Favorite Days

Bill Gern

My two favorite days at UW are fall’s new faculty orientation and Undergraduate Research Day. What’s the similarity? I’ve decided that both events fill me with hope.

A room full of new faculty colleagues, each bringing their knowledge to UW is really a room full of opportunity. They are embarking on what I think are the best careers one could have. Faculty members are paid to create knowledge or new applications or interpretations of existing knowledge and then pass it along.

There comes a time in every faculty member’s career when they may be the only person in the world who possesses a specific piece of knowledge. It is like having a coin in your hand – what to do? This kernel of knowledge may be published in an academic journal or a book and most certainly it is passed along to UW’s students. It may be expressed as a work of art or literature but the fact is that it is placed into that body of knowledge created through human endeavor. And new faculty orientation stirs that up. Every new faculty member in that room wants to make an impact. Hope is everywhere.

Undergraduate Research Day does the same thing –students are talking about specific areas of scholarship where they have created new knowledge or learned how to navigate the path to knowledge creation. Sitting in the audience at the presentation sessions is inspiring. Energy pours into the room: students on fire, faculty fanning the flames, human endeavor on display. At the end, when the invited speaker is gone, the parents, faculty and participants have left the Yellowstone ballroom and I am walking through the cool evening to my car all I think about is how we will be OK. Their generation is ready. Hope triumphs.

New faculty orientation and Undergraduate Research Day are tied to one another. One feeds the other. Quite frankly I am tired of hearing about teaching and research as though it is teaching v. research. Reshaping this mindset is a goal. Certainly the standard model exists – the professor lectures and the students are expected to understand. But even this is changing. Enter active learning. Here a minimum of information is conveyed and the students through project-based learning are expected to fill in the picture. They are teaching themselves and the lessons learned stick much longer. Learning by doing is an apprenticeship of sorts that is practically medieval.

It doesn’t stop there. Faculty members invite students to work with them individually on specific projects where the outcomes are not known. Faculty and students join on a walk to the frontier of knowledge. Along the way, it may become impossible to tell who is the teacher and who is the student. This has been my personal experience when students join me in knowledge creation.

I would argue that this happens best small research universities where students are more than a number and where faculty take personal interest in students. Faculty members are expected to actively pursue scholarship, and students benefit from the fact that they are learning from the knowledge creators. It is here where the stew of learning becomes thickest, where students and faculty work one-on-one, where teaching and learning switch back and forth. After all, it’s about learning, it’s about knowing. How this is done is simply another form of human endeavor. And that fact fills me with hope.