Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898 |

In the second of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) “conversations” on “The Future of the Present,” intended to peer toward the Harvard of 2036, moderator Maya Jasanoff, professor of history, led a March 7 discussion intended to tease out those attributes of academic life—the classroom interaction, scholarly disciplines, the liberal-arts verities—that might be expected to persist in decades to come. Among other highlights from their conversation, the faculty panelists variously confessed to a “nostalgia for the present”; stressed the imperative of having “a firm grounding in what people have done before us”—even as they pursue interdisciplinary work of previously unimagined complexity; and, most vividly, illustrated the “importance of talking to all the wrong people.”

To seed the conversation, Jasanoff outlined an almost dystopian view of Harvard at its four-hundredth anniversary, looking back to 2012—an era when “Widener was full of books. People checked them out” even though they were “chunky, heavy things”—and, perhaps even more remarkably, professors still wrote books. (Jasanoff, a member of a striking family of Harvard academics, is herself very much an author; her current book, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, won the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction the next evening.)

Continuing her act of imaginative retrospection, Janasoff recalled the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when students in 2012 still attended classes, rather than (in 2036) working at internships or on their start-up ventures. And she noted that although nearly 90 percent of undergraduates were American citizens early in the century, they made up a minority of the student body a quarter-century later.

Were such projections, she asked, tantalizing or frightening? FAS’s February 16 panel—an attempt to see how things might change in the next quarter-century—had, she said, focused particularly on the role of information technology in teaching and research, in an era of exponential increases in data, communications, and instrumentation. Two broad themes emerged from that conversation, Jasanoff reported:

the importance of teaching and learning skills and approaches that enable students to adapt continuously to the changing world in which they will live; and

the value of collaboration—focusing less on collecting data, and more on interpreting it, with colleagues in other areas, disciplines, and stages of their professional lives.

In thinking about how to adapt FAS as a collaborative enterprise and how to organize a Harvard education in light of these trends, she said, it might prove fruitful to look at the values, strengths, and processes that had made the faculty successful today, as a venue for research and scholarship, teaching and learning. To that end, the March 7 panelists would draw on their expertise to consider:


“The only place where the caravans meet”

Professor Gay, whose research on public opinion and political beliefs has led her to probe the effects of one’s neighborhood on political behavior, asked, “What function should the Harvard campus serve when virtual classrooms reach across the world?” She said her “nostalgia for the present” put her at risk of being seen as a Luddite, but she felt strongly that place matters for education, much as the social, political, and economic contexts in which citizens are embedded shape their voting behavior, political participation, and related beliefs. Much as “citizens are not unmoored social isolates,” is it virtually “axiomatic” that a physical campus matters to the students and scholars who live and work there.

“Discovery,” Gay continued, “is not possible without dialogue.” Ideas do not spring full-born from a single mind; rather, they are shaped in conversation with others—in classrooms, offices, and laboratories, or chance encounters at the food trucks outside the Science Center. The Harvard campus, all curves and angles—not a regular grid—forces such encounters.

As for students, their residential presence translates into “a range of social networks” broader than any they had at home—or, today, form online. They also muster resources they did not previously have access to. Even as students “attend” classes at Harvard from distant venues through online technologies, and even as students and faculty members interact over Skype and Twitter, she said, the five-minute conversation after a class that changes a point of view or leads to a whole new line of inquiry is essential to education and learning. “If we’re really honest with ourselves,” she said, “to the extent that we value collaboration,” it happens in unstructured events on a physical campus. This idea may seem “quaint, even anachronistic,” but face-to-face interaction trumps the “microtargeting and self-selection into ever narrower social networks” that progressively characterize online relationships. The campus, Gay concluded, is the “only place where the caravans meet.”


The persistence of peer review

Despite the difficulty of predicting the future, Professor Nock said, the system of peer review of scholarship is likely to persist. It is the system, he noted, that governs the design of experiments, the making of grants, and the publication of juried, vetted scientific papers.

The era of peer review, he noted, is recent: the first peer-reviewed paper was published in 1665, and the first peer-reviewed journal was established in 1731. Not until about 1940 were such pillars of the American scientific establishment as Science and the Journal of the American Medical Association routinely peer-reviewed (Lancet followed in 1976)—reflecting increased specialization, the rising volume of scientific research and publication, the need to maintain high standards, and the value of providing feedback on research to improve its quality.

The process, he noted, is not without its costs. It is time-consuming, and to those undergoing peer review, it can seem daunting (he showed a cartoon of a scholar about to run a gauntlet of hostile reviewers equipped with a gun, club, and other weapons).

The era of digital (and speedy) communications poses challenges for peer review as currently conducted, Nock said. Information is disseminated widely, and so is no longer under elite control: anyone can post anything online, posing the challenge of distinguishing information from misinformation, and science from “nonscience.” With 10,000 to 25,000 journals, and some 1.5 million new articles per year, peer review is more essential than ever—but ever more hard-pressed—to “organize and navigate that information.” And the flow of information across and among disciplines, given increased specialization and subspecialities, makes it much more difficult to have informed, expert peer reviewers, especially in the era of “large-scale, multisite” research programs (like his own World Health Organization study of suicide, involving dozens of researchers in 28 nations).

Nock cited innovations in peer review. One is the move toward “open” reviews, where research is posted online for transparent vetting, as opposed to the tradition of “double-blind” reviewers who don’t know an author’s identity (an important safeguard against bias). Another is pre-posting of research before its submission to a refereed journal. A third is the publication online of the data underlying research, so that material can be evaluated as well.

By 2036, Nock forecast, review may be much more rapid—with 24-hour turnaround, compared to weeks and months now—to accelerate the rate of scientific advance. And the whole process will likely be far more transparent, conducted online—with the results, of course, disseminated through online journals.

But whatever changes take place, Nock argued, the process of peer review itself will likely, and ought to, remain intact to help researchers winnow the torrent of discoveries and to make sense of them.


“Engineering is an historical discipline”

Professor Wood—founder of the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory and a member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering (originally featured here)—noted that his research into fabricating robots that were inspired by, and mimic the behavior of, bees and flies, is wildly interdisciplinary, including experts in fluid mechanics, solid mechanics, materials science, fabrication, sensors, controls, power systems, computer vision, and other fields: 11 principal investigators in all, and a huge team of others. Given their interdisciplinary aims and mode of work, and their role in founding new disciplines, he asked is there any need for classical engineering and other disciplines?

He answered his own query with a decisive yes: “We need to have a firm grounding in what people have done before us” to advance in engineering. Engineering, Wood said, “is an inherently historical discipline,” built upon discoveries and techniques pioneered before—the source of key training for students entering his own field (electrical engineering) and others.

Peering ahead, he raised three questions:

  • What new disciplines will emerge? Bioengineering, now in an era of vast discoveries, became a degree program only within the past three to four decades, Wood noted. Robotics, his field, is just now beginning to become a degree program, at excellent institutions such as Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
  • How will the evolving interdisciplinary fields shape the existing disciplines?
  • And what will Harvard’s role be in the evolution of such new fields, locally and worldwide? (He had earlier noted that his robotics work was strengthened by the presence of almost all of the involved principal investigators on this one campus, drawing in turn on Harvard-based interdisciplinary initiatives such as the Wyss Institute, centers for the environment and for brain science, programs in systems biology and in nanoscale systems, and others.)


“The value of slow academics”

Following the presentations by an (Internet-speed) social scientist and an engineer, Professor Patil focused on the enduring value of the classical liberal arts. His own work—what Jasanoff called “looking for religion in all the wrong places”—involved painstaking exploration of Asian-language texts to discover the roots of philosophies and religions little understood today, particularly in the Western-centric academy. From those explorations, Patil said, he had distilled two core intellectual values.

The first he called “the value of slow academics”—of deep analysis, involving a degree of specificity unheard of outside the academy. Whether the mode of research involved close reading of texts and historical materials, scientific experimentation, or formulating and testing arguments, he said, it was inherently “time-consuming and tedious,” and was fueled by curiosity. This work, he said, was in the “old-school modes of attention to detail and analysis,” as opposed to goal-driven, instrumental pursuits.

The second was “the importance of talking to all the wrong people”—of comparing ideas with others whom you rarely encountered, who could challenge your assumptions through “genuine, heated, but intellectually productive conversations.” Patil described these kinds of interactions as inherently interdisciplinary, in opposition to the kinds of encounters one routinely had with professional or scholarly peers, or family members, in the regular course of events. To make the academy more successful and stronger, he said, universities “need to create ways of bringing the wrong people together” across conventional disciplinary boundaries. “It’s time for us to take each other’s courses.”

He closed his argument by reciting and translating classical verses from India. The first was to the effect that a student learns one-quarter of what she learns from the teacher, one-quarter from herself, one-quarter from peers, and one-quarter from the passage of time. The second, as a rough gloss on the liberal arts, he translated as meaning that learning becomes increasingly powerful only when the student considers a variety of learning systems.


“We haven’t been so good about learning from the rest of the world.”

The ensuing discussion focused on the gains and losses associated with the Internet, the distracted student, and other subjects. One member of the audience wondered what benefits had come from the past quarter-century of studying non-Western texts and cultures. Patil said that while Western scholars had done a better job of learning about the rest of the world, “We haven’t been so good about learning from the rest of the world.”

Jasanoff concluded by observing that the panel and ensuing conversation had proven the point emphasized by several of the speakers about “the value-added of getting people into the same room, across disciplines, in unusual combinations.”