Saturday, 14 March 2015

Disciplinary Epistemologies 101

Since there have been universities, there has been a crisis in them. We should probably look at the more recent hand-wringing about universities teaching students relativism in the light of recurring accusations that universities corrupt youth, but I’m not going to do that analysis here (or ever, even). Instead I’m going to tell you about my Research Methods class.


I had recently that article for Ethika Politika in which Margaret Blume worries that varied distribution requirements at Yale University—some humanities, some social sciences, some hard sciences, a language or two, etc.—neither give students the sense that the different disciplines could speak to each other nor provide them with a framework in which to organize themselves; with this in the back of my mind, I was listening to my Research Methods instructor talk about the positivist underpinnings of quantitative research and the constructivist underpinnings of qualitative research. Putting the two together, I thought: Hey, maybe what Yale—and UBC, and whoever—needs is a mandatory introductory Research Methods and Disciplinary Epistemologies class.

My experience in undergrad left me with the acute sense that almost none of my peers knew why their own disciplines did things the way they did them, let alone why other disciplines made different decisions. No science student, for example, could tell me why they wrote everything in passive voice, and so they were generally immune to my editorial tirades about 1) cacophonic language and 2) awful epistemology re: denying that the Observer Effect exists.* Students in the humanities weren’t much better; in English, for instance, theory courses were optional for many students, and not all those on offer were great. The only ones who seemed to know these sorts of things were grad-students-to-be or people who took Introduction to Philosophy and listened to the professor.

So if the problem, as Blume would have it, is that undergraduate students had no idea how to put the puzzle pieces together, it seems like a Research Methods and Disciplinary Epistemologies class would be a great solution. I don’t agree, actually, that quantitative research implies positivism and qualitative research implies constructivism—that’s a long discussion, but suffice to say that I’m doing mixed methods research right now—but that’s the sort of conversation that might put the pieces together. Getting a whole big picture of all the disciplines would really help.

Now, there are some problems with this course, logistically. There are really only two people who I’d trust to teach the course: myself and my first-year Philosophy professor. There are probably others here and there, but that’s still a low enough percentage of the people I know that it’s worrisome. Maybe there’d need to be a set curriculum. The issue is that I trust neither insiders nor outsiders to teach a discipline’s epistemology; you’d probably have to have one of each. Maybe there could be modules: one professor handles the etic approach, and guest lecturers handle the emic approach.


This lovely daydream lasted perhaps five minutes before I remembered that I had been a Teaching Assistant for a mandatory Intro to Literature class, and I had sworn off the idea of classes mandatory for all students then and there. You can lead a horse to water, they say, but you can’t make it drink; in my experience, quite a lot of horses won’t drink precisely because you lead them to water when they didn’t want to be lead. These we’ll-make-them-learn-these-things-by-making-it-mandatory schemes rarely work.

I have heard of exceptions, where a professor and batch of TAs manage to get all or most of the students into the humanities, at least in heart if not in enrollment. But this seems to require a dream team of excellent professors, excellent TAs, and excellent students; rarely do you get two, let alone three, of those requirements. In the end, you just can’t force students to accept what they’re not willing to accept.

And it occurred to me, too, that a lot of the content I’d want to teach might be well over the heads of most first year students. As a first year student it took me years to understand existentialism and Buddhism and constructivism, letting them slowly gestate long after I’d passed my Philosophy and Religious Studies finals, and I’m the sort of person who’s good at this sort of thing and won’t leave it alone.

So I’m going to have to come out against mandatory courses in university, no matter how well intended. I don’t think they do what we want them to do. But maybe we’re just doing them wrong?


Leah wrote that maybe the framework-building should be extracurricular anyway, and I’m inclined to agree. Classes might not create incentives for truth-seeking; they are good at creating incentives for skill-building and material-mastering, but I don’t know how you could grade someone on whether or not they are right, on whether their commitment to their values is authentic, on how justified their decisions are. And if you aren’t grading students on something, not many of them are going to do it. We should encourage big questions in the classroom, but we can’t expect students to find them there.

And maybe casting students into a sea of relativism for a while is good for them, as I mentioned in my last post, so long as we give them some sense that they can and should and must get themselves ashore. We can’t get the students ashore for them, more than likely, and while we should think of ways to help them do so, the best method might just be for professors to model evaluativist thinking. For the most part they already do award evaluativist thinking in assignments, since every disciplinary epistemology I’ve encountered has been thoroughly evaluativist; we needn’t make “evaluativist thinking” a formal requirement.

And the not-so-secret subtext of Blume’s article seems to be “every school should be a Catholic school,” so maybe I shouldn’t be taking it as seriously as a critique of university. For instance, Blume’s suggestion that only Catholic theology can tie together the disciplines is just silly: even if you spot her that Catholicism is true, it’s hard to deny that Islamic theology, Buddhist epistemology, and historical materialism have been able to create a coherent, if not necessarily true, framework for all disciplines.

But, anyway, it’s something to think about. I wouldn’t mind teaching a Disciplinary Epistemologies and Academic Research course; I just wonder who I’d teach it to.

* In case you too are unaware of the sciences’ use of the passive voice, I’ll explain it: sciences use the passive voice (“The results were analyzed…” rather than “We analyzed the results”) in order to mask the researchers’ presence. In theory, the researchers shouldn’t matter, the sciences say; we are removing the personality etc. from the procedures. Of course, some version of that claim is true, but not to the extent removing the researcher from consideration entirely. The observer effect is often a serious one, and this grammatical elision hides the way researchers are involved in their research. Consider Nixon’s famous remark, “Mistakes were made”; passive voice is the mechanism by which responsible agents deny responsibility.
Moreover, the science students whose papers I edited never knew why they were supposed to use the passive voice, so they also never knew when they were supposed to use it. As a result, they used it in almost every sentence, even when it was confusing and unnecessary.

No comments:

Blog Widget by LinkWithin