Channels: Q&A With Provost Eric Boynton

Clare Eigenbrode’20 sits down with Provost and Dean of the College Eric Boynton to talk about Channels and other key elements of the newly-launched strategic plan.

Describe the Channels Program to someone who’s never heard of it?

The Channels Program is an innovative way to think about the liberal arts at Beloit College. It’s a way of pulling together students’ interests and passions, linking that to the resources we have on campus, and then directing that toward successful futures and meaningful careers. Channels are a way of talking about how the overarching concern of this education is to get to an outcome. It’s to prepare for your future life, and your future flourishing.

It takes students’ interests and passions, links them to resources on campus, and then talks about possible careers by including what you’re doing now, your major, your courses, your internship, your study abroad. It draws together all these various interests so that you can begin, as a student, to narrate the arc of your career at Beloit.

We need to be focused for our current students, as well as the ones we want to recruit. We’re preparing them for their first job and their fifth job. It’s the best kind of preparation for the world that we now face, which is so topsy-turvy. - Provost Eric Boynton

Is Channels a more structured approach to advising? Is it an extension of the Spark program or First-Year Initiatives?

It’s a way for advisors to talk to our students in terms of being a whole person. We know that our students are not just in their classes. They’re also involved in clubs. They’re also studying abroad. They’re also doing an internship. They’re also thinking about their futures, and how their futures relate to their family. So, it’s a way of advising students by talking about them as a person, and not just as a student in the classroom. It brings what they’ve done in the classroom and their other experiences and shows the connections being developed. The advising, then, is about students and their futures.

It is a definite way of advising students over the arc of four years at Beloit, but it’s also a programming mechanism. Channels are these five broad interdisciplinary themes or problems. There’s Business and Entrepreneurship, Health and Healing, Justice and Rights, Sustainability, and Arts and Creative Expression. They are kind of broad disciplinary themes, and they include events on campus. They allow alumni to come back in and speak to the students with these particular kinds of interests.

So, it’s a way of programming and gathering together resources on campus, and also a way of talking to our students about the value of a Beloit education.

How is this different from what we’ve been calling Liberal Arts in Practice?

One of the major differences is that it’s broad-based and grassroots. It cuts across all aspects of campus. There won’t be one office that you go to in order to experience this, and certain courses won’t be listed as Liberal Arts in Practice courses, and neither will certain kinds of events. This is across the entire ecosystem of Beloit. And the five Channels that we’re developing all come from passions, interests, and expertise of the faculty and staff.

Half the campus, at least, is not just interested in this idea, but is actually cultivating, planning, and bringing these ideas to implementation. It lives out the spirit of Liberal Arts in Practice, but it puts it on steroids. It gives grassroots, broad-based support for that kind of thinking about the liberal arts.

In other words, Channels are both academic and extra-curricular?

These are not just classroom or coursework experiences. At a place like Beloit, you learn a lot outside of classes. You learn a lot from internships; you learn a lot from your friends; from your engagement and groups; if you’re in athletics. If one of the learning outcomes is to be a productive collaborator, well, being on the volleyball team or being a baseball player is going to be a part of you becoming a student who knows how to collaborate, right?

We know that learning at Beloit happens in every nook and cranny of this place. So, yes, the program has to be both curricular and co-curricular. If I think about learning happening across campus, I should stop thinking about curricular and co-curricular learning as two things and just call it one thing. Let’s just call it the learning experience.

Learning happens everywhere, and Channels is the way to capture that.

Did the initial idea for the Channels program have a precursor?

A bunch of ideas and events and precursors led to Channels. What’s needed right now in this sector of education called liberal arts is a new way of describing what we’re up to. We need to have a description of liberal arts that doesn’t just say, “Come to Beloit, take a few classes, have a few experiences, it’s going to be great. We’ll see you in 15 years.”

We need to be focused for our current students, as well as the ones we want to recruit. We’re preparing them for their first job and their fifth job. It’s the best kind of preparation for the world that we now face, which is so topsy-turvy. So many careers are going to come and go; you have to be intellectually and professionally agile in order to navigate this future.

You have to talk about liberal arts as being a preparation for that kind of world, but we don’t want to talk about liberal arts as being a vocational school, like, “I’m going to prepare you to be in this particular profession,” because that’s not what we do. We’re going to prepare you to do all sorts of interesting stuff that you will be successful at. We have to stay away from this kind of fixation on particular kinds of tight paths, but at the same time stay away from sheer openness [without providing direction].

Channels is a way of describing what’s distinctive about the liberal arts, and getting some guardrails; giving it some kind of direction or path that leads to an outcome.

What was the motivation for expanding upon the programs that we have in place right now?

The subjects of the five Channels are all things that Beloit has been involved in, so we didn’t have to go out and invent something. Channels is a way of looking over the entire learning experience at Beloit and seeing what we’re good at, and then demonstrating that. Sustainability issues show up and in Pablo [Toral]’s courses, but they also show up in an internship in Costa Rica.

We planned four months ago to have five Channels up and running, and to launch a whole new strategic plan in the fall of 2020. That’s super fast, which means we have already had the resources to get this done.

Why is the Channels program important right now?

First and foremost, it’s important for our students. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I think about the potential of Channels for preparing our students for the world. It’s also a way of talking about the health of Beloit as a college. The liberal arts sector within higher education is under assault in a number of ways, and there’s a lot of headwinds pushing against this kind of education. Channels, within the strategic plan, is a way of talking about Beloit in order to position the institution, and prepare it for a healthy future.

There’s confidence that this plan will begin to turn the tides on enrollment and retention that have been an issue at Beloit recently–attracting the class that really “gets” the Beloit education, and then retaining those students; showing them there’s a reason to persist to a degree.

How does Channels compare to what other liberal arts schools are doing?

In that regard, Beloit is not wholly unique except in this: A number of liberal arts schools are talking about pathways to careers, but they’re saying, “Here’s an education, and oh, by the way, on the side, we’re going to help you find your career.”

At Beloit, Channels is at the very heart or spine of the institution. We’re going to talk about what happens to you both in and outside the classroom. It’s this component of the co-curricular. It’s your internships; it’s your study abroad. It’s you as a human being; it’s the groups that you’re involved in. Mix that with the coursework: that mixture, that integration, is what yields interesting careers.

It’s being true or honest to liberal arts exploration, but at the same time, talking about outcomes. In that regard, it’s distinctive because we’re not hard-charging a pathway to a particular kind of career, but we’re talking about how the whole education is about the preparation of each student as a human being for a life of flourishing. And then we can talk about specific careers on top of that.

What else should alumni and current students know?

I think that this is an incredibly potent time to be at Beloit. There’s a certain vibe on campus. Faculty, staff, and students are capturing this idea, and this momentum that’s being generated, around these thoughts about what a Beloit College education can do. I think it’s a really interesting time to invest in Beloit. It’s an interesting time to dig in and be all in. It’s just an exciting time to be here, and I’m so glad I’m a part of it.

What have been your impressions of the energy on campus? I know that you’ve worked at other liberal arts schools before this.

I’ve never seen so much energy or action at an educational institution. I’ve never seen a place move so fast. There’s urgency, to be sure, in this place, but it’s urgency mixed with focus and potential. It’s a pretty heady time to be at Beloit. There’s a lot of activity and movement, but it’s all going in a particular direction. Part of the feeling is that we’re not just running around doing work, but the work we are doing is actually generating a really interesting path forward for the institution.

I’m interested in thinking about the impact of a Beloit education upon students’ lives. One of the things we need to pay attention to is where Beloit is located. There’s this town of Beloit that’s situated all around the campus that Channels is now able to talk about, and there are internships available in town. There are ways in which the professional groups that we talked about will include people from the corporations in town, talking about certain kinds of careers on campus. We want to get those people to participate on campus. We can push our students into these major corporations in Beloit, and there’s a possibility, then, to collaborate more intensely and closely with our partners in the corporate world in Beloit.

We can talk about how we need to prepare our students for what’s going to come in the future, and Beloit’s possibilities as a city, which are rising. We can harness that kind of movement in the city as well. Both the college and the city are then able to collaborate in a more successful way.

Beloit is also not unique among similar schools in that the college is not really known for having a strong relationship with the surrounding community. Is changing that another goal of the program?

This is definitely a goal of the program. We need to think about this education as providing for a different kind of future, and we need to think about this educational institution as being situated in the town, and not sequestered from it.

It’s an education that matters intensely to the lives of our students, and so it should matter intensely to the community in which we’re set. I think the potential for this kind of collaboration between the college and the city is growing in exponential ways.

The plan we developed this summer thinks about the resources on campus, and it’s also a way of thinking about the Powerhouse. So the Powerhouse will show up in the Sustainability Channel. It’s a building that we’re going to think about sustainably heating, for instance. It’s a way of talking about health and healing. It’s a way of bringing that really interesting building into the education that we’re offering here. Also, I can tell you that CELEB (the Center for Entrepreneurship and Liberal Education at Beloit is also a place within the Business and Entrepreneurship Channel that can be really interesting to include within the curriculum. You start to think about the Powerhouse and CELEB and Irontek across the river and industries and corporations around town. These are all resources beyond the college that can begin to flow into making our students better able to navigate the world.

How would you describe your role within the development of the Channels program?

That’s a great question. I’m like the lead cowboy, driving the cows in a certain direction. I’m a coach. I’m a cheerleader. I am sometimes an arm-twister, but for the most part I have this vision for where we need to go and there are multiple people and groups and teams working to flesh out this strategic plan–as many as 30 or 40 people with real, specific tasks. My job is to see how all those team members and individuals are working in order to gather that together towards the end goal, which is the launching of Channels in the fall of 2020.

What excites you about this process?

The possibility of developing new kinds of courses that will contribute to the Channels. So Channels is a way of thinking about an education, but it’s also a way of thinking about what we’re trying to do for our students.

We have certain disciplinary requirements that we have to uphold. In certain disciplines you have to train students in this kind of depth of learning. You have to understand what it means to be a philosopher or political scientist or biologist. But we also have to talk about how being a biologist matters to the world. You have to talk about the ways in which it is relevant to you as a human being and where you’re going in your future.

Developing the curriculum around that kind of that horizontal path and demonstrating that just talking about biology is not enough or being a philosopher is not enough. You’ve got to talk about why it’s important to be a philosopher or biologist, how that matters to you in your future life and developing it and being explicit about that. That’s a really exciting possibility at Beloit and that is what students ask for and what prospective students want to see in an education–the ability to talk about the why and the purpose–not just what I’m going to learn but why I’m learning it. This whole Channels idea is an outcome-directed goal of an education.

How will Beloit measure the success of the program?

Let me start with the ultimate assessment piece. This will matter in the lives of our students. So how do we measure that? First of all, we can measure that by the health of the institution. Does it move the needle on retention? Do we find that more students understand why they need to persist through a Beloit education? Will it bring more students and the right kinds of students to Beloit? Those are the two big ones: retention and recruitment are going to be crucial. If it’s not moving the needle on those, then we’re going to tinker with this thing. The other is that we can talk about our current students. Is it valuable for our students to begin to launch them into careers? And so we can take studies or questionnaires among current students. How is this education leading you to future careers? Do you feel that the institution is behind you? So there are ways in which we can measure the success of the plan of Channels by thinking about how students understand what their education is about. The ultimate goal is to give the why or the purpose of an education. If students are feeling that, then we know it’s working and then that’s going to map to rates of retention and to our ability to recruit stronger and larger classes.

December 13, 2019

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