The following post dates back to January 15, 2007, when I had been employed at Laurentian for less than a year and was getting an institutional repository up and running.... I think old me had some interesting thoughts!
The author advocates an approach to university curriculum that re-emphasizes the student's role in the search for truth and knowledge by providing essential critical thinking skills and treating undergraduate students as full participants in the academic discussion.
The academy is a place to develop critical thinking skills, and a place to develop those skills by participating in discussions seeking truth and knowledge. These conversations may occur between students in informal spaces; they may be facilitated by a professor and take place during a single class session or over multiple sessions during a course; or they may take place over centuries (most commonly through the medium of the written word).
As a university, we recognize the value of all of these conversations in developing citizens with well-honed critical thinking skills. However, I would argue that our focus (at least at the undergraduate level) has been on the level of single and multiple class discussions. Students are often assigned course work for which the only intended audience is the professor or marking T.A.; the audience for presentations is normally just the rest of the class. A typical unit of work is the “essay” (from the French: essayer, meaning “to try”).
(Rhetorical question alert!) But what are the students trying for? Typically, they are trying for grades; some for an A, some simply to pass. But are they trying to contribute to the greater academic discussions? Where do those essays go in a month, or a year? Do students see their papers as parts of a greater continuum of the academic discussion, or do they see them as a means to an end? Are students exhorted to aspire to publishing their papers on any scale? What effect does the treatment of course work as an ephemeral entity, rather than a permanent contribution to the field of knowledge, have on the motivation of students to excel in the application of their critical thinking skills, to be creative, to write high quality papers? Does the knowledge that their days and nights of hard work going to quickly be consigned to the trash bin cause students to treat the work of the intellectual giants that preceded them with a similar disregard?
I initially started worrying about this because of a third-year assignment that simply cited “Google” as its sole source. The sad confusion of search tool with source immediately raised my concern about the student's ability to evaluate alternative sources of information and opinion for authority. I doubted that this student had completed the Library's introductory tutorial on searching and citing sources, and that reinforced my desire to encourage programs to make this course a mandatory requirement. During a casual conversation with Dr. David Robinson, he disclosed that he assigned basic literature research tasks to every one of his courses because he could not guarantee that his students had learned those skills outside of his courses. I continued to reflect on this problem in the attempt to develop an approach to motivating the student to want to participate in the overarching discussions – and that is where the idea of “research across the curriculum” came to mind.
I will credit Dr. Laurence Steven with the idea of motivating higher quality undergraduate work through the expectation of publication. In his fourth-year Literary Criticism course in 1996, he told students at the outset of the class that he planned to compile and publish the complete set of our final assignments. Even though the press run was undoubtedly under 100, the commitment to taking our work seriously positively influenced our efforts to produce high-quality assignments.
Emphasizing the academic discussion
The overarching message we can send to students is: “We take your effort seriously, and will help you contribute to your chosen discipline.”
Publishing offers the carrot of fame and the stick of exposure. I cannot help but think that the expectation of publishing your work will improve the quality of that work.
We obviously cannot expect a first year student to publish their work in a traditional academic journal. However, the Web has given us an alternative publishing method that can be controlled to meet the student's comfort level: publishing visibility could be limited to the author herself, to the professor, to the class, to the program, to the university, and to the world. If we created a simple Web-based repository, we could allow a student to first work on drafts of their assignment, then open it up to their professor or a TA for initial review, then open it up to the class to exchange their work with their classmates and participate in peer review. Outstanding work could be surfaced at wider levels of availability. Of course, given that the student retains copyright over their work, they would be free to republish their work as they see fit (on a personal Web log, on a discipline-related mailing list, to an academic journal, etc). This opens up an opportunity to discuss intellectual property issues and the characteristics of various publishing mechanisms.
Through the course of a student's career, this Web-based publishing mechanism would serve as an electronic portfolio of their work. If a student chose to make their work visible outside of the class, they would be able to track citations to that work over time - particularly if professors chose to surface the work of previous students in a given class as optional or required references in addition to traditional sources. We know that one of the primary uses of the Laurentian University Archives today is by students seeking the fourth-year papers of previous students in their disciplines so that they can find work to build upon.
At the fourth-year level, we could strongly encourage (to the point of making it an unstated assumption) that fourth-year work should be published in some fashion. The publishing schedule of traditional journals makes it unlikely that a student could achieve publication within the normal class schedule, however we could commit some resources to assisting those alumni who want to polish their fourth-year papers for journal publication (without necessarily requiring a complete graduate program). Assuming that the J.N. Desmarais Library goes forward with the Laurentian University Institutional Repository, we could offer that as a venue for publishing fourth year work (or exceptional work from previous years).
If there are doubts that fourth-year work is of publishable quality, I would like to refer back to an evaluation (???) of the fourth-year papers that are held by the Laurentian University archives. Many of these papers were found to be of a quality comparable to Master's theses (the hypothesis was that that the lack of graduate programs resulted in higher-quality undergraduate work).