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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Let shopping be your ...

Noreen Fagan | December 18, 2014

Here’s a fun fact – Canadians eat more sushi than the Japanese. At least that’s what Mark Cleveland says, and he should know. Cleveland is a professor of marketing at Western University. His research focuses on the integration of cultures on a global scale and the effects of cosmopolitanism, which according to Cleveland is, “the cultural openness and the ability to successfully navigate between different cultural groups.” In other words, people who want to understand and experience other cultures do so by fully immersing themselves in that culture. “You want to live the life of cultural authenticity, by trying to understand the culture through that culture’s eyes,” he says. Cleveland’s interest in cultural openness started when he was a Master’s and then a Ph.D. student at Concordia University in Montreal. He started researching how new immigrants, primarily ethic minorities, adapted to Canadian culture by finding ways to combine their traditional identities, culture and values into mainstream society. “I have always believed that just because you learn another culture does not mean you give up the original culture. You can be bicultural or multicultural and the two can reinforce each other,” says Cleveland. “Not only are minorities affected by cultural exchange but the majority are as well.” Canada’s multiculturalism prompted Cleveland to extend his research into globalization, with a focus on how global cultures affect majority populations around the world. In the last decade Cleveland has conducted research in 15 to 20 countries exploring cultural exchange and cosmopolitanism. He says a person no longer has to travel abroad – although it helps – to become cosmopolitan. A person can experience different cultures in the comfort of their own home or neighbourhood, simply by watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing videos on You Tube or buying and consuming different products. “When we buy products, and types of brands and the reasons for buying them, they are like extensions of ourselves,” he says. So how do the sushi–eating Canadians fit into all of this? Cleveland believes if a person wants to experience cultural authenticity they will gear their shopping towards achieving that aim. In other words, a person is not going to go for the North American version of sushi (think Californian Roll), when they can get the real thing – think Unagi. He says there is probably a general global trend towards cultural openness as people become more educated and have more exposure to other cultures but he warns, there is another side. “A lot of people are really opposed to what is happening with Globalization and they see their culture as under threat,” says Cleveland adding that the threat is heightened when people feel insecure. If people are feeling secure in their surroundings (financially, emotionally and physically), the more open they are to cultural exchange and the more cosmopolitan they become. Being cosmopolitan however, does not mean buying local is a thing of the past; in fact what makes cosmopolitans stand out is that they strive for cultural authenticity. “The more cosmopolitan you are means you are not only interested in preserving differences but also interested in the environment, like getting the best locally,” says Cleveland. In terms of cosmopolitanism Cleveland thinks Canadians are more accepting of other cultures. “We are a new country, most of us go back two or three generations and have one or two grandparents born somewhere else. We have a more fluid identity,” he says, adding that as large cities go, Toronto is well integrated. “We are not just living in these areas dominated by our own ethic group, there are more opportunities to mix, and I think that allows us to become more open-minded.”

Northbound tourists

Patchen Barss | December 17, 2014

For more than a decade, Lakehead University’s Margaret Johnston has studied travel in polar regions. These days, she’s occupied with the transformation of northern tourism. read more »

A miraculous trip for ...

Carleton University staff |

While on a 2011 research trip to North Western Saudi Arabia, Carleton University Religion student, Anik Laferriere was exploring a remote part of the Ḥismā sand desert in North-West Arabia. This desert is home to the mystical and isolated temple of al-Ruwāfa. She stumbled on something extraordinary… Ruwāfa is a small, well preserved second-century structure that is a one-off in the vastness of the North-West desert of Arabia. Despite being close to water supplies (but little else), there is no evidence of any substantial human settlement at the site. Why this temple was built in such a seemingly impractical area has been a point of debate amongst researchers for a very long time. Astoundingly, the obscure location of this temple is only one aspect of its exceptionality. Even more remarkable are five Greek and Nabataean inscriptions that describe the structure as being constructed during the reign Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. These inscriptions make the temple a dramatic attestation of Roman interaction in the Middle East. While inspecting the site in 2011, Laferriere tripped over a castaway stone. As she collected her belongings, she instinctively took a look at the culprit. She noticed a Greek inscription on the stone. Naturally, she shouted to her trusted colleague, mentor, and traveling companion, Greg Fisher, a professor from Carleton’s College of Humanities. Laferriere and Fisher analyzed the stone, and were quick to note its unusual Roman markings. Little did they know, this rock would unlock a missing piece of an archeological puzzle that has baffled al-Ruwāfa researchers for more than a half-century. Later, Fisher was editing a contribution for his new book Arabs and Empires Before Islam from one of the world’s foremost epigraphy experts, Michael C.A. Macdonald. Only then did he realize that he and Laferriere might have literally stumbled on a profound discovery. In the draft of his contribution to Fisher’s book, Macdonald wrote about a lost inscribed stone that was last seen in 1956/7, when celebrated British explorer, St. John Philby, had copied it. In Macdonald’s research, he included a note that Philby had drawn of the stone. Its current location, though, was a mystery. Fisher recalled the Ruwāfa stone. It matched Macdonald’s description . “The discovery of the 'lost stone' was very exciting," said Fisher. "a completely new edition of the Ruwāfa inscriptions was prepared for my book. Michael Macdonald had only the drawing made by Philby in 1957. We realized that in my stash of photos was something quite exciting,” said Fisher. Fisher and Laferriere were likely the first two people to realize the whereabouts of the stone in decades. “The serendipity of the discovery seems incredible to me,” said Laferriere. “We were unaware at the time that it held any significance whatsoever, except as an example of Roman presence in the area. When we found out, we could not believe our luck!” Thanks to the meticulous assistance of Macdonald, they were confirmed in 2014 that the impression found by Laferriere and Fisher was indeed Philby’s lost stone. Referred as “Inscription III,” it is the third of five Greek and Nabataean Ruwāfa inscriptions that serve as attestation to Roman interest in Saudi Arabia. The set of inscriptions refer to the erection of the temple of al-Ruwāfa by a group of people called Thamud. This nomadic tribe had encountered the Assyrians in the late eighth century, BC and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and co-emperor Lucius Verus. The long-lost third engraving mentions of Verus who died in 169, meaning that the inscription was forged prior to this date. All inscriptions, save Inscription III, are currently displayed in the Riyadh museum. The artifact has sparked many new questions about the site, the historical significance it holds, and how it will shape our understanding of early Roman political and diplomatic interest in the Arabian Peninsula. Fisher’s forthcoming book, (Oxford University Press 2015), will address these questions, and include a new reading of the group of inscriptions by Macdonald. The text will be accompanied by new drawings of the temple. Arabs and Empires Before Islam will function as the most up-to-date version of this influential inscription and will offer readers a the most complete version of this important testament ever. Fisher hopes that this miraculous series of events will remind burgeoning researchers that unearthing the past is not always predictable. “From the perspective of a teacher, the discovery shows students that while the material is most certainly ancient, new discoveries can and do happen all the time – and sometimes, quite by accident,” said Fisher.   This story was originally published by Carleton University. It has been edited for style, length and clarity, and is republished here with permission. 

Dark tourism: the kitsch ...

Patchen Barss | December 16, 2014

“Dark tourism” draws travelers to sites where murder, torture and genocide took place. As part of his research, Guelph marketing professor Brent McKenzie grapples with the balance between authentic experience and exploitation. read more »

Here comes the sun ...

Deborah Durbin | December 13, 2014

As Canadians watched more than two metres of snow fall on Buffalo, NY in one week this past November, many started planning their winter escape to warmer climates. read more »
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