From the Student Up
Increasing accountability in higher ed is the subject of intense national discussion. Witness the recent recommendations of the U.S. Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education and the controversy created in its wake. Obscured in these conversations, which frequently bog down in heated debates about who should and how best to assess the effectiveness of education, is a serious worry for college and university presidents and those in charge of curricular reform: How can students negotiate the undergraduate curriculum and choose what to study from the wide array of opportunities available? There's a related concern about how students can better understand the connections between academic knowledge and their desired careers.
Many undergraduates are uncertain about a major, often feeling intimidated by the disciplinary nomenclature of universities; hundreds of specialized possibilities often make little sense, frequently appearing to have limited connection to students' personal interests and professional goals. How can we expect freshmen and sophomores to make thoughtful choices when they may not fully understand the items on the academic menu?
Career and professional development opportunities come too late in the game, emerging at the back end of education as soon-to-be graduates seek employment. These "placement" services are not only seen as inherently separate from the academic and intellectual work students undertake within their discipline, but they also tend to be viewed by faculty, students, and administrators as nonacademic and secondary to scholarship and study.
Moreover, undergraduate pedagogy is sometimes overly didactic; students are spoonfed disciplinary knowledge without sufficient occasion to discern a particular field's unique epistemological assumptions or perspective. They are well trained to "do" a discipline but may not fully recognize what it means to approach the world from the purview of that discipline rather than in combination with another.
The unfortunate consequence of these shortcomings: Many undergraduates leave school not fully having tapped their own interests and aptitudes. In addition, they graduate not totally appreciating the potential contribution of disciplinary expertise or how that expertise compares, contrasts, and harmonizes with other areas of inquiry-not to mention how academic knowledge might be used to help solve society's most serious problems.
What is needed is a space where undergrads can discover-in an entrepreneurial manner-how their interests might serve as a compass for navigating the university, as well as harnessing, integrating, and putting to work the rich knowledge produced by its wide assortment of disciplines.
There is hope. Consider The University of Texas at Austin's experiment with the Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Graduate School Internship. Part of the nationally acclaimed intercollegial IE Consortium, this mentorship offers upperclassmen the chance to work with veteran graduate students to determine whether they should pursue advanced education and, if so, in what discipline. This internship isn't merely an "applied" or "work" experience where students "just do it." Instead, it enables students to own their education, discovering how to leverage knowledge for social good-to be "citizen scholars."
Interns (mostly juniors and seniors, well over 40 percent of whom are first-generation college students or underrepresented minorities) wonder why the IE Pre-Grad Internship was one of the few student-centered learning experiences available to them, why it was the first chance during their college years to step back and assess the meaning and significance of disciplinary knowledge.
Why not provide a similar discovery space-an "IE Undergraduate Mentorship"-for students at the beginning of their college tenure, empowering them to discover the meaning of academic disciplines and subsequently devise a thoughtful plan of academic study?
The IE Undergraduate Mentorship could be delivered for course credit and build upon and extend the IE philosophy and already successful Pre-Graduate School Internship. With the assistance of paid grad student mentors, and perhaps "community sponsors" (members of the public and private sector), freshmen and sophomores would work both inside and outside a discipline, ascertaining the unique perspectives of different fields of study and unearthing important connections between these academic concentrations and their personal and career aspirations.
This would be a rigorous academic exercise, one in which students would become anthropologists of the academy, studying, interrogating, and reflecting upon the discipline. Rather than defaulting to a particular major, they would have a laboratory in which to explore and learn about the many options available to them.
Students not only would investigate the vast academic landscape but would ponder systematically and write incisively (as ethnographers of a discipline) about their own participation in it. The experience would culminate in their designing and updating yearly an entrepreneurial plan for their academic careers. This plan would enable them to meaningfully pick a specialized major and guide them in weaving together a tapestry of courses across the curriculum, defining and linking their intellectual, personal, and professional identities.
An IE Mentorship might help reduce the time to earn a degree and increase educational accountability-issues of great concern to external constituencies. By providing students greater agency in their undergraduate education, this mentorship would shift the metaphor and model of students' education from one of "apprenticeship-certification-entitlement" to one of "discovery-ownership-accountability."
Instead of simply offering students more opportunities ("products"), which seems the habitual tendency of efforts to reform undergraduate education, the IE Mentorship would be student-centered. It would make available a process and method equipping underclassmen to take advantage of the already extensive-sometimes even overwhelming-catalog of courses, majors, minors, and concentrations.
The IE Mentorship could yield other positive effects. By demystifying education and making connections between academe and society, such a program might significantly enhance the education of first-generation and underrepresented minority students, an effect already well-documented by the IE educational philosophy and Pre-Grad Internship; these groups comprise nearly half of Pre-Grad interns, and this is more than a coincidence.
The IE Mentorship also would introduce a unique interdisciplinary learning laboratory, one that would begin with students' interests rather than predetermined topics chosen in advance by faculty and administrators-a prospect that could stimulate student curiosity, increase engaged learning, and allow students to make informed academic and career choices.
Finally, the IE Mentorship would afford valuable professional development for graduate students, permitting these future professors to acquire effective mentoring habits, enhance their marketability, and assist universities in forging long overdue connections between undergraduate and graduate education. In essence, the mentorship could help change the academic culture by educating a more enlightened generation of future academics.
The mentorship would bring together in one setting students' personal, academic, and professional interests. Like the IE Pre-Grad Internship upon which it is modeled, this mentorship would help undergraduates own their education, learning the real meaning of disciplines and how they might use their personal and professional aspirations as a lens for selecting, integrating, and utilizing disciplinary knowledge.
As the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education are scrutinized, 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.
The time has come to bring entrepreneurial thinking, in the broadest sense of the term-that is, as more than business practices and more than a singular concern for amassing material wealth-to the academy. If students become intellectual entrepreneurs, perhaps the goal of increasing accountability sought by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education more easily will be realized-and without artificial mechanisms being foisted upon universities from those less knowledgeable who reside outside its academic walls.
The IE Mentorship would be a modest first step.
Richard A. Cherwitz is professor of communication and the founder and director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium at The University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached through the Consortium website, at: https://webspace.utexas.edu/cherwitz/www/ie.