The new year has dawned – the students have arrived, tears have been shed, hugs and kisses with parents, family and friends have been exchanged – and we begin another academic year at Luther College. As the formal opening date of September 2 approached, I spent some time thinking about this place we call our academic home – for some reason more than usual, this year, although every new academic session sends me down a similar path of reflection. Every year I find more reasons to appreciate the joy of what I do as a professor here. Teacher, researcher, learner, conversation partner. These are words which I embrace wholeheartedly as descriptive of my roles at Luther. I am unapologetically one who is wholly wedded to the liberal arts college ideal – a perspective which earned me many a sideways glance while in graduate school at Northwestern in the 90’s and as a post-doctoral researcher at Cornell University in the early 2000’s.
In a sea teeming with physicists whose ultimate career goals lay in the so-called R-1 class of research universities, I stood out like an albino orca. (Photo Credit: Far East Russia Orca Project) I was essentially standing alone as one who had in mind a vocation as a teacher who also is an active researcher, rather than working as a university researcher who, on occasion, was unfortunately required to teach. One of the most common questions I got at Northwestern and Cornell was, “If all you’re really going to do is teach, why are you wasting your time pursuing research? Why not just go out and get a job?” I suspect such a question says more about the questioner than the questionee, but it highlights an issue that is germane to my subject in this article.
An important question for higher education is the following: “How does one build intuition and skills, and how does one become accomplished in any field, able to attend to any problem or question that arises in its pursuit?” I would propose that there is but one foundational method – one primary gateway to gaining the abilities that one associates with the “expert”. There are many words to describe this method, but all focus on one central concept – among these words are Practice; Exercise; Rehearsal; Training. Without dedicated rehearsal of the delivery of lines and the acting of a scene in a play, a cast has little hope of pulling off a solid performance. Without exercising the muscles, and training diligently in order to develop what athletic trainers call ‘muscle memory’, one’s hopes of being an elite athlete are little more than a pipe dream. Without practicing techniques and the carrying out of a plan for both offense and defense, a team has little reason to expect victory on the playing field. These words are united around the idea of discipline. It’s interesting to me, as an aside, that this synonym of “study” and “train” has also become the word we associate with different areas within the academy.
Disciplined study fuels the life of the mind, and can equip a young man or woman for a thoughtful, reflective, and flexible path forward into their life beyond college. The liberal arts college, at its best, can help students become people who are the best equipped to face the uncertain world that is before them. In order be equipped to grapple with the challenges of new problems or new texts, whether one hopes someday to be a physicist or a scholar of Renaissance English literature, education that amounts to mere “content delivery” by a lecturer is simply insufficient. Rather, one needs to practice engaging with questions and working vigorously in the realm of ideas.
Students of physical science gain most along these lines by spending quality time working with complex problems and applying fundamental principles. With lots of practice of this kind, they soon stop asking the question “what equation do I need?” and start asking deeper, more mature ones, like “what physical principles apply?” or “what approximations can I make to help make this problem tractable?”. Through such exercise, they soon begin to know which equations are pertinent, and develop intuition that helps them flexibly approach and solve completely unfamiliar problems. The abilities to think critically about physical phenomena, to analyze situations in terms of critical concepts, and to express the solution to problems in a sensible way are best strengthened by lots of practice studying problems drawn from a wide variety of physical situations.
Research activity functions in much the same way, both for me and for my students. That is, by seeking answers to new questions in physics we have another means by which to strengthen the skills we have as practitioners of our science. Research serves as a stimulus for the germination of new ideas, and as a fertile field for the planting of those ideas. As farmers bring forth crops with care and diligence, so to do we who do research carefully seek to bring to fruition the promise of the exercises undertaken in the classroom. It is for this reason, I told my colleagues long ago, that I see research as vital to what I do, even as one primarily dedicated to teaching. It is literally part and parcel of my calling, and wholly consistent with the beautiful synergy that exists on the best liberal arts college campuses.
I believe these ideas translate well to disciplines from all corners of our campus – and given the fact that I teach in Paideia also, I have the opportunity to put them to the test using a different set of tools in an entirely different field of study. Students we teach in Paideia, I think, benefit most from the course when we present them with challenging reading that invites them to grapple with eternal questions. They succeed best when they read both deeply and broadly, and they are asked to engage in the practice of writing – lots of writing. The highest quality fruit comes, in my opinion, when we supply students with the most fertile ground in which to work – when we teach excellent texts of enduring value that open the door to a variety of important questions. The abilities to think critically about what one reads, to analyze the texts themselves in light of big ideas, and to express oneself in the form of logical argumentation are best strengthened by lots of practice using a wide variety of texts.
Finally – let me return to the fact that Luther is a liberal arts college, and that we encourage and even require cross-pollination. This is the heart of the matter for me, and what drew me here to teach ten years ago. (Truth be told, I was drawn to teach at a liberal arts college the moment I set foot as a first year student on the campus of my own alma mater, a liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest) We have the opportunity at Luther, by urging all of our students to think deeply about ideas in science, art, literature, music, religion, philosophy – all of the kinds of things people do well – to strengthen them as people who embrace the joy of learning, even as we embrace the joy of teaching. By setting before them challenging material from a variety of disciplines, we are able to send students from here who have become more broadly capable as thinkers, more compassionate as carers and better prepared for whatever they seek to pursue next than those whose education is more narrowly defined.
This is an ideal of course, and the practice doesn’t always fully measure up to that ideal. I am greatly encouraged, though, each day by my discussions with students – lately, over Inferno and Frankenstein in Paideia, over the classical and quantum theory of collisions in my physics courses, and informally with students and faculty colleagues alike over the meaning of the Higgs boson discovery, or of the value of literature study for all people. I have hope, as a result of these discussions, that Luther is a place with great potential to bring forth wonderful results for all of us who dedicate ourselves to the common vocation we have as citizens of this place. As this new academic year dawns, it is my hope and prayer that our students drink deeply from the well that the liberal arts education we offer here provides them.