A View from Kirkland Hall
In this issue of Arts and Science, you will read the words of Gail McConnell, a visitor from Queen’s University, Belfast, Ireland. Gail is a Ph.D. candidate in English and a member of this year’s graduate fellows program at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. The Warren fellows are a group of eight Ph.D. students in the humanities, seven from the distinguished programs within Arts and Science and an annual visitor from our valued partner university in Belfast. These gifted young scholars come together for one year of interdisciplinary exchange as they complete their dissertations and prepare to launch careers as junior professors. These students and the others enrolled in the 19 doctoral programs in Arts and Science—spanning the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences—represent nothing less than the future of higher education.
Earlier this year, Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos announced a major new initiative for Vanderbilt: a series of deep and lasting investments in graduate education. As the chancellor wrote in his letter to the faculty: “The Ph.D. is the highest academic degree offered by Vanderbilt and the other great American universities. These are the future professors, scientists, researchers, teachers, and policymakers that will build our nation and heal our globe. As with our undergraduates, we must devote ourselves and our resources to attracting the very best and inviting them to be part of our academic community.”
I stand with Chancellor Zeppos in the firm conviction that top-quality graduate education represents the difference between good and great in a research university. We often speak of the College of Arts and Science as a liberal arts college at the heart of a great research university. Our investment in Ph.D. education gives us legitimate claim to that adjective, “great.” Arts and Science faculty press the horizon of new discovery across the disciplines—and they do so while also teaching first-year writing seminars and the courses that anchor undergraduate majors as well as our AXLE liberal arts curriculum.
We ask a great deal when we ask a professor to fulfill both parts of the Arts and Science mandate: to be an excellent undergraduate teacher and a trailblazer in a highly specialized field of academic endeavor. Attracting top young scholars to our graduate programs makes this magic happen. Our professors need the partnership of the world’s best young talent in their fields. In labs, libraries, classrooms and offices across our campus, Ph.D. students advance the work of discovery at the core of our academic mission. A deep pool of talented Ph.D. students is indispensable to our ability to recruit, retain and develop a world-class faculty in the College of Arts and Science.
Let me speak for a moment as a professor rather than a dean. Two of my own Ph.D. students, Sarah Kersh, MA’06, and Elizabeth Meadows, MA’06, are members of the Warren fellows group alongside Gail. My students’ research is specialized within the area of Victorian literature that has comprised my professional life’s work. Sarah and Elizabeth are producing remarkable new research in their dissertations, and their work challenges, advances and invigorates my own scholarship and thinking on a daily basis.
Great articles and books—great discovery no matter what the discipline—require the stimulating interchange that can only be found in specialized apprenticeships. For this reason, the chancellor’s investment in graduate education is truly visionary. It represents a giant step toward a Vanderbilt that maintains equal commitment to the liberal arts and to the thrill of discovery.
photo credit: Daniel Dubois