Why integrating undergraduate research into curriculum is important

Illustration and Painting   | Photo Credit: erhui1979

The Hindu College in Delhi has taken an innovative measure long overdue in the landscape of Indian higher education. An interdisciplinary centre for undergraduate research is coming up on its premises, where research in the natural and the applied sciences — physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, computer science, math and statistics — will be carried on, along with language and media studies labs, which will also work closely with the social sciences.

In conversation with a publication, the Principal, Anju Srivastava, traced the need for undergraduate research to increasing student curiosity and questioning capacities not addressed by the existing curriculum. The need, she pointed out, also becomes inevitable, with the rise and popularity of the liberal arts approach — a system of education where research becomes integral to undergraduate education.

In most existing undergraduate curricula in India, education is synonymous to learning. The test of your success as a student is how well you consume knowledge. The exam is where you prove how well you did that.

But the consumption of knowledge is only a part of the story of education. The other part is the production of knowledge. The large trajectory of higher education in any subject is essentially about the gradual shift from the mode of consumption to that of production — from being a consumer of knowledge, a student, to being a producer of new knowledge through original research.

It is quite easy to imagine consumption and production as totally different and unrelated things. And to imagine post-secondary education as divided into two distinct phases — undergraduate study focused on the consumption of existing knowledge, and graduate research devoted to the production of new knowledge.

But this is an artificial split between natural and interdependent parts of higher education.

Bridging the divide

The stark division between the consumption and the production of knowledge is reflected in the way institutions are structured in India. Research institutes are devoted to the creation of new knowledge, mostly in the natural and the social sciences. The university, on the other hand, has rarely been a venue of significant research, in spite of a few notable exceptions. For the most part, fundamental research has been concentrated in research institutes such as high-powered social science centres such as the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC), Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), along with scientific institutes such as Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Indian Institute of Science (IIS), and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR).

These institutions have little, if any, relation with undergraduate education, though some of them are venues for doctoral and postdoctoral research. We have started to see some happy exceptions to this trend in recent times, at least in the sciences — institutions like the Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI) and the appropriately titled Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), which has seven locations nationwide: Berhampur, Bhopal, Kolkata, Mohali, Pune, Thiruvananthapuram and Tirupathi. All of these institutes have undergraduate as well as graduate programmes, often integrated with each other. Such developments come as radically innovative in an educational landscape where colleges have traditionally been imagined as places where students learn, that is, consume existing knowledge; naturally they have no place in institutes where advanced professionals produce new knowledge.

Learners to creators

This is a story heard often in India: someone who was a mediocre student throughout their life starts to shine just as they begin their PhD and also the reverse: students who have topped in exams throughout have lacklustre research careers, or simply give up and move in other directions.

It is not surprising at all. For, here is an education system where the consumption and the production of knowledge are more or less unrelated affairs.

You cannot just make an abrupt jump from one to the other. You cannot just start producing knowledge one fine morning when all you have done so far in your life is learn to consume it. This radical split between learning and creating, consumption and production, has something to do with the quality of research produced at the doctoral level at Indian universities, which is uneven at best. There is certainly no dearth of PhDs being produced; sociologist Andre Beteille has an evocative phrase for the overproduction of PhD’s with poor research skills: he calls it the creation of ‘trained incapacity’.

Undergraduate research is important not only for those who will eventually go on to pursue the discipline at a more advanced level; it is equally important for those who will not study further in the field — students who will enter the workforce or will move into another direction. The relationship with knowledge is never the same as when you take on real agency in the process, as when the onus of creation is on you. The consumption of knowledge, no matter how deep or comprehensive it is, simply cannot create this relationship. It goes without saying that only those who have learned well can create; but without some exercise in creation, learning, even when done well, will keep the student a passive learner.

The writer is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University, and is the author of the book, College: Pathways of Possibility. @_saikatmajumdar

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 2:53:30 AM |

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