by Courtney Leatherman, Austin, Texas
University Decides That Its Ph.D.'s Should
be Able to Talk to Average Joes:
Texas Offers for-credit courses to graduate students on communicating with the public"
From the Chronicle of Higher Education
October 8, 1999
Analytical chemistry is Delony Langer's specialty. A Ph.D. student at the University of Texas here, she confidently runs experiments for her research project: "analyte transport studies in electrothermal vaporization-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry." But recently she has embarked on a new experiment that makes her anxious: She's learning to write -- so she can explain her research to the rest of us.
Ms. Langer is 1 of 20 graduate students in a range of disciplines now enrolled in a course called "Academic and Professional Writing." The course, which promises to help them achieve clarity and conquer writer's block, is 1 of 13 classes offered through the graduate school as part of a new program to turn out well-rounded Ph.D.'s. "I'm hoping this jump-starts my dissertation," says Ms. Langer, explaining her motivation for taking the course.
Her adviser allowed her to take the course, but he has been lukewarm about her taking time away from the laboratory. "When she goes to the class, most things are put on hold," says Jim Holcombe, an analytical chemist at Texas. He concedes the class may be a confidence booster, but he says, "I'm not sure from my point of view that I'll see the payback."
At a time when graduate schools are being pressured to give students an edge in a tough job market, Texas officials are touting their program as part of the answer. Across academe, individual departments and graduate schools have been experimenting with ways to make their Ph.D.'s more employable. But most programs offer informal seminars and not a series of for-credit courses like Texas does.
Courses in the university's Professional Development Program focus on rhetoric. The idea is that by improving the communication skills of graduate students, the university will make them more successful -- whether they go into industry or join the professoriate.
"It's about making the Ph.D. all it can be," says Linda Ferreira-Buckley, an associate professor of English who serves on the program's advisory committee.
But it's not just a marketing gimmick to get students jobs, Ms. Ferreira-Buckley and others here argue. Ridding scholars of their reputations as absent-minded academics and jargon-laden theorists can only help give higher education a boost too, the thinking goes.
"I think every person who graduates, writes a dissertation, and gets a Ph.D. from this institution ought to be able to give the Time-magazine precis of their research," says Richard A. Cherwitz, associate dean of graduate studies and director of the professional-development program. "That might not have been necessary 20 years ago," he adds, but "I think it's essential now. You've got the public, legislators, and donors looking at us saying, So what is the value of this that you do?
"Most faculty have got to be able to establish the value of what they do to the larger society."
Before doctoral students graduate, they also have to establish the value of what they do to a different audience: their faculty advisers. And some graduate students are finding the professional-development courses a tough sell.
It's not easy to change the cloning culture of Ph.D. education. The last generation of faculty members didn't take those skills-building courses -- which sound a lot like vocational training to some critics -- so why should this one? And professors note the plain fact: When graduate students take courses, they have less time to spend on research.
The innovations of the Texas program strike some critics as just empty additions.
"The professional-development program is largely a diversionary tactic, designed to give the look of change without any real change," says Ray Watkins, a visiting professor of English at Temple University who finished his Ph.D. at Texas last year. He declined to take any courses in the program: "Its main purpose seemed to be either to get folks out of academia or to convince us they give a damn."
Some 600 students in 83 graduate programs at Texas have been convinced. Many scientists and engineers have taken the courses since the professional-development program began, in 1996. But so have students in education, art history, and English. Some even say it turned them toward careers in academe -- not away from them. And a few who have landed academic jobs credit the skills they learned in the program.
One such testimonial came from Martin Meersman, who was hired to teach sculpture at Moorhead State University last year after earning an M.F.A. In an e-mail message to Texas officials, Mr. Meersman said he had taken the courses on writing and teaching methods to give himself "an edge on the competition." He added, "I can honestly say my integrity as an artist/educator and how I confidently project that to others is a direct result of being an [assistant instructor] and taking these courses." He also said interviewers had praised his writing.
The idea for the program grew out of the university's participation in the national project known as Preparing Future Faculty. Supported by grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts, participating universities offer graduate students a taste of teaching and service at different types of institutions. It was an obvious next step, Mr. Cherwitz says, for Texas to focus on preparing for all kinds of professions.
A conversation between the university's graduate dean, Teresa A. Sullivan, and a Ford Motor Company executive convinced Texas officials they were on the right track. During a visit to Dearborn, Mich., where Ms. Sullivan and other administrators had gone to talk about quality in higher education, a Ford executive pulled her aside and praised the expertise of the Texas M.B.A.'s and engineering graduates the company had hired. But he noted that they couldn't write and couldn't explain to their managers what they were doing.
"It was after that that we hatched the first courses that dealt with professional writing and professional speaking," says Ms. Sullivan.
Along with the writing course, Texas now offers 12 others, including "Multi-Cultural Issues in Academic and Professional Instruction," "Advanced College Teaching Methods," and "Academic and Professional Ethics." In addition, the school offers periodic workshops on writing dissertations and grant proposals.
The courses are interdisciplinary, so they force students to communicate to a wide audience. Chemists and physicists learn to talk to one another as well as to humanists. Ms. Sullivan recalls a class talk one chemistry student gave to explain his expertise to the non-expert. The topic: why popcorn pops. Many students earn elective credit for the courses, which officials here consider a bargain, given the price of in-state tuition.
Offering the courses through the graduate school prompted questions at first, Ms. Sullivan says, because graduate-school administrators typically monitor the performance of the school's programs, not offer their own courses. But officials in the school felt it should take a leadership role -- offering courses that might complement those in some departments and fill gaps in others. The school employs a handful of full-time lecturers and then hires regular faculty members to teach some summer courses.
Its approach has drawn mixed reviews from outsiders. Robert Weisbuch, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, has played an active role in trying to make humanities Ph.D.'s more employable. He applauds Texas for trying to fix what is a common problem in academe. But he says: "I'd tackle it differently -- through the disciplines and not around; through the graduate faculty and not a special cadre." He adds: "Every time you create a set of courses taught by people who aren't part of the regular faculty, it can't help but imply a certain negative take. That's why I'd prefer to see the professoriate itself recognize this as its responsibility."
But while regular faculty members teach only some of the professional-development courses offered through the Texas graduate school, a faculty advisory committee -- which includes some big names, such as Philip Uri Treisman, the mathematician -- gives the school ideas and feedback, not to mention credibility.
"The caliber of the professors on our advisory board -- these are very influential people -- tells me that the program is taken seriously," says JoyLynn Reed, one of the program coordinators and the instructor for the writing class.
In that course, students are required to study books, like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, and to complete several assignments, like interviewing a scholar in their field whose writing they admire. When a T.A. in the course says students often have trouble with subject-verb agreement and focusing their thoughts, the idea of remediation creeps in.
There's also ample time for commiserating, if not counseling. During one session this fall, an in-class writing assignment required small groups of students to think about a time when their writing had been criticized and how that had made them feel: Anger, denial, self-doubt, and devastation were the common descriptions.
"This class requires a different kind of analysis," says Lara Humphrey, a master's student in higher-education administration. "It's more introspective than I'm used to." She had taken the course to learn to better organize her thoughts because she said she was not getting enough feedback on her writing in her own program. In this course, just knowing that she wasn't alone bolstered her confidence.
Ms. Reed also teaches a course called "Academic and Professional Consulting," in which students learn to apply their graduate training and scholarly expertise to consulting, either as a sideline or as a career. During a recent meeting, students got practical advice from a guest speaker -- the Texas liberal-arts dean, Richard Lariviere. He earned his Ph.D. in Sanskrit, but got into international consulting on the side some years ago, because of his research skills and firsthand knowledge of India and its culture. As Mr. Lariviere talked about networking with business executives, wheeling and dealing with officials in the information-technology industry, and "making an embarrassing amount of money" doing it, the dollar signs were almost visible in the students' eyes.
"Consulting is a massive field, and no one ever explains it," says Joby Dixon, a Ph.D. student in sociology who is now considering work in consulting after years of pining for an academic career. The course requires students to interview consultants and then make a consulting pitch to an organization.
While the program attracts its share of students who want to be international consultants, it also attracts many international students.
Desmond Lawler, a graduate adviser in environmental and water-resources engineering, says several foreign students in his department have taken the writing course offered in the program.
"I imagine that engineering and science faculty like the courses because, selfishly, it saves them time in the end -- because they don't have to patch up the dissertations," says Mr. Lawler, who has guest-lectured in the writing course, giving students pointers on how to write a dissertation. "Unselfishly, you make sure the students understand the stuff and can put it in their own language."
Understanding the language can help foreign students understand American culture, and understanding that, Mr. Lawler says, can help them get jobs.
"Sure, you can criticize these courses: Are they necessary? Are they flaky? And I'd have some concerns if a student wanted to take a lot of them," he says. "But it seems that a few couldn't hurt."
Even taking a few courses, however, means that a graduate student has that many fewer hours to spend in the lab or the library, and some professors say that factor does indeed hurt.
Jennifer S. Brodbelt, an associate professor of chemistry and her department's graduate adviser, has nothing against the professional-development courses in particular. It's just that "most faculty think the fewer courses the better, and that most of the time should be devoted to the lab," she says.
She thinks the goals of the writing course are laudable, but says, "Our shortsighted impression is that that's what we're trying to achieve with our students anyway." She notes that Ph.D. students routinely give conference talks, write grant proposals, and explain their work to high-school students who tour the department.
Some professors in other departments, such as English, freely admit that they don't know much about the program. But their impression is that it is duplicating what they are already doing.
But Julie Teetsov, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in chemistry, didn't just want some writing on the side; she wanted to be immersed in it. A year ago, against her adviser's advice, she took two of the program's courses -- one on writing and one on academic communication. Her adviser, whom Ms. Teetsov will not name and who has since moved to another institution, told her that the courses would be a waste of time and that she would be better off focusing on her research. Ms. Teetsov took the courses anyway, during a summer when she was in between advisers. Now, she says, "I think it was bad advice. Ironically, the one thing that stands out on my resume now is that I've taken these courses and given so many talks" because of them.
She thinks her adviser's opposition was "a cultural thing. People want you to be a slave to your work," she explains. "That seems to be the only way that people have been able to get their graduate students to be focused, to tell them that's all they need to do."
"I got my work done. I don't know what more I could have given besides blood."