Newsletter #56     PFF Conference

I have just spent three days in Colorado having my PFF perspective radically broadened. This is an attempt to share the new one.

For a start, and to establish the baseline, a bit of review: PFF stands for Preparing Future Faculty, and is the name of a project which originated in 1994 and is now in its third incarnation. Its title gives a good start on understanding its objectives. For us it got off to a dramatic start with a very generous two year grant from the Pew Charitable Foundation. Our most specific goal was to diminish the tunnel vision which universities have traditionally instilled in their students, encouraging in them the believe that life consists of 1) research, 2) Research and 3) RESEARCH, and that the one and only mark of a successfully completed graduate career is a job offer from a Research 1 University. The centerpiece of our efforts was a partnership we established with Seattle University and Seattle Central Community College, and the centerpiece of that was a program under which we sent out a select bunch of our graduate students to visit a faculty member (each) at one of the partners, observe a bunch of his or her classes, maybe do a little mentored teaching, maybe share in designing a class, maybe just talk a lot--whatever seemed to the two of them the most productive. We also furthered communications among the three communities with a number of Pew Festive Fora, which involved having graduate students and members of all three faculties get together to hear a visiting speaker and share a meal and lots of conversation. As we did so, we realized that it wasn't only with the faculty at the other two institutions that graduate student communications needed improving--it was also with us. So we had some ten person dinners at the Marlai Thai Restaurant at which a collection of graduate students and faculty members had some really interesting and sometimes quite enlightening conversations about sundry aspects of graduate existence. (Records of the conversations are still on the web at

There were a couple of other things as well, but I think that covers the flavor. That phase lasted two years until that grant ran out. Then there was a radical scale-back, though not a disappearance. For one thing, some of what had gotten established carried on through--a series of faculty talks that resulted from one of the dinner conversations is still going strong, for instnace, and our connections with Seattle U and SCCC have remained strong. For another, with financial backing of the graduate school, some of it coming from a second incarnation of the PFF grant, we have continued to be able to send an even more select few graduate students to the two campuses.

Enter phase three: last spring the NSF announced that it had taken over the funding of a continued or renewed PFF, to be administered by the professional societies of several sciences. Jack Lee and I put our heads together, and then he did all the dirty work and produced a proposal for what we had thought of, which was basically a slight expansion of the mentored visit program. Things like the dinners and the fora definitely did not fit the current format, and my vision of the whole scene had shrunk to the thing we knew worked.

Then came this week-end, and a PFF-sponsored conference in Colorado Springs. Under the fearless leadership of Betty Feetham, Associate Dean of the Graduate School, seven Seattlites from UW or SU headed down there, to join a collection of colleagues from a bunch of disciplines and a batch of locales. Like us, most clusters had representatives of faculty and students from the "Lead Institution" (basically defined as the one with the graduate students) and faculty from the partner institutions. We had sessions with others in our discipline, and with others in our category, and with others sharing a specific interest, and plenary sessions to put together the results of the smaller discussions, and conversations all over the lot. And suddenly I am back to thinking in terms of goals rather than activities. For one, a renewal and expansion of the tunnel vision issue. Current statistics are that 5% of PhD's will wind up employed by Research 1 Universities (don't ask me to validate that statistic--I swallowed it whole). If that is anything close to true, then we owe it to the morale of the whole system to break out of the success/failure mode of classification of where our students go. For this we need for not just students but existing graduate faculty to find out how much there is to respect in a huge number of the varieties of campuses out there, and what a thoroughly satisfying career many have to offer. Another goal is not simply to have a few specific graduate students acquire the knowledge and skills to be better candidates for possible positions at two- and four-year colleges, but to improve communications so that instead of receiving our newly minted PhDs with trepidation and some sotto voce mumbling about their preparation, those colleges can let us know how we can give our students what they need to be good faculty members there. And in doing so, we will improve appreciably what even the famed 5% have to offer to their august employers.

Some other goals and philosophical issues are jostling their way around in my head, but I think I should stop before the grandiloquence quotient gets out of hand. On a less high falluting level, I also picked up some ideas for projects and activities to further sundry of these goals. About those you will, I hope, be hearing--but only if I succeed in pulling them off!

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