Communicating scholarly endeavors

James Duderstadt, President Emeritus of University of Michigan, is reshaping higher education.  He has written and spoken about a university as a social institution with social responsibility as described in his book entitled A University for the 21st Century published by the University of Michigan Press in 2000.

Social responsibility is especially important for a land grant university like Virginia Tech. One of the ways in which a univerity can exercise its social responsibility is through sharing the research and scholarly endeavors of the faculty and the students, especially graduate students.  The “open access” movement is a possibility for sharing university’s research but I’ll save that discussion for another blog.  Instead, I wish to reflect about the ways in which a research land grant university like Virginia Tech can meet its responsibility to share the results of research.

As faculty and graduate students we have historically been educated and trained to communicate our research/scholarship to those within our discipline primarily.  We learn how to prepare powerpoint or keynote presentations.  We prepare posters and practice our 15 minute research presentations.  We practice reading and sharing our scholarly endeavors through other media.  But we have not typically been provided with opportunites to learn and therefore we are not as skilled in communicating our scholarship to others outside our discipline and especially not to the public in general.

Enter actor Alan Alda and “communicating science”.   On the occasion of the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools in 2010, attendees had the opportunity to learn about and experience the Communicating Science initiative offered through the center at Stony Brook University.  Many of us were in agreement that the initiative is a powerful program that helps “scientists” and scholars to develop communication skills.

Realizing the importance of this work, Virginia Tech has embraced “communicating science” and initiated a program here.  Within the context of the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative of the VT Graduate School, Professor Patty Raun from the Theatre Department has offered sessions within GRAD 5104 Preparing the Future Professoriate graduate course and has established a new graduate course on Communicating Science.  Through this program and others we will engage VT graduate students with the social responsibility of the university to communicate science.


Interdisciplinary thinking, Pi and adaptive innovators

Graduate education has long focused on depth in the disciplines.  Academic disciplines have provided a system for organizing scholarship through academically accepted set of methodologies, professional journals and professional societies.  Disciplines tend to have a critical mass of scholars and educate students in the cultural norms of the discipline.  They have served and will continue to serve higher education well but more is needed.

With strong disciplinary foundations, we must now move and actively embrace and engage more in interdisciplinary graduate education.  Due in part to the inherent complexity of nature and society, very interesting and challenging research questions can be found at the interface between and among disciplines – these will require an interdisciplinary perspective.  This  leads scholars and graduate students to explore problems and research questions that are not confined to a single discipline and require collaborative endeavors. National agencies (e.g. NSF, NIH) have called for more interdisciplinary efforts and provided funding opportunities such as the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) programs.

This brings me to the topic of depth or breadth and beyond.  Arguments are frequently put forward that graduate education should focus on depth of knowledge and thus, we must maintain a disciplinary focus and focus on the disciplines. Along with this argument, it is often acknowledged that although interdisciplinary graduate education does provide valued breadth, it lacks the depth.  I’ve worked with interdisciplinary graduate education for the past 20 years and would argue that interdisciplinary research not only requires but can achieve both depth and breadth as well as integration for success.

In my recent musings about interdisciplinary graduate education and research, I have come to visualize those with the depth of training and education in the discipline as I-educated individuals, those with the depth and breadth of training and education plus the ability to work across disciplinary lines at T-educated individuals, and those individuals with breadth and depth of education and training in more than one discipline and the ability to integrate knowledge across disciplines as Pi (π)-educated individuals. Through this lens, knowledge seems to be grounded in and emanate from the disciplines and then integrated across boundaries.  These are the scholars and scientists who will be able to serve as the adaptive innovators of and for the 21st century.


“Universities, therefore, will have to reconsider the priorities and practices of graduate education and training in order to prepare individuals……. We argue that graduate programs must not only educate future scientists to be experts in the methods, techniques, and knowledge of their chosen disciplines but to have the broader problem-solving skills that require learning, unlearning, and relearning across disciplines.”
Rhoten, D. 2004. Interdisciplinary Research: Trend Transition. Items and Issues 5, no. (1-2):6-11.