When I was a junior in college, I spent every day for six months in an archive in Lisbon, Portugal, reading newspapers of the early 1900’s, looking for evidence of the activities of various political elites prior to a revolution. It was empirically-based history, in a way. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. I learned that I didn’t want to spend my life in archives; I learned that there was something about very concentrated attention to a single matter that gave me pleasure.
In some ways, it was the beginning of my career, in my case a life as an academic researcher. Looking back on that time and imagining alternative outcomes of my life, the skills I learned at that time are applicable to any profession I would have pursued.
I’ve written several times about the thirst that Georgetown students have to do deep study, guided by a mentor, but semi-independent of the mentor, exploring questions with no current answers. I’ve argued that research can arm students with skills useful to them when events outside their control force them to retool, to acquire new knowledge to prepare them for a changed world.
As part of designing the future(s) of the university, we’re wondering whether we can invent ways to assure that every Georgetown student can have those experiences (See: Experiments). We’ve used the nomenclature of “mentored” research or “immersive” learning. We’re seeking creative solutions to scaling up the successful programs of research experience that we have already made part of Georgetown.
Some of the ideas involve bringing new players into the context of research experience. Some faculty have talked about building a research pyramid, with undergraduate students, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty all participating in teams tackling the same problem. Here the mentoring and guidance takes place at various levels simultaneously. The faculty set the overall framework of the research enterprise and directly interact most frequently with postdocs and graduate students. The undergraduates meet in groups with faculty, postdocs, and graduate students. Direct mentoring of undergraduates is given by graduate students.
Another set of ideas concerns new collaborations with DC institutions, based on alliances with Georgetown. Students are interns with pre-organized activities, coordinated to be academically-valued experiences worthy of academic credit. Much of the mentoring is given by senior staff of the institutions. Faculty are consultants to the work of the institution and liaisons with the students to aid their development within the institution.
Another set of ideas uses alumni as mentors of students, teamed with faculty members. Students work with alumni in academically-relevant activities. Real products are produced of value to the alumni’s organization. The students might work in groups or teams, tackling a problem of the organization, requiring original research to solve.
The goal would be that original research experiences are built into each program, that faculty research productivity is enhanced through the new ways of approaching student involvement, and that sustainable programs be created.
We already have the ingredients of this on campus. The Business School uses group consultative projects as part of its program. The new Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation is organized with experiential learning in building organizations to tackle real problems. The community-based learning opportunities connected to the Center for Social Justice are another example.
The goal would be more formal integration of such experiences into many programs, tailored to the scholarly goals of the faculty.
How can we scale up these types of experiences to serve all students?