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EMU Research

Center Stage 3-22-16:
Personal Accounts of Awards and Research- John Koolage/Darlene Leifson- The National Endowment for the Humanities Enduring Questions Grant

Center Stage (ex. for article use subject)

Hi, we’re John Koolage (Principal Investigator) and Darlene Leifson (Co-PI) and we were awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities Enduring Questions Grant.  While our disciplinary emphases are quite different (John is a philosopher of science from the analytic tradition and Darlene has a background in performance studies and creativity in the arts) we both recognize that we are interested in the idea of “discovery” as an essential human process.

The notions of discovery and creativity have a long intellectual history in Western thought. Our earliest texts characterize discovery as dangerous: the myth of Prometheus as told by Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound and the Old Testament account of Adam and Eve partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge emphasize the nature of human discovery as perilous and worthy of punishment by the gods. Plato’s depiction of poets as subversive to the body politic in The Republic and Aristotle’s conceptualization in Poetics of creativity as “natural” have also cast long and conflicting shadows over our beliefs regarding discovery and creation. With the arrival of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment scientific discovery became a noble pursuit, morally necessary rather than forbidden. With this shift came also a focus on scientific method, on the processes of scientific discovery, and on progress itself. The Renaissance saw similar shifts in emphases for artists; we began to celebrate human powers of creativity and technical progress in the arts as ends in themselves. The British Romantic poets elevated discovery and creation to new heights and promoted the role of innovator to that of a deliverer—a notion that persists today in the form of the contemporary entrepreneur. Modern scientific and artistic discoveries including theories of relativity, quantum physics, and Cubism reflect our contingent, uncertain, and fragmented world. A push for progress through discovery colors much of contemporary culture and informs key debates about what constitutes valid ways of discovering new knowledge—a topic that feminist and other post-structuralist theorists problematize by asking how discoveries sustain privilege and oppression. The contemporary revolution in cognitive neuroscience adds to our understanding of human creativity and provides an exciting avenue for new knowledge about the human capacity for discovery and invention. This enduring conversation about discovery remains deeply relevant in an era when cultural, scientific, and technological discovery is seen as a panacea for economic and social ills.

Serving together on the Provost’s LEAP/High-Impact Practice Committee gave us ample opportunity to talk about our research interests, including our mutual interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning. When we learned of the National Endowment for the Humanities Enduring Questions grant, it seemed like a natural fit for us personally, professionally, and for the University. With the $26,300 award to us, we were able to create an integrative learning course on the topic of discovery in the arts and sciences. In our Enduring Questions course, students will become familiar with various processes of discovery and creativity and will consider such questions as whether discovery is harmful or helpful; whether we truly discover things (realism) or whether we simply construct meaning about our world (constructivism); and whether we should discover as much as possible or whether some things should, and must, remain unknown. Students will explore the topic pluralistically by considering whether discovery is a hallmark of progress, a harbinger of dystopian disaster, or a tool of postcolonial oppression. The course seeks to present a synthesis of relevant literature about discovery in the arts and sciences, and will ask students to reflect on several philosophical and literary texts that examine the concept of discovery in Western thought from the Judeo-Christian and Classical traditions through contemporary scientific discourse and self-reports of the creative process in the arts. Students will examine how these texts inform current dialog and debate about the nature of discovery and its implications. We will expect students to also engage in processes of discovery themselves, becoming practiced in the generation of insight and in the application of theories of discovery to student-defined, unscripted, complex problems. EMU’s mission to promote an intellectually dynamic community, one in which students are prepared with relevant skills and real world awareness to learn in and beyond the classroom, reflects the foundational principles that guide the development and teaching of our course.

Beginning in fall 2017, The course will be available to any EMU student regardless of major, will fulfill General Education credit in Knowledge of the Disciplines (Humanities) and Learning Beyond the Classroom, and will feature high-impact educational practices (HIPs) to help students synthesize what they’re learning about discovery across multiple domains and disciplines. Our course’s core purpose is to help students employ the tools of humanities scholarship to engage deeply with the topic of discovery and to think critically about its implications. An understanding of the processes of discovery and creativity are essential to a 21st-century education; thinking critically and creatively about the nature of discovery is essential if our students are to navigate a complex and changing personal, social, and work environment. The course is also intended to work as a model for integrative learning on campus, and as a pilot for other incubator projects under the General Education banner.  To accomplish this our primary objective is to impact students. We want to deepen their engagement with critical and creative thinking, with student agency in the classroom, and with high-impact educational practices, in addition to exposing them to a nuanced and pluralistic understanding of discovery in the arts and sciences. As a secondary objective we intend to strengthen liberal arts and humanities education on campus, as well as to promote the use of high-impact educational practices like undergraduate research, integrative learning, and learning communities. In doing so we hope to increase visibility of HIPs and to promote their use more broadly at EMU.  

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