Celebrate Higher Education - Palgrave Macmillan Authors
In Their Own Voices - Susan Iverson
Susan Iverson is the co-editor of Feminist Community Engagement (9781137441119). In her own words, she speaks about the evolving importance and role of Higher Education.
A day without research in higher education
These are challenging times for higher education– shrinking resources, public pressures, accountability movement, competency-based education, commodification of a (former) public good, and global competition. Amidst the popular, political, and administrative debates about the purpose and future of higher education, it is easy to see our “business” as removed from research, an exercise reserved for those who occupy a crumbling ivory tower of intellectual pursuits for the sake of knowledge. However, let us imagine that for a day, research does not exist, is not available to, higher education.
On this day without research, students would attend classes to learn content whose sources would be unknown. Any book – if we used books – would be the same as the next; no one source would be different from another. Pages would be filled with stretches of text masquerading as scholarship, like passing off Hallmark cards for poetry. Students may be directed to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, but its content would not be referenced or verifiable; any and all opinions could fill the page.
YouTube videos would rule the day, and enable learning to move more easily beyond brick-and-mortar classrooms to virtual spaces. The weight of evidence for particular sources would be determined by the number of “likes” and “shares” given by viewers. Everyone’s opinion would hold equal value; students’ cognitive development need not advance beyond an appreciation of multiplicity of views. Aspirations for higher order, critical thinking would be a dream deferred, or would be a way of thinking held by those few who construct the learning schemas. Opportunities for higher learning would be like cable television channels or blogs on the internet. Seemingly countless possibilities would exist for students to “subscribe” to or “follow” whatever outlets suited their professional or personal proclivities with no criteria or context to guide their use.
How would we know what students were learning, or if their learning was enhanced in brick-and-mortar versus virtual spaces? We would not need to. Understanding differences in learning styles, the impact of particular environments on students, or the role of various educational approaches or types of instruction on students’ learning would all be folly. Students could self-direct their learning; they could determine the pace and level of (self)instruction that best suits them.
Learning environments would require little more than coaches who would encourage students in their pursuits of competence and excellence. Just as the content of particular disciplines would rest on no foundation, other than perhaps the whims of the marketplace (which presumably also has no foundational knowledge), then “instructional delivery” would not be contingent upon full-time (or even part-time) faculty with degrees. Personality would trump knowledge. The charisma needed to capture and hold the learner’s attention would be paramount.
Whether one’s identity mattered in higher education would be inconsequential. We would have no basis, or perhaps reason, for considering how being a woman in science or man in business may disadvantage or privilege one’s curricular, or co-curricular, experiences. How students may navigate life outside the classroom, such as involvement in athletics, residence life, student activities, would not warrant any consideration either, for no one would ask questions about or seek to hear the stories of Black males, or student veterans, or lesbians, or students with disabilities (among other populations) on campus.
The organizational environments in which students learn would be solely responsive to the marketplace. Understanding how to lead, or respond to change, or draft policy, or manage finances, among other aspects of organizations, would be dependent on individual dispositions or biases, potentially learned from watching a TedTalk by a charismatic leader. Issues of equity in these environments (i.e. equal opportunity and non-discrimination) may be legislated, but we would have no basis for deploying one practice over another, beyond the inclinations or preferences of individual managers or the crowdsourced beliefs of popular culture.
We could continue to imagine, and some readers may be pondering more moments in this ‘day without research’ than I have begun to explore. Yet, it is this exploration – this imagining – that is the importance of research in higher education.
Volumes have been written on how students learn; on what curricular and pedagogical approaches enhance students’ cognitive development; and on how to attribute differences in learning. Beyond descriptions of best practices, research systematically collects data to make evidence-based claims. Myriad variables impact students’ learning (e.g., class size, teaching face-to-face or online, use of tenured or adjunct instructors, the role of gaming or videos in instruction); and these choices should be grounded in research, and not just economics.
Research, for instance, has illuminated the powerful possibilities for interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Complex social issues, such as global warming, are not going to be fully understood through pursuit of one subject (i.e. ecology) in isolation from another (i.e. economics). Interdisciplinarity is not only important for enriching how students learn, but also for how educators teach. The potential for music in discussions of citizenship in the social studies classroom (Iverson & James) or for script-writing in educational research (Iverson & Filipan) are illustrative of how the arts can spur deeper learning in education classrooms (in Dowdy & Kaplan, 2010).
Research has shown that environment matters and signals the ways in which educators can be purposeful in designing learning-supportive campus environments (Strange & Banning, 2001). Further, the role of experience on one’s education has been theorized and studied for more than a century, and has given rise to contemporary emphases on experiential learning. Correspondingly, research purposefully seeks to understand what determines a fruitful or quality experience. In response, scholars explore the role of various experiences, e.g., study abroad, service-learning, and the potential for community partnerships. Some of my work (e.g., Iverson & James, 2014) further theorizes that critical perspectives (i.e. feminism) are needed to fully realize the social change potential of community engagement initiatives.
Research has also revealed which, and how certain co-curricular experiences are more likely to have “high impact” and have greater potential to increase students’ persistence and engagement (Kuh, 2008). For instance, researchers have investigated the effects of living on campus, involvement in student activities, participation in athletics, engaging in inter-group dialogues, among other co-curricular experiences (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Yet, too often, the process by which new practices are identified and implemented is unsystematic, and this risks limited (if any) effects on students’ development.
Research continues to interrogate and reveal the ways in which identity matters in higher education. For instance, numerous scholars have written about the contested use of race-sensitive college admissions practices (e.g., Harper, 2006; Ibarra, 2001; Schmidt, 2007). Other researchers cast light on the persistent challenges faced by women in higher education (Martin, 2011), offer perspectives on disability identity (Wappett & Arndt, 2013), and the experiences of student veterans on campus (Rumann & Hamrick, 2013).
Research can describe a problem (i.e. racial disparities in education); it can proffer explanations for why disparities exists (i.e. chilly climate for women in STEM); it might posit predictive relationships (i.e. role of literacy on future health); scholarship can even empower and fuel social change (i.e. how the use of critical race theory can reveal and disrupt dominant narratives that sustain marginalization). Whatever the purpose or goal of inquiry, educational design in the absence of research yields accidental success at best and detrimental initiatives at worst.
Leadership and Organizational Development
Finally, research guides how we conceptualize leadership and the ways in which organizations respond to change. Leaders can be collegial or political; they can be driven by marketplace factors or a social justice agenda; and they may lead in various contexts, from liberal arts colleges to public research universities, from community colleges to historically Black colleges and universities. Researchers investigate these many factors and contexts to understand how to lead change in a complex organization, and their findings (must) inform the debates surrounding higher education today, and for tomorrow. Decisions – whether socio-political, administrative, educational, policy-driven, or economic – must be grounded in research, else they risk being nothing more than opinion, convenience, or bias.
Now some may argue that research and practice seemingly exist as two parallel arenas, and that too many decision-makers fail to access research and some research is void of practical grounding. I acknowledge this argument. However, it should not be a rationale to subordinate research to the realization of practical ends; rather we must ensure research and practice inform each other. We need scholar-practitioners; meaning those who have little (or no) responsibility for conducting research must draw upon the scholarship of others to inform their work and contribute their observations of given phenomena to those who will study it. Equivalently, those who conduct research must articulate implications and applications of new findings and stay connected with those whom would be the beneficiaries of new knowledge.
Has research changed higher education? Historical analyses attest that our educational systems today barely resemble our origins, and I believe this change can be attributed to both socio-political pressures and to scholarship. Higher education, like society, will continue to change, but never so much that research should be obsolete. Research in higher education is important to understand and pose solutions to today’s ill-structured problems
Susan Iverson is Associate Professor in the College of Education, Health, and Human Services at Kent State University, USA.
* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Palgrave Macmillan
1) This essay took inspiration from Baumgartner and Richards’ essay, “A day without feminism,” in Manifesta (2000, pp. 3-9).
2) From Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem.”
3) This is not to suggest that theorizing isn’t important, or that research cannot be conducted if insufficiently grounded in practice. Contributions to knowledge serve many purposes, of which “informing practice” is only one.
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Iverson, S.V., & James, J.H. (Eds.). (2014). Feminist community engagement: Achieving praxis. Palgrave.
Kuh, G. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.
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