Normalizing “Research” [Republica Repost]

Published July 3, 2018

“I like your poems,” said a former student, after I published some poetry I had been writing about social issues in my twenties. “But they are rather easy to understand.”

“That’s the whole darn point, dear,” I wanted to say. “In fact, the final poem in the book mocks snobbishly vague and abstract literature.” For courtesy, I instead thanked him for reading.

My generation grew up thinking that “authors” and “scholars” are some extraordinary beings who must think far above the level of everyday humans like us–not to mention poets themselves. Especially the idea of “research” and “publishing” one’s work was reserved for the special, mysteriously capable few.

Today, we no longer live in a world where writers and readers are separate, where production of new knowledge is the domain of only the select few. We all explore issues and write about them, and we constantly share and spread our ideas in many ways.

Unfortunately, the elitism, the abstraction, the mystification, and the general fear about research and publication still persist–keeping everyday writing of the masses fully separate from the publications of a special class of “writers” in the academic sphere. Perhaps relatedly, too many of our academic scholars make a variety of excuses about their inability and unwillingness to do research and to publish new findings and ideas. Continue reading

Producing professionals [Republica Repost]

Published On:  May 30, 2018

Higher education cannot be just teaching, especially just transfer of knowledge. It must foster disciplinary identity and professional development 

Two years ago, I invited a prominent American scholar to lead a webinar discussion for a group of professors at a regional university in Nepal. I wanted the expert to help my colleagues with how to develop writing- and research-intensive assignments and activities that would help foster disciplinary identity in students. He had a brilliant plan for the evening (morning in Nepal).

Our facilitator started by asking participants, who were professors of engineering, natural sciences, social sciences, management, humanities, and education, to write down what made them the scholars they were. “What about the way you read and genres you write, or the material you call evidence or methods you use for research, makes you an engineer or scientist or scholar of humanities?” he asked. “In other words, what gives you the disciplinary and professional identity that you have? You may start by thinking about why you chose your discipline when you started your career.”

When time came for sharing what they wrote, participants didn’t say much. The question didn’t seem to resonate very well with them.

After the facilitator provided some more guidelines, there was some breakthrough. A few of the ten or so participants shared stories about when and why they became teachers. An English professor, for instance, had found private schools a good choice to use his English language skills. As I learned more later, the science and engineering instructors had taken up teaching jobs as an alternative path to further education that may not have worked out. The sociologist and economist, who were women, seemed to have found teaching relatively flexible to fit their family commitments. Even the education scholars focused on teaching more as a job than a discipline. I wouldn’t blame them, given that the system requires too much teaching and rewards little else.

Larger problem 

Here’s the larger problem. Few of our science professors, for instance, seem to consider themselves scientists. There’s little incentive for developing that professional identity. There’s not much opportunity or obligation to approach knowledge-making “like” scientists. Indeed, the very design of our university—especially the model of professional development, curricular and pedagogical cultures, and role of faculty—does not prompt professors to keep updating themselves with new research methods, to maintain rigor, to rethink what counts as knowledge as their disciplines evolve. Continue reading

Redesigning our universities [Republica Repost]

Published On:  April 26, 2018

Teachers and students and the public alike will be thirstier for new knowledge if university education is defined as and designed for putting research first

Would you feel comfortable having a major surgery by a doctor if their training only involved trial and error? Would you want to drive on roads and bridges built by engineers who learned to do so from textbooks written somewhere else in the world? How about economic and social policies that are based on guesswork, historical and cultural understanding on hearsay and mythology, natural resources never explored, environment not systematically preserved, agriculture failing to advance—through research?

Behind all of the above, the most important agent is the university. Unfortunately, our universities do not yet advance research sufficiently, whether as a mode of teaching and professional development of their faculty, as a skill for their students’ future careers, or as their own social responsibility. Other than some field work, some experiential learning, and some library research toward the end of some degrees, research is yet to become central to our higher education. And other than for a minority of scholars, research remains a ritual of documenting publication as and when required for hiring or promotion.

Defining by research

An emerging nation needs a robust culture of research advanced by its higher education. Research is necessary for expanding knowledge, accelerating economic and social progress, improving the labor force, and elevating the standard living and quality of life. Continue reading