Finding my research interest

This entry, authored by me, was originally published by the Faculty of Education Research Students’ Association (FERSA) Research Blog and is reblogged here by kind permission of the editors. You can follow the FERSA blog at:

FERSA University of Cambridge Blog

C.J. Rauch

Graduate students learn very quickly how to perfect their elevator-pitch, the generally accessible, succinct description of their research. It is employed at conferences, social situations in college, and even family gatherings—Aunt Muriel always seems to ask, “Remind me again what exactly it is you do?” I usually say that I look at pre-service teachers’ (i.e. students studying to become teachers) epistemology (philosophy of knowledge, knowing, and learning) and beliefs about teaching. Aunt Muriel tends to respond by inquiring, “And how exactly did you decide to do that?”

My research interests grew out of my own personal background as well as prior research. In undergrad, I studied education and completed my teacher training; I then went on and taught high school social studies and history in my home state of New Jersey. There, I came to see the many different paths my colleagues took into teaching. Some…

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In defence of arts, humanities, and social sciences

It is no secret that the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects are a hot topic both in and beyond education. Universities host STEM fairs and outreach days, President Obama has supported initiatives to teach children how to code, and the Boy Scouts of America are piloting STEM Scouts, just to name a few. I think some of these are certainly laudable—especially programmes that seek to increase participation from under-represented people in these fields. While STEM is certainly a catchy acronym, I am wary of loosing sight of the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Modern technology is evolving at previously unprecedented rates. In less than a generation, the advent of computers, the internet, and smartphones have completely revolutionised how we live. I don’t think we are far from a society where humans need not apply for many jobs; in just one example, self-driving cars are already making their (own) way onto roads. As our computers become more and more intelligent, we must decide what values we “teach” them. The classic trolley problem is looking less like a thought experiment and more like potential lines of code. While ultimately a self-driving car should be “taught” to minimise destruction to life and property, how do these get defined? Does such a car have a greater obligation to ensure the safety of its owner than a pedestrian?

Such questions (about any technology) are clearly not solely situated in the realm of computer science or engineering. We need to draw on philosophy, history, and literature to construct our answers. Einstein fittingly put it, “For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary.”

I also consider the setting in which the STEM subjects thrive—a liberal democracy allows for the free and open exchange of ideas. But democracy is not simply a means, but an end itself. Worryingly, democracy is not a given but requires the support and participation of its citizens.

President Obama eloquently reminded us, “It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy… Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen.” In the current political climate, I fear such guardians are needed more than ever before. We will not build these guardians from mathematical formulae or artificial intelligence. Our only hope for these defences lie in our histories, our writings, and our philosophies.

Finally, the arts, humanities, and social sciences are necessary to understand the human condition. It is in these domains we find solace, hope, and empathy. It is how we can share joy, anger, and love. It is where we understand compassion, beauty, and humanity.

This struck me most recently in the early hours of November 9. In a time of shock, anger, despair, fear, and sadness, my newsfeed was filled with quotations and artwork from thinkers, writers, and artists. We turned to Maya Angelou, Albus Dumbledore, Confucius, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Ben Franklin, and Wonder Woman. We reflected on holy books, symphonies, artwork, and literature. We expressed ourselves through poetry, photography, fashion, drawing, and blogging. I could not imagine a world without this.

I am not opposed to the STEM subjects; I very much appreciate the life humans have because of them! But human life is equally dependent on the arts, humanities, and social sciences—the very things that make us human. An education grounded in the STEM subjects is not enough. Free-thinking people must also live an examined life of literature, arts, humanities, philosophy, and society. I suppose acronym fans could all it a LASHTEMPS education, but I think in my future posts, I will just say liberal arts

Facts in the age of post-truth

As someone with a pet interest in linguistics and etymology, I like following the interesting tidbits and history of language. Therefore it was with great interest that I awaited the announcement of this year’s word of the year from the OED. Given the political events of 2016, post-truth is certainly a fine selection (although I am also partial to “adulting” and “un-endorse”). With the advent of Trump presidency, this term has been explicit in conversations about his administration. Social media sites have come under fire for their role in permitting non-factual stories to be spread. Calls have gone up for news outlets to emphasise facts over individuals’ claims. 

And here is where I have issues.

We can debate the right of social media users to free speech, or to these private sites to regulate it, or the role of the media in liberal democracy in the 21st century, or the responsibility of citizens to be critical consumers of information, or education to create such citizens, etc etc etc… (And perhaps I will revisit some of these topics in future posts.) But my issue is with facts.

As I researcher on individuals’ personal epistemology, I obviously have a keen interest this concept of fact. A key question I ask is, “What do people think is the nature of truth? Do they think there can be such a thing as objective, verifiable truth?” It’s a complex issue, and certainly not one where you can just walk up to someone and ask, “Excuse me, would you describe yourself as an absolutist, multiplist, or evaluativist?” (I suppose you could ask, but you would likely be met with a blank face as a response…)

My own personal epistemology centres on a belief that truth (or knowledge) is socially constructed. Additionally, different truths can be valid, but some of these can be more valid than others. This can be unsettling to many people — especially those who have not had the opportunity to reflect on the nature of knowledge and truth.

“Surely there are things that we just know to be true!” they insist. This usually leads to a conversation about our knowledge of atoms’ structure or Earth’s orbit around the sun. To which I point out that these understandings have developed over time, and indeed are still being reevaluated and updated. Often then they mention something seemingly obviously verifiable. “There are four chairs around this table.” But then I indicate a nearby fifth chair and point out that one is arguably a stool. Increasingly frustrated, they create an increasingly precise statement and definitions. However, these definitions are still relying on definitions and understandings that are socially widely created and agreed upon. And we haven’t even begun to address whether what we perceive is accurate. The original statement about the chairs may have been accurate, and the subsequent statements more accurate, but these are still understandings that have been constructed.

“Statistics then — numbers don’t lie,” they then insist. But a good statistician could argue that creating statistics is truly an art. (I have witnessed a fair number of passionate discussions about the beauty of oblique or orthogonal rotations.) Two different researchers can easily look at the same set of data and reach different conclusions (this too will probably warrant its own blog post). And this is not even taking into account the possibilities for biases in data collection!

My point is that I am very wary of anything masquerading as fact. Does this mean that everything everyone says is valid? Can we just pull numbers out of the air? No, certainly not! Some claims can certainly be more valid than others. The statements we make must be grounded in good research and good data (whether it is scientific, journalistic, or personal in nature). And when we encounter claims that we find untruthful, we have a duty to counter it with a more truthful claim. But importantly, we need to recognise that so-called facts may not be the answer to this age of post-truth.

The launch of CJRauchEduc

I recently joined Twitter as a way to engage with the larger academic education community. After a few months, I’m slowly getting the hang of it, but finding myself often frustrate by the 140 character limit. While I have kept a personal blog in the past, I realised that my family and friends probably cared little about my views on pedagogy, my ongoing research, and education manifestos. Therefore, it seemed high time to launch this research blog.

My intent for this blog is to share ongoing thoughts about my research, stumbling blocks, or general musings about education. Much like Twitter, I hope to start a conversation more than end it with this blog. My thoughts may not be fully developed, researched, or polished, but I hope sharing them can help in that process. As such, constructive comments and feedback are warmly welcome!