Wordsworth. Shakespeare. Virginia Woolf. James Joyce. As he ticks off the names of well-known poets and authors, it’s easy to imagine James Brown teaching literature and composition at Charleston Southern University. A bit of the English professor remains in Brown’s second year as dean of Bloomsburg University’s College of Liberal Arts, along with posters for events honoring Joyce, the Irish author and subject of his doctoral dissertation, and an overstuffed bookcase, where the most visible title belongs to Irish novelist Maeve Binchy.
Mementos in his Centennial Hall office overlooking the Academic Quadrangle testify to Brown’s other side – an only child who grew up as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan in western Pennsylvania, the married father of two, woodworker and fan of the Grateful Dead, who couldn’t resist an opportunity to return to his home state eight years ago.
“I loved South Carolina and I loved teaching,” Brown says, “but Pennsylvania is home. The leaves, the smells. It just clicks.”
Brown, 48, didn’t set out to be a college administrator. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English and Spanish from Slippery Rock University and master’s and doctoral degrees from Ohio State University. At Charleston Southern, he directed the honors program and taught courses in British and American literature and composition before coming to Bloomsburg University in 2004. For the next five years, he served as assistant, associate and interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and unit head for teacher education, leaving BU to become dean of the Arts and Sciences at Mansfield University. He returned to Bloomsburg two years later.
Becoming the dean
The switch from faculty to administration means “you give up being ‘on stage’ to affect what a university does on a larger level,” he says. “In a position like this, you find ways to help other people promote those same ideals.”
At BU, 13 departments make up the College of Liberal Arts, encompassing the humanities, fine arts and social sciences. A wide range of majors, minors and elective courses within the College “provides different ways of looking at human behavior,” Brown says. “The Liberal Arts teach the history of human error and success. They educate people to lead, to make decisions when training doesn’t apply.”
Reinforcing the importance of the Liberal Arts, a new three-credit seminar for freshmen entering BU without a declared major “encourages students to synthesize English, languages, history, philosophy … to help students understand how it goes together to make a complete person,” he says.
And a new personalized approach to fulfilling general education requirements, called MyCore, emphasizes the interconnectedness of disciplines, knowledge and skills, and recognizes the value of learning experiences in the classroom and through extracurricular leadership opportunities.
Prepared for a career
Brown understands students may not always see the value of the courses that fulfill their general education requirements. He was one of them. But he admits the course that provided knowledge he uses every day, Introduction to Public Administration, was on his schedule only because it filled an empty slot between classes at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. in the same building. He believes today’s students will likewise find that spark in a Liberal Arts course.
Take fine arts, for example. Where many courses dwell on “human nature” — a term, Brown says, that seldom means anything good — the arts give students exposure to the best of humankind. “The arts separate us from other animals in a positive way,” he says. “A person should have some understanding of what humans are capable of at their best.”
A broad background in the Liberal Arts prepares graduates for careers in fields ranging from business to the social sciences, helps them adapt to inevitable career changes and eases adjustment to ever-evolving technology.
“It used to be, if you were an educated person, you learned Latin and Greek,” he says. “Now, you have to keep track of what we’ve done before, but today’s technology, such as texting and other social media, means a broadening repertoire of understanding and means of expression. It’s OK to expand what we understand, but students shouldn’t give up on other ways of communication. To me, it’s about critical thinking, whether they are discussing the works of James Joyce, a candidates’ debate or their discourse on Facebook.”
Brown says a motto etched above a doorway of Ben Franklin Hall — “Wisdom is the fruit of reflection” — is as relevant today as when the building opened in 1930.
“Woodworking gives me both tangible results and a time for reflection while my hands are working,” he says. “Students are successfully completing programs and gaining skills, but I care that they don’t give themselves a chance to reflect. What all students need is permission to pursue their passions to prepare them for a lifetime of change and growth.”
Editor’s note: Dean James Brown shares his perspectives through the College of Liberal Arts blog, http://bloomuliberalarts.blogspot.com.
Bonnie Martin is editor of Bloomsburg: The University Magazine.
College of Liberal Arts
The following departments are included in the College of Liberal Arts:
Art and Art History
Languages and Cultures
Music, Theatre and Dance
Sociology, Social Work and Criminal Justice
What is MyCore?
MyCore is Bloomsburg University’s new distinctive model of general education that emphasizes the connectedness of disciplines, knowledge and skills, and recognizes the achievement of general education outcomes outside the traditional classroom and across university divisions. Learn more at bloomu.edu/mycore.