Sharing through the act of writing

An interview with the editors of Writing the Liberal Arts and Sciences

A liberal arts and sciences education involves many different approaches and methodologies from disciplines which converge, ideally, in a residential college. But how do these distinctive fields of knowledge act and interact upon one another in practice? This is a question that many students ask themselves before, during and after such an education. Some 21 University College Utrecht faculty members explore this question together in the book, Writing the Liberal Arts and Sciences, through the act of writing itself, from various perspectives. University College Utrecht alumna, Maud Rinkes, interviewed the editors of the book, Mary Bouquet, Annemieke Meijer, and Koos Sanders, on the eve of its publication and presentation on the 30th August.

The photograph of the Black Hole accompanies Filipe Feire’s contribution to the book which is about teamwork in science. Filipe writes about how teams of scientists turned the earth into an observatory to create this first image of the black hole

How did this book come to be, what was its inspiration?

Teaching at a Liberal Arts and Sciences college, you are surrounded by colleagues from every imaginable field of knowledge: from Anthropology to Astrophysics, from Philosophy to Mathematics, from Art History to Political Science, etc. It was the desire to get to know something about the content of these other fields, and those who teach them, which led to setting up the Scholarly Stories series on Tuesday lunchtimes in Locke lounge, back in 2017. Giving a talk meant coming up with a title; from there, we went on to write abstracts ahead of the talk. Participants got inspired by one another. The idea of writing short, accessible, 3000-word essays for non-specialists, followed from there. As teachers, we expect our students to be able to write essays. Should we not be writing essays ourselves, as teachers of the Liberal arts and sciences (LAS)? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a book of essays that would give direct insight into the LAS for prospective students, their parents, and school advisors?


How did you yourselves come to be involved in the project and how did you get the 21 people who worked on it on board? In other words, how did you all end up working together?

Scholarly Stories was open to faculty and staff, and everyone was invited to contribute. Many people gave talks, some wrote abstracts, some wrote a first draft, and some 21 ended up peer reviewing, re-writing, and being edited according to the agreement made with the publisher. Contributors selected themselves: the essays represent the participants who stayed the course. 

As editors, we got involved through organising and participating in the weekly Scholarly Stories meetings: Mary did this in 2017-2018, Koos in 2019-2020. Annemieke joined the editorial team when we started exploring whether there might be a book in the making. Our respective competences and fields are broad enough to enable us to cooperate very effectively at the different stages of the project.


How is this book different compared to other books you have written?

This book is the more broadly pitched and experimental than books written and edited in one’s own field. It is grounded and positioned in an institution, although authors come from far and wide. The generous enthusiasm for interweaving professional with personal aspects of one’s work and research, and for sharing stories with faculty and staff, allowed for experimentation with different ways of representing one’s standpoint in the essays. We were also closer to the processes of reading and commenting on one another’s work, both for content and for more technical editing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when we were in the final phases of the book, writing together remotely became a way of building community at a very challenging moment in history. This added a sharpness and focus to our work: we discovered things in the process of writing. 


What do you hope to achieve with this book?

We want to address both prospective students and Liberal Arts and Sciences colleagues more generally to explore what is distinctive in terms of content about this approach to knowledge. We consider that the act of writing, as well as talking about, the Liberal Arts and Sciences is fundamental to conveying the excitement of bringing together such diverse approaches and colleagues. We want to encourage people to write more together, and to see this as a valuable outcome of their work. We think the LAS tradition of scholarship is something on-going and developing; we also think that it springs from a very specific conjuncture of time and space. That’s the point of the campus plan used on the cover: something to be cultivated and cherished.


Since the book was written in conjunction with 21 UCU colleagues, how heavily does it draw on your experiences at UCU specifically vs talk about LAS more generally?

Implicitly, the experience of working at University College Utrecht permeates all the essays. Some authors refer explicitly and anecdotally to that experience, while others draw on other experiences. We tried to cultivate a form of vivid writing that gives insight into different disciplines in concrete ways – rather than generalizing about LAS.


What were the main difficulties you encountered in writing this book?

The extraordinary lack of time that faculty had to engage in Liberal Arts and Sciences scholarship at the level of presenting ideas, writing them, reviewing them, and seeing the value of such projects in terms of scholarship: this was the main obstacle. 


The blurb says it aims to understand “standpoints and methodologies of others”, were there are a lot of drastically different ones? If so, how did you tackle this?

We tried to avoid the textbook format that would set out different positionalities and methodologies using the kind of disciplinary jargon that shores up disciplinary boundaries. Instead, we cultivated a form of writing that gives more direct and vivid insights into how, for example, scientists (co)operate; or how medical doctors are trained; how judgements are made in a court of law; about truth, the truth of fiction, and how dialogue unfolds. Some authors experiment with writing forms such as dialogue; others explain the evolution of a particular discipline, such as statistics, as a means of conveying the importance of critical thinking. Some authors chose an autobiographical approach to explaining the visceral importance of writing. Readers (and teachers, for that matter) will be able to take the essays as starting points for discussion and further investigation.


Can you describe the book in a sentence?

This book demonstrates the Liberal Arts and Sciences tradition of sharing professional knowledge and personal insight through the act of writing.  


What is something you learnt about LAS whilst writing this book that is important for students to know/understand and take with them in their time at UCU?

We would like to convey to students of the Liberal Arts and Sciences that writing takes time and energy, but that it is worthwhile. The processes of writing are intrinsic to understanding and knowing the world, and to building communities whose members are prepared to listen to and act in the knowledge of one another. 


More information about the book (including a link to order) on the website of publisher Amsterdam University Press.

The book presentation is on the 30th of August, at 17:00 in the University College Utrecht Auditorium

This event is open to the UCU community. Please contact Annemieke Meijer if you would like to attend: