stubbornly inefficient economic “products” and experiences. These performances require time for development, usually years of individual training to build up artistic and technical abilities, then months if not years to produce each new show bringing together large groups. Economic theory has proven that very few efficiencies are found in compressing the training or rehearsal processes (Baumol, year). Working with a company cast, or individuals who have similar training and artistic language can reduce redundancies, but the creative process does not usually follow a straight path to completion, nor does the development period generally offer sustainable financial support. The case for a more sustainable development of contemporary circus must take into account multiple approaches to sustainability, from ecological concerns to the role of education and responsible training in individual artistic development.