Field mission #6 – “General Studies”: A Unique Liberal Arts Education in Portugal

On the 15th and 16th of April, the sixth flagship initiative of the Strategic Partnership InnovEd4TS was hosted virtually at University of Lisbon.

Credits: School of Arts and Humanities. Engraving by José de Almada Negreiros

Invited experts from five Circle U. universities had the opportunity to learn about the undergraduate programme "General Studies" (Estudos Gerais in Portuguese) offered since 2011 to students from three different faculties and from 2016 to students from eight different faculties.

The General Studies bachelor’s degree is deeply rooted in the spirit of the liberal arts and liberal education. The main objective of the programme is to allow bachelor students to develop a comprehensive knowledge in various disciplines. Bridging the gap between social and exact sciences, it promotes interdisciplinary mobility as well as international mobility through the studies of global concepts, texts and authors. Students are able to design their own modules based on their preferences. They choose a major and a minor (or several of them) among diverse subjects in arts, sciences and humanities. One common course around the study of Core Texts is followed by all students so that they acquire knowledge on important authors while developing critical thinking skills. A tutoring system has been developed to assist students in designing their programme. Throughout the years, the programme has gained a high popularity among students. This year, more than 300 students applied, while only 68 were accepted.

What is a "field mission"?

The six member universities of the InnovEd4TS Strategic Partnership analyse ten Flagship Initiatives involving transferable skills identified by the InnovEd4TS Advisory Board (see the article The strategic partnership on transferable skills InnovEd4TS finalizes its first stage). In order to explore these initiatives, field missions involving a panel of peer experts from the different universities are being carried out.

The field mission is a peer learning exercise where professors leading the Flagship Initiative, peer experts reviewing the initiative, and students participating in it all have the opportunity to meet and learn during a two-day comprehensive virtual visit. The purpose is twofold: for the host to share and get interesting ideas and constructive comments on how to develop the initiative further; for the peer experts in the panel to discover an innovative pedagogical initiative and get inspired to implement similar initiatives or to adapt it to their own context and fields of interest.

Transferable Skills developed in the programme "General Studies"

"General Studies" at the University of Lisbon focused on three transferable skills.

Interdisiplinarity is the key focus of the programme as the concept has spread across the university. Students combine disciplines in their curriculum through the Major / Minor approach in an innovative way.
Students develop intercultural understanding by building robust general knowledge based on texts and concepts from international authors, thus they open up to global perspectives.
Critical thinking skills emerge through the confrontation of ideas. Students participate in entire sessions dedicated to discussion and self-reflection.

A good balance between autonomy and teamwork

Despite the support of tutors and an easy dialogue with the administrative staff and professors, students need to tailor their own schedule and be proactive to give coherence to their choices. Furthermore, students are able to develop teamwork skills. The course Core Texts enables students to engage in collective reflection.

Overall, the students develop a wide range of skills, from analysis to organising and planning. Oral and written communication competencies in two languages are acquired as the environment encourages interdisciplinary interactions and communication among students and with the professors.

An in-depth interdisciplinary approach

“Core Texts” is the only required course. The course is divided into three semesters during which the students read, learn and discuss major texts from various disciplines. Theses texts are from Antiquity and Middle Age; Renaissance and Enlightenment; Romanticism to Present Days.

The pattern is to invite a specialist to give two lectures each semester on a specific text. After the presentation and in-depth analysis of the text by the expert, the class is divided into smaller discussion groups of 15 or 20 students that together, critically discuss and confront their ideas on the text. The goal is for the students is to converse with fundamental texts. Main fields of knowledge tend to be covered, from physics to poetry, theatre or philosophy.

The students have the opportunity to meet with the same group during three semesters. This is unique as students are able to discuss, analyse, have an opinion, produce ideas, listen to each other and engage in fruitful discussions. Professor Henrique Leitão described the course as “an intellectual experience, in which students see these texts as a second skin because they have studied them so much.”

A collective journey: the support of monitors and tutors 

The degree is based on students’ motivation and their desire to learn from a diversity of academic fields. Tutors help students to design their own curricula according to their wishes and make sure that the choice of courses, majors or minors more consistent. Tutors themselves may come from many different faculties. 

In addition, in the course “Core Texts,” discussion sessions are led by facilitators (they are called monitors). They usually are former students from the course. With this respect, the experts noted that the classes do a great job at mobilizing experts and monitors in order to spark student learning. Similarly, the monitors supervise student discussion sessions and facilitate the circulation of information between students, monitors and experts on the texts. One of the monitors, João Maria Carvalho, refers to the students as a “community.”

On a logistic level, experts were impressed by how the programme is managed. The general architecture of the programme is based primarily on the motivation of students to choose the disciplines they wish to study.

Looking ahead: the challenge of multilingualism

Experts recognized how difficult it must have been to set up this degree. The initiators of the degree exposed the challenges encountered in getting the idea of a liberal arts programme accepted by the administration and the presidency of the university. 

Ten years later, its success among students and its expansion to other academic fields are remarkable.  When it started, three faculties took part to the programme, then it went up to eight and negotiations are currently running to expand it more. In the coming months, eleven or twelve faculties out of 18 shall be part of the programme. 

The experts acknowledged that this kind of degree does not exist in their respective universities. A great way forward would be to start a European roll out of the project. For this, the challenges regarding multilingualism need to be presented. In Lisbon, the designers of the degree include this aspect by requiring a good level in two languages. For example the course “Core texts,” offers to study texts in English, Spanish or Portuguese. The combination of the multilingual identity along with its interdisciplinary perspective makes the initiative “General Studies” inspiring in the European higher education landscape. 

Leaders of the initiative at the University of Lisbon

Fátima Reis is a modern history professor at the University of Lisbon. She is the coordinator of the programme “General Studies.” She has a PhD in Early Modern History from the University of Lisbon. Besides, she is an associate professor at the Faculdade de Letras (School of Arts and Humanities), and a researcher at the Centro de História (History Center) and Director of the Chair of Sephardic Studies.

António Feijó is a professor in the Department of English Studies and the Programme in Theory of Literature at the School of Arts and Humanities of the University of Lisbon. He is one of the designers of the degree “General Studies.” He graduated in Anglo-American Studies from the Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa and holds a Masters of Arts in English and American Literature from the State University of New York as well as a PhD in English and American Literature from Brown University.

Miguel Tamen is currently Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities of the University of Lisbon.  He is one of the designers of the degree “General Studies.” He studied at the University of Lisbon and at the University of Minnesota, where he holds a PhD. He is also a member of the Department of Romance Literatures at the former of these universities. He was, between 2000 and 2014, a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, and a senior fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center and the National Humanities Center. His interests include philosophy and literature and has written ten books.

Eduardo Manuel Pereira is currently an Associate Professor in the scientific area of Structural Mechanics and Structures of the Department of Civil Engineering, Architecture and Geo-Resources. He has been involved in the program “General Studies” for many years. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science, Master of Science and PhD from Instituto Superior Técnico (now part of the University of Lisbon).

Professors who participated in the field mission:

  • João Figueiredo is the coordinator of the course “Core Texts.” He holds degrees from the University of Lisbon where he also teaches in the Romance Literatures Department. His interests include aesthetics, art history, Italian Studies, and Renaissance literature.
  • Henrique Leitão is an historian of science. He takes part to the course “Core Texts” for several years. His lectures focus on texts of Aristotle, Copernicus and Galileo. He is currently Researcher at the Interuniversity Centre for the History of Science and Technology (CIUHCT), and Chair of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science (DHFC) at the Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon (FCUL).
  • Rui Agostinho is a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Lisbon. He teaches a class to students of the program “General Studies.”

Former Students, now monitors, who participated in the field mission:

  • José Maria Carvalho Dos Reis is a law student 
  • Maria da Paz Carvalho 
  • João Maria Carvalho graduated in Languages, Literature and Culture

Peer Experts Panel

Vibe A. Jelsbak works at Aarhus University. She graduated with a Masters of Science (Cand. Scient.) in Biomedicine 1999, and has a Masters degree in ICT and Learning (MIL) from 2012. Her primary interests are integrating professional practice and theoretical knowledge in curriculum. Her interests are thereby related to students’ knowledge, skills and competencies relevant for their future workplace - (and lifelong) learning.

Marie-Agnès Sari is a Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Université de Paris. She is Vice-Dean of Education in the Faculty of Science and Adjunct director of the biomedical sciences department. She is affiliated to the Laboratory of Pharmacological and Toxicological Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Marie Baland has a degree in communication with a specialization in culture and new media. She has been working for several years for both the cultural department of UCLouvain (UCLouvain Culture) and for the university's museum (Museum L). One of this department’s activities is to organize the residences programme that was presented in a former field mission held in Louvain.

Mathilde Skoie is Pro-Dean at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Oslo. Mathilde Skoie is professor of Latin in the Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas (IFIKK). She is very interested in the liberal arts approach.

Wolfgang Deicke is a Professor in politics and sociology. He is currently Director of Teaching and Learning Lab at Humboldt University. Before becoming the coordinator of the bologna.lab at Humboldt-Universität in 2012, he variedly taught sociology, politics and the history of European thought and society at the (now) University of Northampton, School of Oriental and African Studies in London and Ruskin College, Oxford.  His current research interests are the development of (student) research competencies and organizational development in Higher Education. Since March 2020, he is also joint coordinator of Humboldt-Universität's Task Force Digital Teaching and Learning.

Published May 11, 2021 9:48 AM - Last modified May 11, 2021 9:48 AM