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Total Focus within All-Encompassing Institutions

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A recent trip to the West Coast reminded me of cultural differences within the country. The all-encompassing nature of some private sector information firms there is quite distinct from that of older east coast companies. On-site free eating areas, dry cleaners, game rooms, rest areas — encourage employees to send more time at work. They do. Transportation to and from city centers in company buses and vans assure that worked can continue a focus on work during their transportation.

Further, the service industries that have arisen permit employees to minimize their time in interaction with others. A popular ongoing service is home delivery of gasoline for automobiles that fill tanks at night so that time spent on that activity is eliminated from one’s life. On the street, a first – a robotic coffee kiosk with diverse offerings of size, type of coffee, and drink type. No human needed. Food delivery is ubiquitous. Never having to leave work or one’s house is completely possible.

Such a life maximizes focus on one’s work, a wonderful freedom if one’s work is deeply satisfying.

Upon reflection, such hours are not unlike many of those spent by many professionals. Even without employers’ support of all one’s life’s needs in a self-sufficient cocoon, many professionals seem consumed by their devotion to work. The ubiquitous mobile phone permits ongoing work each weekend, indeed, all hours of the night every night.

These are comments about those in the higher percentiles of income and wealth. But similar comments could be offered about those in the lower percentiles. Lives spent juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet produce a similar all-encompassing focus. In these there may be less drive to succeed in a career and more commitment to maximize income to pay the bills.

I’ve written earlier about the loss of confidence in institutions and evidence of decline in civic participation. Details of the structure of modern work lives and the lack of community integration seems complementary. Many of today’s populace seem to have no time to contribute to their community, to support civic institutions, or to integrate into the life of their neighborhoods.

Of course, universities are not at all immune to these phenomena. Faculty devote total energy to research and teaching, and whenever possible, to their professional associations. The institutions are enveloping of the full person’s energy. Email and texts with students and colleagues eat up hours of each day. Keeping up with one’s field fills every free moment.

One fear of this phenomenon is that these all-enveloping professions and their associated institutions become detached from the societies in which they are embedded. As a possible result, attitudes toward both tech firms and universities seem to be more negative over the past few years. Questions arise about whether they are serving their own interests alone or serving the larger society.

At this moment in time, universities whose mission include direct service to the outside world become important in this context. Demonstrating that those whose energies are devoted to expanding knowledge are also actively trying to serve others may now be more important than ever. While universities and the faculty that build them must indeed devote total energy to their research and teaching, organizing their teaching and research about how to build a better world has never been more important.

Complexity

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Disciplines vary greatly in how they conduct their scholarship and research.

In some of the humanities, the scholar has great freedom in creating new approaches to new topics. Creativity and novelty are highly valued. The evaluation of the work is heavily weighted toward the production of new ways of interpreting long-lasting questions and phenomena.

Other fields ground their research on a large set of prior studies. They justify the questions they pursue by noting the past findings are flawed, incomplete, or inadequate in some other way. That logic justifies asking the new research question. Solving puzzles remaining in the paradigm is the day-to-day goal.

While the style of scholarship may be quite variable across fields, in many ways the fields, as they evolve, share a feature – as the field evolves, the complexity of work increases. For fields that do not possess strong unifying paradigms, the challenge of creating a novel approach to a long-studied area is increasing complex. Imitative work is less highly valued. The new is applauded when it survives scrutiny on its impact to understanding of the issues. Discovering what is new is increasingly difficult.

Fields that depend on well-developed theory to identify research questions yet unanswered suffer from their own increasing complexity. Many of these fields have had decades or centuries of increasing depth of understanding of the key phenomena in the field. The basic questions have been answered; the second order issues have been largely settled. The remaining questions involve combinations of issues in a system of interacting elements. The complexity of cutting edge research grows dramatically.

These disciplinary differences manifest themselves in new ways when fields work together to address real problems. When fields that have very different research styles come together, they face challenges. Some of these arise from normal needs to share concepts and nomenclature. These are difficult enough for collaborations.

Added to these difficulties, however, can be starkly different ways of approaching an agreed-upon shared problem. Interdisciplinary research is exposing these. They include the contrast between qualitative methods and quantitative methods. They involve the role of emotion in motivating action, versus purely rational logic. They involve lab work and experimentation versus field work and observational studies. They involve tendencies to value deduction versus induction or vice versa. They involve the struggle of one adept at working alone to work in teams where one might not be directing the whole project.

In short, as each field evolves, its knowledge becomes more elaborated and typically more complex. As then the fields combine to solve a problem that needs multiple fields, the complexity of combining both knowledge and research methods increases.

As world problems demand multi-field input for their solutions, learning how to navigate these differences is critical to our success.

Reproducibility and Replicability

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One of the key desirable attributes of a scientific research project is that its findings be credible. Much credibility is attained if the results of the project can be repeated by an objective other researcher.

Over the recent years, there have been a variety of incidents in research that found results of one research project not repeated by another. Congress, in a concern about whether the phenomenon might be ubiquitous, asked that a National Academy of Sciences panel address the current state of science on this issue.

A lengthy but readable panel report  in response to the congressional requests, released in May, 2019, was recently supplemented by a symposium at the academies.

Across different fields, there are myriad definitions of “reproducibility” and “replicability.” The panel chose to define “reproducibility” as obtaining the same results as a completed study, using the same data and the same analytic routines (based on the same code used by the original study). In this sense, the phrase “computational reproducibility” is appropriate. The panel defined “replicability” as reaching the same conclusion as that of the original study from a later project asking the same research question, whether or not it used exactly the same methods.

Of cours, there are extreme behaviors that justifiably threaten reproducibility and replicability. Breaches of scientific integrity (e.g., falsification of data) produce appropriate lack of both reproducibility and replicability, as well they should. Further, these are deeply detrimental to the image of science and public trust in research.

A larger and more complicated set of issues involve how to a) facilitate attempts to increase reproducibility and replicability, and b) how to determine whether they have occurred when a second study is conducted.

For many domains of science, facilitating attempts at reproducibility and replicability requires a level of unusual detail of documentation on study methods, data processing, and analytic methods of a study. For reproducibility, data must be stored and documented in a fashion that others can easily access and use them. The code used to process and analyze the data must be stored and documented in a fashion that others can use it. What norms can be developed to make such documentation a normal part of research? What tools might be developed to reduce the marginal difficulty of such documentation? Who is to provide a permanent home for such material (there is no guarantee GitHub will exist 20 years from now)? Will journals be the source of such permanence? Will cooperatives like Open Science provide such a service? Will funders like the NIH and NSF provide such repositories?

How do you determine whether reproducibility and replicability has been attained once attempted? The statisticians in the symposium reminded everyone that any process based on variable inputs is subject to uncertainty of outcomes. If a second researcher attempts to replicate a study using exactly the same methods on a different set of measurement units, different results could be obtained purely from sampling variability. Hence, replicability needs to acknowledge both the uncertainty inherent in the first study and in the replication. Differences within the tolerance of sampling error are to be expected, even if precisely the same methods were used and nothing else has changed. Thus, failure to replicate needs to acknowledge the uncertainty involved in all studies, only some of which can be measured.

Finally, there was large scale questioning of whether the reward systems of funding agencies and disciplines could improve their support for attempting to reproduce or replication. Currently, young scholars are judged on the novelty of their products. Spending time attempting to replicate the findings of others is generally not as highly valued. How should professional associations support reward systems for attempts to replicate prior studies’ results?

Of course, all of these questions lead to a more general one – if the human and financial resources for research are finite, what is the optimal allocation of those resources to original research versus to reproduction and replication of prior research?

Necessary Ingredients for Global Collaborations

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Many discussions with faculty and other thought leaders make the case that solving the world’s problems cannot be accomplished by any one sector of societies across the world. It is common in universities for individual faculty to have a rich set of ties with allied scholars in other countries.

The United States’ eco-system of colleges and universities over the past 50 years has been quite effective in nurturing such ties. Some of this comes from the continued support of liberal education in US universities, nurturing research in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. This eco-systme spawned a set of values committed to unfettered inquiry by faculty. The eco-system became a magnet for the best young minds throughout the world. They thus received their critical intellectual formation at US universities. Many stayed, pursuing their own careers in the US, and thereby greatly enriched the eco-system. Others returned to their home countries, kept their ties with their US universities and became collaborators and benefactors of the US faculty. They often became leaders of the academic sectors in their home countries and pushed for increasing support for higher education and its research mission.

At this point, in some of the sciences, large international teams are working together in facilities throughout the world, tackling some of the fundamental questions about how the world is organized and the human-environment interaction. In the humanities, workshops and small international meetings of scholars working in the same field are taking place routinely. Academia is globally connected. It was assisted by governments in the developed world supporting attendance at international conferences by scholars from poorer societies. The US eco-system is a key player in those global collaborations.

These collaborations stitch together nation-states in ways that can counteract inter-state political tensions. For example, ongoing scientific meetings of nuclear physicists in the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War were instrumental in building acceptance of arms-control treaties. Scientific interactions can be a useful catalyst for diplomacy.

As recent events remind us, however, there is fragility in the necessary attributes for global collaboration. First, collaborations do require some freedom of inquiry in multiple countries. In some countries of the world, academics’ freedom to pursue their research is being curtailed. Second, nation-state conflicts have restricted the visits of collaborators to each other’s sites because of visa restrictions. Third, related to this, are growing concerns that some research has national security or commercial value and thus must be overseen by agencies concerns with nation state protection. Fourth, budget restrictions on US universities and agencies have constrained funding support for international work. Fifth, the vast inequality that accompanied the globalization of commerce has led to strong nationalistic movements in several countries, antithetical to global collaboration. In some countries, academic pursuits have themselves been politicized. Sixth, many countries are making large investments in the higher education and research infrastructure. This by itself is wonderful for the larger world. It is, however, forcing a desirable, but altered set of guidelines calling for more equal partnerships across countries. This is producing a culture change in the governance of academic collaboration.

In short, there is no guarantee that the societal conditions for global collaborations will continue. We all need to work to preserve them to continue the intellectual productivity gains from such collaborations.

How Faculty Work Together

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There are few organizations that provide such freedom of activity as universities, permitting faculty great autonomy in choosing their focus of research and scholarship. While the teaching activities are specified by the curriculum and the service obligations by unit, school, and university structures, individual faculty members can pursue their interests solely constrained by the peer review processes of their field.

It is fascinating to be part of a community where curiosity and a passion to pursue unanswered questions are driving forces. All fields continually challenge themselves in endless attempts to expand and deepen their insights. At the individual faculty level, many times these attributes prompt one to explore area outside of their PhD training (indeed, this seems to be a growing theme in the Provost Podcast series, “Faculty in Research”).  While sometimes venturing into a new domain can be accomplished by oneself, when exploring whole new knowledge terrains, the investment is daunting. In such circumstances, collaboration with those outside one’s field is the only efficient way to proceed.

Hence, it’s interesting to explore what attributes of an academic environment appear to be helpful in fostering collaboration. I’ve posted earlier about the galvanizing effect of collaboration that occurs when scholars from different fields find one another attempting to solve the same problem. In this case, the shared focus on the problem diminishes the differences between them.

In contrast, when one scholar is attempting only to use another’s knowledge, without the two sharing a passion to solve the same problem, true collaboration is impeded. In those cases, one potential collaborator can easily feel they are being used solely to advance the personal agenda of the other. This occurs often when one scholar merely wants to use knowledge of specific tools developed in the other’s field. So, mutual respect is key to collaboration. Academic environments that have both intellectual and physical spaces that support multiple fields working on the same problem helps overcome these issues.

Even when two collaborators find themselves on equal footing in terms of a focus on unanswered questions, problems abound in building collaborations across fields. Fields create technical languages to make within-field communication efficient. This within-field efficiency diminishes between-field understanding. Great patience and time are often required to create effective transmission of ideas between fields. The larger the sharing of language (either mathematical, graphical, or verbal) between the fields, the faster the collaboration can become effective. Unfortunately, many collaborations die before this point of maturation. Hence, academic environments supporting collaboration must simultaneously support long-term relationships. (In this regard, it is heartwarming to see more and more external research funding recognizing the need for collaboration in multi-year efforts.)

When research collaboration can be integrated within the educational activity, some of the burden of conceptual translation can be eased. This is most obvious when scholars from different fields co-teach a course. Co-teaching permits the two to converse at the level needed for student understanding. It forces clarification of differences between two approaches; it unites the two in serving student understanding and, as a consequence, enriches their own understanding of the other field.

Another environmental catalyst for faculty members to collaborate is the sharing of mentorship of a research assistant. Often the student becomes an intellectual hybrid of the two, blending and synthesizing the two fields. Their joint devotion to the student, and the student’s lessons to the faculty about the synthesis of fields, make the collaboration effective and pleasurable.

Finally, nothing prompts and secures collaboration than shared responsibilities to successfully complete a project. Externally funded time-delimited grants and contracts are catalysts to real interdisciplinary practice. Hence, building an academic environment that nurtures team-application to grant and contract opportunities is important.

As Georgetown faculty continually reach to increase their impact on solving important world problems, we need to build an environment that makes collaboration across fields easier.

First-Year Research Seminars

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As I mentioned in a post awhile back, the most recent intellectual life report from the faculty of the main campus recommended that all first-year students have the opportunity to experience an intensive seminar. The recommendation was “We recommend the creation and support of first year seminar courses for all undergraduates in all schools, designed to initiate immersion into research culture first by teaching the fundamental skills of research as appropriate for knowledge creation or for solving practical problems.”

The rationale for this recommendation involved the following logic:

“One way to increase student engagement with original research would be through the learning of research skills over the course of an undergraduate career beginning in a first year seminar. Faculty anecdotally report that students enter senior seminars or capstone courses without the skills to undertake original research or the knowledge of how a research paper is constructed. This omission could be remedied by careful vertical curricular planning. Skills could be divided over first- and second-year seminars before students entered research oriented courses, senior seminars, and capstone courses in their junior and senior years. In particular students should be weaned away from using Google as a search engine for a research paper and instead introduced to the proper way to use databases and how to choose the ones most appropriate for their topic. They should also be taught how to review current literature to date so as to form a meaningful research question or topic.”

Traditional lecture courses, supplemented with outside readings, can be effective in communicating content to students. Such pedagogical strategies are rarely successful, however, in communicating the role of research in knowledge creation.

The skills required for good research in most fields are transferable to other environments over the life course. The transferable skills include critical reading skills. Instead of merely taking notes on the key content in a course’s readings, students can learn how to evaluate and question the reading. Critical reading of others’ work is a key ingredient of all scholarship. Instead of just exercising the mental muscle of absorbing new facts, they exercise the opposing muscle, conceiving of new ways of creating, new questions not yet answered, and new ways of solving a problem. Instead of reading just the research and scholarship that has passed critical peer reviews, they try to create their own new findings or creations. By doing research, they quickly encounter the common mistakes of the endeavor – the low rate of complete success, the need to morph approaches in mid-stream, the iterative nature of research progress.

The Intellectual Life Report reminded us how important these sets of skills are to the ability to learn new material. The effort proposed is an attempt to provide a deeper experience to those exiting high school into the life of the mind so important in intellectual development. Further, it reminded us how preparing a student for a life of constant learning is one of Georgetown’s important missions.

The deans received this recommendation with great interest. Over the summer the provost office prepared some analysis of the distribution of class sizes across levels of courses and schools. The deans worked to review the current status of their school’s first year offerings.

I am happy to report to all that each dean believed that fulfilling the recommendation was both important for academic excellence and achievable over a relatively short period of time.

There remains much work to do, however, to ensure that each first-year student has a meaningful research-relevant seminar experience. This work, however, will be great fun.

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Listen to the Provost Podcast, “Faculty in Research,” at https://provost.georgetown.edu/podcast

When Does a Academic Field Become a Field?

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One of the key functions of universities historically was to validate the existence of academic fields. The validation often manifested itself as degree concentrations or majors, departments, and schools.

There seems to be a natural progression in the evolution of this validation process. The establishment of an interest group often is often a first step. This might be a set of colleagues from different institutions who meet in sessions at conferences of traditional professional associations. They may begin to share their works in progress, collaborate on joint work, and keep in touch via email. They share ideas for developing content for courses in the emerging area. This is sometimes followed by a series of courses or, in fields eligible for external funding, the creation of programs of research funding. At a later stage, there are new degree programs.

On the research side, new subfields face resistance for space in flagship journals and traditional presses. A common reaction is for leaders to sponsor small conferences and created edited monographs that collectively create a body of cohesive content. Later, new journals specific to the area, are created. More and more the subfield asserts itself and is recognized as a coherent body of useful knowledge.

One can see this progression historically in many of the fields that undergird commonly present programs on US campuses (e.g., data science, biophysics). New fields split out from existing fields, sometimes from multiple fields simultaneously.

Over the years, students have been a strong force for the growth of new fields. They tend to examine the existing departments, units, schools, etc. and question why there are such legislated boundaries among them. They are more quickly attracted to new combinations of knowledge that new programs entail. So, the student pressures for increasing the number of subfields and degree programs are large on US universities.

These challenges require real wisdom. Human knowledge is expanding at unprecedented rates, largely based on the cumulative effects of research in universities. With this increase comes to ability to combine new findings with prior knowledge in new ways. Specialization abounds.

To some extent, this has been true for centuries of higher education. In recent years, however, the articulation of bits of knowledge seems itself to be moving faster. Why is this so? Three hypotheses seem logical. First, the more knowledge is produced, the more combinations of domains of knowledge are possible. Indeed, they increase multiplicatively. Second, the digital revolution and the internet make it easier to search for new pieces of information across fields. The same infrastructure makes it possible for scholars throughout the world to interact almost seamlessly and instantly. Very small groups of scholars can form organically, support one another, and build global interest groups. It seems that more small group meetings of scholars are occurring, outside the traditional professional organizations. Third, there seems a growing consensus that the remaining key problems facing the world are not going to be solved by the traditional fields. This has driven much of the external research funding institutions to reorganize into programs that require interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, or convergent approaches.

Several key organizational issues facing universities stem from these developments. How can universities support the new combinations of knowledge? How can students be given the freedom to combine knowledge sets in new ways? How can curiosity driven research be nurtured as well as research focused on pre-defined pressing problems? Does peer review succeed in vetting what new combinations of knowledge have merit? Can research and education in these new domains be nurtured without creating permanent structures prematurely?

A Campus Coming Alive

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One of the great myths about universities is that they close up shop in the summer months. From a provost’s vantage point, the summer months do have a distinct character but not much of a slowdown. There are many summer professional workshops providing research exchanges among scholars, high school college preparatory institutes, faculty in laboratories and offices doing their research, and many traditional summer classes. So, there is a large amount of activity, but it is different than that of the academic year.

In the summer, many traditional degree students are away from campus, in internships or jobs. Many faculty are not on campus but working away, in archives or in the home institutions of collaborators. Study abroad opportunities exist for degree students.

In essence, the summer campus is busy, but the bodies on campus are disproportionately visitors.

With each passing day over the last week, as we approach the start of the fall semester, the atmosphere on campus is changing.

Construction workers, painters, and repair technicians are working overtime to finish updating classrooms, offices, and dormitories in preparation for the new semester that starts next week. Grounds crews are cleaning and weeding (between what seems to be constant thunderstorms).

Those who organize the move-in process for students have been in constant preparation for weeks. Emails have gone out to staff to either telecommute or take public transportation to campus on move-in days. A campus with multiple construction projects ongoing makes the move-in process more complicated than usual.

This week, the orientation leaders for New Student Orientation (NSO) arrived, and the level of noise and laughter is rapidly increasing. The NSO leaders are upper level students who come early to welcome the first-year students and help them move in. It’s a great tradition and is a great example of the spirit of Georgetown intent on building community. Friday, they will be spread throughout campus, singing, dancing and extending welcoming hands at the move-in.

The average age of people walking across campus is plummeting, seemingly hour by hour. There are some early family groups walking the campus, with apparent first year students, probably combining a short DC vacation with move-in. The heat has been oppressive the last few days and the groups are uniformly wilted. (I wonder whether we should put out the public water stations earlier than move-in day itself.) Each day, there seem to be more students pulling rollerboards across campus, loaded down with more than they will carry the rest of the year in their comings and goings. Empty boxes from summer storage companies are starting to appear near dumpsters.

Walking into Healy Hall, there was a line of young folks taking turns standing in front of or sitting on the statue of John Carroll. He’ll get more attention in the next few days than the last few months. I like to think he’s missed the students, too.

The changes bring back the not-too-distant memories of the buzz that exists on all residential university campuses when the academic year is in full throttle. The gang is back. They animate the space in a way quite distinctive of the research and service activities of the university. Part of this is the optimism of youth. Part of it is the excitement that comes with building one’s future and exploring life in new ways.

Each fall the coming of new students reminds us of the deep honor we have to hold the positions we have.

Eating our Seed Corn

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The expression “eating our seed corn” comes from times of severe drought or other weather induced tragedies when farm families’ near-term survival threatened their long-term survival. With each harvest of corn, ideally some of the seed is not consumed, but retained for planting the next year’s crop. Without this “seed corn,” no next year’s crop can be produced. Eating the seed corn provides short-run survival, but portends disaster for the family in the following year. This phenomenon may offer a metaphor for the impact of social trends on support for scholarly inquiry.

We are a world fascinated by the newest device or platform invented through new technology. These new technologies have offered transformative and positive changes to billions of people. The innovation culture spawning these benefits has several key ingredients – disruption of key features of the status quo, quick iterative improvements through a “fail fast” feature, and equally quick abandonment of ideas that fail to ramp. The culture is weakened by another feature, the so-called Gartner phases of innovation, which includes a “hype phase” that generally greatly overstates the likely benefits of a new technology.

These features have proven themselves amazingly efficient when a) the basic components of a new solution have been developed and proven useable in another domain, b) the assembly of new components offers a set of capabilities that were never before packaged in one service/entity, and c) a market for the new assembled entity is demonstrable. For example, Uber’s success builds on the messaging features of an internet platform, real-time GPS locational information for matching cars to requestors, credit-card electronic payment systems, the ubiquity of smart phones, and the untapped capacity of owners of autos seeking income supplementation. In short, the success of the idea rested on an effective assembly of existing components.

The genius of new technology can easily overshadow one important feature of societal innovation – the basic inquiry that led to the various components being available for assembly. For example, the current hype is focused on artificial intelligence, with boasts that it will replace most human thought and activity within a few years. It’s fair to argue that many AI applications find one of their roots in a 1948 paper by Claude Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” a paper that proffers the key framework underlying most of the key components of artificial intelligence (but also cryptography and data compression). In what could have been criticized as idle play by others, Shannon built a mechanical mouse that could “learn” its way through a maze in 1950; an act that might be easily criticized as child’s play. Theoretical breakthroughs often start with trivial implementations (if any implementation occurs at all), decades before their impactful application.

Would we be seriously planning for autonomous cars and trucks without the 1948 paper? What forces created the environment for Shannon to write the paper? What investments in talent are we making now that gives us assurance that the basic inquiry that is necessary for the innovation of the year 2060 is now occurring?

At one time scientists studying how a computer could play chess were ridiculed as frivolous. What basic questions are being addressed now that are easy candidates for ridicule (e.g., a study of the immune system of shrimp compromised in farmed waters using a treadmill)?

In a way, much of wonderful technological innovation we are experiencing now is based on a harvest of knowledge components that whose “planting” occurred years ago. Are we supporting the young minds who will discover the basic breakthroughs that will permit the innovation of 2060? Or, are they being drawn to other environments that support the next big innovation possible based on merely recombining existing knowledge? These minds and the basic discoveries they can make are our seed corn.

Mine the Gap

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I’m having a great time these days working on episodes of a podcast with Georgetown faculty about their research lives. (see SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/user-267910017 and on Spotify:  https://open.spotify.com/show/5C7tgv1fz9cBs6nnOXbV2w?si=BoS2Ku9uSyCMBdvQHPk9Ig).

It’s really fun for me to see how different faculty choose the projects they work on. I learn about their passion for a set of questions that is so fundamental that they devote their entire lives becoming more and more sophisticated in their knowledge about them.

Many episodes also discuss how their teaching and research lives intersect and reinforce one another. However, as I reflect on the various discussions, I am impressed how stark are the differences between many traditional classes and the research lives of the faculty who teach those classes.

The typical course at a university is a highly curated collection of content. Typically, the content consists of the very best scholarship in the field. The latest consensus of the field is presented through readings and lectures using the best research products that produced that consensus. Syllabi typically arrange the content in a manner that emphasizes a cumulative set of themes. The order of the course promotes a synthesis of the content of various weeks to achieve the given learning goals. When controversies in a field exist, the course carefully presents the alternative conceptual underpinnings or alternative interpretations, each of them undergirded with the best evidence behind the alternative viewpoints. Clarity of content and purposeful organization predominate.

Missing from a typical class, is content that is of lower quality, content that offers intermediate findings, content of studies that did not replicate, content of work that was presented at professional conferences and never published. The product of failed or mediocre scholarship rarely appears in syllabi. The chaos that typically exists at the edges of knowledge in a field is often absent.

The research lives of faculty members, on the other hand, are rarely as settled and as perfectly organized as the courses they teach. The beautifully designed syllabus, delivered in highly polished class activities, bears little resemblance to the day-to-day, step-by-step process of extending one’s understanding of a field.

First, faculty read much literature that could never pass the standards of a class syllabus. They puzzle over contradictory findings and interpretations not yet resolved within a field. They listen to substandard presentations at professional meetings. They read outside their field, looking for new angles of attacking their favorite problem inside their field. There is typically a lot of chaff hiding the wheat.

Second, research lives focus on the absence of existing content. Scholars are searching for the unanswered questions. They are seeking to fill the gaps in the literature of the field. They “mine” the gap (sorry for the pun). If human knowledge is like Swiss cheese, students are given the cheese, and researchers are fascinated with the holes.

Third, the research life of the faculty is filled with failures. The “hit rate” is very low for doing an experiment with notable results, for finding a document of key importance in an archive, for creating an interpretation that sustains criticism, or for inventing a book project that merits completion and publication. The most successful scholars are masters of failing fast and often, all in a quest to disrupt the current accepted knowledge. Each of them has files filled with ideas that didn’t pan out.

It occurs to me that much of life’s challenges are more like the research lives of faculty than the experiences of students in a traditional class. Life presents the absence of content — a poorly described problem, an inarticulate question, a puzzle without an obvious solution. The successful learn how to fill the gap with newly acquired knowledge.

In this context, those class experiences that incorporate problems, devoid of obvious content regarding their solutions, can perhaps offer students a useful lasting lesson. Georgetown faculty who are working so inventively to create experience-based  and research-based learning environments are doing this. They are teaching our students how to mine the gap.

Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202) 687.5103provost@georgetown.edu

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