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Students Today, Leaders Tomorrow

“Social Climbers and Charlatans in American Literature.” “Best Sellers in the Early Nineteenth Century.” “Theft, Theory and Telescopes.” “The Human Microbiome.” What do these intriguing titles have in common? They are all winners of the intensely competitive contest among advanced doctoral students to command their own classrooms as Dean’s Teaching Fellows. Every year, some 60 of our finest PhD candidates vie for the opportunity to teach Krieger School undergrads in a course entirely of their own design. Only a third are given the chance, after defending their syllabi before a team of professors outside of their disciplines.

I recently attended a reception in honor of next year’s Dean’s Teaching Fellows and found myself talking with Doug Tye, graduate student in the English department, about how he planned to approach the subject of “fraudulent pretense” in the writings of Emerson, Poe, Twain, and Fitzgerald. As a social scientist interested in the American obsession with social mobility, I find fascinating the literary preoccupation with projecting a self that is inauthentic. Nick Bujak wants to explore why Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen were so popular, especially when so many of the classic success stories in literature struggled to make a living in their own time. Jessica Walker, doctoral candidate in the history department, has long been fascinated by the Tudor period in English history, and will take her students through a semester-long examination of the tumultuous changes the “Henry’s” (seventh and eighth) and Queen Elizabeth brought to the country’s religious and political landscape.

These gifted scholars will eventually leave us for assistant professor positions of their own, on campuses other than ours. But for one precious semester, KSAS undergrads will have the chance to work with the best and brightest of our doctoral students. In these small seminars, they explore quirky ideas and deep theory, new frontiers and old legends. It is enough to make me want to go back to school myself.

While the faculty is well aware of the importance of graduate education for the quality of the undergraduate experience, the link is often obscure to those outside of the university. So much attention is placed on how we educate the youngest members of our community, that we often overlook the critical role that the arts and sciences play in training the next generation of scholars.

Graduate students embark on a lifelong calling when they come to Johns Hopkins. They will spend many years, perhaps as many as eight, mastering the intricacies of particle physics or cultural anthropology, econometrics or Latin American history. They become experts in their fields and join the venerable tradition of original research that was born at Hopkins. Their futures depend on how well they are able to dazzle their disciplines through grants, prizes, articles, and book manuscripts.

How can we ensure that this vital part of our academic community is recognized, and that the time our faculty commits to training them is understood as a critical part of the profession? One way we can do this is to make every effort to support these advanced students while they are with us. While none of them would turn down the chance for a higher standard of living, what they truly crave are unique research or teaching opportunities. The art historians need to see the paintings that hang in the museums, churches, and abbeys of Europe. The physics students need to spend time at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider that is the birthplace of 21st-century experimental work in their field. Fieldwork in Guatemala or Egypt is essential for the anthropologist.

The Dean’s Teaching Fellowship is another means of exercising the “calling” of a scholarly life. It provides a doctoral student with the opportunity to hone her own voice as an instructor, to puzzle through how she wants to convey the nuances of Caravaggio’s influence on artistic theory, how he conceives of the historical dimensions of the U.S. Constitution, and how all of them can turn those intellectual judgments into rich classroom encounters.

When I speak in public about our ambitions for the Krieger School in the years to come, I often dwell on our stellar faculty – especially our hope to recruit more of them – and the undergraduate experience that is central to our lives. Rarely do I point to the vital community of doctoral students who are, in many ways, at the intersection between them. But we should all understand that what we commit to their training is laying the groundwork for the universities of the future, as well as a stimulating experience for the students of today.

Katherine Newman
James B. Knapp Dean