The Value of "Learning Backwards" in Higher Education

from the December 2002 Anthropology News
by Alice Chu
University of Texas at Austin

In the recent Washington Post article "You're the Dr.," Linton Weeks wrote, "Look around--PhDs are everywhere. There's Dr Laura Schlessinger. There's Dr Ruth Westheimer.... And there, in the March madness, is ESPN college basketball analyst Dr Jack Ramsay." Is this finding such a shock, and more importantly, should it be?

Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius, authors of "So What are You Going to Do with That? A Guide to Career-Changing for MAs and PhDs," list even more graduate degree holders who debunked the Ivory Tower trend and ventured onto the road less taken. Consider Yale U grad David Duchovny of "X-Files" fame, who transformed his dissertation topic "Magic and Technology in 20th-Century Prose and Poetry" into an acting career. Or PhD Tom Magliozzi, better known as one half of NPR's "Car Talk" dynamic, problem-solving mechanic duo. Despite or because of his teaching experiences, Magliozzi emerged as a radio personality by embracing his "New Theory of Learning," which is based on the premise "learn backwards"; that is, learn about fixing problems that are important to you and acquire the requisite skills and resources to solve them.

Car Talk Duo Tom Magliozzi (left), one-half of NPR's "Car Talk Duo," argues: "Work backwards. Start with the problem and go wherever it takes you" in his "New Theory of Learning," devised after years of teaching.

Institutions that confer advanced degrees--namely, graduate schools also are waking up to this trend. By offering courses through the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program (IE), the U of Texas at Austin acknowledges and moreover prepares those graduate students interested in a life after the thesis or dissertation that includes all worlds, post-academic and more.

As one who elected to take an IE course on academic and professional consulting, I accepted the program's challenge to become greater than the sum of my degree-earned parts, to become what IE coins a "citizen-scholar." This course began by critically re-examining the language we use to frame, or in this case shackle, the graduate student experience. We focused on how to fashion and pitch a consulting project that used in equal parts our academic training and personal interests. While many of us found projects outside of academe, several pursued avenues within our departments and university networks. Yet, regardless of our topics, the outcomes were the same: we were applying our interests in "esoteric" areas to "real-world" problems with tangible results--learning backwards.

One graduate student in chemical engineering pursued a project on mold with a company wishing to broaden its expertise in that area. The student pitched a proposal that not only called for mold-exposure analysis, but also delivery of a course on indoor air quality based on findings from the study. Needless to say, the company benefited from the graduate student's knowledge and training. More importantly, the experience broadened the student's scholarly pursuits outside of academe. He confided that, "The wonder of the class for me was how it changed the way I look at myself and the contribution that I can make." In echoing the goals of the IE Program, this student's epiphany reveals that doctoral students can be successful as both academics and professionals if they are willing to embrace an entrepreneurial mindset.

Guiding graduate students' thinking and skills for a post-academic workforce is a task that many universities are unfortunately not providing, or if so, not nearly enough. While the skills we learn in grad school such as researching, data collecting, writing, analyzing, synthesizing and critiquing are not unique to academe, recognizing and adapting them to various environments other than university classrooms too often is regarded as the road less taken, and thus avoided. For some stubborn reason, the illusion prevails that graduate students are selling themselves out by pursuing non-university careers.

This interest in exploring careers should not fuel the misconception that graduate students are snubbing the very institutions that confer their degrees. To the contrary, we are seeking venues where we can use our graduate degrees to make a difference--both in our disciplines and in our communities. Consider the open secret that teaching occurs everywhere, not just in classrooms. So why not also teach in "nontraditional"; spaces such as the business community, the nonprofit sector or through public service?

As the recent dialogue in the Washington Post suggests, finding graduate degree holders throughout the post-academic world is hardly a headline story, but a natural choice for those who realize they can share their scholarly training, knowledge and interests in various spaces. While teaching should continue in the classroom, why not make the classroom a boardroom and students members of the board? Or the Web spaces of the Internet, the halls of Congress or the streets of any community where our graduate skills can be delivered in the best lecture hall of all: society at large.

Alice Chu, a doctoral candidate in linguistic anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, is contemplating a career in the Foreign Service.