Why basic research matters III: Paul Axelrod

Why does university research matter? The most common, and most persuasive explanation is that scholarly inquiry may lead to such outcomes as a cure for cancer, a bump in the Gross National Product, or an end to bullying in schools. All of these are worthy goals, and academics in Canada contribute day in and day out to these and hundreds of other important projects.

But I believe research matters for a very different reason: the university is the only institution in society that encourages professors and students to explore knowledge freely and to follow their discoveries wherever they lead.

Corporations, governments, and non-profit organizations value research, but they are selective about the projects they support. They choose projects designed to enhance profitability, support particular policies, or facilitate advocacy. Again, all of these goals enhance the quality of Canadian life. But they also impose thematic and intellectual constraints on the researcher.

Academic boundaries are less confining. To be sure, there are rules to be followed. Data must be assembled responsibly, privacy protocols must be respected, researchers must be accountable for the funds they spend. But if they meet these requirements, the sky, intellectually, is the limit. Topics can be arcane, puzzling, or to many observers, stunningly irrelevant. But through – and only through – such inquiry, the most imaginative, creative work  in arts and sciences can emerge.

Imagine a researcher who seeks to understand student life in Canadian universities during the 1930s.  He or she would want to ask questions such as: Who went to university, (i.e. students’ age, gender, religion, social class etc.)? Why did they attend? What did they study? How were they taught? What extra-curricular activities preoccupied them? How did they dress? Did they have sex? Were they politically active? Were they affected by the Depression’s hard economic times? What did they do after they graduated?

To answer these questions, the researcher would have to explore pertinent documents in university archives, including student newspapers, discipline reports, course calendars, photographs, and alumni records. To broaden the context, one should examine what politicians, newspapers, and the public were saying about universities. One would also want to know what was happening in higher education elsewhere in the world. Were Canada’s institutions unique or did they follow international trends?

An intensive study on such a small topic might well illuminate some larger historical themes on youth culture, life in the Depression, the economic role of higher education, and gender relations.

Full disclosure: I conducted this study and published it under the title, Making a Middle Class: Student Life in English Canada during the Thirties. It was among the most fulfilling research projects I have carried out in my 35-year university career. The scoping out of the subject, the systematic exploration of the records, the marshalling of evidence, the discovery of historical patterns, the exhausting process of writing, editing, writing again, and the pleasure of seeing the final product were immensely rewarding.

Did this work matter to anyone but me? I think so. It contributed to the literature on the evolution and characteristics of higher education in Canada, but it also informed and enhanced my teaching. Students were intrigued not only by the academic and social lives of their predecessors but also by the process of conducting original research. They were anxious to master the skills required by taking on their own projects.

I am a stickler for lucid prose, so they endured my continuous critiques of their writing (which invariably improved). The discipline they developed in conceiving, conducting, and completing essays on topics (perhaps equally esoteric to outside observers) mattered immensely and, ultimately, served them well in their post-university endeavours. Among other things, they learned how to define, investigate, and solve an intellectual problem, and how to convey their new knowledge to others.

All research, including the most unlikely and obscure, offers similarly creative possibilities. Commentators in politics and the media who disparage “curiosity-based research” for its alleged lack of relevance and applicability miss the point.

Faculty and students who do this work well have great imaginations. They ask unusual questions, search inventively for answers, rigorously defend themselves among skeptical peers, and push back the frontiers of knowledge. Isn’t that why we have universities?

 

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If you’re happy ...

Cathy Majtenyi | October 22, 2014

Brock University recently launched a series of monthly podcasts covering a wide range of themes. As part of our own package of “Belief” related blog posts, Research Matters is pleased to present this exclusive interview with Brock Associate Professor of Psychology, Michael Busseri. Busseri will join two other colleagues to explore this topic in Brock’s January 2015 podcast, “What gives us a sense of wellbeing?” (Busseri is no stranger to Research Matters, having answered one of the great questions asked of the Curiosity Shop, “Why is the grass always greener on the other side?”)   BU: How do you define wellbeing? MB: Historically there have been two broad traditions. One looks at things like satisfaction, enjoyment, pleasure and not pain. That’s called the Hedonic Tradition. The second tradition is about finding meaning, purpose and growth; that’s called the Eudemonic Tradition. Where the rubber meets the road for most people is the question of, ‘How can I get more of that, whatever it is?’ It all sounds good: who wouldn’t want a meaningful life, a purposeful life, an enjoyable life? One camp says, you know what? Happiness, wellbeing – regardless of the type – is determined by the genetic lottery of life. It’s more like a personality trait. They may fluctuate around that day-to-day, moment-to-moment, but if you check in with them every year and do that for 10 or 20 years in a row you find a lot of stability. The other camp says, well, that might be true for many people but there’s still a significant chunk of individuals who experience radical changes as a result of, unfortunately, largely negative life events: the death of a spouse; the loss of a job; a tragic injury; horrible crime. The impact of that event can last years for some individuals. BU: Can we become happier? MB: Short-term: there’s lots of evidence that people change their wellbeing; moment-to-moment, day-to-day, week-to-week. Longer term: it’s harder to find people who show the golden pattern of continuous increases. Where there are long-term changes in wellbeing, it tends to be on the down side. The ratio is almost two to one. But even those people who experience the lasting decreases – they are rare. We can be talking no more than 10 per cent of the population. The vast majority of us over the long term tend to be stable.   BU: Should we be discouraged or encouraged by those statistics? MB: The argument is, this is actually a positive thing! It shows how adaptive and resilient people are. The high highs, the people who experience lots of positive experiences in our lives are also the individuals who tend to experience lots of lows. In the extreme, we tend to think of these as “manic” individuals. Usually, this idea of huge fluctuations in wellbeing is not something we would recommend. BU: Is there any part of our wellbeing we can control? MB: Most of us want a satisfying and meaningful life beyond simply saying, well, you may win or lose the genetic lottery of life. But we can choose how we spend our time. Moment-to-moment, day-to-day, week-to-week, we can have some influence by choosing certain activities or choosing to spend time with people who are meaningful and important to us. Even if we realize that that boost is going to be temporary, who cares? For those moments that we’re experiencing it, we’re happy! BU: Can we “bank” these happy moments to draw upon when we feel sad? MB: Another controversial issue. Some people have argued that what you experience moment-to-moment gets stored in a separate bank than the part of you that holds the beliefs about your life. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel prize-winning psychologist, has suggested we talk about this as two “selves.” The “experiencing self” is the you that, moment-to-moment, is experiencing life. The other self is the “story-telling self,” which has beliefs about how your life is going. Often those beliefs don’t align very closely with your experiencing self. It turns out there are cultural myths about wellbeing that influence our stories. One of these is that young adults tend to believe life gets better and better, and older adults tend to believe that life gets worse and worse. Both are myths, but you find these myths around the world. They’re wrong because for most individuals, the “real life story” is one of stability, not one of inclines and declines.

Lucid dreaming depends on ...

Trent University Staff | October 21, 2014

New research by Trent University Oshawa Anthropology professor Roger Lohmann and graduate student Shayne Dahl indicates that cultural learning shapes the kind of awareness and control people can experience while dreaming. “Scouring the ethnographic record on dreaming for hints of lucidity under Professor Lohmann’s guidance, I found something surprising: that lucid dreaming is widely thought to have serious consequences,” said Dahl, who completed his M.A. thesis, “Knowing Means Connecting with the Source of Life: Knowledge and Ethics among Blackfoot Traditionalists” at Trent in 2012. (He is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto.) “As one of my Blackfoot informants put it, ‘You could die in your dream.’” Lohmann and Dahl’s findings were published in the 2014 collection, Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep. Lucid dreaming – waking consciousness arising during a dream – has been a hot topic of scientific research in recent years. According to Lohmann and Dahl, the common assumption that dreams are products of isolated imaginations has distorted our understanding of lucidity’s variation in form, function, and real-world outcomes. Pop culture portrayals in films such as Avatar and Inception present fantasies where lucid dreaming enables marvelous real-world powers. Many traditional and religious cultural worldviews take the relationship between waking and dream worlds as reality rather than fantasy. Lohmann’s fieldwork in Papua New Guinea among the Asabano people explored how they used dreaming as evidence for and contact with supernatural beings. “Asabano converts often told me that seeing dreams of Jesus or Heaven convinced them that what the missionary told them was true,” said Lohmann. “It struck me that they had to believe their dreams were more than figments of their own imaginations to reach that conclusion, and that I, for example, would not be convinced by the same experience because of my different cultural background.” Similarly, Dahl’s fieldwork in Alberta included encounters with Aboriginal medicine men who practiced lucid dreaming. “Shayne’s field experiences and his search of ethnographic literature brought home to us that lucid dreaming has profound potential for people who think it’s more than just a fantasy. We found that descriptions of lucid dreams are radically different in form, function, and outcome depending on the cultural assumptions of the dreamer,” said Lohmann. Their research revealed evidence that in some cultures, lucid dreaming is unknown, while in others it is a commonly taught skill. In some, lucidity is tacit rather than acknowledged, but people nevertheless believe that they actively undertake goals in their dreams. Lohmann and Dahl found that this implicitly lucid “volitional dreaming” commonly appears in ethnographic accounts of dreaming. In cultures where “generative” theory holds sway, dreaming of something is understood to cause it to happen in the waking world. This leads people to experience lucid dreams as opportunities to create or do magic. By contrast, people who believe dreams are what one sees during “soul travel” use lucid dreams as an opportunity to spiritually visit real places. “Even when we consciously disbelieve our dreams,” Dahl said, “They still affect us at a deeper, emotional level that we can’t easily control with reason.” “All of this shows that cultural dream theories are multiple, that people invoke them in complex ways, and that they are at the very core of what lucid dreaming is and what it makes possible,” said Lohmann. This story was originally published by Trent University on, July 15, 2014. Is has been edited for style, brevity and clarity and appears here with permission.

In money we trust

U of T Staff (With introduction by Patchen Barss) | October 20, 2014

A few years ago, late, late at night, I was tooling around the streets of Ottawa in the back seat of a Jeep being driven by former Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge. American economist and Nobel Laureate George Akerlof was riding shotgun. read more »
digital wallet

Phony shoppers

Marianne Koh | September 30, 2014

Cash gave way to magnetic strips, which gave way to chip-and-PIN, which gave way to “tap-and-pay” credit card scanners. Get ready for the next thing. read more »
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