a new economy of research?

Job prospects keep dwindling for new faculty — what was once the assumed fate for people earning PhDs.  Here’s a recent account, hard reading.

Part of the problem is the weak economy — a receding tide lowers all boats — but it’s also the result of longer-term changes in university employment.  As public support shrinks, hiring moves away from full-timers and toward cheaper adjuncts and lecturers.  The result is underemployment for the overeducated, and some fruitful soul-searching at the research universities:  exactly what hope can we offer to our doctoral candidates?

At the same time, almost by coincidence, we’re seeing threats to another assumption in higher ed, our sense of where student research should happen.  For most of the 20th century the model was essentially “memorize the canon as an undergraduate, add to it in grad school.”  Not a bad system, producing most of my friends, all of my colleagues, and me.

But something happened on the way to the internet.

First, as knowledge has mushroomed, so has the canon.  It’s become more futile than ever to chase that receding horizon of what a college graduate should know by heart.  Even the surface knowledge that used to pass is increasingly out of reach, and a tough sell anyway, in a world where content is available everywhere for free.

Second, increasingly connected and collective intelligence lowers the barriers to contributing.

I’m a fan of the Council for Undergraduate Research, which espouses college learning different from the kind I experienced.  CUR argues that the creation of knowledge doesn’t need to wait for graduate school, but can instead add materially to the way students are introduced to a discipline.  In other words, if I want my Film Appreciation 101 students to develop their understanding of evolving film aesthetics, why not assign them some actual historical research?

This is a tall order.  My freshmen are not trained or inclined to do scholarship the way we think of it:  solitary, long term, self-directed.  But here, too, technology has changed this picture.   Through CUR I’ve learned of a new undergraduate research trend with some promise.  Call it higher ed crowdsourcing.

One example: at the California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, faculty are deploying over a thousand undergraduates a year to sequencing E. coli.  In the words of project head Christopher Kitts, students participate in “cutting-edge applied research through the lens of an initial focus:  production of a working database of E. coli fingerprints for use in tracking environmental contamination.”  This takes my breath away.  Tell me the enrolled non-major is going to look up from that assingment and ask “why do I have to take this course?”

In a very different discipline, the Visualizing Emancipation project at the University of Richmond is inviting history students around the country to contribute to “heat maps” of the violent responses following the 1863 freeing of the slaves.  Students conduct original, very narrow research into a particular place and date — say, the torching of a church.  Then each pinpoint is rolled up into a timeline and Google Maps, to create a dynamic look at the whole.

If you have time to explore the site through the link above, I recommend it:  you’ll find the project takes on tricky problems of coordination, instruction, and quality control that could inform similar work in other disciplines.  (And my sincere thanks to CUR for calling this tool to national attention through its conference last summer.)

It’s easy to picture students leaving either of these experiences with a much deeper understanding of how we know and do science, or history, than they would get from traditional delivery.  You can read a good, up-to-date account of other “crowdsourced” undergraduate research in a recent blog post from Rebecca Frost Davis, program officer for the humanities at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE).

And here’s an idea:  maybe these concurrent trends reinforce each other.  Given the disheartening prospects for recently conferred PhDs, expanding the research pool to include a broader range of our students may be as ethical as it is educationally effective.


2 thoughts on “a new economy of research?

  1. Ken –
    CUR’s Facebook page “outed” your blog! I’m delighted to find it (and subscribe!). CSUPERB was proud to seed Chris Kitt’s E.coli fingerprint project, a similarly constructed River Delta monitoring project at Sac State, and the development of shared curriculum modules developed in collaboration with Washington University’s “GEP” program (for “massively parallel undergraduate” research!). I think these projects are exciting and so does NSF and HHMI (http://the-scientist.com/2012/02/01/learning-by-doing/). Some faculty/admins still don’t see these ‘high-impact’ practices as being anything like the “research” they did as part of their academic training….and discount them accordingly. The PULSE project (pulsecommunity.org) is trying to raise the bar and change the culture of life science education. It will be interesting to see these trends converge on campus!

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