Clark's curricular innovations garner $620,000 Mellon Foundation grant

Support to help propel Clark’s developments in humanities education
July 7, 2016

Clark University’s visionary focus on liberal arts, effective practice and excellence in the humanities is being made even sharper with a new grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The Mellon Foundation has awarded $620,000 to support "Introducing 'Problems of Practice' Courses into All Humanities Majors," Clark University’s “inclusive and innovative” project to further strengthen the humanities curriculum. The three-year grant is in effect from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2019.

Our students will gain renewed exposure to opportunities and challenges in the humanities, with experiences that allow them to develop what we call "capacities of effective practice" — such as creativity and resilience — and preparing them for careers in the humanities and beyond.

President David P. Angel

The grant comes through the Mellon Foundation’s program in Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities, which bolsters “initiatives designed to enhance the learning experience of both undergraduate and graduate students in the humanities, and fostering collaborations within and among institutions that support disciplinary innovation, foster practices of diversity and inclusion and promote the social value of the humanities.”

Clark President David P. Angel welcomed the Mellon Foundation’s support as “an endorsement of one of the important next developments in Clark’s top academic priority: our Liberal Education and Effective Practice (LEEP) initiative.  Our students will gain renewed exposure to opportunities and challenges in the humanities, with experiences that allow them to develop what we call ‘capacities of effective practice’ — such as creativity and resilience — and preparing them for careers in the humanities and beyond.”

The renewed curriculum efforts will connect scholarship, creative practice and teaching at Clark with institutions that directly “practice” the humanities in the world — neighborhood organizations, art museums, galleries, orchestras, theater groups, historical societies, library archives, newspapers and media outlets, community efforts to engage philosophy and values on contemporary issues and more.

The University will create and integrate into every humanities major a new type of course that immerses students in projects addressing challenges and opportunities experienced by humanities-related organizations. To do this, Clark is building networks of humanities professionals from a range of fields and organizations. These networks are key components to the course projects, enhancing faculty teaching and research while also benefiting the professionals through interactions with faculty and students.

Matthew Malsky, dean of the college and associate provost, will have primary oversight of the project. Under his direction, the LEEP Center will provide administrative support to faculty as well as student support and advising. The Higgins School of Humanities will foster connections between the humanities disciplines and cultivate additional communities of effective practice.

“At Clark, we seek to offer our students opportunities to connect what they learn in the classroom with genuine problems faced by professionals working in humanities-related fields,” Malsky said. “This project will strengthen the effective practice, skills-building component of our LEEP initiative, which immerses students in projects addressing issues, challenges and opportunities at partnering organizations.”

Clark’s "Problems of Practice" courses are generally intermediate-level experiences where students demonstrate their achievement through persistence, willingness to embrace confusion and constraints, identifying options and making well-reasoned decisions despite uncertainty about outcomes.

Recently, Clark piloted a successful model of a "Problems of Practice" course: In a collaboration between an art history course and the Worcester Art Museum, the faculty, students, and museum staff jointly curated a professional exhibition titled “Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period.” Students contributed in many ways, even continuing with the project past the boundaries of the course by serving as docents once the show opened. (Read more about the Cyanotypes course.)

By the end of the grant, Clark expects to be able to create a number of "Problems of Practice" courses across the humanities majors and to establish the communities of effective practice needed to continue offering the courses. Students in all majors will have opportunities to take courses that engage them in significant and meaningful projects, in worlds beyond the classroom. The project will involve students with diverse communities and authentic challenges, often taking particular advantage of Clark’s urban location and unique relationship with the city of Worcester and surrounding neighborhood, as well as broader regional or global connections.

In summary, the anticipated benefits of these Clark initiatives include:

  • For students, an enriched experience and skill-building opportunities that will give them
    an edge after graduation.
  • For faculty, resources to create connections and build networks for their courses but also to invigorate their research and creative efforts.
  • For partner organizations and professionals, connections with Clark faculty and the energy and work of students through project activities that can enhance organizations and bring new perspectives to problems and opportunities.
  • For the humanities field, training for the next generation of humanities professionals to keep the field strong and vibrant.

The project as a whole will also benefit liberal education efforts nationwide by testing this model of interdependent courses, experiences and supporting networks.

“We anticipate learning a great deal from the work to be done,” Malsky said.