I’ve written in the past about the value of research experience to students (see Preparing Undergraduates for the 21st Century). The most persuasive argument is that the students we educate today will have to retrain themselves after they complete their education at Georgetown. This will happen when totally new knowledge domains emerge to change work environments. Original scholarship and research requires critical observation, measurement, and logical skills to yield credible conclusions. This is precisely what our graduates will need to do, maybe at several times in their lives.
In talking about this idea with faculty, it’s clear that most appreciate the argument. Each of us, however, is both informed and limited by the deep specialization required in our own original research. Many fields have developed their own set of methods for research, which define the state of the art within the discipline, respected by flagship journals and prestige publishers. So, the question begged, therefore, is what kind of research experiences are desirable for our students?
The ideal would be a mix of experiences, different methods asking different questions. From the humanities, deep critical observation, inspection, and deconstruction of text, objects, and images are central to knowledge acquisition. For the digital humanities, this might involve quantitative summaries of word combinations in multiple texts of the same author or multiple authors of the same “school.” For many of the arts, it involves the comparison of alternative interpretations of the same work.
The social sciences use deep observation in many fields, sometimes carefully examining physical movements, speech utterances, social interaction, seeking understanding of behaviors and social environments. Sometimes these observations are described in words, typologies, and verbal inferences of the meaning of the observations. Other times, the observations are structured and standardized, yielding quantitative data, subjected to statistical analyses. Case studies, ethnographies, and participant observation techniques are examples of this style of research. The unique attraction of these methods is the intense observational skills they require, they need to examine both context and object.
Randomized experiments are used in both the social and natural sciences. These are used both with inanimate objects in the physical sciences and people in the social sciences. The randomized experiment is de riguer in some subfields of psychology and increasingly important in microeconomics. Experiments involve careful design of the experimental conditions, construction of an intervention/stimulus, and careful measurement of the change in status after the intervention. These too are analyzed using some sort of quantitative analyses.
Large scale studies of human populations use self-report standardized measurement on large statistical samples of the populations. These are the basis of political polling, censuses, customer satisfaction surveys, and a host of other sources of information on the society. These are gradually being blended with massive data sources from internet and other process sensors. These require quantitative analyses.
Increasingly, intensive computational methods are being applied across fields. These are sometimes based on pre-specified quantitative models that describe key aspects of a phenomenon. The models are often complex, with the implications of alternative combinations of attributes or change over time too complicated to see without examining the implications directly using the models.
These methods require deep thinking about the interactions of multiple attributes in complex systems of phenomena.
Some fields, for example, mathematics and computer science, pursue the invention of more efficient algorithms to produce designated outcomes, involving careful decomposition of the procedures, the invention of a new approach to the problem, and the demonstration of the improved procedure in a variety of situations.
All of these methods have their own unique techniques and are useful in different circumstances. Ideally, Georgetown students have a chance to experience all of these. But the diverse approaches also have commonalities. They require intense inspection and observational skills. They require critically reviewing alternative interpretations of the observations as well as self-criticism and openness to the possibility that one is missing something. These skills can’t be easily learned without the doing of them.
The more our curriculum can mount courses that provide these skills to our students, the better prepared they will be for the future they face.