Saturday, March 26, 2011

Why Research is Important

On Thursday night, Gail and I had the opportunity to attend the undergraduate research banquet at Seaver College (Seaver College is the undergraduate liberal arts college at Pepperdine). The evening consisted of a dinner, followed by a series of breakout sessions featuring original scholarship conducted by our undergraduates, through a collaborative relationship with individual faculty members. It was an impressive agenda. Fifty-one faculty mentors participated in the program, supporting eight-five students who carried out research projects, and thirty-five papers were presented.

This raises the question of why research is important, particularly at an undergraduate liberal arts college. If the core collaborative experience in college is the faculty to student relationship, which I strongly believe, then the core activity conducted through that collaboration must be an investigation of the world around us – the thing that we call life. This investigation is what we call research. Collaborating with undergraduate students through research is something that Pepperdine University does extremely well.

The concept of research is becoming more controversial in higher education these days. Sometimes, the word ‘research’ itself has taken on a bad connotation, reflecting that higher education is focusing too much of its efforts away from teaching students. In my home state of Texas, there has been considerable controversy of late. At the University of Texas, the Board of Regents recently hired (and later reassigned) a consultant who has previously published papers questioning the value of academic research and whether tenured faculty members are paid too much. These writings, published through the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPFF), support what TPFF calls “seven proposed breakthrough solutions” designed to reform higher education. These proposals are designed to reduce the costs of education through increased transparency, accountability, and better outcomes. These are timely and worthy goals regardless of what you think about TPFF's recommendations.

To be sure, when academic research is pursued at the expense of good teaching, even at the undergraduate level, something is not right. However, at the same time, we have to recognize that good teaching is not about imparting knowledge alone; it is about imparting the process by which knowledge is created. To use an analogy, we don’t want only to feed our students knowledge—we want to teach them how to fish for themselves. Doing so prepares our students to be creative, innovative, and productive members of society. That is how Pepperdine lives out its mission of preparing students for lives of purpose, service, and leadership.

A recent editorial in Pepperdine's student newspaper The Graphic summed up why research and teaching go hand-in-hand. It’s worth quoting:

We aren’t paying for knowledge at a university; knowledge is a free commodity these days. We misunderstand our education when we think it’s defined by doing well on tests and earning a GPA. There is something bigger that takes place. What the university provides, that no other website or book or library can provide, is an environment where those who love to learn can come and uncover reality together (Pepperdine Graphic, March 24, 2011).

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