What the f#$% is a research college?

Via Forbes' America's Top Colleges Rankings

In May, the College released the Strategic Planning Draft Report. This document, in its final iteration, will guide a major campaign to raise funds for the improvements proposed in each of the report’s four categories. Threading together the “Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning” section was the idea that Amherst should synthesize the model of a “teaching college” with that of a research university—to become the nation’s premier “research college.”

Professor Austin Sarat has perfected this pedagogic model in his Mellon Colloquia. Students, often in their sophomore year, indenture themselves to one of his projects with the promise that, once complete, their names will be featured alongside his in a renowned scholarly publication. Sarat’s assembly line of scholarship—the research college course par excellence—fits neatly into its discipline, meets the standards of the subject, and is primed for future citation. This, according to cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, epitomizes contemporary standards of knowledge creation. The current research ethic, he argues, is underpinned by a concern for “systematicity, prior or citational contexts, and specialized modes of inquiry.” Such relentless pursuit of replicability—the ability to trace a scholar’s steps to verify legitimacy—amounts to a mode of inquiry that does not privilege the search so much as the re-search.

This rigid documentation, the golden standard of academia, is essential to generating new, reliable information. But is that what an Amherst College education is really about? Not only does the standard of replicability maintain narrow definitions of a discipline, it also excludes knowledge produced by what Appadurai calls “virtuoso technique, academic sleight of hand, conceit, the generalist’s epiphany, random flash of insight—or other private sources of confidence.” These are the moments of discovery that inspired the writings of Aristotle and Plato, Goethe and Kant—and much of what we consider scholarly canon today.

The Strategic Planning Report—a presentation of ideas based on internal research and outside scholarship, through the hyper-local lens of our Amherst community—was well conceived and composed. It came, not surprisingly, out of colloquy among students, staff, and faculty across departments. In this way, it was so effective at identifying weaknesses and offering options for improvement that it performed less as the research it encouraged, and more in the research ethic Appadurai supports.

I strongly believe that faculty should be empowered to pursue their research interests, and that the College should equip students with the best tools for their own research. I am less concerned with the strategic plan’s list of action-items, and more with the “research college” branding as a symbolic gesture. I came to Amherst because I was promised proximity to faculty, and this access has been by far the most rewarding part of my time here. When the paradigm of knowledge generation centers on outcomes, such as publication of research, we discount the acts of instruction and in-class learning as operative pedagogic tools. Discovery, not replication, is and should remain the anchor of intellectual life at Amherst College.