Monday, December 03, 2007

The Importance of Intellectual Community

Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education features an article – George Walker et al, “The Importance of Intellectual Community” -- about a new study of American doctoral education coming out next month. The five-year study was run by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching examining “84 departments in six fields: chemistry, education, English, history, mathematics, and neuroscience.” It emphasizes the notion of “intellectual community” and here are some excerpts:

“What qualities make intellectual communities more vibrant, enriching, stimulating, welcoming, and suited to the formation of scholars and the building of knowledge? First, they have a shared purpose -- a commitment to help students develop into the best scholars possible so that they, in turn, may contribute to the creation and growth of knowledge. Strong intellectual communities are also:

Diverse and multigenerational. True intellectual exchange must include a wide range of opinions that challenge and inform thinking. Scholars who are not actively involved in an environment of diverse viewpoints and healthy debate may find their work intellectually malnourished. Often doctoral programs approach the topic of diversity as a concern for numbers of people who can be counted in different ways and attention to access is a crucial agenda. But an equally important motivation for diversity is to ensure access to a wide range of viewpoints that enrich intellectual exchange. In addition, a vibrant intellectual community is one in which students are integrated as junior colleagues. Indeed, a key finding of our research is just how great a contribution students, who bring fresh perspectives, can make to the intellectual life of a department.

Flexible and forgiving. Mistakes can be a source of strength. Unfortunately, however, departments are often structured and supported in ways that leave little time and few resources for projects that might not pan out, and in an academic culture that increasingly values "productivity," the need for reflection and thought is profoundly undervalued. Creating a space “literally and metaphorically”to try out new ideas, to "take a flyer," to play, and to step back and reflect on what has been learned is essential.

Respectful and generous. Without creating a climate of political correctness, it is necessary to treat one another respectfully regardless of differing opinions. Understanding that one person's success does not come at the expense of another's, scholars should also share opportunities ("Have you seen this grant application?"), intellectual resources ("Here are three articles you might find helpful"), and connections ("Let me introduce you to Professor X because you will find each other's work interesting"). Generosity seems to flourish when senior faculty members are confident in their own expertise and assume the responsibility to serve as mentors to the next generation of scholars.

Strong intellectual communities also:

Engage students fully in the life of the department. A department with a healthy intellectual community involves students in serving on committees, hosting outside scholars, planning events, being mentors to junior students, and shaping policy. Students (especially those at the beginning of their program) need explicit invitations and routines for such engagement. For instance, in response to the type of problem that we described at the beginning through Anna's story, the history department at the University of Pittsburgh has instituted a rule for one of its seminar series: The first three questions must come from students. That small gesture speaks volumes.

Collaborate on the curriculum. Like the work that goes into a set of departmental goals, curriculum design and course development can bring people together around questions of purpose, as they often quickly move from discussions of specific content to larger debates about what knowledge scholars in the discipline should acquire. For instance, faculty members in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder engaged in lengthy discussions about what students should know and be able to do. Although the process was often contentious, there is now a clear understanding, among both faculty members and students, of what course work and thus what content and skills are expected of all students. That understanding informs a continuing revision of other aspects of the doctoral program, including comprehensive exams and expectations for the dissertation. Similarly, in the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor chemistry department, doctoral students have opportunities to work with faculty members on the design of undergraduate curriculum—again a chance both to debate ideas and build professional community.

Share research across boundaries. Every department has program subareas, and those are often lively intellectual communities in themselves. One strategy for creating intellectual community is to create research seminars that bridge subspecialties; such connections are especially important as disciplinary boundaries blur. Connections with others in different subareas can lead to new collaborations, especially if the department invites students to organize such activities.

Open classroom doors. For graduate students, seeing how and what others teach is an opportunity not only to expand their pedagogical repertoire but also to observe various modes of explanation, different metaphors, and other models for transforming key ideas in the field. For faculty members, that approach communicates an interest in the work of colleagues and students and also provides a chance to reflect on their own teaching. Departments where classroom doors are open, metaphorically and otherwise, are settings for building a particular kind of intellectual community that some are calling a "teaching commons."

Set aside time for reflection. Many of our partners in the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate use departmental retreats as a time to step away from day-to-day demands. Agendas vary from a focused attempt to solve a specific problem to a wide-ranging program that includes many different opportunities to think, discuss, argue, and create. Setting aside time to think and to build the community in which careful thought is possible sends a powerful signal.

Create physical spaces for community. Much of the research on organizational culture points to the value of informal interaction. Although, by definition, that is not something that can be planned, the chances that it will happen increase when there are kitchens, lounges, bulletin boards, and electronic spaces where department members can connect with others. In that spirit, the English department at Texas A&M University at College Station provides refreshments for students each week at a regular time and invites them to get together in a new lounge to talk about whatever issues are important to them.

Encourage social events. Although intellectual community requires more than potlucks and softball games, social activities clearly strengthen a community that already has intellectual ties. Many math departments, for instance, have a tradition of afternoon teas—informal times when students and faculty gather to discuss ideas and problems. Such events allow students to get to know faculty members in a relaxed setting.

The full essay can be found at The book will be published by Jossey-Bass.

1 comment:

Prashant said...

The importance of "time" to reflect, think, digest, and generate ideas listed in this article is precisely what we seem to have ignored at SIS. Somehow we must find innovative ways to free up faculty time for this, rather than devote more and more of faculty time to mundane and unproductive (primarily administrative) activities.