Bungee jumping

Finding out what others are reading over coffee on a weekend morning can be a reminder of the thrill of being part of an academic community, especially one dedicated to the notion that ideas really matter, not just in theory but in practice. Intellectual thrill-seeking in service to humanity.

Last weekend, a colleague shared this essay by historians Anthony Grafton and James Grossman. In addition to useful critique of some “zombie platitudes about higher ed that stalk the Internet,” Grafton and Grossman make a compelling case for the central importance of student research in the formation of young minds. These are, I would add, the minds of the people to whom we intend to hand over the proverbial keys, so the stakes are high.

In articulating the value of student-conducted research, Grafton and Grossman describe formation, by the student, of a particularly wonderful and valuable self, one who has gotten “past being a passive consumer and critic” to “become a creator,” and who “is intolerant of weak arguments and loose citation and all forms of shoddy craftsmanship.” Far from allowing that acquisition of “the scholarly habits of mind” should lead the student to swim endlessly in esoterica, they describe cultivation of people who can, and must, take these habits into all varieties of engagements in the world. Engaged scholarship as a foundation for leadership.

As my friend expected, I was particularly delighted by the portrayal of what they mean by student research: the true dive into uncharted waters (or waters ripe for being differently charted), with prospects of a single question opening whole worlds. I have called it, simply, ownership. Grafton and Grossman put it this way:

This self, moreover, is the student’s own construction. Supervision matters: people new to historical work need advice in framing questions, finding sources, and shaping arguments. In the end, though, historical research is always, and should always be, a bungee jump, a leap into space that hasn’t been mapped or measured. The faculty supervisor straps on the harness and sees to the rope. But the student takes the risk and reaps the rewards. This isn’t just student-centered learning, in which the student’s interests are put first; it’s student defined and student executed, the work of a self-reliant, observant, and creative person.

I suggest that the faculty mentor does far more than strapping on the harness and securing the rope. The ability to guide, prod, especially to ask questions, so subtly and selectively that the inquiry still belongs to the students, involves a rarefied skill set. To witness members of the faculty guiding students in this fashion is a particular thrill. Members of the faculty describe peak experiences involving struggling with students, and the joy of showing students that “I don’t know” is a statement not of defeat but of possibility. Curiosity and a taste for adventure as essential skills for a rapidly changing world.

The process starts, Grafton and Grossman point out, with a problem that matters to the student. Being human, and smart, having lived a bit, and with the prospect not that far off of being responsible for affairs of import, students tend to care about some important things. So even as the value of these first adventures may lie mainly in students gaining experience in a process of creative inquiry, their efforts can be grounded in real human concerns, and there can be real praxis. Importantly, there is no reason to wait for students to master any catalog of knowledge as constructed by others. As one of our Mountaintop mentors said this past summer, ‘You don’t have to wait until they’re “ready” to give them something big.’ Due respect will come in due course, critical content will be mastered in time, and rediscovery, personally experienced, won’t be forgotten. We may also be very pleasantly surprised by what students produce.

There is value in the wonderful variety of research experiences available to students: the experience as contributor to the work of a faculty-led team, wherein students experience being part of something bigger than any of the individuals involved; the culminating creative exercise in which students apply knowledge and skills acquired over their courses of study; the thousands of invitations to inquiry and testing of possibilities that occur in classrooms and studios, in seminar rooms and sidewalk conversations. All are invitations to explore and construct anew, invitations to creative action and critical reflection. The student-owned free dive into the unknown and untested can be a core part of our cultivation “self-reliant, observant, and creative” people.

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