Simple, Pure, and True: An Emergent Vision of Liberal Learning at the Research University

By Sederberg, Peter C. | Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, Spring-Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Simple, Pure, and True: An Emergent Vision of Liberal Learning at the Research University


Sederberg, Peter C., Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council


Epiphanies, presumably, strike suddenly. This vision, however, was not like Saul's on the road to Damascus; rather, it emerged over 25 years of incremental involvement in creating one of the stronger Honors Colleges in the country at the University of South Carolina. Over the past five years, in particular, my evolutionary experience has been shaped by a growing recognition of an underlying problem confronting the contemporary research university.

In general, the demands faced by research universities have not changed since World War II, though some have fluctuated in intensity. The essential problem, I believe, arises less from external demands and goals than from a certain hollowness at the core of the university. The center most certainly will not hold, if there is no center. Unlike Saul, I did not experience this vision while on a journey; rather, the journey itself built the vision. Moreover, critical colleagues have been accompanying me, constructing and refining what became a major program of academic enrichment for the Honors College--Research Based Learning. Permit me, then, to recap briefly our journey, admitting, though, that this retroactive summary adds a fictive coherence to the lived experience. The journey now has reached a point of recognition of the crisis at the core of the research university, so I then share my response to this recognition.

ORIGINS AND ELEMENTS OF RESEARCH BASED LEARNING

The first step on this journey began with a simple question, "How can the Honors College better prepare its students for their capstone, senior thesis?" The thesis, for many students, was less an exhilarating finale to their undergraduate education than an intimidating, even crushing, burden. Some students in science and engineering were well prepared through earlier involvement in the labs of professors who eventually became their directors, but others floundered. Clearly, many students needed a better foundation and preparation for their theses.

By pulling on this single thread, we eventually unraveled and rewove how we conceived undergraduate education. Our conclusion was that, to better prepare our students for their theses, we needed to integrate the research and instructional missions of the university. Through the integration of these two missions, we would also close the gap between graduate and undergraduate educational experiences and synthesize mastery of the substance of a discipline with creation of that substance.

As Doug Williams, my associate dean and a major partner on this journey, remarked, the current gap between these dualities "is largely filled with rhetoric." We set out to do better by expanding programs that already existed and creating new ones where needed. We gathered our initiatives under the general rubric of Research Based Learning (RBL) and set out to achieve three goals:

* educating the next generation of scholars;

* harnessing the considerable energy and creativity of undergraduates in support of the research mission of the University; and

* enriching the students' mastery of the substance of their disciplines by involving them in the challenges of its creation.

FIRST BRIDGES

A number of honors students, especially in the sciences, participated in the research programs of professors, preparing a foundation for their theses. Some were co-authors on presentations and publications. We first turned to broadening and deepening undergraduate research opportunities across all research-based liberal disciplines by:

* establishing a Thesis Planning course for the sixth semester;

* expanding undergraduate research fellowships in the college by 500%;

* encouraging students outside the sciences and engineering to pursue these fellowships or consider doing third-year independent study projects.

We next faced the challenge of transcending the basic logistical limits of transplanting the standard apprenticeship model of graduate study to the undergraduate population. …

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