Imagine a bright sunny day at a major league baseball park. It’s the middle innings of a good, but not notable, game. The lead-off batter hits a long ball down the third base side that arcs foul and heads for the seats. Just as it’s about to land in the bleachers, a gloved hand seems to appear from nowhere and snags a souvenir. The crowd goes wild and the recipient waves his trophy for all to see.
But what’s the big commotion really all about. The ball itself is only worth a few dollars. If that same person found something much more valuable, like a $20 bill, on the sidewalk, people might congratulate him, but no one, let alone thousands, would stand and cheer. The cheering has little to do with the value of the ball, but rather the process of receiving it. Some in the stands will say to their friends “Nice catch, huh?” Others may remark on the preparation needed for someone to bring a glove to the ballpark and stay alert enough through the entire game to be ready for just that moment. Everyone will appreciate that few get the chance to make such a "big catch." But few will say, "Wow, he got a great baseball out of that!"
This scene provides a lesson to those of us in academe: While the knowledge we create has value, it’s the process of creating that knowledge that generates passion and excitement. This lesson probably seems trivial to many of us who have spent our entire careers pursuing our passions in the lab or the library, but unfortunately, too few of those outside of the academy appreciate this basic reality, and this lack of appreciation is in large part our own fault. More than 1 million students earned bachelor’s degrees last year in the United States and more than 600,000 others received associate degrees. That’s 1.6 million people who voluntarily signed on to serve as academic apprentices to us. We had the chance to show them how to make the great catch, but too often we simply gave them the baseballs.
Think of an undergraduate history course, for example. If you ask most undergraduate students to tell you about what they learned in their history courses they will talk about dates, or major social-political upheavals, or great battles and their consequences. But surprisingly few can talk about how that history was written, the scarcity of contemporary records for some events, the difficulties of verifying first-person accounts, the recasting of events over time to be consistent with changing political perspectives.In other words, they have received the baseball, examined it, and come to understand it; but we failed to share with them the excitement of how it came to be. Similarly, too many students come away from our natural science courses thinking that science is knowledge consisting of equations, principles, and specific laboratory techniques, like titration.
I am of course generalizing in many ways. Chemistry majors understand that science is about discovery and history majors have wrestled with trying to reconcile contradictory sources, but most students in history classes are not going to become historians; for many this may be the only history course they take from a real historian. How unfortunate that those students didn’t come to appreciate what historians are and what they do. And the same holds true for most students in our introductory science courses.
How the world would be different, if each year more than a million people left our institutions understanding what we, as faculty, do with all of that time that we’re not in the classroom, what excitement there is in discovering something no one else has ever known, and the value that these discoveries bring to society. Those million-plus people become voters and taxpayers and some of them become corporate leaders and politicians. The world could be a very different place if they better understood faculty work and why universities are important.
This is not simply another call to include undergraduates in research. That is important, but not sufficient. Clearly, students who spend several years, or even a semester or summer, working closely with a faculty mentor in research are likely to come to understand the importance of knowledge creation and the impact such work has on faculty, students, and society. But, given the pace of expanding national enrollments versus the pace of expanding the faculty, we will not be able to offer that kind of experience to the majority of our students any time in the foreseeable future.
Instead, we must reshape our courses to reflect our passions for discovery as well as the ideas and facts that those passions have generated. The current emphasis on team-centered learning and “flipped” classrooms provides an opportunity to rethink not only how we teach, but what we teach. Much of the work to date, however, has been on the incorporation of student skills (participation in a team, student-led learning, etc.) into existing courses. We must also use this opportunity to create course objectives that are defined not simply by content and student skills, but also by creating an understanding of the nature of the discipline(s) upon which a course or curriculum is built. In the future, our courses must be designed to help students appreciate the processes of discovery that define our disciplines, and they should make evident to our students the rewards and the excitement that comes from creating knowledge using those processes.
Just as few of us will have the chance to snag a foul ball at a major league baseball game, so too will few of us succeed in making that really big discovery that redefines a discipline. But, all of us can appreciate the excitement of such a discovery and feel envious that it wasn’t us who made it. Those emotions are what drive us as faculty members and our students deserve the opportunity to see and understand that passion, as well. It will make them better students and better future citizens.
Kim A. Wilcox has just finished his tenure as provost at Michigan State University, and is returning to the faculty.