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The Centrality of Method

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The power of disciplines within the academy is one of the driving forces for knowledge advancement. The freedom of scholars to pursue their imaginations to ever-deeper understanding of the natural world, human creativity, and societal processes, is a key facilitator for the advancement of civilization. It is a powerful force that universities offer the world.

It is interesting, therefore, to compare various fields with regard to their cohesion of purpose in scholarly inquiries. Indeed, when one peruses the different fields of inquiry, whether they’re organized into departments (as in most Colleges of Arts and Sciences) or other units, they tend to exhibit vastly different levels of internal unity.

Some fields seem to agree on what are the key questions facing the field and how to go about answering them. The prime example over the past two to three decades is the consensus within astronomy of key challenges and steps to take to make progress. When those fields exhibit this consensus, attention coalesces around the focal issues. Such fields often produce deeper and deeper insights in the agreed-upon areas.

Other fields seem to be in turmoil. There are intense debates across subfields questioning the wisdom of their pursuits. I recall a fist fight between two colleagues at a party prompted by snide remarks about the legitimacy of one’s research approach. (Passions based on intellectual disagreement can turn ugly.) Such fields risk missing opportunities for insight that flow from combining approaches.

One way to think of different fields is to parse their work into a) questions pursued, b) research methods used, and c) scholarly products produced. Reflecting on fields that seem to be undergoing turmoil, the use of different methods often seems to be a source of the discomfort. For example, debates about the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative methods in several social science fields plagued the groups for several decades in the 20th century.

When these intellectual conflicts are raging, one often sees individual departments choosing sides, building strength in only one school of thought. Those departments that find a way to resolve the conflict, however, integrating the best parts of different sides, generally achieve prominence in the next era of the discipline. Conflicts resolved by new integrative solutions often produce long-lasting advances.

An interesting challenge and benefit of working in problem-oriented, interdisciplinary research arises around choice of research methods. The challenge is that such work usually involves researchers with allegiances to different methods. Each must learn a bit about another method; this is difficult. The benefit is such work enriches our understanding of the phenomena in question, using multiple methods. Inevitably, in the hands of strong scholars the work leads them to innovative theoretical thinking in their home discipline. In this way, interdisciplinary work enriches the constituent disciplines.

In this sense, researchers entering into interdisciplinary spaces internalize some of the conflicts that plague full disciplines. They choose to have their allegiance to method challenged by alternative ways of thinking. They are intellectually brave, but also enjoy the benefits of new insights difficult to achieve without that choice.

Searching for the Best

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Some recent reading evoked memories of various evaluative panels that I’ve experienced in the past few years. Some were created to award a national or international honor to the awardee, based on self- and/or others’ nomination. Some were review panels of interdisciplinary grants. Some were fellowship offers to promising mid-career scholars.

The panel members were often chosen from among those with established reputations in their field. Most often the panelists represented different disciplines. The assigned job of the panel was to identify the “best” among a set of proposed awardees. Sometimes the focus of the evaluation was the awardee; sometimes, the proposed work of the awardee. Inevitably, it became some blend of the two. That is, part of the evaluation of the promise of the work was whether the work could indeed be accomplished well by the awardee.

Lamont, in her book with the wonderful title of How Professors Think, notes that such panels execute their work with a complicated and jointly negotiated pattern of evaluative viewpoints. Sometimes they are focused on the “generalizability of the work.” Sometimes they are focused on its ability to evoke an “understanding of broader processes.” Sometimes, they value the deeper understanding that results from a “particular interpretation.”

These evaluative viewpoints are differentially susceptible to the so-called “Matthew effect,” which gives the more established line of thinking a distinct advantage in an evaluation. That is, when examining a proposed project, ideas that build upon years of successful knowledge construction in a field, have an advantage. They benefit from reflected glory of widely-accepted knowledge and technique. They receive the immediate respect of association with the current leaders of a field.

One might suspect that when the evaluators are focused on the generalizability of the proposed project, they might evoke their knowledge of what past scholarship has demonstrated in a field. When, in contrast, the panelists are highly valuing the creation of a particular interpretation of a topic, they might be less susceptible to the Matthew effect. Clearly, the cognitive bias associated with the Matthew effect threatens support of the new, the controversial, the different. In panels that I remember, such proposals receive the label of “high-risk.” (Even in such cases, however, the Matthew effect is present with a little twist – if the novel proposal is made by a famous, established scholar, the panel will tend to label it as “innovative” rather than “risky.”)

At various points of evolution of a field, it seems likely that generalizability becomes more important than understanding or novel interpretation. For example, one of the key issues facing educational research (e.g., what teaching techniques are more effective) was the domination of the field of small-scale experimental interventions that could not be replicated. That is, a project that showed great learning leaps in one classroom, implemented by one teacher, showed no such gains when later implemented in another classroom. The field began to call for greater attention to the generalizability of scholarship funded.

Some have noted that generalizability, understanding of basic mechanisms, and novel interpretation, can themselves be viewed as specific to particular uses of knowledge. The three might array themselves on a dimension of theory-application. Generalizability is an important attribute in applied knowledge. Novel interpretations are important in the generative step of understanding. Understanding basic processes are the building blocks of theories that later lead to generalizability.

The Matthew effect, giving advantage to building on large bodies of existing knowledge, is a natural bias that mitigates risk in applications. It’s probably deadly, however, for the giving value to the unexpected, the novel, the innovative. In short, thinking back over my panel memberships, sometimes the group should have explicitly warmed to the safety of the well-established and sometimes, to the new.

Science for All

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“The natural sciences, and the technologies that they enable, are woven deeply into the fabric of our lives and are central to many of the important political and social challenges that we face. They are also among the pinnacles of intellectual accomplishment in humanity’s ancient and ongoing quest to understand the world in which we live. Thus, we believe that to function as liberally educated, ethically responsible citizens, stewards of the planet, and as effective leaders, all Georgetown students should understand scientific modes of thought and concepts, both in the abstract and as they are exemplified in at least one major area of scientific inquiry.”

This is the prefatory statement of report from the core curriculum committee that has recently been accepted by the main campus faculty. The report proposes a uniform application of base science course requirement for undergraduates, regardless of the school of enrollment.

It recognizes that the world has changed over the years, with a more central role being played by technology and scientific knowledge in the day-to-day lives of all. It recognizes the importance of the scientific method, with observation, hypothesis formulation, data collection, analysis and conclusion, in an ever-continuous cycle of learning. It recognizes that many of the unsolved world problems either arise from unequal access to technology or may find their solutions in new uses of technology.

I am proud that faculty governance bodies have supported this innovation in the curriculum, even though not all departments will benefit from larger enrollments. I am pleased that our natural science colleagues have committed to their contributions to the common good of our undergraduates, even when many will not be science majors.

A new requirement such as this also brings with it the chance of pedagogical innovation. In addition to traditional single instructor courses, the proposal encourages team teaching. Team teaching gives students a change to compare perspectives of multiple faculty members on the same material. It’s clear that, when two or more faculty members are willing to engage in dialogue on a topic in front of students, the level of student engagement jumps. It’s clear when the faculty illustrate real debates for the students, the retention of the knowledge is greater than merely reading about such debates.

In addition to team teaching, the requirement is perfectly suited to a new “core pathways” treatment. In this format, 7-week, 1.5 credit class modules can be assembled into 3 and 6 credit aggregates in a coordinated manner. One example of such a structure was this year’s “Climate Change” theme. In that framework, each module is 1.5 credits. Students can take up to four distinct 7-week modules in a single year. In order to ensure exposure to multiple disciplines’ approaches, students will take modules from different fields in the same semester. By taking two 1.5 credit modules in the same discipline, students will satisfy core requirements. Students may also combine two 1.5 credit modules from different disciplines as a 3-credit interdisciplinary elective and full-course equivalent. Faculty from different disciplines teach the modules, which themselves are coordinated to assure complete coverage and lack of redundancy.

Undergraduate requirements fill our desire to expose baccalaureate students to the major bodies of human knowledge. They attempt to teach students how different fields vary in their methods of achieving and evaluating advances in knowledge. They provide the basic concepts and theoretical frameworks for students to follow future developments in a field. They do not magically build advanced expertise in a field. Instead, their goal is to help students become literate with the key concepts and theories in a field.

We should be proud that we are extending these benefits to more scientific fields with this change in requirements.

A Magical Holiday Scene, Thanks to a Dedicated Crew

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This is an unusual time on a university campus – study days and final examinations. There are few students walking around. They’re all huddled in study areas, packed into library spaces, grouped in empty classrooms. Inside the library, you see some furiously typing away to finish final papers. Others are in very high alert mode, apparently finishing take-home exams, usually surrounded by course materials. Still others have the strange looks of sleep deprivation. Across campus, one sees disheveled undergrads delivering their final paper to their professor’s office. Coffee consumption is at an all-time high. There’s not much noise on campus (seems fine), but also not as much laughter (sorely missed). Seriousness abounds.

The thoughtful and inventive library staff has created a variety of ways for students to de-stress during finals week. These are clever ideas that offer a break from their studying. But they also permit a little nap taking while in Lauinger. Depending on when you’re walking around study areas, students displaying intense attention sit next to students who are sleeping. Study-sleep-eat-study-study.

With fewer and fewer hours of light each day, I walk to and from work in darkness each day. But there’s a great benefit to that now because the wonderful campus grounds crew really outdid themselves this year. The trees in Healy circle with their bright lights are prettier this year than I remember from last year. The Dahlgren Quad Christmas tree, framed by the oldest buildings of Georgetown seems like something out of a Hollywood movie depicting what a beautiful campus should be at the holiday time. The Christmas tree outside the president’s office, the poinsettias, and the decorations hanging from lamps in Healy Hall uplift the spirits instantly. Even the ICC Galleria is bedecked with multiple lighted trees. Tonight, we lighted the first candle of the menorah for the start of Hanukah.

This beauty just doesn’t arise without effort. But the grounds crews are so efficient; I don’t remember seeing them construct all the decorations. It’s clear, however, the work is substantial and ongoing. Equipment is needed to hang the lights; the poinsettias drink a lot of water during the week; lights need to be checked and adjusted.

As an administrator, I don’t feel the full anxiety and fatigue of the finishing up the term that students face. It might be a little easier for me to appreciate the work of the grounds crew that transform the campus so effectively. On the other hand, I imagine that seeing the lighted trees might offer a small psychological boost to students nearing the end of semester. The lights and the trees might remind them that it won’t be long before they can rest. Some will return to homes remote from DC and enjoy wonderful renewed warmth that only families offer. They will appreciate days in which they don’t face the burden of an upcoming assignment or required readings. They will sleep. Those near graduation may realize that it may be the last time “the kid from college” will return. They will reflect. In the depth of their labors ending the term, I think the decorated campus might give them hope toward those days of rest and reflection.

I’m not sure the students get a chance to thank the workers that make the campus so pretty at this holiday time, but I hope that staff knows that what they do offers a bit of cheer, hope, and anticipation to students enduring their most stressful time of the semester.

A Transition in Oversight of Research

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Yesterday we celebrated Janet Mann, in her completion of a term as Vice Provost for Research. The vice provost roles are designed as three-year terms of senior faculty who want to improve the university through applying their energy to key aspects of its work – education, faculty affairs, and research. Each of the vice provosts lead a group of permanent staff, who are the real heroes of all the work of the provost’s office. A time of transition like this prompts reflection on what changes have occurred over the past few years.

The vice provost for research oversees one of the most challenging areas of the university. Georgetown is a small research university that is striving to increase its impact in the scholarly world. Much of the effort of the provost’s office, which Janet led, had the goal of supporting our faculty in increasing applications for external funding. In doing this we learned that basic processes supporting research could be improved. We had work to do.

Part of the challenge in growing research activity is that it has an administrative character that is quite different from that of the educational mission. External grant opportunities are a 12-month phenomenon. They do not disappear in the summer months. They are quite diverse in their time constraints. For example, some research contracts are one-year agreements; in that year, staff resources must be assembled, subcontracts let, space utilized, and research products delivered. The pace of academic administration typically does not have such time pressures.

Staffing decisions for externally funded research teams also produce different personnel issues. Commonly, research teams are assembled for projects and then disassembled when the project is completed. Thus, the notion that each position fills a permanent need doesn’t usually apply. Further, often the team proposed in the grant proposal is a large part of the reason that the grant was awarded. If one of the proposed members of the team was not a current university employee, unusual speed of hiring them is an important attribute of conducting the research. Over the past three years, we’ve made some progress on describing how research activities pose different administrative challenges, but much more is needed.

Janet and her colleagues also launched other mechanisms supporting faculty to increase their scholarly impact. The main campus tripled the number of internal Senior Faculty Research Fellowships for faculty, providing needed time to start or finish key research projects. We’ve attempted to improve the evaluation process for these, using best practices from other grant programs. We’ve created a course banking program for tenure-line faculty, which allows them flexibility to assemble more time for non-teaching research activities, under their own control. We’ve created partial sabbatical draws, which allow faculty to piece together other time for intensive research activity, when it can best benefit them.

Finally, it’s worth noting efforts to improve the practices of the Institutional Review Board for behavioral and social science research. This is an area undergoing external changes in policies for human subjects’ protection. An external review group connected to an accreditation group, the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs, helped us in identifying a set of practical changes that would serve the institution well. We’re pecking away at that list, attempting to provide better services for researchers, while strengthening the protections of human subjects.

Of course, there is much work remaining to be done on all the issues above. We thank Janet for launching work that will keep the provost’s office busy for many years.

Time Available to Students

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Georgetown, among all research universities, has an unusually strong commitment to the formation of its students. By this is meant a deep attention to the intellectual and field-knowledge component of the student’s growth, a care about enhancing their resilience to setbacks, a shaping of their values-based discernment of the best choices for themselves, and attending to their development as a leader in service to the wider world.

This takes faculty time – meeting with students, listening to their concerns, shaping their attention to the best ways for their own learning, coaching them in career and life choices, and supporting their research and scholarly efforts.

Such meetings, as well as classes, are the vehicles by which the role model of critical inquiry and research is communicated by the faculty to the students. In short, faculty are always teaching, whenever they are in the presence of students.

Of course, email and other electronic communication occurs 24/7, so that faculty can interact with students without being face to face. Much of the transactional nature of the relationship between faculty and students can easily be handled via electronic media. These include specific questions about course material and protocols. However, special impact often lies in the moments of face to face interaction – these are the moments that can be life-changing for the student.

On some campuses, there has been a confusion about the role of the student in the life of a faculty member. When faculty cultural norms evolve that threaten the integration of research and teaching, there is often a tendency for faculty to work outside their offices, advancing their scholarship in isolation of students. On such campuses, faculty office hallways tend to be sets of closed doors to empty offices. Faculty come to campus for teaching and a preset limited number of office hours to meet with students. Separating teaching and research cheats the students of insights into the life of an academic, with all the joys and sorrows of discovery and creation. Once again, when face to face time between students and faculty is maximized, students can see faculty doing their research and faculty can communicate their passion about their work.

At this moment in the university, we are all working quite diligently to integrate teaching and research. We’re called to do this by our students, who are increasingly asking us for research-based experiences as part of their curriculum. New course formats are arising throughout the university. These changes in pedagogy will increase the likelihood that our faculty can communicate their deep interest and passion about their fields of expertise. At the same time, students will be exposed to more role modeling of the life of the mind. Indeed, our hope is a new integration of research and teaching, viewing them as partners in achieving the university’s mission.

We have ample evidence that when faculty interact with students in the area of research, students learn more, become more excited about the field, and develop more critical thinking skills.

All of this, however, requires faculty and students working together. Maximizing the number of moments that faculty have in meaningful interaction with our students must be our goal.

Values Animating Healing

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It’s difficult to get through a day at this moment of history without being exposed to some anxiety among those around us. Many people feel that things are a bit “out of kilter;” folks are on edge. Cable news outlets are reporting record viewership; people talk about the need to detach from the continuous news feed. Little of the news they see is uplifting.

Some of this comes from political actions here in the US, but reports from outside the US seem to demonstrate a similar unease. There are reports of higher stress levels among students in higher education. Incidents of conflicts among racial, ethnic and religious groups seem to be rising. People seem afraid to talk to one another unless they already know the other agrees with them on key issues. While the US has seen weakening trust among the people toward institutions, there seems to be a more widespread breakdown of trust among individuals. Questioning the motives of another person seems more acceptable, even expected.

Durkheim forwarded the notion of “anomie” as a negative outlook formed by a society that offers little moral guidance to its members. Some of the examples of stressful events seem to be violations of a set of norms that were uniformly honored in earlier eras – how strangers interact with one another; what defined deference to one another; what allegiances bonded together those in a nation-state or a community or a city block.

Given these developments, higher education institutions clearly have a new obligation. Since they educate the next generation of leaders and the society is exhibiting these new features, they need to devise ways to arm students with the necessary skills to lead in such a society. I’ve written earlier about the importance of skills in talking with those who have different perspectives than you. It seems most important in navigating this new society.

However, the more I reflect on this, it is not merely a set of skills – at least, the skills alone will not improve the society. Real listening to another person requires a set of values animating how we approach another person. The Jesuit notion of “presupposition” seems useful here. It’s necessary to approach another with the respect for their humanity and legitimacy because of our shared origins. Assuming their good will and their attempts to find truth facilitates a genuine listening to them. Because each of us share day-to-day struggles, each of us fails and picks ourselves up, each of us cares about those close to us – we share much of the joys and challenges of being human. Arupe’s call to be “women and men for others” enlarges the group of those for whom each of us should care — from those who are close to us to a much larger set.

Anomie is a state of normlessness that is painful. For norms to be sustainable (or re-established), shared values are key. Higher education institutions, if they are to help prepare students for leadership in such an endeavor, need themselves to be certain of their shared values. In this regard, Georgetown has the great advantage of a set of values that animate our work. Following them, we know why we need to train leaders for a world that has lost its way in the midst of fractured and isolated groups.

Taking Charge of Change

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Cathy Davidson, the author of a new book, The New Education, visited Georgetown today. In a conversation about the book, she reviewed the historical roots of many of the practices of the modern university, many lying with Charles Eliot at Harvard in the late 19th century. These include the organization into departments, fields that separated the humanities and sciences, testing, grading systems, faculty career lines, tenure, and the devotion to research activities among faculty. Her thesis is that this organization was appropriate for the dawn of important industrial developments and global financial systems at the time. It seems less well suited, she argued, for a world in which communication across the world is available to all with an internet connection, when much of human knowledge is digitally documented, and when technology is redefining how different pieces of knowledge might be combined.

Much of the message is not new to those in higher education. Indeed, we at Georgetown are thickly in the discussion of alternative ways forward. (We’re proud that part of her book describes pedagogical innovations led by some of our own colleagues.) The linking to the historical roots of the current organization of universities was new to me and provoked many thoughts about what has enduring value in what we now do and what is acting as a drag on the impact that higher education has on the world.

The discussion and questions were rich in how an elite institution can contribute to social mobility in today’s world. Professor Davidson made the point that a self-acknowledgement of the privileges we enjoy at Georgetown is a good starting point. From that self-awareness, we might focus more consistent attention on how we can do our institution’s part at building a better, more equitable world. How we teach is part of that solution.

She herself moved in her career from Duke to CUNY, two very different institutions. She reported a newly-learned sense of humility with regard to how universities can contribute to social mobility. One unforgettable vignette described a faculty member who noted that one student performed much better with in-class writing than writing assignments performed out of class. This was a puzzle until the instructor learned that the student was a full-time EMT, writing out essays on a cell phone in-between runs to provide emergency medical care. Dr. Davidson said that the discipline and hunger for learning she sees in these students are an ever-present reminder that CUNY is, indeed, changing lives as an engine for social and economic mobility. Elite institutions have the privilege of fully immersive education, with the proportion of a student’s life devoted to their studies being much higher.

Part of her message was to each of us individually. Change in higher education sometimes seems an overwhelmingly complex task, requiring the undoing of old structures, rules, and practices. Taking on the whole project at once is so complex that it is easy for each of us to convince ourselves that we’re not responsible for innovation and change that we ourselves think would be useful. She flatly rejected this posture.

In a short exercise, she illustrated a technique of exchange of ideas within a group setting that assured that each member of the group would have a voice – even the shy, even those who felt marginalized, even those who display very different cognitive styles. It was a simple writing down of key issues by each member of the group, a discussion in dyads of each other’s comments, and a reporting out. The goal: feedback to the instructor about what content was being absorbed and truly uniform participation. Gone was the domination of the class by a small number of members.

Her point – this is the type of change that each faculty member can introduce without any alteration of the rules, without any review by curriculum committees. It was just an illustration of how each of us have opportunities to introduce innovation in our teaching, towards ends of greater involvement of students.

Enhancing Impact on the World

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Georgetown’s distinctive and deeply-rooted attributes have enabled it to thrive over its rich 200-year history. The university’s Catholic and Jesuit values, commitment to academic excellence, capital-city DC location, global legacies, and abiding sense of community have empowered and guided the progress of a well-established, student-centered research university. These enduring attributes have enabled a thriving highly selective undergraduate program and have powered the outsized ambitions of a relatively small institution among the world’s great universities.

The 21st century university has greater demands from society than ever before. Georgetown has the ingredients to thrive in this environment. The Jesuit mission of “setting the world on fire,” of “contemplation in action,” and of “women and men for others” is real at Georgetown. Many come here in order to use their lives in service towards a better world regardless of their faith beliefs. Any vision of the future for this community should create ever-stronger activities and structures that enhance the mission of service to others. “Values-Based Solutions to the World’s Problems” thus should be a fundamental centerpiece of a vision.

This focus requires unusual reliance on academic excellence to act as a magnet for the best minds to be at Georgetown. Fulfilling the mission of women and men for others in an increasingly complex but interconnected world will demand cutting-edge knowledge from all the disciplines and fields that constitute the modern university. This means that faculty must be thought-leaders in their fields and engage with the best students in combining their expertise with those from other fields. It means that we must build environments where out-of-the-box solutions and high failure tolerance will be supported.

There are few better geographical locations to a mission of “Values-Based Solutions to the World’s Problems” than Washington, DC. It is the home of the central government of one of the world’s great societies. It is the home of scores of international non-governmental organizations and national governmental research organizations who themselves are devoted to common goods. Georgetown is centered within this global city and is better positioned than most to play an important role in tackling problems on a global scale.

Universities have the task of formation of their students’ minds, bodies, and spirits. Universities have the societal obligation to foster ongoing inquiry that advances human knowledge. Universities advance the common good. Formation at Georgetown arms students with understanding of domains of timeless knowledge, the fundamental questions, animating values of life, basic theories, and conceptual frameworks about how the world works. The core curricula deliberately include foundational knowledge useful in countless applications throughout life. Unsurprisingly, Georgetown, like all universities, organized itself into relatively homogeneous departments, fields, and schools.

If Georgetown retains only the traditional disciplinary units, it risks deemphasizing the focus on solving world problems. On the other hand, if it organized itself only by units devoted to different world problems, it risks losing advancement of the basic disciplines key to future world problems. It must do both.

There are probably many different ways to achieve this. One vision is an organization that permits dual citizenship of faculty and students in both discipline/school units, but also in university-wide centers and institutes whose missions are totally focused on a given world problem. Some centers and institutes (i.e., collections of centers) would likely be enduring over many decades (e.g., an institute on racial justice); others might have shorter lives. The centers would have faculty research appointments of variable duration; the centers would be filled with student (both undergraduate and graduate) affiliates, working side-by-side with the faculty. These institutes would offer credit-bearing courses for minors and majors affiliated with the disciplines contributing to the solution. The units would form partnerships with global institutions in the Washington area, to enhance the likelihood that Georgetown-invented solutions would actually be implemented. The centers and institutes would have space devoted to them, with offices for faculty, carrels for graduate students, design spaces, ideation laboratories, computational facilities – all forming a home for those wanting to work together and teach one another within interdisciplinary groups solving the world’s problems. Whether permanent or transitory, creating opportunities for faculty and students to work side-by-side in this manner is key for our future impact.

None of these ideas can proceed with success without continuing to strengthen the traditional disciplines of our faculty and students. Indeed, working collaboratively on the world’s problems without deep knowledge of individual fields eliminates the value of collaboration. However, with such collaboration our service to the common good can be greatly enhanced.

Progress: Fast and Slow

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Kahneman’s book, Thinking: Fast and Slow, spread to a broad audience the cognitive psychological research findings that humans have capabilities to make very quick decisions based on superficial review of the merits of alternatives. These decisions rest on generalization of past experience to a specific newly-encountered phenomenon. These fast decisions serve us well, except when the new phenomenon exhibits key differences, which, upon deeper and slower reflection, dominate the tradeoff decision.

The book seems to have an analog in societal-level decision making. Over the past few years “fast” seems to dominate over “slow.” Our communications and information flow are faster than ever before — texts, instant messaging, news alerts, an hourly news cycle, digital platforms disrupting the print media. The length of the communicated message tends to be shorter than before; book-length writing is a smaller portion of the communication volume. The speed of technological change seems breathless at times, far outpacing the typical density of change based on basic research. The private sector touts “failing fast,” and moving on to a new challenge if the old isn’t achieved. CEOs of publicly-traded firms feel the pressure of quarterly profits much more than pressure on the health of the firm 10 to 20 years out.

Some of the increased pace is wonderful and has produced positive change for individuals and societies throughout the world. But increasingly, I begin to worry about what innovation, what improvements, such a culture might not support.

Last week, as part of my National Science Board duties, I visited the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) facility outside of Baton Rouge. This facility was key in detecting gravitational waves from colliding black holes in 2015 and from the collision of two neutron stars more recently. It was connected with the awarding of Nobel Prizes recently. It exemplifies the opposite of “fast” in one important sense. The vision of LIGO was set before the 1980’s, with initial funding. There was, as with all breakthrough ideas, with all deeply reflective thinking, opposition. The project was high risk. Once built, the facility detected nothing at all of consequence for seven full years. Consistent attention to improving the quality of the measurement yielded success in 2015, nearly 30 years after inception of the idea. Far from fast.

Another example: In 2002, the idea of building longitudinal data sets, based on student records, that would allow researchers to track the experiences of children in school was formed. Better understanding of the drivers of performance was sought by studying the progress of students over years, seeing whether it varied greatly by different teachers and schools, and measuring their job experiences after they left school. The US Department of Education sponsored the construction of such longitudinal record systems, creating a data infrastructure, taking many years and millions of dollars. Now the states and the country have data resources to answer questions about the performance of educational institutions they never had before.

A final example: Data infrastructure is not unlike physical infrastructure. In the 1950’s the plan for the interstate highway system was a vast investment, building capacity that was not fully needed at the time, but the infrastructure led to vast economic and social changes in the country. A decision was made by people, some of whom would not be alive when the benefits of the decision were achieved.

In short, one of the distinctions between fast and slow payoff often centers around who will benefit. The impact of technology on the speed of much human activity may be making it more difficult to gain support for common good activities whose payoff may be years away. The examples above make the case that some benefits require patient, consistent, adaptive effort over many years. Their benefits to human society, however, seem so important that they deserve our stopping and reflecting about how much time we spend on the immediate and how much time we focus on the long term.

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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