"Beyond the economic opportunities for the students themselves, there is the broader cost of letting so many promising students drop out, of losing so much valuable human capital. For almost all of the 20th century, the United States did a better job of producing college graduates than any other country. But over the past 20 years, we have fallen from the top of those international lists; the United States now ranks 12th in the world in the percentage of young people who have earned a college degree. During the same period, a second trend emerged: American higher education became more stratified; most well-off students now do very well in college, and most middle- and low-income students struggle to complete a degree. These two trends are clearly intertwined. And it is hard to imagine that the nation can regain its global competitiveness, or improve its level of economic mobility, without reversing them."
--Paul Tough, "Who Gets to Graduate?" via The New York Times Magazine 15 May 2014
“But more important, I am bothered because I think there is pedagogical value in getting lost in the stacks. When I was a student, the stacks filled me with fear but also with awe-they contained so much learning! Today we applaud students for not exploring the stacks but for being efficient, making research quick and easy.” -Julio Alves
I loved Julio Alves’ piece in the The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Unintentional Knowledge.” In it, he affirms the importance of serendipity in research and writing, how “most of the knowledge we possess is not conscious and intentional; it is incidental, or tacit, acquired as a byproduct of performing some other activity…Incidental knowledge continues to play an important role in our adult lives. The library stacks are a mine of incidental knowledge.” It struck me that sometimes librarians bill themselves as capable sherpas who can help students to save time in their research process by showing them optimal databases, better search terms to leverage, and the fastest ways to download PDFs. I often talk to students about not getting lost in the romance of research, the notion that research is taxing, requiring hours of futile searching before landing on solid sources and leads. I encourage them to be organized, to capture their work process, and to do research systematically. In spite of my organizational exhortations, I do think there is tremendous value in following questions into detours from a “systematic approach.”
This semester, I taught a two-session sequence about topic development and research for a Spanish class. I started the topic development session encouraging the students to think about inspiration; what are they excited about studying? What books or issues in class engaged them the most? I encouraged the students to follow their interests and consider how they wanted to invest their time delving into a topic and developing questions that would resonate with them. We talked about topic reality checks, ways of leveraging library resources like JSTOR, Project Muse, and the catalog to see if a topic is viable and whether it will translate into answerable questions. I asked them to experiment, to find articles that might support their topic, and encouraged them to follow the trails started by the sources they looked at through linked keywords and subject headings in the catalog. In the research session that followed, we explored those trails more thoroughly. Even though these are digital means, they are still opportunities for serendipitous browsing; by starting with their interests and following the questions that mean the most to them, it’s easy for students to think of research less as a series of transactions towards a final paper, but a quest towards answering meaningful questions. Inspiration and incidental knowledge can also come from the digital realm, we just have to find new ways of honing it with our students, a resolution for 2014.
When considering the future of learning institutions in a digital age, it is important to look at the ways that digitality works to cross the boundaries within and across traditional learning institutions. How do collaborative, interdisciplinary, multi-institutional learning spaces help transform traditional learning institutions and, specifically, universities? For example, how are the hierarchies of expertise-the ranks of the professoriate and also the divide of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty (including adjunct faculty, tenure-track junior faculty, and tenured and distinguished faculty)-supported and also undermined by new digital possibilities? Are there collaborative modes of digital learning that help us to rethink traditional pedagogical methods? And what might learning institutions loo like-what should they look like-given the digital potentialities and pitfalls at hand today?
Via The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age / Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg. (3-4)
The ability to synthesize different perspectives into the big picture is far more powerful than narrow expertise in any single field. The social sciences offer perspectives from vantage points separated by time, place and society. Drawing and painting offer perspectives on what perspective even means. Critical thinking is the logical result of being able to simultaneously synthesize multiple ideas in one’s mind. Real-world problems rarely ever have textbook solutions. More than anything, the purpose of a college education is to learn how to think critically and what questions to ask. Liberal arts colleges aim to mold their students into well-rounded, well-informed global citizens with a wide skill set — whether it is through elective or voluntary courses that push specialized students to be broader, or general requirements that force every graduate to know at least something about certain subjects. In the throes of our current economic crisis, all conventional strategies for success are moot. All the more reason for a liberal arts education that creates resilient people who can invent creative solutions and always have new ways by which to try things differently. As Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited; imagination encircles the world.
"Why a Liberal Arts Education Matters," The New York Times