Undergraduate research (UR) has become an important form of pedagogy and formation for our students (long identified as a high-impact practice by AAC&U). The norm expected for UR posits we provide guidance to our students in those areas where we ourselves have advanced research competence. That can be challenging for smaller liberal arts institutions that have typically 75-120 full-time faculty covering a wide range of disciplines. Partnerships with others and engaging in coalitions with other similar institutions for advising support can mitigate that challenge (and I hope to address this challenge in the future). But that is not really the point of this discussion. The current UR model offers the strength of close mentoring relationships and focused training so that we can confer to students what we know best. But the model has a potential flaw and weakness: It can be tempting to train our students to research in the ways we learned to carry it out, toward the purposes we learned, and perhaps with the narrowness of focus that we have mastered.
Many of us have experienced a relatively singular career path. We entered undergraduate studies, moved on to graduate school (perhaps with a stop or two in between), then sought careers in academia. We entered and followed this relatively singular path with passion, with vision, with commitment, with delight. Some found their way by other means, but by and large, the professoriate is still defined substantially by faculty who chose and trod this path from relatively early on. Many of us learned a primary approach to research that we then used for years before developing new and more varied sets of research skills. Should the narrower focus, representing the training in our day, be the only path toward research skills for our students as undergraduates?
It is unlikely that this will continue to be the normal path. We already see many alternatives among the current professorial ranks with more varied experiences and broader arrays of training. This will continue and expand. We know higher education is struggling on so many fronts, and the current economic model is not sustainable. This will certainly affect the future of the professoriate. Hence, we should not expect our students to pursue their professorial paths in a similar fashion to ours. Likely, they will experience far more change and variety. Their paths will appear to meander. Agility, insight, and determination, among other things, will be key qualities they need to flourish. So do we devise research opportunities that structurally expect them to apply the benefits of their training and transferable skills to other endeavours outside research and aside from professional scholarship?
Giving students research skills that are transferable and flexible to new situations will be a valuable offering for them as well as for your program. How is your institution and how are your faculty shaping the curriculum and the experience to aid and form such qualities? Is this on the agenda, the syllabus, as a key output and benefit?
I recently came across (thanks to a colleague at Dordt University) a valuable Eos article from April 2021 titled, “Reimagining STEM Workforce Development as a Braided River.” It can be applied to any discipline. The article suggests moving away from a traditional “pipeline” model to that of a “braided river.” “A braided river,” the authors note, “is a wide, shallow system comprising numerous interwoven and changeable channels separated by small islands.” What makes this model particularly valuable is that instead of a single main entry point, like a pipeline, it allows for multiple ways to enter into a particular field. This approach offers practical insight and direction and is worthy of our consideration. To take such an approach seriously may also require us to adapt our pedagogy and, in particular, adapt the ways we form students as researchers.
I also believe there is an aspect to forming young researchers, shaped by the braided river motif, that is profoundly missional for our institutions. Training students to be skilled in research holds rich prospects of contributing to our goals of enriching both our students’ lives and — beyond that — their communities. It can have a multiplier effect.
For example, developing both an appreciation for and skill in research offers a tool to help us better form students who are savvy about digital connections and media but not discerning about the quality of digital information they engage. Students trained in research, one can reasonably hope, will be better able to sift political rhetoric, to test ideas, and to contribute to their communities by representing and contributing to others’ enhanced prudence, judgment, and common sense. A key point, then, is not to create researchers for the sake of accomplishing research, though that is clearly a beneficial outcome, but to create well-formed students who will be citizens informed by the lessons and methods that go with learning research skills. This commitment to research can offer new pathways to develop impact.
As pedagogues committed to the Kingdom of God, and shaped by the likes of the late Charles Malik’s Two Tasks (forming the mind among the faithful and forming faith among the scholars), this is a valuable contribution toward advancing our mission of Christ-centered higher education, helping our institutions transform lives by faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth.
Stanley P. Rosenberg is the CCCU’s vice president for research and scholarship and the executive director of SCIO: Scholarship & Christianity in Oxford, the CCCU’s U.K. subsidiary.