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Activities That Foster Intellectual Communities

Tomorrow's Academy

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A department with a healthy intellectual community is marked by the level to which students are engaged in all of the activities of the department: serving on committees, hosting outside scholars, planning events, mentoring more junior students, and shaping policy.


The posting below looks at specific ways of developing and fostering intellectual communities. It if from Chapter 6, CREATING AND SUSTAINING INTELLECTUAL COMMUNITY in the book THE FORMATION OF SCHOLARS Rethinking Doctoral Education for the Twenty-First Century by George E. Walker, Chris M. Golde, Laura Jones, Andrea Conklin Bueschel, and Pat Hutchings. Published by Jossey-Bass - A Wiley Imprint 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741-[]. Copyright © 2008 by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 51 Vista Road, Stanford, CA. All rights reserved.


Rick Reis

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Activities That Foster Intellectual Communities


Intellectual community is not simply a matter of ambiance, and it does not happen by accident or by magic. Work is required. Faculty and students (who need not always wait for faculty) must look for and seize the opportunities, putting in place whatever activities, strategies, and structures are most conducive to community in their setting. Occasionally this may mean developing new activities, but it may well be that reshaping existing elements and features of the program will bring significant benefits. In any event, the need is not only for ongoing nurturing and attention to the quality of intellectual community; it is for concrete actions that promote such community. What follows, then, are actions and activities that have been especially helpful in the diverse settings of the CID (Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate).

ENGAGING STUDENTS FULLY IN THE LIFE OF THE DEPARTMENT. Just as students must have increasingly independent opportunities to teach and do research (as described in Chapter Four), they can also become increasingly involved in other departmental activities as they develop as stewards. A department with a healthy intellectual community is marked by the level to which students are engaged in all of the activities of the department: serving on committees, hosting outside scholars, planning events, mentoring more junior students, and shaping policy. These activities are, in turn, routes into the larger discourse and, as Michael Oakeshott (1962, p. 198) once called it, an "unrehearsed intellectual adventure" that defines the department, and the field, as a community. Students (especially those at the beginning of their program) need explicit invitations and routines for such engagement. For instance, in response to the type of problem described in Anna's story at the beginning of this chapter, the history department at the University of Pittsburgh has instituted a rule for one of its seminar series: the first three questions must come from students. This small gesture speaks volumes about the department's commitment to true intellectual community.

COLLABORATIVE WORK ON CURRICULUM. Like the work that goes into a mission statement or set of departmental goals, curriculum design and course development can bring people together around questions of purpose. In particular, departments that work together to create core courses find that they quickly move from discussions of specific content to larger debates about what a member of their field should know. The faculty in the School of Education at the University of Colorado, for instance, engaged in lengthy discussions about what their students should know and be able to do. Although the process was often contentious, there is now a clear understanding-by both faculty and students-of what coursework and thus what content and skills are expected of all students in the school. This understanding informs an ongoing revision of other aspects of the doctoral program, including comprehensive exams and expectations for the dissertation (see the University of Colorado School of Education's Web page, Reforming Education Research Preparation, at In the University of Michigan chemistry department, doctoral students have opportunities to work with faculty on the design of the undergraduate curriculum, again a chance both to debate ideas and build professional community.

SHARING RESEARCH ACROSS BOUNDARIES. Every department has program areas, and these are often lively intellectual communities in themselves. But sometimes the impulse to focus inwardly means forgetting the opportunity for making connections across intellectual arenas. Thus, one strategy for creating intellectual community is to create research seminars that bridge specialties; such connections are especially important as disciplinary boundaries blur. Connections with others in different subareas or fields can lead to new collaborations. Inviting students to organize these events brings further advantages for both knowledge building and professional training.

OPENING CLASSROOM DOORS. Sharing research ideas-formally or informally-is important. So is knowing what happens in colleagues' classrooms. For graduate students, seeing how and what others teach is an opportunity not only to expand their pedagogical repertoire but also so observe different modes of explanation, different metaphors, and other models for transforming key ideas in the field. For faculty, observing colleagues and students not only communicates interest in their work, but provides a chance to reflect on one's own teaching. Departments in which classroom doors are open (metaphorically and otherwise) are settings for building a particular kind of intellectual community that some are calling a "teaching commons" (Huber and Hutchings, 2005).

ALLOWING RISK AND FAILURE. Important breakthroughs are more likely in settings that allow for risk taking and failure. But it is rare for a department to include these opportunities as an explicit part of the program. Typically, risk taking, if it is invited at all, is encouraged or modeled in individual classes, labs, or advising relationships. Maureen Estevez's story from Chapter Five highlights an example; she describes how her adviser knew when to step in and when to let her struggle, saying, "Your job is to make mistakes on a regular basis." But how can this permission to fail be systematically tapped as a source of learning? One answer was proposed by a CID historian: a seminar series in which speakers describe projects that didn't work, and how they proceeded from those failures, making visible a process that is otherwise invisible, mysterious, and even scary.

SETTING ASIDE TIME FOR REFLECTION. Many of our CID partners, especially in the neuroscience programs, use departmental retreats as a time to step away from day-to-day demands-for a few hours or a few days. Agendas vary from a focused attempt to solve a specific problem to a wide-ranging program that includes formal and informal opportunities to think, discuss, argue, and create. Several of the departments used the CID and its guiding questions of purpose and outcomes as an occasion to hold retreats for their faculty and students. We're well aware that retreats are not everyone's cup of tea, but in an academic culture increasingly captured by "productivity ," setting aside time to think, and to build the community in which careful thought is possible, sends a powerful signal.

CREATING PHYSICAL SPACES FOR INTELLECTUAL COMMUNITY. Much of the research on organizational culture points to the value of informal interaction; Brown and Duguid call this "incidental learning" (2000, p. 72). And although such learning is, by definition, not something that can be planned, the chances that it will happen rise when there are places for informal exchange: coffee machines, kitchens, lounges, bulletin boards, and electronic spaces where department members can connect with others and stay apprised of program activities. In this spirit, the department of English at Texas A&M provides refreshments for students each week at a regular time and invites them to get together in a new lounge to talk about whatever issues are important to them.

SOCIAL EVENTS. Although intellectual community requires more than potlucks and softball games, social activities clearly strengthen a community that already has strong intellectual ties. These personal and informal connections not only create goodwill but build foundations for deeper intellectual engagement. In this spirit, many mathematics departments have a tradition of afternoon teas-regular, informal times when students and faculty gather to discuss and share ideas and problems. There is no agenda and everyone is welcome to participate. These occasions allow students to get to know faculty in a relaxed setting.

These activities, strategies, and structures are of course only a few of the ways to create and sustain intellectual community. The important point behind them all is that members of a department or program must think deliberately and act purposefully to put in place the elements that will build the kind of culture in which vibrant intellectual life is available to all its members.