Professor promotes mentoring

Daily Texan
April 3, 2007
by Jessica Sondgeroth
Media Credit: Eli Kaplan

Richard Cherwitz Communication professor Richard Cherwitz created a program to give students an opportunity to study issues in depth that interest them in preparation for graduate studies.

Psychology senior Jeremy Goyette studies the documented history of human-rights violations and decades of war in the Balkans, but when he has a question about the reading, his hand doesn't rise above rows of students in a lecture hall. Instead, he participates in a weekly discussion with his mentor.

Goyette is a student in the University's growing Intellectual Entrepreneurship Pre-Graduate School Internship, which teams up upperclassmen with graduate students and possibly a faculty member for a semester to determine what discipline they wish to study, recommend reading and encourage independent scholarly work, Goyette said.

Communication professor Richard Cherwitz founded the program in 1997 to allow students to turn their interests into a course schedule, full of seminars, recommended texts and individual research and meanwhile introduce them to the life of an academic.

With changes being made to undergraduate degree requirements and the development of the University's undergraduate college underway, Cherwitz said he hopes to make the program available to more students.

It begins with students' interests rather than predetermined topics chosen in advance by faculty and administrators, Cherwitz said.

"Students are spoon-fed disciplinary knowledge without sufficient occasion to discern a particular field's unique epistemological assumptions or perspective," he said. "While students are well-trained 'to do' a discipline, they may not fully recognize what it means to approach the world from the purview of that discipline rather than or in combination with others."

But Cherwitz isn't just pushing for the program's expansion at UT, he's promoting it on a national level. An article by Cherwitz on the program will appear today in University Business, a publication for presidents and other senior officers at two- and four-year colleges and universities throughout the United States.

With the U.S. Department of Education pushing for reform in higher education and demanding that universities and colleges be more accountable for student performance, Cherwitz said we must refrain from becoming ensnared in debates about the metrics of assessment.

"Instead, academics should boldly re-envision the undergraduate experience, permitting 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," he said.

This semester the program enrolled 70 students, and Cherwitz said he hopes more freshmen and sophomores will have access to the program in the near future.

"It would give them a way to be introduced to discipline," he said. "They would work with a mentor and go out like anthropologists and study what disciplines are, rather than defaulting into one. They would learn about all the different things that might resonate with their interests."

Of course, Cherwitz said he will need more resources than the roughly $30,000 a year he receives from University deans, he said.

Cherwitz said $6,000 from the College of Liberal Arts allowed liberal arts interns and mentors in the program to attend an academic conference in their disciplines.

Gregory Vincent, the vice president for diversity and community engagement, gives the program $10,000 to $12,000 to provide $500 stipends to some of the graduate-student mentors working with first-generation or under-represented minority undergraduate students. Approximately 45% of IE interns are first-generation or under-represented minority students.

Most of the graduate students participate in the program without pay, but the mentorship helps them with their resumes and credentials.

Students can sign up for the program by contacting Cherwitz or internship director Johanna Hartelius, a communication studies graduate student, after which they construct a framework for the semester and find a graduate-student mentor.

"You can focus on whatever," Goyette said. "Foreign policy and human rights are the things I'm concerned about, but it teaches you to work independently and at the same time teaches you the context that you'll be working in, like here's how scholarship works, and here's how you're expected to contribute to the discussion, and here's how to effectively participate in it."