Life is full of surprises. If we’re lucky, it takes us to places we never imagined. As a child, I was curious about the world around me, although I don’t ever remember hearing the word “research” until I was in college. When I did, it was often, but not always, in the context of incredibly boring classes that required me to memorize formulas, the assumptions of the Central Limit Theorem, and the differences among various types of variables that are subjected to research studies and analyses (independent, dependent, control, discrete, interval, nominal, ordinal, etc.).
I never saw myself as a teacher then, let alone as a teacher of research. Yet, I have been so at both the graduate and undergraduate levels in colleges and universities periodically for the past 20 years. I realized it could be exciting for me, and sometimes, for students. I think I have gotten better over the years at figuring how to make it both interesting and relevant.
During the past few years, I have had a chance to develop and continue refining a new experiential approach that focused on a crucial issue, the link between access to potable water and community health. The small, diverse cohorts of students I worked with each semester have done exciting work. The cohort last semester was especially notable. Their work has real-life implications for addressing health and crucial environmental issues on a local level.
I’ve tweaked the class a little for the semester that began last Saturday. The even smaller diverse cohort I met with seemed excited to learn, unlike the first cohorts at the beginning of past semesters. Access to potable water has gained increasing attention, highlighting its significance as an issue that is particularly relevant for all of us, and especially for vulnerable populations.
It’s likely, though, that this may be the last time the research course is delivered this way over two semesters. It may well fall victim to the quest for standardization and economic efficiency. Few people think of research as a core foundation for future work, and, from my perspective, for life in general. Like me, their prior experiences in courses on the topic may have been something they merely survived to earn a degree.
But research is important. The word “research,” both a noun and a verb, involves paying attention to the world around us, as well as exploring our own ways of perceiving and making sense of what we see.
“Doing research is, in many ways, like taking a descriptive and explanatory snapshot of empirical reality. For each particular photograph, the investigator must decide what kind of camera to use, what scene on which to focus, through which filter, and with what intent.” (Crabtree & Miller, 1999, p. 3)
My perspective of research and teaching has rarely fit within “mainstream” approaches. That’s not surprising to me. My parents were from very different cultures, although both came from economically disadvantaged roots. They taught me to see the world from two cultural perspectives – Ojibwe and working-class Anglo-American. It inspired me to continue to observe and critically reflect about those different ways of seeing throughout my educational journey and professional career.
What I discovered are profound differences on many levels which directly affect how one approaches education. I learned what feels most comfortable as both a learner and educator. The table below is a simplistic but heuristically helpful way to illustrate those differences.
Source: Starnes, 2006, p. 389
These differences point out an indispensable first step when developing any course or curriculum. Ultimately, we first need to answer a central question. What is the purpose of education? Is to mold docile citizens who can memorize and regurgitate answers on fill-in-the-blank tests? Who can perform robot-like jobs without ever questioning authority? Or is education’s purpose encouraging observant presence, curiosity, and critical thinking skills? Providing an understanding of broad historical dynamics and tools that have proven effective for building inclusive, healthy communities? For equipping students with methods for thinking about and exploring creative ways for responding to an array of complex crises we face globally?
Six years ago, my colleagues and I answered that question with the second choice. We began discussing how to implement an alternative – an integrated model of teaching and learning. We created links in content across courses and experimented with collaborative course delivery. The research class was especially challenging.
Students in their junior year had variable levels of the foundational knowledge and skills needed to succeed within one semester. Many had never read a research article or learned how to find scholarly resources, and few had written academic papers. We experimented with a groups’ approach for assignments to reduce the workload. That proved unsuccessful for a number of reasons, so we decided to try a different approach.
We split the course in half and spread it over two semesters. The first semester allows students to learn basic knowledge and skills, and the second provides an opportunity for them to apply what they learned. The course still requires hard work, but it proved to be effective for the majority of students pre-Covid. The COVID transition year (2020) necessitated moving to a remote delivery model that was especially difficult for Native American students. The creation of a new assignment and small group approach that meet via Zoom helped build a supportive network that enabled those who participated to successfully complete the course. Because the new assignment proved so successful, it was integrated into courses for the following years.
We were able to fly beneath the radar for years because our site serves a unique population of students. But the current colonial corporate agenda is one of increasingly repressive measures in education (and governance). That agenda places our flexible, experiential approach in the limelight and threatens its survival. Our site, located within a tribal and community college, is not like the other campus satellite sites which serve different populations. There seems to be little acknowledgement or interest in considering the importance of culture and context in curriculum delivery, especially by national higher learning accrediting bodies and those who don’t have the will, skill, and/or courage to risk challenging them.
I honestly believe that each voice from the margins matters. This post is the beginning of the journey which may signal the end of my formal teaching career. It is my belief that children are born curious.
My grandson at age 2
Some continue to hold on to a sense of wonder, curiosity, connection, and gratitude in their adolescence.
My granddaughter at age 14
The approaches we use in education can help support those gifts or extinguish them. Even in college years, my experiences have shown me that the remnants of curiosity and wonder remain and can be rekindled. But it takes intention, patience, flexibility, and dedicated work to do so in ways that are interesting, relevant, liberatory, and effective.
I hope the decision the college makes regarding the future of education takes into consideration how important these gifts are for our collective survival and well-being on the “pale blue dot” planet we all share (Sagan, 1994/2014).
Benjamin F. Crabtree and William L Miller (eds.). Doing Qualitative Research., (2nd ed.). Sage Publications, Inc., 1999.
Carl Sagan (1994/2014). Pale blue dot. Random House. /Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot OFFICIAL, aired on Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey. Cosmos Studios, Inc.
Bobby Ann Starnes (2006). What we don’t know can hurt them: White teachers, Indian children. Phi Delta Kappan, 87 (5), 384-392.