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.

Excuses we make

Too many teachers/scholars believe that they lack the resources necessary to do research. In reality, a lot of research doesn’t require much funding. They argue that they lack time, or that their institutions do not provide them sufficient support for conducting significant research or for publishing findings. In reality, professors in public institutions are provided considerable time and support. With enough interest and commitment, scholars in the private sector could also invest some time in reading and writing, at least to stay up to date. Prevalent assumptions have it that scholars in developing countries lack access to good international venues, where they face linguistic, financial, and other barriers. The solution to the challenges of access lie in first enhancing the quality of local venues, taking individual and institutional initiatives, and giving more priority to research as a key educational mission.

We are also frustrated to see scholars taking shortcuts or even engaging in outright corrupt practices, such as starting a flood of dead-end journals in response to call for recruitment or promotion, publishing in predatory or low quality journals, or even making up non-existing publications. We can only overcome such challenges by gradually building a culture of research, by understanding and appreciating research as foundational to teaching and learning. We must begin to value research as normal and necessary for teaching and learning, academic and professional success, social and economic progress.

When modern higher education was instituted in the mid twentieth century in Nepal, the primary objective was to produce a cadre of workers for government bureaucracy with a general amount of knowledge in a number of academic disciplines corresponding with a number of professions. Thus, whereas an officer in the transportation office would need a civil engineering degree, a chief district officer (CDO) would benefit from degrees in political science or economics. But as the case of CDOs indicates, acquiring a static package of content knowledge in a certain discipline or disciplines became less and less sufficient for most professions, creating the demand for continued learning on the job. This continued learning involved researching and analyzing issues, formulating theories and generating broader perspectives, and using practical strategies and technological means to understand new situations and solve new problems.

Academic institutions and academic scholars have somehow remained unconcerned about the increasing gap between the many skills that the society and professions demand of students and the academic knowledge and skills they provide their students in college/university. But it is evident to the public, including students, that colleges and universities must prepare students to research existing knowledge on any subject before taking a position on it, to investigate new social phenomena and to rethink older understanding for being productive citizens, to systematically test and experiment phenomena for being ready for the industry and business, and to gather and connect and synthesize new ideas in any profession. Today’s students must be able to develop and test product prototypes or organizational initiatives, evaluate samples and specimens, conduct case studies and market analysis, gauge public interest on issues through surveys and interviews, conduct action research to improve the work they’re involved in. Skills like these are natural and normal part of everyday life, as well as professional and academic careers. Higher education will no longer be useful if it only tries to deliver content knowledge provided by others in neatly outlined textbooks.

Pathways for promoting research

Part of the reason that research has become ubiquitous, and should also be normalized, is because of the explosion of knowledge and how quickly and easily it can be generated, stored, accessed, shared, and collaborated on. We “find” what we need, or explore what we’re interested in, whenever we need it and with more modes and methods to do so. But research has also become a more common activity because societies are testing and changing, discovering and updating, inventing and disrupting much faster. In a world where almost everything is measured and tested, almost everyone is analyzing and updating, education cannot simply be absorbing of information and perspectives made ready by others.

One way to make research and knowledge-making a more common part of higher education is to integrate research skills and experience into the curriculum. To do this, teachers must stop focusing on the difficulty of teaching research because there is “too much course to cover” or because “research is not tested in the exams.” Even to the extent that such challenges are real and insurmountable, teachers can integrate research into their teaching by helping students do quick and easy research. To help students understand “market psychology,” for instance, a finance instructor can ask students to measure the level of confidence in the stock market among family members. That doesn’t require changing the exam system or prevent from completing the course. Even if just a few student ask a few people, they will bring something to share on the subject back in the classroom.

A related pathway for normalizing research is to train teachers on how to integrate research skills into their teaching. It is when we don’t know how to do a new thing that we tend to believe that it takes too much time, that it is difficult, and so on. We also have the courage to change or impact the system when we have the skills to do things differently and can use the resulting confidence to try to do so. For example, simply asking students to raise a hand if they believe in ghosts can be considered a small sociological or psychological research done right in the classroom. Teachers can ask students to find out more about a topic to be covered in class by reading the Wikipedia entry on it, by talking to people who know about it, or by conducting an experiment where feasible.

A third strategy for making research more common and less daunting is to provide support for instructors to do their own research and publish their findings and ideas. There has been pressure from many places to change teaching across public and private institutions of higher education in Nepal. For instance, professors say that they’re having to update their teaching methods after the implementation of the semester system because students demand updating teaching. Teachers and students, in turn, create pressure on those who design the curriculum, as well as on curricular materials, institutional leaders, and students. However, there has been much less pressure on the need to increase and improve faculty research. In this context, institutions must launch new initiatives–such as writing retreats, writing groups, publication workshops, research skills support, and training for technology involved in research and publication–in order to improve faculty scholarship and integration of research into teaching.

Commitment we must make

Of course, it is not easy to change the culture from too many scholars doing research to fool the system to as many scholars embracing research with commitment and passion. Nor is it easy to change the incentive structures where mere counting of years carries more professional development weight than publishing rigorously done research; those who have just relied on their years of service to rise up the ranks make or maintain such policies.

But an increasing number of committed faculty members who understand research and publication as useful and essential to improve higher education, to make it more socially useful, can begin to shift the culture in the right direction. Students, parents, and employers alike understand the value of the ability to find out or figure out and to make sense and share ideas.

If we can counter the idea of giving more respect to vague ideas and highfalutin writing and instead focus on an education that focuses on understanding and tackling concrete issues of life and society, then we can make research normal. We can make education more meaningful and valuable.

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