The purpose of this paper is to analyze, compare, and synthesize themes from three articles examining some weaknesses of conventional approaches to graduate education. The articles include “Socialization of Doctoral Students to Academic Norms” (2003) in which John Weidman and Elizabeth Stein outline the process by which graduate students are socialized to academic norms of research and scholarship, “Critical Thinking in Distance Education and Traditional Education” (2003) in which Lya and Yusra Laila Visser and Charles Schlosser discuss some of the advantages of distance learning over traditional face-to-face learning, and “Developmental Networks and Learning” (2010) in which Vicki Baker and Lisa Lattuca explain how establishing ‘developmental networks’ could remedy the limitations to conventional approaches. The themes I will discuss include the importance of diversity and collaboration in higher education, the difficulties inherent to fostering free thought in a structured curriculum, and the responsibility of professors to serve as role models and mentors for aspiring scholars. The primary issue I would like to address is the degree to which free thought can be institutionalized and the compromises that should be made in order to reconcile openness with productivity.
The Importance of Diversity and Collaboration
There seems to be a consensus among all three studies that it is important for educators to foster an environment that encourages contribution from a diversity of perspectives and does not attempt to impose a singular set of norms. Weidman and Stein stress the importance of social interaction among students and faculty from different walks of life in fostering a supportive climate for intellectual development (2003, p. 641). Baker and Lattuca advocate maintaining a separation between the acquisition of professional skills and the adoption of the profession’s social norms so that graduate students do not feel pressure to abandon their own norms and values, which would reduce the diversity of perspectives (2010, pp. 808-809). Visser et al. argue that distance learning facilitates collaborative learning among students from diverse backgrounds by allowing students to operate within their own social and cultural contexts, thus giving them the opportunity to offer insights stemming directly from their lived “real-world” experiences (2003, p. 406). This perspective is corroborated by Baker and Lattuca, who assert that a developmental network is more robust when its members are able to draw support from a variety of social support systems (2010, p. 811).
Mixed Messages Regarding Critical Thought
Each of the three articles discuss the paradox of institutionalized free-thought. According to Visser et al., graduate students are often given contradictory advice regarding critical thinking—they are encouraged to develop their own points of view, yet in any given discipline there are a number of opinions and beliefs considered heterodox and unacceptable (2003, p. 402). Weidman and Stein expand upon this paradox by illustrating some of the conflicts that arise between a graduate student’s role as a student and his or her role as a novice professional. Because it is necessary to obtain a doctoral degree before securing employment as an academic, graduate students are discouraged from pursuing their own scholarly interests when the majority of their time must be allocated to completing the requirements of their graduate program (2003, p. 644). Vicki and Lattuca also touch on this theme when discussing the pressure to compromise one’s own personal norms, values, and convictions in order to integrate themselves into the culture of their profession (2010). Considering these arguments, it may seem as if ‘institution of higher learning’ is an oxymoron.
Are Professors Setting a Good Example?
Each of the three articles includes a discussion of the role of professors as mentors and role models for graduate students striving to enter their fields of study. According to a survey cited by Visser et al., 90% of participant professors claimed that their objective was to teach students to think critically, but only 19% of them could provide an explanation of what critical thinking actually is (2003, p. 402). The results of the study by Weidman and Stein indicate that the success or failure of graduate students is contingent upon the encouragement and support of their departmental faculty. To promote the success of their students, faculty members should be accessible, actively engaged in their own scholarly activities, and be able to provide guidance for students pursuing their own interests (2003, p. 653). The article by Baker and Lattuca includes a proposal that the conventional arrangement, in which a graduate student selects a single faculty member as their research advisor, should be replaced by an arrangement in which a graduate student establishes a “developmental network” comprised of multiple faculty members (2010, p. 811). Together these three articles establish that faculty support is critical to the success of graduate students and faculty members should strive to set a positive example for their students by engaging in quality research projects. Unfortunately, many professors are failing to live up to these standards, but the situation could be improved by reconsidering the conventional student-advisor relationship.
The three articles all touch on the following themes: the importance of a diversity of perspectives in an academic environment, the difficulties of reconciling structure with free thinking, and the responsibility of professors to serve as positive role models and mentors for graduate students. It can be difficult to train someone in a new thought paradigm without at least partially dismantling pre-existing convictions. Likewise, training someone to work within an established intellectual framework while retaining the capacity for critical thought can be a delicate process. Graduate education programs could be made more effective by replacing the conventional student-advisor relationship with “developmental networks”, in which the student selects multiple faculty members to guide him or her through the research process. Developmental networks would enable students to synthesize knowledge from a host of faculty members, which would help them foster a more unique way of thinking and expose them to a wider variety of research agendas.
In this essay, I have attempted to convey some of the difficulties inherent to institutionalizing critical thought and to reconciling structure with intellectual freedom. Through a comparison of three articles, I have analyzed themes including the importance of diversity and collaboration in higher education, the difficulties inherent to fostering free thought in a structured curriculum, and the responsibility of professors to serve as role models and mentors for aspiring scholars. One promising solution to these dilemmas is the establishment of developmental networks in lieu of the conventional student-advisor relationship. By allowing them to select multiple faculty members as research mentors, graduate students could synthesize knowledge from a host of faculty members, which would help them foster a more unique way of thinking and expose them to a wider variety of research agendas.
- Baker, V. L., & Lattuca, L. R. (2010). Developmental networks and learning: Toward an interdisciplinary perspective on identity development during doctoral study. Studies in Higher Education, 35(7), 807-827.
- Visser, L., Visser, Y. L., & Schlosser, C. (2003). Critical thinking in distance education and traditional education. Quarterly Review of Distance Education,4(4), 401.
- Weidman, J. C., & Stein, E. L. (2003). Socialization of doctoral students to academic norms. Research in higher education, 44(6), 641-656.