In 2015, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) launched its second century as a higher education leadership organization with the introduction of the LEAP Challenge initiative, which provides a vision for liberal education in the twenty-first century, arguing that institutions of higher education must prepare students to engage a world rife with complex "unscripted problems" (e.g., climate change, global migration, political polarization). The most pressing issues of our day, AAC&U points out, cannot be adequately approached solely with focused disciplinary techniques. Rather, the new generation of citizens who will address these problems must be equipped to understand the breadth of contributing factors (e.g., social, scientific, economic, technological, cultural) and be prepared to integrate these perspectives to arrive at creative solutions to significant problems. The LEAP Challenge proposes that all students, throughout their college years, should develop and practice such complex and important work, which AAC&U refers to as signature work.
The parameters of the LEAP Challenge, including a preliminary definition of signature work and a charge that it should be required for all students, were communicated in a special issue of Liberal Education (Tritelli 2015). A signature work project or experience should be substantial and broad, and "reflect and demonstrate cumulative and integrative learning across general and specialized studies" (Schneider 2015, 6). While the work connects with a pressing issue in the larger world, it is described as "signature" because it should correspond to each student's interests and expertise. "In signature work, each student addresses one or more problems that matter--both to the individual student and to society as a whole" (AAC&U 2015, 18). In addition to the goal of producing thinkers prepared to engage modern challenges, making signature work accessible to all students is also an issue of equity. While some of our college students already engage in rich scholarly work that resonates with the signature work construct, the majority do not (Schneider 2015). Access to signature learning experiences is uneven, as first-generation students, underrepresented students of color, and economically challenged students are much less likely to complete high-impact educational projects (Finley and McNair 2013).
DEVELOPING INSTITUTIONAL DEFINITIONS OF SIGNATURE WORK
While it is difficult to find fault in the idea that students should produce meaningful integrative work, there is also an inherent tension between the generality of the LEAP Challenge's charge (calling for all students to experience signature work) and the layers of specificity involved in implementing it (signature work projects must be facilitated by institutions with distinctive missions, and each student's signature work project should be unique). This tension is apparent in AAC&U's own literature, as signature work is described not only as "the expected standard of quality learning in college" (AAC&U 2015, 16) that "ought to become a degree qualification requirement" (Schneider 2015, 8), but also as an entity that will inevitably "take on many forms" (Peden 2015, 22).
Through AAC&U's project, LEAP Challenge: Engaging in Capstones and Signature Work, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, a consortium of institutions...