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.
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