Tuesday, July 01, 2014

CUR Wrapup: Ownership

Sometimes the seats tell you as much as the speakers.  In a Tuesday morning timeslot -- the last morning of the conference, which is a sort of scheduling Siberia -- a panel on “alternate sources of funding” was standing-room-only.  Some issues transcend institutional type.

Broadly, the suggestions for finding alternatives to grants to fund undergraduate research were in four categories:

- Donors.  A new provost gave a candid “how-to” on working with the advancement or development folk on campus.  Broadly, the key word in that sentence is “with.”  Faculty who go rogue on fundraising can wreak untold havoc, either by alienating donors or by inadvertently letting them off on the cheap.  Encouragingly, the provost reported that the new trend in higher education donations is away from bricks and mortar and towards direct student interventions.

- Internal reallocations.  Assuming there’s enough slack in the budget in various corners of the institution, an enterprising program chair could conceivably cobble enough together to get something done.  I have to admit feeling out-of-place in this discussion, since at most community colleges, the concept of meaningful “slack” in budgets became obsolete around 2009.

- Dedicated fees. If you can get authorization to charge, say, a dollar per credit “UGR fee,” you can build a pool of money that’s relatively immune to other claimants.  

- Internal royalties.  A professor from Marshall University detailed how a chemistry department published and sold its own lab manuals, and used the profits to build a fund to support UGR.

Careful readers will notice that 2, 3, and 4 are all variations on “get it from students.”  There’s a perfectly valid argument for doing that -- UGR is for the benefit of the students -- but at at time when students are as strapped as they’ve ever been, and student loan debt is a hot political issue, this can be a difficult route to follow.  (To be fair, in the case of the lab manual, the self-produced manual is still cheaper than the previous, commercially-produced one.  The profits are diverted from publishers, rather than from students, with whom they’re effectively split.)  

I heard much of the panel as an unintended argument for classroom-based projects.  On a community college budget, most of those will not raise enough to reach more than a handful of students.  But scalable projects in classes offer the prospect of combining sustainability with wider impact.

Adapting UGR to a low-budget institution with thousands of students takes more than just aggressive accounting.  It takes some thought about what, exactly, you’re trying to achieve.

At the end of the provost panel on Monday, someone in the audience caught me off-guard by asking for an off-the-cuff definition of undergraduate research.  I came up with experiences in which students produce, rather than consume, knowledge.  

An answer like that works fairly well for lab sciences, studio art, and performing art, where creation is at the core of what those classes do.  It works less well for, say, political science.  You can’t just hand students a country and tell them to run it for a while and see how it goes.  (The IRB frowns on that sort of thing.)  Classroom exercises and simulations can be great, but they’re pretty limited in what they can achieve.  Perhaps not coincidentally, I noticed that the social sciences and business were pretty lightly represented at CUR, particularly when compared to lab sciences or performing arts.

For me, the payoff to UGR isn’t necessarily the work itself.  It’s moving students from a sense of receiving knowledge to a sense of owning it and doing something with it.  The latter strikes me as both more empowering and psychologically healthier.  It’s harder to be snarky about the flaws in a finished product when you’ve experienced the production process yourself.  (Since I started blogging five days a week, I’ve become much more forgiving of other people’s typos.)  Developing confidence in application is too important to leave to the margins of colleges, where we’re reduced to self-publishing lab manuals to support it.

If we want students to take ownership of their education, we have to take ownership of that goal.  Especially in the two-year college world, that will take a whole lot more packed rooms talking about money.