Chambliss and Takacs, How College Works: Teaching and Learning Skills

In How College Works, Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs (C&T) argue that “college works when it provides a thick environment of constant feedback, driven by the establishment and maintenance of social relations” (132). They’re particularly interested in how that environment helps students learn the skills of writing, speaking, and critical thinking that are central to a liberal arts education. (Note that they neither include information literacy as a separate skill nor even mention it).

Though each department at Hamilton has its own disciplinary content, all are expected to teach certain core skills: writing, speaking, and critical thinking. Writing, in particular, is deeply embedded in Hamilton’s culture. Students must take several writing-intensive courses to graduate, often beginning at the 100 level. The basic messages about good writing are repeated over the next four years. Writing is not merely an intellectual activity in the curriculum, but a social activity. And, accordingly, students believe the most important factor in learning to write well is good feedback from their professors both written and, especially, face-to-face (106, 140-142).

Similarly, speaking and critical thinking are learned as part of a community. In speaking, short presentations and small efforts, accumulated over years, lead to large gains in skill and confidence. Speaking, too, has value in that it forces the student to be engaged and rewards emotional intensity, traits that assist learning. Critical thinking also demands emotional engagement by exposing the student to new people and ideas. Faculty emphasize critical thinking across the curriculum, with the goal that, like good writing and good speaking, it will become a habit (112-119).

Yet these skills are not learned without a context. C&T argue that the faculty do not need any special expertise in the theory of writing or speaking when the goal is to instill a basic fluency. Skills are learned by learning and doing, rather than by mastering formal rhetoric or technical perfection. Though critical thinking may be more a general than a professional skill, it is still taught and learned in the context of a particular discipline. The key, then, to learning these skills is a teacher who is both competent and who cares, about both their subject and their students. The discipline or program forms the necessary context, but it is the relationships with faculty and peers that are most crucial to learning to write, speak, and think critically (130-131, 133).

Though C&T don’t include information literacy in list of their core skills, it seems to me that the discipline-based learning they celebrate is a model for IL as well. As Barbara Fister’s said in her LILAC 2015 keynote “The Liminal Library,” “…librarians don’t teach students how to be information literate. This isn’t a failing. It’s the nature of the thing we want students to learn. … You learn how information works by encountering, using, and creating it. Having good guides helps, but this kind of learning only happens in the doing of it.”