Innovating Through Artistry

Posts Tagged ‘Author: Dr. Johanna Hartelius’

Discipline Gets a Bad Rap

In Uncategorized on May 19, 2009 at 9:37 am

If you play “word association” and ask someone what mental connotations “discipline” conjures up, you’re likely to get some bad, potentially even kinky things; people think of their third grade teacher’s semi-sadism, organizational policies serving to maintain order, and so on. Discipline is what gets done to you when you don’t do what you’re supposed to do. It means punishment and the enforcement of rules.

A not-at-all new trend in the debate surrounding university administration is criticizing disciplines. The argument is: The world is too complex for the antiquated structure of academic disciplines; we need interdisciplinary (some go so far as to use the word transdisciplinary) solutions to real world problems; in order to keep up with this demand from society at large, public research university need to change and adapt; they should scrap the tradition of discipline-based departmentalizing. No more Department of English or Department of Mathematics.

This line of reasoning was recently given a voice and a lot of attention when professor Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “The End of the University as We Know It.” Professor Taylor proposes six action items for university reform. I agree with four of them: 1) restructure the curriculum, 2) Increase collaboration among institutions, 3) Transform the traditional dissertation, and 4) Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. I disagree with the remaining two: 5) Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure, and 6) Abolish permanent departments. The former, the one about tenure, receives a compelling rebuttal from a friend and colleague of mine here. So let me respond to the latter (given the constraints of a blog forum):

Discipline can be a good thing. If you don’t like the mental image of corrective punishment, think of a ninja. Or a samurai. Martial artists train long and hard to practice their craft and observe their philosophy with absolute concentration. Considered from this angle, discipline means rigor. And carefully executed action directed toward a specific goal. Academic disciplines, I say, can be thought of in this way. To be sure, Professor Taylor’s criticism is well-taken. In their worst instances, academic disciplines are silos where scholars in adjacent offices don’t talk to each other. Little or no collaboration happens within some dysfunctional departments, much less among them. But, as Taylor points out, problems can be solved by smart people. And I disagree with his contention that the best solution is to de-discipline the academy.

Let us instead make disciplines more disciplined. Give departments the resources they need for “carefully executed action directed toward a specific goal.” Departments should be like ninja training camps, where methodological and epistemological rigor is taught and practiced with absolute focus. Then, when such a habit is firmly reestablished in academic culture, let’s start the Water Program that Taylor suggests. I think it is a fantastic idea, and I will be the first humanist to sign up for such an initiative. But not when it is presented as the Other in a false dichotomy where disciplines are unfashionable. I absolutely cannot wait to be part of the university where disciplinarity is the resource and the vital raw material for interdisciplinary problem solving. Because on some level, I agree with Taylor: “Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge,” he says. Yes indeed! But if I were organizing the Water Program, I would want the researchers to come from the very cores of their respective disciplines. I would seat a diehard physicist next to a diehard rhetorician next to a diehard psychologist and watch the sparks fly.

I Have a Student

In Uncategorized on May 9, 2009 at 4:06 am

I have a student who really Gets It. The internship idea, I mean. Last time, I introduced readers of Entrepreneur the Arts to the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Pre-Graduate School Internship. That piece was about the incarnation of a vision of education as it is taking form at one major research university: The University of Texas at Austin. But, as I intimated then, much remains to be done. What works well in one context does not always translate readily to the next; what responds to exigencies and needs of one audience does not necessarily provide the same solutions for another. I mentioned in my last post that, having moved now into a faculty position at Northern Illinois University, the challenge before me is becoming clear:


How can I use intellectual entrepreneurship to respond to the needs of this institution? How can I implement that philosophy of research, education, and community engagement? What resources might I provide based on what I have learned?


Bit o’ Context: My department has a curricular feature that it calls the Communication Practicum. For better or worse, the catalogue description of this course is broad; the specifics are subject to negotiation and agreement between the student who enrolls and the professor with whom the student collaborates. …Hmmm… collaborates? Most commonly, the Practicum assumes the form of a teaching or research assistantship. Undergraduate students assist with data collection, gathering library materials, transcription, note-taking, course preparation, and so on. And that’s great. If the student plans on post-graduate education (grad school, law school, business school, etc.) or pursuing a teaching career. But what about the vast majority of the students, the ones whose eyes are set on a “Real Job”?


For months now, I have been mulling it over. How can I use the Practicum structure for the purpose of an intellectual entrepreneurship internship? How will this round fit into the square? This is an opportunity! I don’t have to try to change an entire institutional culture after nine months on the job! (as if I could, right? Or even wanted to, really, in any radical sense…) All I have to do if offer what I know about innovation and exploration via an existing delivery mechanism. To this one student. And the marvel of it is, he totally gets it!


Bill (that’s not his real name) and I met in my office to discuss. Well, first I drew up a kind of handout/contract to specify what I had in mind for the Practicum:


The practicum provides an opportunity for students to work closely with a faculty supervisor exploring their professional, academic, and personal commitments and goals. The course objective is a strategic and well-researched plan for the future based on a few key questions: Where are you currently in your college career? What can you do to make the most of your remaining time at NIU? What do you plan to do when you graduate?


Students who wish to work with me during this experience should expect something considerably more student-driven than a teaching- or research assistantship; this practicum requires time management, individual initiative, follow-through on personal responsibilities, engagement and ambition. According to departmental guidelines, students enrolled should anticipate working, on average, three hours per week during the 15-week semester (45 hours total).


Throughout the semester each student compiles an individualized Final Portfolio: a compilation of materials relevant to his/her interests and aspirations; this portfolio is due at the end of the semester of enrollment. Students earn either a Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory grade based on part on the completion of the portfolio.


Bill came into my office with a look of excitement and relief. And maybe a hint of surprise. As we talked, it became apparent that the surprise was a reaction to my unexpected approach—I asked him what he wanted to do. The relief was a reaction to discovering that he wouldn’t have to be my TA. And the excitement was a slowly creeping realization that this Practicum really could be useful. And exactly what he needs! Who knew he could get that at school?!


Bill wants to go into sales. He’s been working for a company for several years, putting himself through college. And sales is what he wants to pursue when he graduates. Insurance, to be exact. So based on his interests and experiences, Bill and I made a list of tasks and projects that I would complete as part of his Practicum: interview several people with industry experience, research licensing procedures and required credentials (materials to be organized in a portfolio), revise and update his resume and a cover letter, and a few other “to do’s.”


During the conversation, I was thinking: This guy was an intellectual entrepreneur the moment he walked in. He is the driving force in this internship, I’m just the facilitator—exactly as it ought to be.


Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a cynic. That is, I am not one of those teachers who assumes a priori that her students wouldn’t get it. But I’ve had plenty of experiences with “good students” who do not. “Good students” have often perfected the skills required to do well in a university setting. They check off graduation requirements and get As. And they resist change; they dislike ambiguity; they do not choose autonomy. So they miss out on some of the discoveries that Bill—not your typical honors student—will undoubtedly make. And that’s why working with him, advising his experience of the New and Improved (spoken like a Colgate advertisement announcer) Intellectual Entrepreneurship Practicum!!!

Leaving the Program, Finding the Vision

In Creativity and Innovation, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS, Entrepreneurial Evolution on April 27, 2009 at 9:38 am

It has been almost a year since I left the University of Texas and the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. Leaving, that is. IE has become, as Tommy Darwin so compellingly argued a couple of weeks ago right here on ETA, a life force at one of the nation’s largest public universities. What began as bold initiative by professor Rick Cherwitz in the late 1990s is now a nationally recognized maverick—that’s right, I’m reclaiming the word!—in the herd mentality of university administration. IE supports and challenges faculty, staff, and students at all levels to think like entrepreneurs, to be innovative inventors and thinkers, to tolerate ambiguity, to seek allies, and to make bold moves. It is inspiring to see, and it was exciting to a part of.


Starting in August of 2005 I served as director of one of IE’s successful “programs”: the Pre-Graduate School Internship. (I place “program” in quotations marks to indicate the difference between traditional academic silo-mentality programming and new initiatives that grow from the IE platform. But that’s another post for another time). My primary responsibility as director was to oversee and advise about 80 undergraduate interns each semester. I lead regular meetings wherein the interns addressed those concerns that transcend disciplinary lines (e.g. application processes, funding, academic versus professional careers, life-work balance, etc.). Between meetings, I facilitated communication with interns and graduate student mentors, allowing them to share reflections on their works in progress.


The nuts ‘n bolts: The Pre-Graduate School Internship enables undergraduate students to earn academic credit working closely with a “faculty supervisor” and/or “graduate student mentor” to explore their chosen field of study. Interns learn about the unique aspects of graduate study that make it distinct from their undergraduate experience. Examples of internship activities include: attending graduate school classes, shadowing graduate student teaching and research assistants, attending seminars and departmental colloquia, interviewing faculty, collaborating with mentors on research projects, traveling to meetings of graduate and professional organizations, working in research labs and discussing graduate study and career development with faculty, professionals and graduate students.  Additionally, all IE students keep a personal journal and attend workshops/meetings where they reflect on their experiences and exchange insights about themselves and the culture of academia.


The Big Picture: Pre-Graduate School Internship and its sister programs are sponsored by the University of Texas Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement. Each semester, 50% of participants are underrepresented minorities (African American, Latino or Native American) and/or first-generation (neither parent graduated from college) students. Almost 70% are female. The philosophy of intellectual entrepreneurship—empowering students to design and own a learning experience that unites their passions and academic interests—accounts for much of this effect. For example, rather than focusing exclusively on students already interested in graduate study and helping them navigate the application process, the Pre-Graduate School Internship provides an opportunity for students to discover their personal aspirations and explore the value of academic disciplines. The program’s mechanism for increasing diversity inheres in its capacity to help students discover otherwise unobserved connections between academia and personal and professional commitments. Interns become “intellectual entrepreneurs,” identifying their personal and professional goals, and discovering how advanced education can bring them to fruition; this includes acquiring an understanding of how graduate education equips students for meaningful civic or community engagement.


Leaving wasn’t easy. During my tenure as director, the Internship grew from fifteen students in the first semester to nearly one hundred in the spring of 2008, and now over a hundred. That’s not my being boastful; the Internship’s success attests not to one person’s creativity or organizational skills, but to an exigency in the academy. It is telling us that a need exists, for students as well as faculty. Just as some faculty seek new ways of being innovative problem solvers, engaging with the community around them in ways other than service delivery, so do students want to approach their college careers in less mechanistic ways than are currently the norm. “Entrepreneurial” doesn’t mean “corporate.” Let us use the term for its best possible potential: entrepreneurship is the realization of creative energy. And if that’s too touchy-feely for you, think of it as wielding power—intellectual, political, social, economic, artistic, collaborative.


While leaving a good thing is never easy, it often leads to other good things. In my current position as an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL I am realizing that, while IE is continually challenged at UT, things are in motion there; on many other campuses, the fundamental philosophy that sustains IE as a “program” has yet to be introduced. That is the thrill of a new phase. And that will likely be the trajectory of my future postings.