I don’t teach much these days, not since I moved into administration a number of years ago. However, I do still advise students for their thesis or capstone projects and I teach 2-3 courses a year, including a graduate research course. I run it as an applied course. They learn some basics about educational research, but they also get to put together simple drafts of a typical chapter 1, 2, and 3 in a thesis.
As we get started thinking about a chapter 1, I challenge them to also think about the “why” behind a potential research project. What is the question that you seek to answer/explore? What is the problem that you want to address (for those choosing a more applied project instead of a traditional thesis)? I find this to be a wonderful time to think about the reason for research and applied projects in education. In doing so, I agree with James Conant Bryant, past president of Harvard, when he stated that, “A scholar’s activities should have relevance to the immediate future of our civilization.” I resonate with the The Wisconsin Idea, which casts a vision of research that is useful, “to the the citizens in the forms of doing research directed at solving problems that are important to the state and conducting outreach activities” (although I would prefer the focus on problems that are important to the citizens instead of the state, when there is difference between the two). I am intrigued by the vision of academic leaders like Frederick Terman, who was partly behind the Stanford Industrial Park, and he is sometimes referred to as a father of Silicon Valley, encouraging faculty to start businesses.
Since I am at a faith-based University, I take this a step further. I briefly introduce the graduate students to a historic teaching in the Lutheran tradition known as the doctrine of vocation (calling). I contend that our work can be understood as a calling to love our neighbors. Here is how I explain it to my educational research students:
I was only a boy scout for a short time, but one simple boy scout message stuck with me. On our first camping trip, the scout master noted that we always want to leave the campground looking better than when we came. In a sense, that is what this course is about. Research in Educational is really about leaving the field of education (and the educational organizations that we serve) better than when we first arrived. In other words, we are looking for problems to solve, questions to answer, and needs to fill. This is what we are going to explore during this course. We are looking for problems, questions, and needs that we can help address, and we will be using the tools of research and/or scholarship to address them.
Have you ever heard about people in the ivory tower publishing doctoral dissertations on esoteric topics? You hear about it and possibility wonder, “What is the point?!” or “Did my tax dollars go to support that?!” That can happen. And there are certainly times when research that seems petty actually turns out to have a positive benefit for the world. Whatever the case, I would like to take a moment to share or remind you of Concordia University Wisconsin’s mission statement. There is much involved in that statement, but one thing that is embedded in it is the Lutheran understanding of vocation…or calling. Lutherans work from an understanding that we have a number of callings in our lives. This includes things like mother, father, son, student, teacher, accountant, doctor, street sweeper, educator, researcher, scholar, etc. And our mission is to serve our neighbors by serving faithfully within each calling. Each calling gives us opportunity to engage in loving our neighbor. While I’ve never found the original source, many claim that Martin Luther once said it this way: “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” So, how do we love our neighbors by doing educational research an applied projects? You will be challenged to answer that question as you identify a potential thesis or project at the end of your program, and you will get practice doing it in this class.”
Are you an educational researcher? How do/can you love your neighbor through your work? Do you work in the more applied realm of education? I contend that the same question applies. Are you running an educational startup or exploring some new educational innovation? Are you a graduate student nearing the end of your program and looking ahead to that thesis or culminating project? What would happen if we framed all such efforts around a simple question about love for neighbor?