How do we know something is true? (Okay, throw-away question.) We hear it—the true thing—from a professor. We read it in a book. We see it on the news.
But on a larger scale, we know something is true because it jives with information we already know, so we can quickly understand how it passes muster.
It fits, in other words, into a discipline: geology, political science, sociology. A discipline is made of two things: a bundle of useful knowledge, and a set of tools which allow us to discover more of the knowledge.
But once we come into those disciplines, how do we begin to grasp the tools required to expand truth? How do we learn to learn?
We search, and search, and search again. We research.
And at Northwestern, we learn to research weirdly.
The domain of research has two different areas: The first includes skills for general research crucial to the production of good knowledge and applicable to every discipline.
Disciplines aren’t just made up of different sets of knowledge, but of different types, gathered by different tools. Quotes from random dudes on the street can work in journalism, but not so much in English literature. The tools we marshall in a specific field can include types of searching, types of reading, systems of organizing information and, above all, ways of honing the questions we’re trying to answer.
Disciplines are made of tools plus knowledge. In one example: “Econometrics may be defined as the social science in which the tools of economic theory, mathematics and statistical inference are applied to the analysis of economic phenomena,” says Damodar Gujarati and Dawn Porter’s Basic Econometrics.
These include finding sources, understanding the rhetorical goals of an author, organizing collected information and posing a research question. Then there’s all the second-level research skills, unique to each discipline. In sociology, these include how to hold a non-exploitative interview or how to tabulate collected data; in English, they include how to marshall a novel’s text to support an argument.
Let’s assume that all those secondary skills get taught in the major, and that they get taught partly through osmosis. Reading literary criticism teaches you how to write it. History and anthropology, to their enormous credit, have research methods classes; most other upper-level major classes will force kids to write a longish paper at some point.
There are no average universities, but Northwestern can seem particularly strange. Of our six undergraduate schools, three—Medill, Bienen and McCormick—are pre-professional and two—SESP and the School of Communication—are united mostly by shared theoretical concerns. Weinberg claims the mantle of the liberal arts college. (University press releases and various administrators, including Provost Linzer, call Weinberg “the College.”)
Those schools are responsible for teaching us pretty much what we know. An average student might take classes in two or three: their “home” school, the College and a "vacation" course to cover a distribution requirement.
Three of Northwestern’s schools have some kind of comprehensive research instruction. SESP touts the research its undergraduates do, putting all students through a comprehensive research class. The class covers the swath of the process: the basics of asking a question, sourcing and validating social policy.
The School of Communication has no broad research requirement, but its individual majors do. Communication Studies mandates students take a research seminar. The theatre department does, too. All theatre students must take 140-2, a seminar taught by a graduate student on a topic from the history of theatre. (It follows 140-1, called “Theatre in Context,” described by Theatre Professor Harvey Young as “Theatre in More Context.”)
Theatre research has concerns most Weinberg kids don’t need to think about, like how written scripts become interpreted performances. Theatre seminars approach those problems. Freshmen take a small seminar, on a discrete topic in which they probably have no background, to learn sourcing, information literacy and how to construct a supported argument and topic of inquiry.
In McCormick, engineering students learn how to do research through individual projects in their Design Thinking and Communication (DTC, formerly known as Engineering Design and Communication, or EDC) course, which the school calls “foundational.” In DTC, teams of students are given a real design problem with real clients—usually a device for a disabled person—then research the client, previous prototypes and the disability itself. The class pairs teachers from the College’s Writing Program with engineering instructors.
“Because students are engaging with research in a way that feels good to them as engineers, they start to understand intuitively the limitations of [every research engagement],” Writing Program Lecturer Kathleen Carmichael says. Students find questions of inquiry from their project: In Engineering, the demands of the design themselves cull topics of interest.
The Bienen School of Music parades its students through a two-year music theory sequence. The class involves some research, but it focuses mostly on the history and practice of western theory itself. Medill’s journalists take 201-1, which verses them in the basics of street reporting and fast news writing. Students in both these schools learn what passes as research in their profession. Neither school teaches its students, in a systematic way, how to approach scholarly research.
So, among Northwestern’s five schools, three push almost all of their students through a research instruction regime, and two leave something to be desired.
Then there’s Weinberg.
Freshmen in Weinberg face a few requirements when they start fall quarter. They probably study a language. They start in on their distribution requirements. If they’re pre-med or in economics, they have to start knocking major requirements out of the way.
They also take a freshman seminar. The seminar gives a professor or graduate student free reign to teach a class on a topic as long as it also advances students’ writing proficiency. Freshman seminars are the only college-wide mandated class the school offers—they’re the only class everyone has to take—and they don’t really teach research.
“The freshman seminar is primarily geared toward writing,” says Ron Braeutigam, the associate provost for Undergraduate Education. “You don’t want to displace the critical function, which is that you want students to learn writing skills early.”
But once students leave the seminars, they enter their departments—and some departments are less rigorous than others. Anthropology mandates all its students write a thesis; history teaches research methods classes; but not all disciplines are so insistent upon research. It’s possible to graduate from the College without learning the basics of scholarly research in the humanities and social sciences. It’s feasible you could graduate from two schools or the College without ever taking a scholarly research methods class.
There’s a reason for that.
“So if you look at any article in the sciences or psychology, how many people are listed as the author?” asks Peter Civetta, the director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. “Seven or eight of them. And it’s not alphabetical.” All the names mean something.
“In the humanities, it’s all about sole authorship. If I’m a professor at Northwestern, and I want to get tenure—which is a good thing—and I want to collaborate with you on a book, that book cannot be used for tenure purposes. Because only sole author works are considered. So the world of humanities, writ large, focuses on sole authorship.
“So then you have this whole model for students, where they see me teach a class but they don’t see me do my work. I do my work on my own.”
And that work is important; it’s what makes us a research institution. But it doesn’t.
The Carnegie Foundation defines what research universities are, and research is much more the operative term for a faculty than it is for undergrads. “Research university” as a term comes from the first half of the 20th century, when large universities built labs, founded journals and gorged on federal money. Research universities—the definition was developed at the time—are designated research universities because faculty publish, and they publish a lot. They have certain non-research requirements. Research universities also must offer a range of bachelor’s degrees, as well as the doctorate as a terminal degree. But research schools like Northwestern are research schools because of what our professors do.
But Northwestern still supports research at an undergraduate level. If you want to do research, and you are an undergraduate, the University will metaphorically pick up enormous Scrooge McDuck-sized bags of free money and toss them at you.
“There is a well-established, smartly, cogently, intelligently established and growing presence and center for undergraduate research on campus,” says Stephen Hill, associate director of the Fellowships Office, whose job is to help graduate students create research projects that outside institutions fund—and he isn’t talking about his office.
He was talking about the recently unveiled Office of Undergraduate Research, which has unofficially prospered for the past few years under the Provost’s Office. Its staff includes Director of Undergraduate Research Office and Undergraduate Research Advisor Peter Civetta and Jana Measells, and they offer all manner of free money to Northwestern undergraduates: $3,000 in the summer and $1,000 during the school year that goes to all sorts of activities, lab experimenting or archive digging or literature reviewing. The office hands out dozens and dozens of grants every year, and its budget has increased by more than 50 percent over the past three years.
“The two fundamental questions I get are: ‘What is research in my field?’ and ‘How do I do it?’” Civetta says.
Civetta and Measells work full-time to support research at Northwestern. This means that they, along with the fellowships office, have to do a little bit of clean-up. They have to fill the gaps in research skills left by Northwestern’s curriculum.
For Civetta and Measells, that means coming to classes and hawking the grants they can offer. That means showing up at activities fairs and talking up free money. And it means holding Humanities Research Workshops, a series of nighttime events in Norris throughout the winter where the very basics of research are taught.
"We ran [the HRW workshop] for four weeks in January—on Mondays in January,” Civetta says. “How crazy is that? We had a great turnout. Over seventy-five students signed up, we had thirty to forty at any session. In terms of humanities and creative arts students, on Mondays in January, that’s unbelievable.”
The program helped students develop research projects. Civetta shares an example:
“I like pies—delicious. I want to do a summer research project on pie. So what are the questions I need to ask to get me from my love of pie to something I can do? This video lays out those things.”
It’s a funny thing: The University wants to give away free money to its students, but it has to teach them outside of class how to get that free money. The University can’t rely on its own curriculum to teach kids how to research.
This is the paradox of undergraduate research at Northwestern, the paradox between what Northwestern’s administration supports and what Northwestern actually teaches. At the extracurricular, administrative level, money overflows: There are two whole University offices, Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, devoted almost entirely to finding free money to support undergraduate research and handing it out.
But what about support for research in classes, in the curriculum, in the supposedly most essential, dayto- day task of the University?
"The best part of undergraduate research,” Civetta says, “is that what they get is the opportunity to take their learning, their curriculum, their major, and put it up on its feet, without everything being cleaned up.
“So if I’m teaching a class, and I’m giving an assignment, if I’ve done my job correctly, it’s really clear what you need to do. Because I’ve cleaned out the mess and you go; I need to write an essay about this which means I need to read these things and analyze blah blah—but it’s clear.
“Well, life isn’t like that. And research isn’t like that. The fun part about doing undergraduate research is that the student has to say, what are the questions I want to answer? And then they have to say, well, what are the best ways to answer them?"
But Northwestern—with all its labs and library shelves—prides itself on being a research university, in a long tradition of scholarly institutions, and right now the system of teaching students how to engage with that tradition does not involve teaching them to research. When Medill or Bienen students find themselves in a 300-level history class—and they will—they may lack the skills to handle the papers they’re assigned with aplomb.
Besides, we throw so much money at research already. Might as well throw a class at it, too.