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Archive for September, 2020

For a scholar bone-weary of the educationalist wars, Lee Schulman’s introduction to The Formation of Scholars is both balm and hearty invitation to risk the reading of the book that follows. His emphasis on the carefully vetted vocabulary of ‘formation’ and ‘stewardship’ frames up the work’s inspection of what must change in this pinnacle of educational achievement that we call the PhD without neglecting what must be conserved.

The book’s lead-off chapter (‘I. Moving Doctoral Education Into the Future’) profiles the dimensions of what is at stake. On the one hand, massive numbers of human beings enroll in doctoral programs. On the other, a shocking half them leave their programs prior to completion. The challenges that foment the carnage are both long-standing or traditional and relating to new challenges around novel technologies and other environmental variables. This early attention to the both-and dynamic in a context that lends itself to revolutionary screed is encouraging from the outset.

The Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) professes to bring to this formidable nexus a jaunty confidence that things can improve, motivated in part by the doctorate’s native inclination to ask hard and uncomfortable questions. An early axiom that corresponds to this hopefulness is the expectation that, where hard questions are unleashed in a permission-giving environment, profitable changes will be identified and in time implemented. 

The formation of scholars, we are told at this early juncture, involves identity, training, and formation. The process cannot be reduced to any one or even two of the features of the long path that is entailed. Already, hope becomes anchored to scholarly integration and intellectual community, two motifs that will recur throughout this volume. A third critical concept—at least in this reviewer’s eyes—emerges in this first chapter, that of the steward. It is worth pausing to absorb some defining expressions:

‘The contemporary environmental movement has adopted the word steward by focusing on sustainable management that will make resources available for generations to come. Here the emphasis is on people living in concert with the environment and on preservation with an eye towards the future. A steward, then, thinks about the continuing health of the discipline and how to preserve the best of the past for this who will follow …’

‘A fully formed scholar should be capable of generating and critically evaluating new knowledge; of conserving the most important ideas and findings that are a legacy of past and current work; and of understanding how knowledge is transforming the world in which we live, and engaging in the transformational work of communicating their knowledge responsibly to others.’

‘By invoking the term steward, and by focusing on the formation of scholars who can indeed be good stewards, we intend to convey a sense of purpose for doctoral equation that is larger than the individual and implies action. A scholar is a steward of the discipline, or the larger field, not simply a manager of her own career.’

In this first chapter, such agreeably anchored thinking leads to a brief advance look at the structure of a book that is meant to tease out the implications for both continuity and change which such concepts all but require.

The book’s second chapter (‘Setting the Stage for Change’) sketches the relative novelty of doctoral education in America and its migration from an environment whose chief virtue was that ‘no one is in charge’ to the point where established traditions often pass unexamined from one cohort and one generation to the next.  The survey sheds light on two distinct stories:

‘On the one hand, the story is of change—gradual, yes, but ongoing and significant as PhD programs have evolved in response to new funding source and incentives, more and different students, recalibrated purposes, and other changing circumstances both within and outside of the academy. On the other hand, the story is one of stasis—of structures and assumptions that have become increasingly difficult to budge.’

These stories in turn engender ‘four larger ideas’ that become the stuff of ensuing scrutiny: (a) The (Partial) Myth of Money, (b) The Power of the Disciplines, (c) The Double-Edged Sword of Decentralization, and (d) Students as Agents of Change and Improvement. The last of these—students as change agents—comes in for persistent mention precisely because the CID discovered that students are both deeply invested in their programs and capable of enacting real change when they seize or are granted the opportunity to become genuine actors in the process which has claimed a large share of their lives.

The authors open their third chapter (‘Talking About Purpose’) by conjuring the often terrifying beast called ‘qualifying exams’ and then arguing that the purpose of this mile-demarcating ordeal is about as opaque as can be imagined. The obvious desideratum of clarity is then pursued by way of the three-part metaphor of mirrors, lenses, and windows:

‘Mirrors, lenses, and windows improve vision—and thus understanding and motivation to change—by providing new views. Mirrors allow us to see ourselves … Lenses enhance the ability to see by sharpening focus and magnifying detail in one area .. Windows provide the opportunity to gaze at the work done by our neighbors.’

The burden of this chapter lies in its implicit exhortation of doctoral constituencies to summon the courage to design to purpose. Encouragement towards amply populated conversations about purpose and then the identification of the structural components that sustain its pursuit pervade the chapter, together with the recognition that not all of these conversations will be easy ones.

The book’s fourth chapter (‘From Experience to Expertise’) explains how one learns to think like a practicing and productive member of his or her guild. Where lies the path from early experience to that established presence and competence that are captured by the word ‘expertise’?

The CID discerns three principles that mark the road with milestones. The first is ‘progressive development’. This developmental pathway includes the acquisition of research competence, a fluency in the art of teaching what one has learned, and those interactions within one’s field that produce enduring professional identity. A second element of becoming expert (somehow, the adjective seems more accurate than the noun) is ‘integrative learning’. The most effective doctoral programs encourage their subjects to ‘make connections across settings and over time’. Thus, one becomes fluent in the history and dominant dialects of one’s discipline as well as capable of conceiving of that discipline as one among many, some of which are in fact contiguous with one’s own area of expertise.

Finally, the CID makes a plea for ‘collaborative learning’, rooted in the conviction that the world is becoming ever more complex and so isolated research ever more incapable of comprehending sizable pieces of it. A series of three imperatives rounds out the chapter, calling for greater awareness of the structure(s) of an expert’s knowledge and the need consciously to introduce students into these; a call to students to develop a keen sense of how they learn; and a plea to all to interact as genuine partners.

The fifth chapter (‘Apprenticeship Reconsidered’) engages the hoary ‘apprenticeship model’, its roots extending back to Medieval origins and its whispered ‘When it works…’ dynamic acknowledged out loud.

‘The solution, it seems to us, is not to abandon the apprenticeship model but to reclaim and urge it in directions more purposefully aligned with the vision of learning that is needed from doctoral programs today, combined with known ways to foster that learning.’ CID’s solution becomes ‘a shift of prepositions: from a system in which students are apprenticed to a faculty mentor, to one in which they apprentice with several mentors.’

CID would pry the apprenticeship model from its one-on-one ‘Darwinian’ manifestation and reconfigure it ‘more broadly as a theory of learning and a set of practices that are widely relevant’. The constituent elements of this theory and practice are then described with reasonable specificity. One might query, however, whether the apprenticeship model requires incarnation in a one-on-one relationship and whether its relecture as theory and practice risk a gnostic dissipation of its genius.

In what is arguably the strongest entry of the volume, chapter six (‘Creating and Sustaining Intellectual Community’) focusses on ‘intellectual community as a synthesizing concept that pulls together our major themes: the formation of scholars, integration of research and teaching, and stewardship. Intellectual community is also essential to the new vision of apprenticeship …’ It is, after all, precisely in community that the noble ideas put forward by so many educationalists and both identified and named in the present volume become real. They are of little value as abstractions. Yet they are both generative and catalytic when they take shape in the mix of human beings united by a common intellectual cause.

The chapter approaches intellectual community from three principal angles. First, it names the characteristics of intellectual community. Next, it identifies activities that foster such community. Finally, it describes the impact of such community upon the formation of scholars, both in its presence and its regrettable but too common absence.

Nowhere is the belief in doctoral formation as plainly evident as in the final summons of the book (Chapter 7: ‘A Call to Action’). One senses that the principal and supporting actors in CID consider the PhD too valuable to be left untouched. Reform is needed and meaningful change will require all constituencies to bend shoulder to harness.

Five appendices provide details and documents of the CID methodology.

This reviewer is engaged in a thriving theological university in Colombia, where a long history of providing solid, undergraduate level is producing adventurous forays into graduate level education, with a PhD beckoning from just over the horizon. In this context—where words like ‘relevant’, ‘practical’, ‘interdisciplinary’, ‘contextual’, and ‘accessible’ are often considered self-authenticating icons worthy of enthusiastic genuflection—The Formation of Scholars brings its thoughtful examination of what one might call ‘responsive traditioning’. In this reader’s experience, the book achieves this with all the refreshment of an August rain. The Formation of Scholars should remain at the elbow of all shapers of high-level graduate education.

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