This morning I joined a group of students in Dr. Anna Malavisi’s class: Sustainability: Economics, Ecology, Ethics. This interdisciplinary course explores the intersection of these three topics or areas of study on decisions around environmental issues. I was to introduce our guest speakers, State Senators Julie Kushner and Christine Cohen, who serve as chair and vice chair of the Environment Committee. Their presence provided a wonderful opportunity for our students to get a sense of the complexity of developing good legislation around environmental issues.
The wonderful thing about the conversation was the way in which the Senators were able to give specific details about how communities can come together around an issue and how individuals can participate in the discussions that matter to them. It was a positive conversation that acknowledged the challenges of budgets, differing interests, and competing needs. Their examples revealed that different perspectives are both a challenge and an opportunity to build consensus. The examples they provided showed strong pathways to positive change.
As students asked questions about the environmental issues they had identified as important, one of them finally asked a question that sparked a particular interest from me. She asked, (and I am paraphrasing), how can the university get involved? Good question.
It is complicated to discuss advocacy at a university. We do not all believe in the same things. We do not all want to see issues resolved in the same way. As a university, we value inclusive dialogue from all points of view, but sometimes we are hesitant to get started on policy advocacy, for fear of the discomfort differing opinions might create. However, as I listened this morning, all I could think of was the value of the conversation. Students did not get simple answers to big environmental questions; they got the complexity of competing needs. Perfect! We can work with this model in so many ways.
As I have remarked in other columns, education has a great opportunity to avoid the silliness that takes place in sound bites, tweets, and communication that is meant to provoke outrage rather than solve problems. We have the luxury of a semester long conversation on a topic. We are cultivating scholars who can find answers to questions for themselves and then discuss them in groups. By design, we encourage deep thinking about issues and, by design, we investigate multiple answers to our questions. Tying those conversations to the potential for real-world change could help raise the level of seriousness with which our students conduct their research and apply their knowledge.
Generally, applied research takes place later in a student’s college career. We design our curriculum to introduce a field (100-level), engage some of the key scholars (200-300 levels), review the appropriate approaches to scholarship (200-300 levels), and then get into asking and answering questions (300-400 levels). This all makes sense because we are helping our students build a toolkit and context for answering questions. But, perhaps we need to re-think the starting place. What if the introduction to the field was a policy question instead of the history of the discipline?
This approach is particularly well suited to the social sciences, because the big questions in those fields are easily connected to current challenges. Developing policy recommendations around food insecurity, culturally responsive healthcare, treatments for addiction, appropriate punishments for crimes, or the economics of free public higher education are all likely to yield a lot of good discussion and complex policy analysis.
It can also work well for the humanities. Consider policy recommendations on topics like censorship and the arts, ratings on various media products, displaying controversial historical artifacts, or promoting diversity in curriculum. These are weighty topics that demand deep ethical scrutiny, prior to any policy recommendations.
Then there are the sciences. Instead of discussing the ethics of scientific research after time in the labs, situating the pros and cons of using antimicrobial soaps, requiring vaccinations, or creating databases of DNA in a policy recommendation could be a very compelling introduction to scientific thinking.
Reimagining the beginning of the educational process this way is a great way to connect learning to action from the start. It moves abstract concepts like bioethics to an exploration of real world implications in easy to understand ways. Asking students to make decisions and recommendations is a compelling way to support engagement; asking them to collaborate in the process offers the opportunity to practice reasoned and civil discourse.
We would, of course, still need those other steps about the history of the field, relevant theories, and appropriate research methods. But, if we start with application, perhaps those other courses would have greater meaning for the students, because they will have already seen the path to action. Better yet, perhaps their advanced research projects will be informed by the notion that the results could be part of a recommendation for changes in the world around them. Now that is a formula for engaged learning.