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Research Apprenticeship at Michigan State University’s College of Education: The Collegial and the Confidential


by Steven Weiland - 2008

Background: Recent research on the preparation of graduate students in education for research has focused on general matters of epistemology, curriculum, and teaching. What should researchers know, how should research courses be designed, and what instructional approaches are most effective?

Purpose: This article addresses the problem of the preparation of educational researchers via an account of the results of a 10-year foundation-funded project. It focused on the “middle years” of doctoral study and addressed the value of faculty research mentors and other means of strengthening the research capacity of graduate students. The article offers an account of the development and history of the project, and the results.

Research Design: The article is an analytic essay based on the literature on the subject, institutional documents, interviews, and observations. The article also has features of a qualitative case study, featuring the two primary forms of support (beyond financial) that the Michigan State project offered its Spencer Fellows, opportunities for collegial development as scholars, and insight into the professional elements of research careers.

Conclusions: The article proposes that the focus of the Michigan State project—on mentoring students in the middle of their graduate careers (with other things)—produced fruitful attention to the strengthening of research methods and thus more satisfying and better work.

When we think about preparing for an academic career a half century ago, we recall a much simpler time in the history of the research university. True enough, the circumstances of graduate education have changed, but not the frame of mind of the new PhD student. Thus, when he began graduate study at Harvard in 1951, the renowned anthropologist Clifford Geertz was no less hopeful and uncertain than today’s novice scholars. There were, he remembers, “grand possibilities,” though their relations and meaning for his career were unknown to him. He compared his experience to finding one’s way through a maze. “With so many ways to turn, so few tracks laid down, and so little experience of one’s own to go by, even small decisions, to take this seminar, attack that subject, work with this professor, seemed enormously consequential—a reverseless commitment to something immense, portentous, splendid, and unclear” (Geertz, 1995, p. 101). As he came to realize what he wanted to know, Geertz began a research career that now offers to new scholars (and experienced ones) in many fields a vocabulary for inquiry, a style of ethnography, and a rhetoric of interpretation.


Geertz was one of the first graduate students in Harvard’s newly organized interdisciplinary program in social relations. Expectations were high, including what the faculty assumed its students could learn on their own about doing the research needed to earn the degree and to launch themselves in academic life. Geertz calls anthropology an “odd occupation,” but it was seen as legitimate enough for inventive academic partnerships at the highest levels of scholarship. Like social relations, education was built from the disciplines of the social and behavioral sciences. But in the decades after World War II, it could not represent itself rigorously enough—as a research discipline educating its own scholars—to satisfy the authors of an influential account of it, who declared in 1969 that only a small fraction of the work produced by PhD students in education represented “serious inquiry,” all the rest serving to “degrade” the idea of “contribution[s] to knowledge” guiding more serious fields (Cronbach & Suppes, 1969).


At the time, dedicated as it was mainly to preparing teachers, the College of Education at Michigan State could view such a complaint from a distance. But by the late 1980s, after it had transformed itself into a leader in research, its obligations to succeeding generations became a serious concern among the faculty. In 1988, a task force was appointed to assess the “content, quality and efficiency” of doctoral preparation in the conduct of educational research, recognition that the habits guiding a productive faculty did not automatically become those of graduate students. The result was a fresh focus on instruction in “frameworks of inquiry” and new interest in what could be gained from a more self-conscious approach to “apprenticeship”— or students learning to do research “on the job” (Michigan State University College of Education, 1989).


Still, as is recognized at all levels of education, what students learn when not in the orbit of their teachers can add immeasurably to their abilities and attitudes. Thus, Michigan State’s study group also hoped that peer support would contribute to better research by its PhD students. As Patricia Graham, at the time president of the Spencer Foundation, suggested in 1997, a scholarly career is not the product only (or perhaps even mainly) of a curriculum with its courses, exams, and dissertation. It reflects also “the research culture and informal set of exchanges through which most scholars develop their sensibilities and skills” (p. 6).


Michigan State’s successful proposal to the foundation (1996) to participate in the Research Training Grant (RTG) initiative was designed to create such conditions. The account of the results that follows is in four parts. The first two, on questions of how education is organized for graduate study and on the concept of apprenticeship, represent features of context for considering the Michigan State RTG. I turn then to the configuration of activities that made up Michigan State’s program, particularly efforts to complement mastery of research methods with attention to the nature of research careers, from their beginnings in graduate school to what must be learned to succeed in the early years of academic life and after. A brief conclusion names some of the problems of naming what we know—and want to know—about our RTG fellows, our faculty, and our program.


The title of the article reflects the presentation of complementary categories of activities promoting research development among graduate students, signifying different ways that they are socialized as scholars. When Michigan State reviewed the early years of its RTG, it recognized that although a designated apprenticeship was one of several original goals of the project, it had come to dominate it. Thus, the evidence named for success at the midpoint in the decade-long project featured these claims: “Students achieved critically valuable links with senior faculty research mentors that would not have taken place without the intervention of the RTG program,” and “Students obtained intensive and extensive research apprenticeship experiences that would not have been possible around the edges of a . . . graduate assistantship” [or what the RTG fellowship typically replaced]. And the structure of the apprenticeship itself was identified as a unique resource for the evaluation of student progress in research ability. Thus, “individual mentors reported extraordinary growth in intellectual power and extraordinary sharpening of intellectual focus in the research work of particular fellows, beyond anything that appeared likely in the absence of the program” (Michigan State University College of Education, 2000, p.2).


A 10-year perspective confirms such views among fellows and faculty alike.1 But the experience of apprenticeship is understood variably, making the MSU case a sign of what might be expected of such an opportunity. Thus, the prescriptive apprenticeship described in the first Michigan State RTG proposal (1996), with its collaborative projects and direct observation of the way research is planned and done, gave way over the period of the Spencer grant to recognition of the research relationship as one that would support not only the making of a skill or craft (to adopt the traditional terms) but also the RTG fellows’ understanding of what it means to be a scholar and how to prepare for a fruitful career.


In effect, the Michigan State case represents the overlapping categories of development named by Neumann and Pallas (2006) as making up the construction of educational researchers. They offer a view of the actual curriculum for graduate study in education based on their belief that in advanced learning, or mastering the knowledge, methods, and professional circumstances of the scholar, “activities of growth and becoming” should be recognized as essential. In calling for a panoramic view of the preparation of educational researchers, Neumann and Pallas offer a format for the interaction of the professional, personal, and cultural forces contributing to what they call an ecological perspective. Prospective researchers must begin of course with knowledge of their subjects. But so too are they subjects in a situated endeavor, making knowledge of the self as a maturing professional and of the professional culture they are preparing to enter necessary for success. Thus, merely to index the how-tos of educational research would amount to only a very limited intervention. Or, from the perspective of the turmoil in graduate education more generally in the past decade, instrumental knowledge (i.e., of research methods) would be most useful to PhD candidates as part of what they could also learn about the conditions of advanced study in a time of considerable economic and technological change (Golde, Walker, & Associates, 2006; Nyquist, 2002; Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, 2005).


THE EDUCATION OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHERS


Graduate students entering traditional disciplines can count on general agreement about the epistemological and rhetorical tasks facing them as prospective scholars. But education is still defining itself as a domain of knowledge and inquiry, if not quite a discipline in the view of some observers. It is responsible for the institutional history of education at all levels, for theories of teaching and learning and of organization and leadership, for empirical study of old and new educational practices and their results, and more—all having relations with psychology, sociology, and other fields. Often perceived at older and leading research institutions as a “second-rate” degree, the PhD in education represents within the field itself longstanding uncertainty about how to configure the demands of academic research, or what education may share with traditional disciplines, with the preference for studying K–12 classroom performance.2


There is, apparently, little agreement among graduate programs in education about how to promote disciplinary standards and satisfy aspirations for recognition of educational research as a rigorous endeavor. Pluralism and celebration rule, as an afternoon at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) makes plain. Moreover, education is not represented on the American Council of Learned Societies, and it is only the object of study at the Social Science Research Council rather than a partner to other fields in seeking to influence public and institutional policy. Speaking of the difficulties of justifying the distinctions between the PhD and the EdD, an authoritative account of graduate study in education termed the field’s problems nothing less than “chronic and crippling” (Shulman, Golde, Bueschel, & Garabedian, 2006). And preparing students for research careers is seen to be one of the most difficult.3


Leading scholars have identified several reasons for the problems of educational research, including the extent of the territory, characterized as “complex and sprawling” in an overview conducted by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC; Ranis & Walters, 2004). Thus, graduate students must recognize the great range of educational ideas and structures of schooling, teaching, and learning as they are found in many forms, and the social and economic conditions influencing all features of the system. These are studied with methods adapted from several fields represented in the common, if sometimes misleading, distinction between quantitative and qualitative research, or a competition for the authority to define what counts as evidence (though there are regular efforts to reduce the differences, e.g., Ercikan & Roth, 2006). The task is difficult because of the extent of the field and the competition of methods. Moreover, the claims of practice in K–12 schooling can dominate not only the interests of new PhD students but also education faculty seeking a vision of advanced inquiry that adds to historical and theoretical knowledge even as it contributes to more effective teaching and learning.


Critics of educational research who find it too interested in “process” are only recognizing the wish among scholars to identify what makes learning in any subject possible and durable. But so too have educational researchers often isolated themselves from the subjects that students study, sacrificing as well better relations with university colleagues in traditional disciplines. As the Michigan State report to the Spencer Foundation regarding the first years of its RTG project observed, our PhD students, whatever their professional competence,


typically come with a woefully inadequate liberal education. [T]heir academic experience in undergraduate programs in teacher education and master’s programs in education has not provided them with the solid base of liberal learning that is required for an effective researcher. These programs too often provide students only with technical competence and a thin veneer of general knowledge, leaving them with little understanding of culture, history, and social theory, which is required to do the best research.


New PhD students, many coming from K–12 teaching careers, generally know little about the conditions of graduate study. Their limited academic experience and reformist idealism having sheltered them from knowledge of the field as a location for advanced work, and thus from a realistic idea of what it means to be an educational researcher, they embark on their degree programs when the very idea of educational research, as the SSRC and the National Academy of Education recently put it, is a “contested enterprise” (Ranis & Walters, 2004).


From its inception, the Michigan State RTG has been particularly self-conscious about the problems presented by preparation for educational research. In its planning and early years, the college had the advantage of David Labaree’s leadership reflecting his work on the situation of “Ed Schools” (collected in Labaree, 2004). Although enthused about what the RTG could accomplish to improve educational research, he built from his reflections on the obstacles to doing so a dispositional approach to the problems that the project was designed to remedy, focusing on the characteristics of PhD students (Labaree, 2003). More recently, Virginia Richardson (2006) has offered an epistemic view. Thus, she named three primary kinds of learning necessary for a research career in education. There is formal knowledge, or what is traditionally associated with the habits of thought and research methods of disciplines, and the special fields and cross-disciplinary activities they sponsor. Practical knowledge is what is needed to have a productive research career, including attention to how the system of publication operates and what is needed to get into print (a phrase soon to be redefined in our digital time, representing a new research-related challenge to current and future graduate students). Finally, students must gain knowledge of [their] beliefs and misconceptions having an influence on attitudes toward research.


In virtually all other fields of inquiry, in which research is understood as central to academic vocations, attention to the first two categories named by Richardson (2006) would be enough to organize an effective program of graduate study featuring research preparation. But the third category, as formulated by Labaree (2003), represents a problem peculiar to education. In this, Richardson reflects (alas, without citing) Labaree’s rich account of the gap between PhD students in education, many of whom have experience as K–12 teachers, and the university faculty committed to research careers. As Labaree himself put it,


This clash plays out in part as a problem of how to accommodate potentially conflicting professional worldviews between teacher and researcher to the satisfaction of both, and in part as a problem of how to agree on the kind of educational experience that is needed for teachers to become effective researchers without abandoning teacherly values and skills. (Labaree, 2003, p. 15)4


For Neumann and Pallas, the problem is epistemological (see also Pallas, 2001), organizational, and generational, as is revealed in a statement of the ways that time and experience influence the teaching of research:


Generational encounters between newcomers and old-timers are opportunities for learning and the development of changed practices. Newcomers strive to learn the meanings associated with the shared experiences and histories of the established members of the community; these meanings are a source of community stability. Old-timers engage with the ways in which newcomers negotiate meaning and with new meanings that such newcomers are likely to construct. (p. 436)


To say that novices (or “newcomers”) “construct” what they know is to see them moving quickly beyond the constraints of their “peculiar” educational situation. Indeed, a frequent RTG mentor often noted the “acceleration” taking place in the period of the fellowship.


INFLUENCE, APPRENTICESHIP, AND ANXIETY


Graduate students are socialized in many forms to academic work, perhaps most powerfully by the ways they are influenced by the faculty (Austin, 2002; Gardner, Hayes, & Neider, 2007). Influence is but the most general term to account for socializing relations between experienced scholars and their students. Such influence can be named in different ways, the most widely used today being mentoring, the subject of many recent studies.5 But so too does the variety of terms suggest that influence, including mentoring, is more complex than any single term allows, making it necessary for the study of it to employ a variable lexicon (D’Abate, Eddy, & Tannenbaum, 2003).6


It is not my goal here to codify the idea of influence but merely to show how, in the case of apprenticeship, when we inquire into its operations in graduate education (as in the case of the Michigan State RTG), we can capitalize on a rich set of meanings. Apprenticeship refers, of course, to instruction in a craft, often practiced in independent, solitary, or highly creative fashion. The term apprentice derives from the French apprende, to learn. It named a person under a legal agreement to work a specified length of time for a master craftsman in return for instruction and sometimes support. In a Latin variant, apprehendere means to seize, or take hold of something. For me, that signifies the motivation or desire in a true apprenticeship. Mark Twain (1917), who took education seriously when it didn’t take place in school, once declared, “Every man must learn his trade—not pick it up. God requires that he learn it by slow and painful processes. The apprentice-hand, in black-smithing, in medicine, in literature, in everything, is a thing that can't be hidden. It always shows” (p. 122).


We set the stage for a programmatic focus on apprenticeship by limiting student support to the middle years of graduate study, the rationale being that those years, as stated in the MSU proposal to the Spencer Foundation, are “a time of confusion and hesitancy, ambiguity and uncertainty, a time when questions about intellectual and professional identity take center stage and a time when the energies and abilities of these already experienced and mature educators are wasted.” Recognition of such characteristics suggests one more matter of etymology: apprehendere is the root also of apprehensive—to fear, or to anticipate with anxiety or dread. So, we can say that the novice is also often nervous. Although favored by participation in our Spencer RTG, they were likely still be troubled by the unknown and had many questions about themselves and their work. What do apprentice scholars want to know? It is, I think, the answers to three kinds of questions—of academic ability, research methods, and professional identity. Thus, despite my years as a classroom teacher, can I do the research needed for the PhD? Do I read and write with enough pleasure and well enough to have a career in research? Do I understand well enough the sources of current debates about my favored methods and theories, and is my work theoretical enough? Will my methods (e.g., as an interviewer or observer) give me the data I need? Can I complete my dissertation project and move ahead to new ones in conjunction with my teaching and other professional roles? Where will my research take me professionally, and will it have an audience now and in the future via publication and other professional activities?


THE COLLEGIAL


Anyone using the term apprenticeship today invokes its uses in the influential group of ideas known as sociocultural learning or situated learning, particularly in what have come to be known as communities of practice. When the Michigan State proposal for participation in the RTG was written, the concept of the learning community was already being used to describe desirable (and, to some, ideal) practices of teacher education and professional development. But its application to graduate and professional education was always part of the program advocated by Ettiene Wenger, Jean Lave, and others. Thus, Wenger (1998) underlined the structure of scholarly relations:


In traditional apprenticeship, the sponsorship of a master is usually required for apprentices to be able to have access to the practice. The standing of the master in the community is therefore crucial. Today, doctoral students have professors who give them entry into academic communities. Granting the newcomers legitimacy is important because they are likely to come short of what the community regards as competent engagement. Only with enough legitimacy can all their inevitable stumblings and violations become opportunities for learning rather than cause for dismissal, neglect, or exclusion. (p. 101)


As noted, what must be done to gain “legitimacy” as a scholar and to be a legitimate member of the scholarly community is what all apprentice scholars want to know. Wenger temporarily narrows the opportunities to a master and apprentice relation.7 But whether in the form of this historical pairing or in Wenger’s more familiar formation, the community of practice with many teachers and learners, the problem remains of knowing where to draw the line between what is social and what is solitary. Wenger’s own compromise is to propose that communities of practice can be thought of as “shared histories of learning” (p. 103), thus preserving, presumably, any individual’s educational biography as an activity primarily of the self.


To identify locations for informal apprenticeship, we asked fellowship applicants to explain how they would affiliate themselves with communities of interest in the college (or nascent ones). Typically, fellows proposed continuing with groups already active (e.g., those devoted to critical theory or literacy) even as they welcomed what the program itself provided. When the RTG was launched, we planned for more formal expressions of community than turned out to be necessary. Thus, many identified the “Spencer Room”—a large and comfortably furnished space conveniently located in the college—as one of the chief benefits of the program. It was there that our fellows could find a peer-based research culture.


But we sponsored more intentional communities as well. Thus, we offered a seminar on rhetoric and writing organized around Wayne Booth’s The Craft of Research and led by an emeritus faculty member. He devoted the sessions to principles and problems of practice as they appeared in work being done for our annual research conference.8 In organizing the seminar, we deliberately subordinated conventional attention to methods (e.g., in-depth interviewing or ethnographic observation) to questions of composition, an essential craft in a research apprenticeship. The seminar was voluntary, but our focus on writing and rhetoric was built into the annual research conference in which all fellows participated. That is, fellows came to expect that they would be asked about the structure of their arguments, the uses of evidence, favored metaphors, recognition of competing claims, and more.


We also promoted reading groups of fellows—“communities” of three or four—by supplying them with books. Students chose mainly works of social science or educational theory, but some also on questions of research methods. In formal and informal conversations, interaction between the two interests represented what is often most demanding about learning to do research, or how to make ideas effective in organizing and conducting projects. The reading groups belonged to the students themselves, different configurations of fellows (often from different departments and programs in the college) organizing the time and assigning roles according to their own preferences. We encouraged students to identify potential models for their own work in book-length studies whose lessons could be assimilated outside the context of a course, yet with the benefits of planned and focused conversation. The groups demonstrated the truth of memoirist and novelist Frank Conroy’s (2002) observation, “Writers are readers who stop reading for a bit to try an experiment” (p. 119). With the seminar and the reading groups, we invited fellows to think of themselves as dedicated readers and writers—professional scholars in other words—whose vocation was research, rather than as students completing assignments for courses.


At the annual research conference—the most visible expression of the community as a whole—students made presentations based on the work done while holding their fellowships, generally anticipating as well early plans for the dissertation. They spent two afternoons, joined (as feasible, given teaching schedules) by faculty members they were working with, listening and responding to one another’s work. Copies of their papers, held to a modest length by requirements we set, were circulated to all fellows—and by the evidence of participation, read by virtually all.


The research conferences yielded occasions of considerable insight, for the fellows into their own work and that of their colleagues, and for us into what the fellows were learning from their encounters with ideas (or theories) and those who believe in them. It is an appealing image of collegiality across difference. And we sometimes came close to meeting the ideals of “epistemological diversity” for doctoral work in education (Pallas, 2001). Thus, at one research conference, an educational policy student presented a paper on the problem of relations between charter schools and their communities. She was committed to Robert Dahl’s influential theory of democratic representation. A later paper addressed the problem of alternative routes to teacher certification and employed Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology. The authors were asked what they thought of each other’s framework for representing the problem of interest to them. We didn’t have to go much further than the Bourdieu-influenced student’s characterization of research representing a commitment to theorists such as Dahl as “mainstream” to reveal that we had perhaps not yet reached a satisfactory level of appreciation for theoretical pluralism. But in the discussion that followed, we saw recognition of how theoretical choices and loyalties helped to define scholarly identity at the same time that they could constrain what was to be learned from empirical work. Some faculty intervention was called for, but not as much as we would have needed if these students had not had the opportunity—made available by their RTG fellowships—to explore theory, from the “mainstream” to the “postmodern,” in the first place.


Without question, one of the best uses that fellows made of the time they gained from RTG support was in probing theoretical work, often on their own but sometimes in reading groups and other college communities of interest. One plain result of the RTG, acknowledged by many faculty members, was the fruitful pressure felt by the fellows to add historical or theoretical legitimacy to their empirical efforts.9 The research conference was, for all but a few fellows, the first occasion for which they were responsible for work outside the context of an assignment for a course. The RTG fellowship signified the opportunity for an independent line of research generated by the wish to know more about something of genuine interest and to contribute to knowledge about it. But the route from the original fellowship proposal to the research conference included more than attention to methods.


THE CONFIDENTIAL


Even as the Michigan State program took up the idea of community of practice, the actions, beliefs, and emotions of individuals remained on the minds of faculty members who participated in the RTG. Some were encouraged to do so by Labaree’s account of the clash of cultures in graduate schools of education, in which he asks that colleagues make more explicit how it is that they have gained the mastery they have in methods and made particular theoretical commitments. Near the end of his account, Labaree (2003) said this: “Like teachers, researchers build on their own experience in important ways that gradually accumulate into individual professional biographies, and these biographies exert a powerful personal impact on the kinds of work they pursue” (p. 21).


Thus, although students were not perfectly prepared for education as researchers, the faculty’s contribution was also incomplete. Accordingly, we organized a form of faculty-student interaction that would bring forward what was personal and practical, rather than settling for having this dimension of scholarly life obscured by loyalty to the image of research represented by the APA Publication Manual. Our intentions reflected Labaree’s (2003) proposal: “Faculty members need to be willing to talk more about how they carry out their own research—not the rationalized, normalized, and carefully constructed version they present in journal articles but the real process they followed from beginning to end, in all its complexity and incoherence” (p. 21). Exploring the “real process,” this intervention demonstrated, became a resource for the deepening of identity as a researcher.


Everyone recognizes that apprenticeship offers an opportunity to gain confidence as a scholar. By coming forward with accounts of our own research projects—successful or not—we expressed confidence in our students by bringing them behind the scenes, so to speak, of research careers, addressing them as prospective colleagues with whom we shared problems, surprises, disappointments, and successes. Thus, during the second 5 years of our project, colleagues from all college departments participated in a series named “Research Confidential,” the playfulness of the title providing some cover, we hoped, for candid accounts of inquiry.10 These are some of the questions we addressed, with some humor and, paradoxically perhaps, with some detachment, given the often intimate nature of our topics and discussions: What do we do when our work is rejected, or when it is unfairly (we think) criticized in a public forum, or when we are unsure about the ratio of theory to empirical data, or when we realize that what we once believed about schools, or about teaching and learning, we no longer do?


The last was treated by a senior colleague well known for his no-nonsense empiricism and straightforward (or largely untheorized) ethnographic studies of schools. He recounted his evolving skepticism of schooling as the central experience of learning, and his turn to history and biography as more revealing forms for representing it. “Colleges of education,” he told our fellows, are actually “colleges of schooling.” Thus, until they saw around or beyond institutional experiences of learning, young scholars would not understand what’s worth studying. He dismissed formal attention to methods and, in an account of the writing of a new book, expressed his theoretical ideas in a vocabulary far from the one popular in studies of the social and historical relations of education. Of course, he spoke with the authority of experience and reputation. But he also confessed to dismay over the fact that what he thought was clearly his best work, of a decade ago, was little read.


An image of early career was the subject of another Research Confidential session. This one focused on questions of rejection and revision, concretely in the form of a journal article, and metaphorically, if you will, in the form of what sense an assistant professor would make of the fate of her theoretical commitments. She described for the fellows an article she had sent off, with considerable pride, to a respected journal. It was rejected—and forcefully so, as one reader’s comments demonstrate: “[The] Scholarship is shockingly cultish, outright wrong on Dewey regardless of one’s pro/con stand on him. . . . This manuscript is itself a caricature of the postmodernist clap trap the Right properly criticizes. If this person is a teacher educator all his/her students get is ideology.” Seeing this—in the form of the actual letter sent to the journal blown up on a large screen at the front of the room—was an eye-opening experience for our fellows, some marveling (so they said later) at how one of their teachers could make public such a judgment of her work. By then they knew the end of the story, the article’s resubmission and acceptance by a journal even better positioned in the scholarly hierarchy of education. But being rejected is as inevitable as changing one’s views and methods.


In our Research Confidential sessions, mentors focused on their own work, but their primary RTG task was, of course, to engage with the fellows in theirs. They agreed on the essentials, that is, the need to focus on the practice of research and, to a degree, guide the fellows toward satisfaction in the work and confidence in their professional prospects. Thus, Research Confidential may be said to have helped define just how much of mentors’ own lives and careers were to be made part of an apprenticeship. There was little ambiguity among mentors in this regard. “I’ll listen, but. . . .” is the way one popular mentor described her stance when she felt the pressure of an apprentice’s wish for more interest in the impact of her personal life on her development as a student. Another, although recognizing students’ need for support, reported that experience had shown him that in guiding students toward rigorous research, “It’s not about being nice.” Rather, focusing on the tasks of scholarship as someone who knew a student’s work better than anyone else on the faculty was the best way to support fellows during a time when decisions loomed about a dissertation.


“The whole point of the RTG program,” as one of our fellows put it, “was that you didn’t learn to be a good graduate student but how to be a good scholar and [future] faculty member.” Thus, an effective apprenticeship is about the organization of time, or the ways that an apprentice adapts those parts of his or her professional past for new roles, works in the present on authentic research activities with the guidance of a sympathetic expert, and anticipates a future that makes learning to be a scholar worth the effort and the years in graduate school.


The RTG fellowship was itself an identity that students welcomed as a sign that the faculty had a stake in their future based on shared values of inquiry. Of course, the college culture as a whole is always seeking as much for all graduate students. But the arrangements made possible by the RTG offered students the chance for a commitment to be confirmed with collegiality and confidentiality at the same time. Thus, learning to do research could be distributed across the four categories of experience named by Neumann and Pallas (2006).


I believe that our program succeeded because we confronted the “contested terrain” of educational research as honestly as we could and worked from the “peculiarities” built into PhD programs in education. Thus, our approach gave considerable autonomy to the fellows but also provided experiences that would guide them toward understanding of the demands of research careers. The story of innovation in research preparation must always be told against the backdrop of the dilemmas of the field and not just the shortcomings of students and the desires of the faculty. Indeed, it is probably the case that so many students made such good use of the time and resources provided by the RTG fellowships precisely because of their considerable talents, directed by the wish to have a role in making their field stronger. Our RTG learning community—students and faculty together—made from the decade of activities some durable lessons in improving research preparation. The apprenticeship format carried a considerable part of the load in creating conditions not only for the refinement of research methods but also, as Graham had recommended, for necessary research “sensibilities.”


CONCLUSION: “SHOWING UP”


Like other institutions having the advantage of the RTG, we ponder its long-term consequences. Thus, when the Michigan State fellows are well into their professional careers, how will we know if we have been successful in guiding them toward distinction and satisfaction in their research? Will we count their publications? Or judge their achievements by the “tier” of any journal in which their work appears? Or by the status of the institutions where they are faculty members? Should we calculate the rates at which they gain tenure or move up (or down) the institutional hierarchy? Or should we judge them by the roles they take in organizations like AERA? Or by the success they have in gaining external funding for their research? And finally, how will we interpret the fellows’ achievements, 5 years after they finish their degrees, or 10, or 20, in relation to those who did not have the advantages of such generous support? Moreover, in incorporating what happens outside the structure of graduate study—as Graham had urged—there is the problem of how far to extend the boundaries of influence and learning in becoming scholars, teachers, and colleagues. As we consider what can be known about the impact of the multi-institutional RTG project, we must acknowledge how difficult it is to understand how a research career is made when some of its most important sources may be out of the range of conventional inquiry.


In a suitable irony, we face a problem in research design resembling those that we believe we are guiding our students to solve.11 And is our goal a version of the often-reviled federal preference for “what works,” or the seemingly unproblematic application to research practice of whatever it is we can identify that fortifies young scholars? It is a familiar research story: What are the right questions to ask? When is the right time to ask them? And how shall we report and use what we learn?


The Michigan State RTG was designed to offer answers to questions of research practice, advice on how to do the most authoritative and useful work, and some comfort at a time, often, of turmoil in the life of an adult becoming again a student. If scholarly development is a matter of how a graduate student capitalizes on a research culture, or gains experience in the routines of a research career, it is also a time of personal development in which the demands of research can influence emotional life and a young scholar’s vision of a professional future.12 Like Labaree, Frederick Erickson (2002) asked for more professional “biographies of learning,” a genre that we have seen grow across the disciplines in the past decade (e.g., in education; Neumann & Peterson, 1997). Erickson also has some advice for gaining the experience needed to have a fruitful story to tell. “What one’s personal culture is depends on where one shows up repeatedly—which local communities of practice one encounters and how one engages within them in apprentice-like learning of certain patterns of conducting everyday life” (p. 304).


If you were a Michigan State RTG fellow, you could “show up” in several places—in the comfortable room we provided for study and conversation, at the Research Confidential programs or the seminar on writing and rhetoric, at a meeting of student reading groups, or at the office of your mentor. But perhaps Erickson’s use of the term apprentice-like is a necessary qualification when voluntarism is featured in our efforts, in contrast to the contract that made a guarantee part of traditional master and apprentice relations.


My colleagues often testified to the gains made by their students holding RTG fellowships. They were more capable and more confident, having taken up identities as scholars as well as graduate students, and a number have already produced estimable work and been recognized for it. As masters or mentors, the faculty is essential to any project of inquiry into how apprentices eventually become masters themselves. Research and scholarship advance with measured (if not measurable) interventions and collegial anticipation. Here is how George Steiner (2003) put it: “The Master’s authentic, if often unacknowledged, triumph is to . . . discern in his pupil a force and futurity exceeding his own” (p. 165). Then again, perhaps not all of my colleagues, however pleased with the RTG, would welcome such a result. In any case, considering what could help to produce and sustain a graduate research culture, the project was a force in the right direction.


Notes


1 Our focus on the “middle years” only of the PhD program meant that we could support a substantial number of fellows. Over the 10 years, Michigan State had 13–15 per year. In the early years, fellows were often awarded a second year. In the later years of the program, that was the case with only a few. Altogether, Michigan State had 97 RTG fellows. Fifty-nine faculty members participated in the program as mentors, some working with an apprentice in most years of the program.

2 The Michigan State University Task Force Report on the Research Component of Graduate Study (1988) was remarkably candid about the circumstances of the field: “Education is not a scholarly discipline, but rather a multifaceted social endeavor encompassing several fields of professional practice. Hence, doctoral training in education cannot be oriented toward a common body of knowledge or a single paradigm of inquiry.” Even so, the group insisted that the doctoral dissertation was no mere exercise but, [contrary to what Cronbach and Suppes (1969) had claimed], a “significant contribution to knowledge.” Still, the wish to produce better research in the circumstances of the field shows in this comment on the dissertation: “The knowledge contributed may or may not be viewed as ‘disciplinary’ knowledge because its relevance to practice or policy may be its defining characteristic. Yet our standard should none the less be rigorous.” The task force was led by Stephen Raudenbush.

3 There is this additional observation: “To people outside the field of education, however, this is astonishing. The PhD is a research degree; research is generally the one thing that PhD programs are confident that they do well” (Shulman et al., 2006, p. 26).

4 But Labaree also proposed that in their dispositions and preferences, research scholars are not so different from K–12 classroom teachers, and more attention to their actual research experiences can help to close the gap. Richardson made a similar gesture when she insisted too that no scheme for representing the organization of knowledge should be far from the interests that all researchers must take in the “enterprise” of education itself, that is, how teaching, learning, policy making, and leadership are practiced, assessed, and improved. Thus, being an education researcher means incorporating social values into one’s work. “The PhD program should be designed to prepare scholars who can provide normative as well as epistemic theory, research, and analysis in ways that place discussions about the enterprise in frameworks that are both analytic and morally defensible” (Richardson, p. 266).

5 The recent literature on mentoring in organizations is vast, including suggestive studies of its role in different stages of academic careers (e.g., De Janasz & Sullivan, 2004; Kirchmeyer, 2005; Perna, Lerner, & Yura, 1995).

6 The favored terms carry descriptive and metaphorical meanings that supplement the lexical origins of the more general word influence. Thus, mentorship directs us to the interpersonal uses of wise or experienced counsel; role modeling to the socially structured dimension of influence and the adoption of attitudes and imitation of behavior; sponsorship to what is gained professionally from speaking for the talents and achievements of a student; and discipleship to the impact of ideas, beliefs, or methods deriving from strong interpersonal loyalties.

7 When Michigan State chose the apprenticeship model, it was inevitable that we would invite substantial roles for what we identified as mentors. Mentor is a term from our own time, smoothing the psychological rough edges that (for some people) go with the traditional term master. But perhaps we have lost something in abandoning it, if not entirely, as is evident in Wenger’s work on situated learning. In his demonstration of Lessons of the Masters, the influential literary scholar George Steiner (2003) savors the older term and what it suggests about a powerful and complex relationship of influence. “There is in it, between two people, direction and deference, regard and resistance, all felt strongly by virtue of shared purposes. . . . It is a fact of life between generations. It inheres in all training and transmission be it in the arts, in music, in crafts, in the sciences, in sport or military practice. Impulses toward loving fidelity, towards trust, towards seduction and betrayal are integral to the process of teaching and apprenticeship” (p. 132).

8 Cleo Cherryholmes played this role over several years. His record as a scholar in theory and rhetoric (e.g., Cherryholmes, 1999) was essential, as was his status as a new emeritus professor. Thus, he was quite knowledgeable about the graduate program, but because he was no longer teaching, he could speak with independence about research practices in the college. This role was particularly important at the annual research conference.

9 The papers themselves, however, displayed a high degree of theoretical congruence, with most writers presenting themselves as constructivists of one kind or another.

10 The etymology of confidential includes the adaptation of confident (and thus of confidence). Thus, the meaning can be more than the exchange of secrets, signifying the relation between people who regard one another with trust.

11 For example, problems of comparison abound when we do not have data on all graduates’ rates of publication, and other features of their early academic careers.

12 I have focused on “interventions” (in the vocabulary of the Michigan State proposal to the Spencer Foundation) outside the classroom. For an inventive account of research preparation using the biography of a graduate student to show what can happen via a well-organized course, see Neumann, Pallas, and Peterson, 1999.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 7, 2008, p. 1458-1476
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14888, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:44:55 PM

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About the Author
  • Steven Weiland
    Michigan State University
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    STEVEN WEILAND is professor of higher education at Michigan State University. His essay “Teacher Education Toward Liberal Education” appears in the forthcoming third edition of the Handbook of Research on Teacher Education.
 
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