Engaging Intellectual Culture

The new semester is underway and already out of our hands, or so it feels. Classes are getting busy, syllabi have been logged into the recesses of our mind and forced to take up residence in a small corner of our bedrooms. And now that we have just finished the first month, we have consciously formed a strategy (largely denoted in our handy calendars) to maneuver us through the weeks of no sleep, the weeks of no friends, and the weeks we can cruise until we arrive safely at spring break.

 

We are among the millions in America in the flow of their undergraduate education. Some were eager to grow in their faith at one of Southern California’s top Christian schools, some imagined mastering the literature of Shakespeare and Kant, and others dutifully calculated if the high cost of tuition would be worth it once their medical degree is displayed in their hospital office. Nevertheless, for all of us, this college experience will have undoubtedly involved considerable time, commitment, effort and expense.

 

However, after our cap and gown has graced the top of the stage and we have shook Jon Wallace’s hand, how will we answer the question that Notre Dame professor of philosophy Gary Gutting asked in his recent New York Times column: Was it worth it?

 

Aside from how we may respond, some evidence suggests that it is indeed worth it. A Pew Research survey this year found that 74 percent of graduates from four-year colleges said that their education was “very useful in helping them grow intellectually.” Sixty-nine percent said that “it was very useful in helping them grow and mature as a person” and 55 percent claimed that “it was very useful in helping prepare them for a job or career.” Moreover, 86 percent of these graduates think “college has been a good investment for them personally.”

 

Still, there has been talk among journalists, philosophers and educators about the “failure” of higher education. According to Anthony Grafton at the New York Review of Books, much of the critique has to do with access: It is too expensive, admissions policies are unfair and the dropout rate is too high.

 

Grafton’s discussion also makes clear serious concerns about the quality of the educational experience. He presents arguments rearing, in particular, that university curricula leave students disengaged from the material they are supposed to be learning.

According to a report issued by the authors of the book Academically Adrift, college students are spending less time studying than previous generations and are “failing to develop the broad-based skills and knowledge they should be expected to master.”

 

Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa surveyed 3,000 students on 29 campuses and found that–based on transcripts, surveys and the standardized test the Collegiate Learning Assessment—45 percent of students showed “no significant gains in learning” after two years in college. Their research also finds that students spent 50 percent less time studying “compared with students a few decades ago.”

 

In his column, Gutting credits this lack of academic engagement to a basic misunderstanding of what college is really meant to do. Gutting writes that the most essential purpose of a college is “to nourish a world of intellectual culture; that is, a world of ideas, dedicated to what we can know scientifically, understand humanistically, or express artistically.”

 

Many APU professors agree with this notion and have dedicated much of their time, energy and resources to the development of such an ‘intellectual culture.’ For instance, chair of the art and design department, Bill Catling, has adopted a more fluid approach to teaching, emblematic of the biblical teaching of Jesus.

 

“Jesus taught in metaphor and parable and story to where you had to figure it out,” Catling said. “It wasn’t spelled out with a regurgitation connected to it and I’m very inspired by that.”

This sentiment was what initiated Catling’s current research project, a book entitled How To See Like an Artist. The book is philosophical in analysis and rooted in the elements and principles of art, including lines, shape, color and texture. Catling’s 32 years of teaching and slew of students have richly influenced the book.

 

“Hundreds and hundreds of students have been part of me figuring out how this works,” Catling said.

 

Through his experience as a continual learner and teacher of art, Catling’s book emphasizes the human being’s ability to perceive what they see.

 

“What you value is what you see and I’m trying to help people understand that they can change that,” Catling said. “Then you begin to unpack the ways in which you identify the world and what you think is important in the world.”

 

Catling relied on more than ten books and years of personal journals and blogs to comprise his research. He feels that there is a need for this book, especially among people at the church who tend to not see creatively.

 

“I don’t understand to be connected to the Creator…why [seeing creatively] is not a core value of our church,” Catling said.

 

Catling suggests that a level of confidence and competence comes from being able to perceive and see things accurately, and then being able to record it.

 

For Catling, showing people that they can learn how to consciously affect what they see is what drives his passion to teach. Other professors, such as biology and chemistry professor Kathleen Tallman, uses what she sees in an effort to save lives.

 

Nearly seven years ago, Tallman began searching for a research study that would be easy for students to get involved in and relevant to curing disease, settling on the study of biofilms.

 

Biofilms form when bacteria multiply and gather to secrete various things that act as a fortress around them, shielding them from our own immune system as well as antibiotics. These biofilms cause a lot of problems in clinical disease, even making breathing and eating difficult tasks for some patients.

 

“Once the biofilm is created, antibiotics can’t eradicate it,” Tallman said. “So the patient just gets sicker and sicker and eventually they die from it.”

 

Tallman’s experiments involve growing various bacteria in an effort to pinpoint when the body’s cells can best respond to the preliminary stages of biofilm development. Tallman has accrued seven student researchers to work with her on biofilm research.

 

“I want students to be able to get some basic techniques and understanding the background of chronic wounds and bacteria,” Tallman said.

 

Some undergraduate students have taken advantage of such opportunities to get involved in research. Junior biochemistry major Maria Conrad approached professors to get involved in research during her freshman year, a requirement of maintaining her science and math scholarship. She was recently chosen out of a national pool of applicants to present her research at the American Chemistry Society conference this March.

 

Conrad’s involvement in research has also enabled her to perform better in her upper-division classes; being able to “think like a scientist” and her heightened level of understanding the cryptic “science language” often surfaces when reading scholarly journals. Part of her dedication to research serves to prepare her for graduate school as it also boosts her resumé.

 

“[Undergraduate research is] important because it gives students experience in what graduate school will be like and a more in-depth understanding of their area of study,” Conrad said.

 

For Tallman and Conrad, interest in a question keeps them enveloped in research. For others, such as history and political science professor Bryan Lamkin, it is the answers.

 

Lamkin has traveled to Ireland and around much of the American West for his research on Irish immigration. As a cultural historian, he has always been intrigued by the everyday lives of Irish people who immigrated to the West, mainly during the second half of the 19th century. His research encompasses all facets of Irish immigrant life—which requires Lamkin to effectively gain a sense of their lives during this time period.

 

In an effort to accomplish this Lamkin took a sabbatical from APU in 2007 in order to focus on his research. This was his first trip to Ireland for the purpose of creating his new database, and he made two more trips in the next five years.

 

After decades of research, Lamkin will set out to write two books of his own. One is a biography of Denis Hurley who wrote more than 100 letters between his home in West County Cork to where he immigrated — Carson City, Nev. The other will include Lamkin’s collection of 2,500 letters, which he has made available for undergraduate students eager to assist in transcribing the letters into a specialized database.

 

Through the final project — a book to be completed in two years — Lamkin’s students have already benefitted from his findings. Currently, Lamkin teaches history survey classes wherein immigration is a tenant. He has also created the course, Immigration and Ethnic History.

 

International research has also sent history professor Brad Hale across the Atlantic. He has spent nearly seven years enveloped in research that began as a part-time job.

 

As a senior at Vassar College, Hale’s advisor approached him with an offer of a research assistantship. Hale would be researching the Algerian War, circa mid-20th century, and not something we was particularly familiar with — yet.

 

Hale eventually completed his dissertation, “Missionary History in North Africa,” in 2005, and four years later traveled to White Fathers Archive in Rome, Italy for five weeks of supplementary research. Hale’s research narrowed to a focus on the White Fathers — 20th century missionaries who wore long robes as a way to adopt to the local culture.

 

Soon after, Hale was granted a sabbatical from APU. From then the main task was to integrate his dissertation work with the new material from Rome, with the goal of a restructured book as his end in sight. Currently the working title of the book is The White Father’s Burden.

 

“The book fits into this new emerging field of French colonial history,” Hale said. “For a long time people who studied French history did not study colonial history.”

 

There have been a couple of books written on France, missionaries and the colonies. But Hale said there has yet to be anything written on North Africa, and nothing in the 20th century.

 

“What I hope my book will do is address the question of religion and empire,” Hale said. “One of my key conclusions is that because of their faith and their belief that people could be converted to Christianity they tended to think less in terms of race than their secular counterparts.”

 

Ideally a finished manuscript will be submitted to a publisher by the end of the year, Hale said. His target audience is the academic world, in effort of “nourishing the world of ideas.”

 

“There’s a larger project of ideas at the university level,” Hale said. “This is where you want your ideas to germinate and grow, and especially at a evangelical university, we want these ideas to be fed by faith.”

 

Hale advocates that research feeds teaching, and similarly, teaching should excite educators about doing research.

 

“The excitement I have for my research is going to feed into my teaching and I want to excite students about research and ideas,” Hale said.

 

Excitement for research was exactly what was missing from the textbooks Jim Daichendt, APU art and design professor, had required his students to read for years. Daichendt’s recently published book, Artist-Scholar: Reflections on Writing and Research, grew out of unsatisfied students about four years back.

 

“My students were frustrated with the texts that were out there, so it got me thinking, ‘I should do something for you,’” Daichendt said.

 

Daichendt decided that his book would introduce APU graduate students to the process of research and what an artist does to “set the context for them” and provide them with tools for doing research. Daichendt’s book resounds with a loud cry for better writing and research at the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) level.

 

Art is now a full-blown academic subject in universities, a fairly recent evolvement, but Diachendt worries that was is produced in his department is not only drastically different from his history and science colleagues, but also less respected.

 

“How do you transfer a painting about love?” Diachendt said. “You can’t cite a painting; they’re multi-variant, they’re all over the place.”

 

The book succeeds in not overtly pushing a specific philosophy, but rather it lays out many of them.

 

“[After reading the book], I’m hoping [my students will] be stronger theorists, writers, and stronger artists, and own their place as academic artists,” Daichendt said. even if they reject it, that’s fine. Why do you reject it? Give me a really good argument and know the literature on that subject.”

 

Several of Diachendt’s former students are featured in the back of book, essentially as paradigmatic examples of the effectiveness when art is complemented by research. Diachendt does not fail to neglect the variety of strengths and weaknesses within each individual artist.

 

“One of them [featured students] uses writing to fuel their artwork; one uses writing to reflect on their artwork; and one uses their writing as a piece of artwork,” Diachendt said. “I understand that not everyone is the same.”

 

If we adhere to Gutting’s ideal, then our investment in higher education makes sense only if we regard this “intellectual culture” as essential to society.

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