This morning I want to pose the question whether the various administrative structures we place around formal learning actually impede inquiry. Let me do this only in the context of supervising an undergraduate thesis meant to give honors credit to the student. I am supervising one such student now and had a different student I supervised last year. Each of them had taken my Econ of Organizations class and done well in it and presumably they liked the structure of that class. After conversing with an Econ Department adviser and learning what was required to graduate with honors, they asked me if I would supervise their project. I agreed to do so. So I am posing this question with that experience in mind.
Let me also note that perhaps my situation is unique in that while I still engage in inquiry in some way, much of which is express on this blog where the big question is how can we do better with undergraduate education?, I don't see that investigation as being economics for the most part. So I can't simply make these students research assistants in my ongoing project. If I could, perhaps the answers to this question would be easier to come up with. A big deal issue with students doing a research project is what question should they be trying to answer and who comes up with that?
The first time around I had a project in mind that was a bit off the beaten path. It was about (lack of) preservation of our cultural heritage via the folk music our parents listened to on vinyl. There was an economic policy question here. Most of this music was still under copyright. A good chunk of it hadn't yet been digitized. Should copyright be suspended in this case so people who had these records could make digital versions and place those in the public domain? Music companies, which own the copyright in most of these cases, might balk at this even though they wouldn't lose a dime on sales of these albums because those albums are not sold anymore. The issue for them is whether allowing public copying in this case would somehow impact making copies available of more recently released music. So there was a real question here that the student could nibble on and see what headway might be made.
The next time around in my preliminary conversation with the student he indicated interest in doing something with data. I am not a data guy. I am a theorist. But I didn't try to steer him away from his interest. Rather, I simply posed the question - what data could he get with which to do a project? So I suggested he do something on graduation rates, because I thought that sort of data would be readily available. He agreed, though the specific question he would address was left unspecified and was up to him to determine. He took quite a while doing that - reading what he could about graduation rates and seeing what the education researchers said about the matter. Ultimately he glommed onto a project on transfer students from community colleges, a specific look at what I would term the educational production function.
In both cases (the second one is still ongoing) I've had the feeling of being end gamed on the projects. The students would be graduating at the end of the semester, so the project would finish then, regardless of whether it had really run its course or not. The paper that got produced the first time (this time the paper has not yet been written, even as a first draft) was a rushed job. So it very much feels like the process produces half a loaf only.
At the outset we had to determine how many credit hours this project should count for. Neither of the students needed the credits to graduate. In both cases I suggested 2 credit hours and told them individually that this translated into about 6 hours per week of time commitment on their part. Perhaps that was an error. Maybe it should have been 3 or even 4 credit hours to generate a greater time commitment from the students. I really don't know whether my conclusion from the previous paragraph would have been altered had the projects been for greater credit. On the flip side, if the student spends a lot of time spinning his or her wheels, not uncommon when doing research, and as a consequence the project produces meager results, it seems wrong to award a lot of credit for doing it.
I never published anything out of my dissertation for the doctorate. I did produce working papers from it, submitted those for review, got a revise and resubmit from R.E.Stud on one of them, but ultimately it didn't get accepted. I had to change my research agenda to get stuff published. I did have some non-thesis work published early, stuff I co-wrote with Leon Moses, so it wasn't a fatal blow that the thesis wasn't published, but it was quite distressing. I put a huge amount of time into the thesis work. I mention it here only to point out that the half a loaf outcome seems quite likely to me for undergraduate inquiry, especially if the undergraduate is the principal investigator rather than the research assistant.
A few weeks ago I was contacted by the Director of Undergraduate Studies
in Econ, as were the other instructors supervising undergraduate theses
(there are 12 of these projects and I would guess somewhere between 200
and 300 students graduating with a degree in economics), about whether
the student's project was deserving of a departmental award. So doing such a project is already a plum, but we then seem to want to add another plum on top of that.
Anticipating that the project might not turn out to be a world beater, last year I told the student I'd prefer the grade be credit/no credit only. She agreed, but this proved to be a huge hassle and ultimately I believe I had to assign a letter grade. This time around the student queried the department about this in advance and was told that to receive honors credit, he needed to get a letter grade for the course. So I will enter one at the end of the semester, though I haven't graded any of the intermediate work. It doesn't seem to me appropriate to do that. We're less than three weeks from graduation. Grades really don't matter now. Graduating matters now.
If the student ends up doing other economics research in the future, the half a loaf aspect of the current project might actually provide durable benefit as it will help the student to not make the same mistakes again and provide fodder for asking what needs to be done to get a full loaf the next time around. As the second student is going into a PhD program starting in the fall, I'm hopeful that the project will have this effect. But let's face it, this is not the maintained reason for having students write an undergraduate thesis.
If we want such projects to have more direct benefit to the students, the issues sketched here need to be ironed out. I am not going to try to suggest what improvements should be made, other than to observe that the institution appears rigid to me and there needs to be some flexibility to try alternatives that might have a chance of doing better.
I've written this piece because it may have seemed from my prior two posts on The Boyer Commission Report that I was idealizing the benefits from moving to an inquiry based approach. I'm not nearly so idealistic on the prospect of all students engaging in inquiry that produces new knowledge, even when this is done as a research assistant. As an alternative, I do think there would be substantial learning for most students were they to engage in inquiry on subject matter that was already known, but not yet to the students. This would still contrast sharply with a knowledge dissemination approach and help the students mature as thinkers. Whether it would also work from the instructor's perspective remains an open question, one we should spend some time trying to answer. The question of whether administrative structures impede inquiry goes for that as well.