No room for cowboys in Colorado

August 18, 2000

Katherine Sarikakis writes about a US programme where doctoral students are 'lent out' to colleges to gain experience

After a 24-hour journey that started in rainy Heathrow, I made it to the land of the Navajo and Rocky Mountains. The sweltering heat and thin air put me off my task of finding a real cowboy in Colorado Springs. Instead, I had to work.

I was one of two overseas guests at a conference with the peculiar but promising title "PFF: Preparing Future Faculty". I was representing Coventry University, which is working with the University of Kentucky on a project to develop two courses and a practical exercise for postgraduate students in communications.

Although a member of the Kentucky "cluster", I had little idea of the significance of this cooperation in the United States. It is one of 24 projects designed to fuel the debate on improving the quality of teaching and of undergraduate and doctoral programmes.

PFF is not just a conference, it is a national programme to bring innovation into teaching. The main purpose is to provide doctoral students - the future professoriate - with knowledge about, and experience of, faculty life. This includes recognising their teaching responsibilities, exposing them to different settings and giving them opportunities to develop as researchers.

Richard A. Weibl, programmes director in the office of education and institutional renewal at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, says that even the "big boys" (elite and large public institutions), who have displayed less interest in promoting innovative teaching and research, have done some face-saving programme development.

These universities have created learning and teaching centres, held conferences to promote improved teaching and even reviewed promotion and workload policies.

PFF involves cooperation agreements and partnership projects. In its developmental phase, from 1993-97, participants included 17 universities and 68 partner institutions, as diverse as community and historically black colleges to women-only universities.

Most university partners are community colleges, although a few are other university departments. Now PFF has more than 108 participants, selected through competition by national societies, including the American Political Science Association and National Communication Association. The institutions receive grants to incorporate the programme into their doctoral curricula.

A common cooperation pattern is for an overtly research-oriented university to act as the provider of PhD students and a community college to act as the consumer.

The community colleges mentor the doctoral students and send them into the classroom, where students are completing the first two years of their undergraduate studies before transfer to universities.

The partner institutions' payment is seldom financial, it is more an exchange of services, such as access to libraries and research facilities, contact with staff and the development of common projects.

Until now, sources such as the Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Science Foundation have provided funding, but the clusters - groups of institutions that work together on the same project - are working to make their projects self-sufficient.

First results indicate success. A survey conducted for the AACU on the impact of the PFF for 1994-96 showed a strong positive response by doctoral students, partner institutions and universities. Many doctoral students liked the "feeling of professionalism" they acquired by the end of their doctoral studies.

AACU and the Council for Graduate Schools, the most prestigious professional associations in the US, sponsor PFF. But not everyone is happy, nor do they agree with the way things are done. Voices of concern and sometimes anger come from participating "satellite" partner institutions about the mentoring overload. They feel that their contribution should be incorporated within their workload and should be valued and acknowledged.

In Britain, students are not usually actively encouraged towards scholarly and professional independence by their supervisors.

A PhD student rarely takes lectures and when they run seminars they are given ready-made materials. Unlike doctoral programmes in the US, which concentrate on breeding a new generation of academics who will have become professionals by the time they start looking for academic posts, British postgraduates have little opportunity to be creative in their teaching.

Another difference is that UK programmes promoting teaching concentrate heavily on staff development with very few resources available for PhD students.

PFF was the answer to a domestic problem - the critiques on the quality of teaching in the US and the knowledge gap. Some of these critiques, at their peak during the Reagan administration, were racist in origin, such as complaints about foreign-born teaching assistants, particularly Asians, and the replacement of Shakespeare by Toni Morrison in literature classes.

"The US is an anti-intellectual country," says Weibl. "We have totally gutted funding for basic research as a proxy for investment in ideas and we privilege those that have market value such as genetics and Star Wars."

The consequence is that many places do not value teaching or teaching undergraduates. They do not believe that all students are capable or worthy of advanced teaching and learning. "But many more places are teaching well and right," he concludes.

That was good news for us delegates as we headed for Lake Manitou, named after the Native American god, to relax among the Rockies. But even that little slice of America's Wild West proved to be man-made.

Katherine Sarikakis is lecturer in communications at Coventry University.

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