Vantage Point: Innovation funds help to strengthen graduate education

Patricia Gumport

Patricia Gumport

Graduate education has been central to Stanford's mission since its founding. Each of Stanford's seven schools educates graduate students—at the master's, professional and doctoral levels. Fifty-five percent of the student body is graduate students. Stanford is the 10th-largest producer of PhDs, and the only private university among those 10. Graduate students contribute immeasurably to Stanford's reputation as a longstanding leader in intellectual innovation. We are justifiably proud.

But complacency can be dangerous, particularly in a changing environment. Among the emerging challenges facing graduate programs are reconfigurations of disciplinary boundaries, shifting demographics of the graduate student population, and new technologies that change the way knowledge is shared and advanced. Such changes make thoughtful reassessment of graduate education an urgent priority, as the 2005 Report of the Commission on Graduate Education advocated. In addition to calling for more cross-school interaction, the commission challenged leaders of graduate programs to reconsider their prevailing academic practices to see whether they meet their educational goals. I agree. Investing time and resources in Stanford's core departments and programs is crucial for maintaining the university's preeminence in graduate education.

Given the myriad daily pressures in a fast-paced research university, it is often difficult for faculty and students to find time to investigate their own academic programs and raise foundational questions. How can students learn to ask better research questions? What conditions help students to work collaboratively? What is the appropriate balance between coursework and independent learning? What could make assessment mechanisms, such as qualifying exams, more meaningful? These kinds of questions do not have easy answers. And responses differ from one field to the next, and even within fields. Engaging in genuine debate and reaching shared understandings takes time.

But it is possible, and many faculty members relish the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and work on matters of such consequence. And the results can be tremendously rewarding for faculty and students alike. This is one finding of the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate, organized by our neighbor up the hill, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Over the course of this five-year project, the 84 participating departments examined their doctoral programs and implemented changes in response to what they learned. The conclusions are detailed in a new book, The Formation of Scholars: Rethinking Doctoral Education for the Twenty-First Century. Two of the co-authors are now at Stanford: Chris Golde, associate vice provost for graduate education, and Laura Jones, director of heritage services.

A second finding from the project offers another lesson for graduate programs. Faculty members and students were drawn to the framing concept of "intellectual community," and they embraced it as an essential part of improving the character and quality of doctoral education.

A healthy intellectual community is vital for the core work of doctoral education, advancing knowledge. For both novice and experienced scholars, intellectual energy and passion are amplified by collective engagement with others who share their fascination with pressing questions. When students are intellectually engaged with others, they learn and grow as scholars. Research on doctoral student attrition finds that students who do not become integrated into the departmental community are more likely to drop out.

Intellectual community is visible. It is enacted on a daily basis in seminars, research discussions and journal clubs that encourage respectful habits of debate. Hallways are alive with people engaged in conversation, with announcements of conference presentations, publications and job opportunities displayed on the walls. Lively exchanges are self-reproducing, bringing ever more vitality to a community.

The Carnegie project found, and many of us at Stanford believe, that students do not need to wait for intellectual community to be developed for them. They are energetic agents who create activities with idea-centered exchanges, thereby enhancing their own educational experiences and the academic life of the department.

Building on these pivotal findings, the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education is launching two innovation funds for faculty and students in Stanford's graduate programs.

The SCORE (Strengthening the Core) Innovation Fund offers financial resources to academic departments to scrutinize long-existing practices and test new educational approaches. SCORE proposals identify a pressing challenge and a plan for addressing it. Examples of projects include rethinking curricular requirements in light of knowledge change in the field and related fields; teaching students to ask better research questions, to take risks in research or to work collaboratively in new ways; reconsidering mentoring and career preparation; and rethinking aims and requirements for the master's degree.

Innovation funds are also available for graduate students to develop activities that expand the intellectual community of the department. SPICE (Students Projects for Intellectual Community Enhancement) proposals could include writing groups, seminars, mentoring networks or professional development workshops.

Details about SCORE and SPICE can be found at http://vpge.stanford.edu and elsewhere in this issue of Stanford Report.

As we move forward, I am inspired by Jane Stanford's words to the trustees back in 1904: "Let us not be afraid to outgrow old thoughts and ways, and dare to think on new lines as to the future work under our care."

Patricia Gumport is vice provost for graduate education.