Introduction to an Innovation: A Series of Language and Literacy Doctoral Seminars for the Language and Literacy Concentration

Arizona State University, Department of Education

As a result of discussions prompted by participating in the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate, the Language and Literacy concentration established a requirement for students to enroll in a one credit hour doctoral seminar for each of their first four semesters in the program. These four semesters would be concerned with "basics" in four overarching areas within Language and Literacy: linguistics, sociolinguistics, and first and second language acquisition; emergent literacy and adult literacy; elementary school and adolescent literacy; language policy and language politics. For each semester, those faculty with expertise in the upcoming seminar's topic meet to plan the syllabus (which major theorists, which classic papers and which basic issues seem "essential" for LL students). The faculty planning group invites appropriate faculty members to lead discussions for one or two class sessions/semester. One faculty member acts as the instructor of record each semester. Faculty members volunteer these services. With a large number of LL faculty and an every-four-semester rotation of topics, no one is required to make much of a sacrifice. The seminar meets for 90 minutes weekly in a time slot that does not conflict with other courses (7:30Pm-9PM). Students have met in small groups prior to the class session for 90 minutes outside of class to discuss study questions on the readings for a particular week. Students are thus primed for discussions of considerable depth, guided now by the guest faculty facilitator.

What is the issue we are trying to address?

The issues are substantive and social: a need to promote a common knowledge base and a need to help students build professional peer networks. We want to ensure that students have at least minimal familiarity with a basic knowledge base in linguistics (for students focusing on literacy) and literacy (for students focusing on linguistics). And we want students to come to know the thinking and interests of those immediately ahead and behind them.

How do we know that these are issues?

Over the years, faculty members have seen that students in L&L have had a huge hole in understandings. We have seen students focusing on one L (Language or Literacy) knowing nothing about the other L. Exit surveys and self-studies have also shown that doctoral students have complained for years of a lack of an intellectual community.

What is the change or innovation that is intended to address this issue?

A new requirement for an LL doctoral seminar (one credit hour) for each of a student's first four semesters attempts to ensure that students "don't leave home without" familiarity with a basic knowledge base, regardless of whether their focus is more language-oriented or more literacy-oriented. The required seminar series is also intended to help students build a collegial network and learn who they might want to work with on "key experiences" (another innovation).

Why did we select this approach?

A few faculty members had experienced some version of such a requirement themselves and remembered them as extremely valuable. We had tried the several-times-per-year social events and knew that, while those are better than nothing in terms of community-building, and while we will continue these, they do not help students create intellectual communities.

What is the intended effect of the innovation?

We have already seen considerable improvement in the quality of student's discussions. The intellectual community is more lively and challenging. And faculty members who act as planning teams for the seminars have found this activity to be stimulating and engendering of new understandings of their colleagues' interests.

What data or evidence will demonstrate the effect of our innovation?

We expect students to initiate activities that reflect professional/social bonds. Indeed, such has been the case already as students have re-vitalized a literacy honorary society on campus and have brought two out-of-town mentors in to address the doctoral students. We also expect that student exit surveys will show fewer complaints about the lack of an intellectual community. And we expect students to be better able to locate ideas within academic conversations on their comprehensive exams and in their doctoral research.

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