Friday August 25, 2006
EDITOR'S NOTE: This essay is part of a proposal drafted this summer by Professor Cherwitz. At the time of publication, six UT departments and programs, representing four colleges/schools (out of ten who were invited), have agreed to participate in the pilot project.
Richard A. Cherwitz
Increasing accountability in higher education is the subject of intense national discussion. Witness the recent recommendations of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education and the controversy created in its wake.
Obscured in these conversations, which frequently bog down in heated debates about who and how best to assess the effectiveness of education, is a serious worry, one occupying the attention of UT President William Powers and the Task Force on Curricular Reform: How can students negotiate the undergraduate curriculum, choosing what to study from the wide array of opportunities available?
Many undergraduates are uncertain about a major; hundreds of specialized possibilities often make little sense, frequently appearing to have limited connection to students' personal interests and professional goals.
Career and professional development opportunities come too late in the game, emerging at the back end of education; these opportunities not only are seen as inherently separate from the academic and intellectual work students undertake within their discipline but tend to be viewed as non-academic and secondary to scholarship and study.
Undergraduate pedagogy sometimes is overly didactic; students are spoon-fed disciplinary knowledge without sufficient occasion to discern a particular field's unique mindset or perspective.
The unfortunate consequence of these shortcomings is that many undergraduates leave school not fully appreciating the potential contribution of disciplinary expertise or how that expertise compares, contrasts and harmonizes with other areas of inquiry.
What is needed is a space where undergraduates can discover--in an entrepreneurial manner--how their interests might serve as a compass for navigating the university, as well as harnessing and integrating the rich knowledge produced by the wide assortment of disciplines.
There is hope. Consider UT's Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Graduate School Internship. Part of the inter-collegial IE Consortium, this mentorship offers upperclassmen the chance to own their education, discovering how to leverage knowledge for social good--to be "citizen-scholars."
Interestingly, interns, most of whom are juniors and seniors, wonder why the Pre-Grad Internship was their first chance at UT to step back and assess the meaning and significance of disciplinary knowledge.
So why not provide a similar discovery space--an "IE Undergraduate Mentorship Course" --for students at the beginning of their college tenure, empowering them to devise a thoughtful plan of academic study?
The IE Undergraduate Mentorship Course will build upon and extend the IE philosophy and already successful Pre-Graduate School Internship. With the assistance of paid graduate student mentors, undergraduates would work both inside and outside a contemplated discipline, unearthing important connections between academic fields and their personal and career aspirations. This would be a rigorous academic exercise--one where students become anthropologists of the academy, studying, interrogating and reflecting upon the discipline/career to which they aspire.
Students not only would explore UT's vast academic landscape but would ponder systematically and write incisively (as ethnographers of a discipline) about their own participation in it; the course will culminate in students designing and presenting an entrepreneurial plan for their academic career at UT, one enabling them to meaningfully pick a specialized major and guiding them in weaving together a tapestry of courses across the curriculum defining and linking their intellectual, personal and professional identities.
The proposed IE Mentorship Course complements and supplies one mechanism for implementing some of the thoughtful recommendations made by President Powers and the UT Task Force--including the anticipated Baccalaureate College which could house the IE Mentorship Course. By providing students greater agency in their undergraduate education, this course might shift the metaphor and model of students' education from one of "apprenticeship-certification-entitlement"; to one of "discovery-ownership-accountability."
The IE Mentorship Course will yield other positive effects. It might significantly enhance the education of first-generation and underrepresented minority students, an effect already well-documented by the IE educational philosophy and Pre-Grad Internship. The course will also be a unique interdisciplinary learning laboratory--something increasingly desired by faculty and educational leaders.
Finally, the mentorship will afford valuable professional development for graduate students, permitting these future professors to acquire effective mentoring habits, enhance their marketability and assist the university in forging long overdo connections between undergraduate and graduate education.
The proposed mentorship brings together in one class students' personal, academic and professional interests. Like the IE Pre-Grad Internship upon which it is modeled, this course will help undergraduates own their education, learning the real meaning of disciplines and how they might use their personal and professional aspirations as a lens for selecting, integrating and utilizing disciplinary knowledge.
As the recommendations of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education are scrutinized, we must refrain from becoming ensnared in debates about the metrics of assessment. Instead, academics should boldly re-envision the undergraduate experience, allowing students to become intellectual entrepreneurs: to study themselves, their disciplines and the way academic knowledge and scholarship can transform lives for the benefit of society. The IE Mentorship Course is a modest first step.
Richard A. Cherwitz is professor of communication and the founder and director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium (IE) at The University of Texas-Austin.