Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Encouraging Students to Study Weird Things

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Encouraging Students to Study Weird Things

Article excerpt

When Mr. Trocco helps his students study fringe topics using a traditional academic approach, he sees them become sophisticated, interdisciplinary thinkers.

IT IS tough to persuade undergraduates to delve deeply into their research topics. In the science and health courses that I teach, I can only marvel at how many superficial papers I have read that take the form of the dreadful 'reports' that I remember writing in high school. Asking students to think critically and to interact fully with the complexities of a topic can be a thankless endeavor. However, their failure to engage with a topic seems often to be a result of their failure to understand the character of the research process itself.

Once students have read all the suggested sources and the texts they have turned up through their own library searches, they seem to feel compelled to regurgitate all the material they have uncovered. They describe in detail what the experts think and explain the established hypotheses. The task of providing factual and descriptive background information overwhelms any original ' or even interesting ' thinking that might have emerged. The finished paper becomes a well-documented compilation of the ideas of others.

For some years now I have experimented with a solution to this problem that helps student researchers engage with their topics and integrate their own individual meaning into their work. I encourage students to study weird things.1

By weird things I mean the unconventional and fringe areas of interest that often loosely fall under the headings of science and health and about which expert opinion is skeptical or at least still in flux ' e.g., extrasensory perception, homeopathy, crystal healing, facilitated communication, the Mozart Effect, aromatherapy, or ufology. Because they are beyond the edges of generally accepted knowledge, such topics offer ideal terrain for students to explore. Students can try out their academic skills as they begin to examine the scientific, methodological, cultural, and controversial components of the material. The study of weird topics encourages students to go beyond the simple rehash of facts and descriptions that makes the standard 'report' approach so stultifying.

When students study fringe topics, they have to weigh evidence against testimony and claims against facts, and these responsibilities immediately draw them deeper into their work. Indeed, the reason they must approach these topics differently is embedded in the weird subject itself. As they examine areas that, though intriguing, are often deemed illegitimate from the viewpoint of orthodox science and Euro American analysis, students find that their work becomes a part of their own search for truth and for the boundaries of knowledge. For example, students studying creation science must grapple with the complexities of the scientific process, with negotiations over the validity of evidence, with the varying quality of expert opinion, with the historical contest between religion and science, and with the social nature of the construction of scientific knowledge. In short, they become sophisticated, interdisciplinary thinkers working at the interface between science and culture. What I've found is just the opposite of Philip Kitcher's assertion that 'it is educationally irresponsible to pretend that an idea that is scientifically worthless deserves scientific discussion.'2

At this point, I must add that many students today do not need to be encouraged to study weird topics. Indeed, for this reason, some readers might find my approach misguided. But I believe we can ride this wave of New-Agey enthusiasm and help students transform their thinking processes (and so their research reports) into an academically responsible approach to understanding the world. At the same time, students learn more than I could ever teach them directly about the scientific method, critical analysis, competent research, and, most important, original thinking. …

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