Humanities Labs

Link to: Inside Higher Ed :: We Need Humanities Labs

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been a member of a fairly large faculty committee from Arts and Sciences charged with developing a strategy for allocating space that will be made available when the School’s of Education and Business get their own buildings. The committee members are thoughtful, committed and dedicated to trying to use this opportunity to strengthen departments and programs that need more space to grow and develop.

Within such a gifted group of scholars and teachers, I’m finding myself constantly cast as the skeptic challenging whether our current teaching methods will continue to be effective a decade from now–particulalry in light of the changes already underway in computers hardware and software, the immersion in technology by high school students and in the expectations they’ll bring to the college between now and 2016. I’m not convinced by the argument, for example, that jamming the wireless on student laptops so that they have to focus their attention on the lecture is good pedagogy. I think we’d be much better served by trying to come up with ways to more fully engage students as participants in the lecture experience–an idea that didn’t meet with enthusiastic support from my colleagues on the committee.

I’ve also tried to raise questions about the future of humanities research, particularly at the undergraduate level. It seems to me that in order to “compete” with the sciences for space and funding, the humanities will have to find additional models of research that embrace the more social, collaborative practices that contribute to student learning. (In this case, both faculty and graduate student members from the humanities are the skeptics as to the degree to which scholarship in the humanities will–or should–become more communal.) This article by “dissertation coach” Gina Hiatt suggests that graduate departments might benefit from re-framing their roles:

If humanities departments were to proceed as outlined by Kunstler, they would go beyond counting their peer-reviewed publications, and move into creating lasting legacies and nurturing breakthrough thinking. Kunstler identifies the attributes of organizations likely to spawn such changes, including the following: “workers immerse themselves in others’ ideas and work, absorbing creative influences,” and “mentor relationships abound.”

I haven’t read Kunstler’s book, but from the references in this article, it seems to be very much in line with the learning ecology approach that John Seeley Brown has been developing. It will be interesting to see to what extent humanities departments do adopt some more collaborative approaches to research.

4 thoughts on “Humanities Labs”

  1. “It seems to me that in order to “compete” with the sciences for space and funding, the humanities will have to find additional models of research that embrace the more social, collaborative practices that contribute to student learning.”

    Yes! Excellent point. I hadn’t thought about the “humanities labs” concept from a funding point of view, but it’s an important additional argument for many in the humanities to try to think outside of the box.

    Thank you for the John Seeley Brown reference to “learning ecologies.” He mentions research showing that study groups who watch videos of lectures, stopping and starting the video to “construct their own understanding,” learn better than the students who just watch the lecture. This result ties into the well-known (in cognitive psychology and neuropsychology circles) work on “depth of processing” by Craik and Tulving. Their research shows that the more deeply, as opposed to superficially, something is encoded, the better it is remembered. (e.g. focusing on the semantic categories of a word list as opposed to the spelling leads to better retention of words in the list.)

    In a similar vein, the diversity of the “learning ecology” described by Brown lead to more richly textured and creative uses of knowledge. I hope that those in the fields that are more isolating will keep these theories and research in mind when they avoid such interactions. I think the comments following my “Inside Higher Ed” piece shows the degree of interest in this concept.

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