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On Campus

July 27, 2000 - VOL. 27, NO. 17


Viewpoint: This Tower Ain't Ivory


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By Richard A. Cherwitz and Sharan Daniel

 

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Like many academic institutions, the campus centerpiece at The University of Texas at Austin is a tower — but not an "ivory tower." Far from it. The newly reopened Tower, like UT, stands for service to citizens.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the University's Graduate School, where an innovative professional development program educates not just scholars but citizen-scholars. Research conducted at schools like UT is well-regulated by dependence on grant monies and the scrutiny entailed in obtaining them. Yet, graduate studies often seem removed from the practical concerns of everyday life. Sometimes research is so esoteric that scholars can't explain their work to others outside their fields, let alone to those outside the academy.

Specialization is both the strength and weakness of graduate education. It enables some of our nation's most promising intellects to tackle complex issues, potentially contributing to the greater good of society. But it also hinders communication among researchers and many of the people who might benefit from or contribute to their labors.

UT's Graduate School Professional Development Program (GSPD) addresses ivory towerism head-on. In its third year, the program offers 13 cross-disciplinary courses that equip students to serve society in multiple arenas. Courses focus on pedagogy, academic and professional writing, technology, consulting, ethics and multi-culturalism. There are also academic and professional internships.

The program's theme is effective communication. A course in consulting, for example, helps students find new audiences and applications for their research. Students' assignment is to look outside their academic disciplines and find someone--in business, government, or some other organization — who could benefit from their expertise. Then students design and implement a strategy for approaching that audience.

Other courses, such as advanced pedagogy, hone the classroom skills that research programs sometimes short-change. Internships at local partner schools with vastly different missions broaden the teaching experience available to UT students.

The teaching internships are part of Preparing Future Faculty (PFF), a national program jointly sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council of Graduate Schools, and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The program pairs research universities with schools in the same locale who maintain a different institutional mission; the objective is to prepare graduate students for a wide range of academic environments. Texas has participated in PFF for five years. Examples of other universities in PFF are Minnesota, Duke, Howard, Northwestern, Arizona State, Washington and Ohio State.

Texas, however, is the only school to go substantially beyond the original PFF program, adding professional development initiatives that simultaneously prepare students for work outside as well as inside the academy. This move is controversial; some believe that research institutions should focus exclusively on research. Preparing students for other careers — including work in the public and private sectors — amounts to preparing them to settle for less, charge critics.

To the contrary. Professional development is good service to graduate students who put their trust in graduate schools to prepare them professionally. It is good service as well to communities who benefit from the expertise of graduates. And it is good service to universities, whose link with the community intensifies. Why shouldn't students have the option of where to contribute their talents? Professional development is value added to an already first-rate education.

UT graduate students concur. More than 700 students from 83 disciplines and every college on campus have taken GSPD classes. Their most frequent comment is that they learn much simply by pooling knowledge and sharing perspectives with students from other fields. And they appreciate the attention paid to their professional needs. Said one student, "the issues we discussed will greatly influence the decisions I make as I complete my doctoral program and in selecting a job. I am significantly more prepared for the challenge."

In reopening its Tower, President Larry Faulkner emphasized UT's service to citizens. Graduate education is a vital part of that service, whether our citizen-scholars make careers in universities and colleges, or other professions. UT's Tower is not ivory, nor should it be.

 

* Dr. Cherwitz is associate dean of Graduate Studies and director of the Graduate School Professional Development program at UT Austin; he is also Professor in the Department of Communication Studies and in the Division of Rhetoric and Composition.

* Sharan Daniel is a doctoral student in English and graduate research assistant in the Office of Graduate Studies at UT Austin.


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August 2, 2000
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