Monday, May 01, 2006

What do we want from an undergrad education?

It's getting near the end of the semester, exams, final projects, and graduation. NWU has a couple big events this week during which our students will do lots of presentations about their work. It's a great time to rejoice in the education some of our students get here, and in the work they do.

I'm also working with students on their final projects for my classes, which are at three different levels, and thinking about what I've been trying to teach students, and what, maybe, they've actually learned.

Last week, I blogged a bit about trying to teach research and our senior level projects, and that got me thinking about the things I want students to take away when they graduate. Like most colleges and universities these days, NWU has a mission statement and goals that we want to achieve. I'm not going to be specific about these because really, most schools have pretty much the same goals overall.

But one of my colleagues the other day was talking about something she wanted all of our students to be able to do when they graduate. Here, paraphrasing, is basically what she said: She wants students to be able to formulate a research question and answer it.

There are a lot of skills that go into formulating a research question and answering it, of course.

Just formulating the question: you need an awareness that there are questions to be asked, and of how they're asked in a given field, perhaps. You need to be able to conceive possible answers, which will lead you to the formulation part of the project.

In my field, one might ask, "Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?"

Teased out, one might ask what "Shakespeare" means here, first a specific historical individual, and then a body of works for which a name stands metonymically.

Asking about a historical individual means you need to think about what history is, how it's written, what kinds of documentary or artifact evidence counts in making history. You need to think about what you mean by an individual, perhaps, and individual experience. You'll start historicizing our concept of the "author" and realize that it's not what an early modern would have likely conceived.

If you start thinking about the body of works, you need to tease out which works you accept as being in the canon and why. That means you have to think about the canon, and historical formations of the canon, and especially about plays as texts or scripts. You'll think about the history of Shakespeare and Shakespeare studies, and the stakes in claiming "Shakespeare" or Shakespeare's works.

"Write" is especially interesting when we think about plays, which were written, but written for performance. You'd start thinking about transmission of manuscripts, printing issues, playing practices, licensing, revision. We have different versions of some plays attributed to Shakespeare (Lear and Hamlet, for example).

So, my question for now is how do we teach students to formulate good questions?

How do we get them to recognize the complexity of knowledge? To what extent can we expect any college graduate to approach complex questions in any field, and to what extent does deeper knowledge in a major feed or restrict approaches to questioning? (For example, I think every college graduate needs to understand the basics of scientific method and inquiry. But scientific method may not be the best approach for every question.)

1 comment:

  1. One of the few aspects of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was that they knew the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything...they just didn't know the question. The answer was 42. Without the question, though, it didn't much help.

    I agree with your call to teach questioning. I think that is the pull of all great teachers (the whole teach 'em how to fish over just giving them a fish thing), but it is at institutional odds with, well, institutions. That is, questioning all assumptions is not what admins can list out on a talking points ads. It also moves, especially with college aged kids, quickly into political dissent, which few institutions openly favor (it may be tolerated, but seldom actually encouraged).

    So, how can we expose students to multiple methods of thought (scientific method, existentialism, transcendental meditation, Romantic adoration of Nature, fuzzy logic, etc.) in a coherent and structure way? This is something I have struggled with educated myself.

    Often I have had to seek such knowledge types out in spite of my college education (no hard (read lab)science requirements for English at my undergrad). Do we develop a specific course for this?

    "Pshaw" you say. "That is what an education already gives you."

    Two more thoughts:

    * you can lead a student to knowledge, but you can't make him think
    * core course requirements mirror the Greek's trivium--which means this discussion goes all the way back.