My latest at NITLE’s Techne blog: Doing It

August 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Originally posted on August 23, 2011 at NITLE’s Techne blog,

photo from flickr user: DonkeyHotey

Lately I’ve been noticing an emphasis in higher education on doing and producing. You see it manifested at all academic levels—students learn through hands-on projects, faculty get evaluated based on productivity, universities boast of patents generated and parents want colleges to prepare their children to do something with their life (read “get a job”).

All this doing and producing causes a certain amount of anxiety in higher ed circles. The opposition between a theoretical or non-applied sense of “education” and practical work goes way back. In the ancient world scholars were the ones who had the leisure (from the Greek scholē) to pursue studies. In the medieval world a doctor (from the Latin doctus or “learned”) knew the theory of diseases, but the surgeon, or to use the archaic spelling chirurgeon, (from the Greek cheir or hand and ergon or work) is the one who actually practiced medicine in the flesh, so to speak.

In Liberal Arts at the Brink Victor Ferrall, President Emeritus of Beloit College, laments the growing vocational focus in higher education because its rise means the decline of liberal arts education. Against this vocational demand, the conventional defense of the humanities or liberal education or general education (and these terms often seem to get used synonymously) is that, while it doesn’t prepare you to do any specific thing, it instead prepares you to be able to learn to do many things. Or as Ken O’Donnell put it at AAC&U’s 2011 annual convention, general education prepares you “to get a good job–more than once”. The idea that college must equal career preparation and that this is the only valid measure of the quality of a college is the darker side of the narrow production emphasis.

Blooms Revised Taxonomy

But, broadly speaking this applied turn isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, if we look at the revised Bloom’s taxonomy, being able to transfer knowledge and apply it in a different context is a higher order of thinking and creating is the highest level, one we want our student’s to achieve. We also know that if students apply their knowledge they are more likely to remember it. And, authentic, applied learning is engaging for students.¹ So, the less dark side of the emphasis on doing is the growth in applied or project-based learning.2 Many of the high-impact practices in liberal education, such as undergraduate research and community-based learning, include applied learning.

New learning models share this applied aspect; studio or lab models of learning encourage students to work on their own projects while faculty guide them as needed. Or consider how faculty at Grinnell College revised their biology curriculum, as Clark Lindgren explains in “Teaching by Doing: Turning a Biology Curriculum Upside Down”. This introductory science course lets students engage in the discipline from the start without having to get all the theory and background first. Instead inquiry drives learning.

That principle might be easier to imagine in the sciences where applied work in the lab is already standard practice, but what would it look like in the humanities? Chris Blackwell (Furman University) and Tom Martin (College of the Holy Cross) give us some ideas in their Digital Humanities Quarterly article, “Technology, Collaboration, and Undergraduate Research.” In fact, the digital humanities are particularly fertile ground for this practical turn. One of the current debates in the field, famously put into words by Steve Ramsay at the 2011 MLA, is the idea that digital humanistsdo, that to be a digital humanist you have to be producing. This stance represents a methodological turn in humanities research away from narrative argument that matches the practical turn in the undergraduate curriculum.

So, while the calls for practical applied learning—for vocational education—are out there, we shouldn’t necessarily see them as opposed to liberal education. We also shouldn’t concede the notions that the liberal arts or the humanities are all theory and no application or that the only valid application is getting a job. Instead we should demonstrate how liberal education and the humanities can engage students in doing all kinds of things from civic engagement to community service to undergraduate research in ways that prepare them for multiple careers, but more importantly for personal, social and political life.

photo courtesy of Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives

At the same time, we should help the public see the practical contributions of the humanities. To me some of the most exciting applied experiences are those that involve the general public. What if we could get everyone doing the humanities, such as crowd-sourced manuscript transcription projects or mobile history? Would an engaged public with curiosity stimulated and a desire to learn more about the human experience be more willing to support and fund the humanities? Perhaps the proper defense for the humanities is not only to show that we are doing something but also to invite others do it as well?

¹For example, see Michael Lewis, “In and Out of the Field.” Journal of Urban History 36.1 (2010) : 68-80. Print.

2Cavanagh, Sheila. “Bringing Our Brains to the Humanities: Increasing the Value of Our Classes While Supporting Our Futures.” Pedagogy 10.1 (2010) : 131-142. Print.


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