Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Preparing students for the future?

I recently had some back and forth correspondence with a Sri Lankan colleague who I worked with when we first got here for the Fulbright. My colleague and I had been in correspondence for several months before our arrival. I thought I was clear with him, if a bit unorthodox, about the activities I wanted to do with students. As things turn out my project was hijacked by a "very important" senior person at the university. I ended up footing the bill for a van on two separate days, as well as lunch for groups of faculty and students who came along for the ride. It was certainly learning experience and it very much set stage for my work here in Sri Lanka. I left that engagement with a better, if not complete understanding of how things work in universities here.

Fast forward to the present when my colleague has asked me to collaborate on a paper he's writing that's connected to our activities of those days in September. The major thrust of those activities was taking a series of soil samples in the dry bed of a village irrigation tank (ancient human-built lake) in the Rajarata region of North Central Province. I had come to Sri Lanka a month or two before my grant was supposed to start specifically so I could study those dry lake beds before the rainy season began. 

My goal in working with students was to have them help me detect patterns in the lay of the land. Specifically I wanted to take a series of profiles of the landscape, to study several features of dry lake beds, and to get a feel for how the students perceived this valuable natural resource. The study was supposed to be a broadly based interdisciplinary endeavor in which students learned new skills of observation and critical thinking. It wasn't to happen that way. 

But it's worth mentioning that even the day when we took soil samples there were multiple features in the intimate landscape of the lake beds that were worth further study. For example, there were distinct patterns of plants that we could have mapped. These plants certainly indicated different soil types and moisture regimes. While they could not have necessarily been detected using the random sample technique that was imposed on this project they were potentially full of information. There were also regions of indentations that might have signified circulatory patterns of the water. Studying their location, depth, and spatial relations might have given us new insights into how these lake beds function. Another interesting pattern was lotus tubers growing beneath the surface of the mud. These tubers leave natural pockets in the mud. I wondered how these cavities might influence invertebrate, fish, or plant growth in the tank. How might these frequent cavities influence circulation or deposition in the tank bed? Why couldn't our students explore these further and try to characterize them instead of their mindless soil sampling?

None of these features were considered as we rampaged through a day of rigorous core sampling. It was jolly fun and lots of potential data were collected, but for my colleague and for his students it was more of the same kind of work they always do. I had come to work on "seeing things differently." I might as well not have been on the scene. 

So yesterday when I received the bare bones of paper from my colleague with a veiled demand that I help him with it I can honestly say I was a bit put off. 

The text of his paper, for which he wants me to find a journal for publication, focused on conventional tank research that has been dominated by our "very important" colleague for a good 30 years. Talk about dead hand of scholarship. Unfortunately, none of what my colleague wrote, in which he generously cited the Very Important Person's literature, had anything to do with questions of tank function. In fact none of text he sent me posed questions about tank function. Nor did they mention the goals of the study.

The bare-bones text was followed by series of computer generated maps that were based on the soil samples we collected. I was unable to discern any trends in pH or the various cations he was testing for. I asked him whether he could see trends. "No sir," he answered. "I need you to help me get money for doing more tests of micronutrients and heavy metals in the soil. That will give us the data we need."

I wonder what value he thinks this paper might have. I also wonder why, having found no trends in broad brush analyses he did, he thinks he'll find information in doing fine tuned testing. I don't buy this reductionist approach and it's about the farthest thing I was aiming for in the first place. It gave some students some practice using augers and other instruments in the field but it didn't teach them anything about how to observe or analyze what they observe. Part of the problem I think is that he was aiming for a "concrete" product based on "hard science" like soil chemistry. Another problem as I see it is that university students here are not encouraged to develop skills of critical thinking. My colleague is a good product of this university system as evidenced by his own lack of analytical problem solving, not to mention the underlying subservience he showed to the big man who wanted to dominate how this research went. 

If I sound bitter it's not exactly the way I want to come across. These educational problems are not mine to deal with. They are emblematic of a society that is very much closed in on itself, enamored of a reductionist scientific technique whether it works or not, and prone to base subservience in the off the role of "important" leaders. It's a society and an educational system that needs to take a good hard look at itself and the way it is preparing students for their future. 

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