ePortfolios

This fall the Academy or VTGrATE assisted with the Graduate School’s GTA Workshop sessions on ePortfolios. In the spring, the Graduate School decided to work with the library, which was beginning work on an ePortfolio pilot using Portfolium. Dr. Hajj, the associate dean with the Graduate School who works on the GTA Workshop, approached GrATE to help with this for the workshop.

Through the summer two of the Founding Fellows, myself and Jordan Laney, worked with Dr. Hajj, Dean DePauw, and the staff in Learning Design/Teaching & Learning Engagement within the library to prepare for the ePortfolio sessions within the GTA Workshop. It took some time to figure out how the members, associates, and fellows of GrATE could learn about Portfolium and ePortfolios and then communicate that in a workshop session to new graduate students. Also over the summer around 20 people from GrATE were trained in these areas by Learning Design staff. During the fall, in the GTA Workshop sessions, 15 people from GrATE introduced ePortfolios to around 120 new GTAs. The fall sessions were wonderful. Overall, the GTAs had never heard of ePortfolios, so we had the opportunity to introduce the concept to a new generations of GTAs and future faculty. Most of the session attendees were interested in the concept.

Knowing that  many people would not have an ePortfolio or would be unaware of the concept, the workshops had a two-fold piece to them. First, it was introducing ePortfolios as a tool. A tool for us as professionals and scholar to have a place to demonstrate what we are working on and have learned. We can cultivate our digital presence through ePortfolios and provide access to the work that we are doing/have done.  This can be an individual aspect or for one’s culmination of their major/degree.

The second piece ePortfolios can be used is for teaching and learning. ePortfolios can be used in the classroom to demonstrate what has been gained and learned through a course. By showing elements of skills that were learned, such as communication and critical thinking or collaborative work. A piece of using ePortfolios in the classroom that I like, because of my own teaching philosophy using feminist pedagogy, is the reflection aspect. Making discoveries by taking time to process what you did for a course, why, what was learned, how you came to the final product, etc. A student can show their process, their initial reactions, and how they might take what they did for one course further into other courses or their career.  Hopefully by the end of multiple courses and maybe even an entire degree program, a student will have their own digital identity and professional development presence. This can even include what they have learned outside the classroom through field study, internships, study abroad, clubs, volunteer activities, and more. ePortfolios can help students and professionals present a holistic image of who they are, the skills they have, and what they can bring to a position.

There are two areas that draw me towards ePortfolios. One is the reflection aspect when presenting artifacts (e.g., assignments, CV, research, publications, presentations) on the ePortfolio page.  The second is that ePortfolios are dynamic and accessible ways for us to show who we are in a holistic view. We are not just one piece of what we have done, but a whole collection of what we know, have experienced, and even where we want to go.

Words from Order of the Gavel

Last Friday, the Division of Student Affairs, had the Order of the Gavel induction ceremony. Order of the Gavel is a group of undergraduate and graduate student leaders to promote community and development. I was asked to provide a few words. My speech is included below.

My name is Erin Lavender-Stott and I am in my final year as a PhD student in the department of Human Development and Family Science. I also serve as the Chief Justice of the Graduate Honor System.

As Heather Evans and I were discussing me speaking today, she mentioned that her daughter was running for a leadership position at her elementary school. That brought me back to the library in Gilbert Linkous Elementary School on Tom’s Creek Road in the fourth grade with the daily announcement camera in front of me, where I attempted to be a class leader.

That was the first time I remember feeling the pull to provide service and leadership. I did not get elected to a leadership position that year or during my time in the Blacksburg school system. This was in part because I was not sure how to enter into leadership positions and also in part due to the fact that I was the kid who sat in the front of the classroom with their nose in a book. I was incredibly shy and I rarely spoke to others outside my close friend group and teachers. I could go days without speaking to anyone at school.

After high school I went all the way to Roanoke to Hollins University. Now, for those of you who do not know Hollins, it is a tiny all-women’s college of around 800 students. As soon as I stepped foot on that campus, I knew I found my place. And I did. Within a month of move-in, I became a hall senator, then class treasurer. The next year I became a resident assistant, developing a brand-new hall now called the Mind, Body, Spirit Community. The next year I became swim team captain and SGA Treasurer. Then, my senior year I was SGA President.

Throughout this time, I grew as a person and as a leader. I learned to work with those who did not have the same lived experiences as me or saw the world in the same way I did. I learned to work through challenges of differing values. And working with those who admitted they were scared of me. Also, I clearly did not have any trouble speaking with people anymore.

After Hollins, I went to the coast of North Carolina, UNC Wilmington for my master’s. There I was a graduate student senator, served on the parking appeals committee, and a student leadership conference planning committee.

When I decided to move back to Blacksburg to attend Tech, I also decided to shift my service focus away from student government to more academic areas. That is when I joined the Graduate Honor System. I have been a variety of roles within the GHS, among other roles on campus. I have also begun serving my professional organization at the national level.

Through each role I take on, I do it out of interest, to challenge myself, to learn more, and to serve. As someone who plans to stay in higher education throughout my career, I have taken the opportunity to continue to learn and grow each step of the way. Part of what I have enjoyed about being active as a student, have been the opportunities to mentor other students. Helping them find their own strengths. Or assisting them in making the changes they wish to see. I am an advocate of not simply complaining, but actively working towards something that would be better for all. Though, working with those who know the system in the complicated world of higher education, is helpful.

One of my leadership styles is leading by example. I also value transparency. Because I have had the opportunity to have a seat at the table at each institution, I absorb as much as I can and then try to share what I have learned with others. But it is also about learning from others. Order of the Gavel gives me a chance to learn from others. The three of us graduate students have a chance to see each other and discuss the world at various times, but it is through Order of the Gavel that I get a chance to see undergraduate students who share the institution beyond my classroom. Most graduate students live in this place of being half students and half junior faculty or junior colleagues.

Once a month when we come together for Order of the Gavel (and for the chocolate covered pretzels), it gives us a chance to learn from one another, including me hearing what undergraduate students are experiencing on campus. As a graduate student who is also an instructor, I have enjoyed learning from everyone about what they are going through as a current student and in turn makes me a stronger teacher. As a junior scholar, it allows me to learn about how the university navigates concerns and the challenges of working with students of all ages and academic levels in the 21st century—for today and the future.

One piece that we have not discussed up to this point are the friendships made through leadership and service. I still see and speak to many that I have served with over the years. I have been in the weddings of many of them. My best friends served as the Honor Court Chair or followed me as SGA President at Hollins. And one of the three friends I have kept from UNCW served in student government with me as well. I suspect some of the long-term friendships I will have from Tech will also come from the service and leadership positions.

As a developmental and family scholar, I look back on where I have come and where I hope to go and how my leadership education and service have fit within that. I hope you all will take the people you have met and the skills you have learned from your time as a leader at Tech into whatever endeavors come your way throughout your life. Thank you and I look forward to working with everyone for another year.

Mindfulness and Graduate School

I have been thinking a lot about mindfulness this week. It was probably sparked by a quote I read by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. It is called The Invitation, but more than the words I was struck by the idea of intentional living.

I read this last Saturday night while I was in Richmond. I went there to attend one of the parties for one of my best Hollins friends. I have been very intentional about attending these parties this summer. Even though we live ~6 hours apart, we normally have been seeing each other about once a year. I don’t make it east and she doesn’t make it west. This spring when my original entry into the job market did not work out and I had made the decision to slow my pace towards completing my degree, one of the benefits I saw was time to travel this summer. To take the time to be there for friends and attend these parties and the weddings early in the fall.

While I have been traveling for these parties, I have also been intentional about exploring and re-exploring parts of my state. While in Richmond I drove to Charles City to visit William Henry Harrison’s (president in 1841) birthplace. I arrived to Berkeley Plantation as it was opening on a Sunday morning. As many of my travels are, the tour consisted of a retired couple and me. Walking around this home and grounds from the 18th century, there was an interesting sense of peace. Not because of the history, but the taking the time to stop and take it all in. I wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter or e-mail. I was looking at how the sun hit the brick buildings and the James River. How the mix of magnolia, brick, and historic paint reminded me so much of Hollins and why I chose that university. Even time to contemplate how there is history we know and talk about and history that we do not. But I took that time. I wasn’t rushing back to Blacksburg or worrying about what I could be doing that was work related. I stopped, and thought, and processed.

Due to factors of life, I have recently been taking back over some of the household chores that my brother and father had been doing [I have had the privilege and the challenge of living with my family of origin during my PhD work]. As I was doing tasks such as loading/unloading the dishwasher, grocery shopping, and mowing the yard, I realized that by slowing down and processing what I was doing, without lots of noise around me made the task enjoyable. It wasn’t about rushing to do something because it had to get done, to check it off the list, and be able to return to my academic work.

At some point during my PhD journey I had gotten away from these things—being intentional about time with friends (not just rushing in and rushing out while always thinking about what you should be doing); the meditative nature of moving back and forth mowing the lawn; nourishing our bodies through grocery shopping and cooking; etc. I was somewhat aware of it and knew I needed to shift back. I was aware of it when I read Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed. I was aware of it when all I wanted to do was travel, because when I travel, I stop and observe people and place rather than check e-mail and work.

Yet, it occurs to me that the academic culture is not generally about mindfulness. It is about busyness. You go full-speed-ahead for roughly 36 weeks a year, plus a lot of additional work trying to get ahead or catch-up the other 26 weeks. It is the e-mails of needing to get something completed immediately or at least in the next 48 hours. It is the knowing that there is always more work needing to be done or that could be done. It is also as graduate students, feeling that we do not have the power to say that something may need to wait. That poor planning on someone else’s part, should not equate an emergency on our part.

This week, as life was happening, I was very lucky in that those sort of e-mails stopped. In part, because of summer but also because of people’s travel schedules. The two or so that I did receive, I was able to say that I was not currently available, and not feel guilty about it. And I think some of our busyness is guilt. A need to feel useful all the time, which can also lead to guilt when we don’t live up to that. But taking the time to slow down, to process, and to be mindful about what we do, when, and why, can lead to more dynamic work, whether it is research, teaching, or working with our peers and colleagues. When we take the time to slow down, rather than frantically work on multiple things at once, we may become better colleagues and scholars.

P.S. As I had been contemplating all of this, the book, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber arrived in the mail. It feels fortuitous in the timing. I look forward to reading it.

A class full of introverts? Or is “sage on the stage” sometimes a good thing?

This has been an intense semester. The political climate, trying to figure out whether I was graduating this semester or not, whether I was going to get a job, more hours taken up by service than normal, etc. I think it has been intense for almost everyone, at least those I have talked to. Looking back, the last semester that was this intense was the last time I taught during a regular semester (not summer or winter session). Teaching semesters are a lot, especially when you care so much.

Today I have been working on preparing for my last two class sessions of the semester. I wrote the final exam earlier in the week, so it really is the last two classes I had to prep. And I struggled. I think the intensity of this semester and the fact that I have no idea how this semester went for my students is making me unsure of the entire thing. Leaving me with a knot in my stomach about it all. It’s sort of like wondering if I can only talk a good game about teaching and not actually do it well. (Then again, what is good teaching exactly? We all seem to have different definitions).

Really the issue this semester has been that I can not get my students to talk in class. A very small number of them will speak when they are presenting group work. But when I try and do a class discussion, it is consistently crickets. I have done every trick I know or can think of. I have had them do small group work, write-pair-share, writing and then speaking, calling on people randomly, etc. And still, every time I attempt to do any discussion, they do not make eye contact and do not respond. I have stood there waiting for someone to speak for a couple of minutes, even (I sing a song in my head, which helps me know how long I have waited). Getting little to no response is disheartening. It is also difficult for me as a shy introvert to have to be on for a full 75 minutes.

Yet, I am not convinced that they are not engaged. I have had them do weekly journals, which are in part a reflection on that week’s material. Most of those have been amazing. When I take up their written ideas or reflections during class, they are fully thinking about what is being discussed. I have not had a big problem with phones, Facebook, or shopping in my class. Of course there is a little bit, but not to the point where I have had to say anything to the class like I have in the past. So, I am wondering if there is not some piece of selection bias, where I have a class of introverts, who are more comfortable thinking about things and processing them on their own.

I am also left wondering if the “sage on the stage” is always a bad thing. We talk so much about how in 21st century learning, we need to not be a sage on the stage and feed the students with answers. That we should guide them. That we should do hands on learning. Yet, in this semester, with a class who rebels against the in class activities and does not like discussion. But when the class pays attention during class and presents clear and well-thought-out reflections every week, could sage on the stage and lecturing be a good thing? I guess time and the Student Perceptions on Teaching (SPOT) scores will tell!

Trigger Warnings or Transparency?

I started this post multiple times in the last couple of weeks. But after a couple of events, I am finally sitting down to write it.

Two weeks ago the author and academic, Roxanne Gay, came to my alma mater to do a reading and lecture. I live close enough where I was able to meet one of my closest friends there to hear her and meet Dr. Gay. Roxanne Gay is most known for her book, Bad Feminist. I had come across the book last year and read it quickly, with much of it speaking to me as a feminist and an academic. I had taken note of her essay on trigger warnings, but that was not the part that had stuck out to me initially. However, that essay was one Dr. Gay read the night I went. One thing she said when an audience member asked her about why she chooses to not use trigger warnings was that her pedagogical style is to have discussions with students throughout the semester about what they are reading and why. She is not shying away from topics that may be controversial or difficult for students, but openly discussing them and allowing for the challenging and brave spaces in the classroom.

This week the other GrATE fellows and I were chatting about different topics on pedagogy. We are getting ready to begin a brown bag series during the Wednesday office hours and one of the topics that we are discussing is trigger warnings. Some people are wondering what the right path is for using trigger warnings, whether they are necessary, and for which topics within their classes.

Finally, also this week I went to one of the theatre events on campus. I grew up around the theatre and theatre being provocative, including using the arts as a way of addressing social justice. The play I saw was a fairly new one (published in the last 6 years) and has won numerous awards. Yes, the topics begin to address race relations, gentrification, and social justice. That part was not what caught my attention. Rather, some of the other topics and items within the play that I was not prepared for caught my attention. There was a lot of language in this play, which on any given day wouldn’t be noticed, except for the fact that in my line of sight were two young girls under the age of 10 in the audience. Also, the storyline in the play is connected in part by an unseen character’s suicide and his family’s dealing with that. At intermission and after the show I started looking more intently in the playbill and the sign at the entrance to the theatre for any mention of the language or the content of the show and found nothing. I was shocked that this department, which normally is quite good about forewarning the language at least in a play, had said nothing about either item. I had read a bit about the play before going and have done even more reading since going, and there is no mention anywhere about the suicide topic within the play. So, if the department does not mention that this content, and the general write-ups about this play do not mention it, how are people who may have dealt with death, suicide, rape, etc. within their lives and want some warning or awareness of what is coming their way going to know?

I understand that a lot of the discussion around trigger warnings is that by using them and using safe spaces means people will opt out of hearing about tough things or having challenging conversations. I disagree. I think whether you use the phrase “trigger warning” or not, it is about being transparent in what is being discussed. It is giving a heads up to not be blindsided by something.

I am in a social science and human services discipline. We are always talking about people’s lives. And people’s lives include a variety of experiences, including traumatic experiences. So, for me, when teaching courses, especially when teaching Human Sexuality, I try to be cognizant of that. I rarely, if ever, use the exact phrase of “trigger warning”, however, every topic that will be discussed in a semester is covered in the syllabus. In multiple places and in multiple ways I try to link previous material to the current material and foreshadow where we are going next. I provide information about the resources on campus and in the community that may be of assistance or interest to anyone in the class who has had any number of lived experiences. Yet, I do not shy away from controversial topics or topics that may “trigger” someone.

So, for me, it is about transparency in what we are discussing and why we are discussing it. It has to be pertinent to the learning objectives and course material. I will always use some level of forewarning about what is coming up in lessons whether in an online course or in-person. It may look differently at different times, but on some level, I would rather have the open dialogue and preparation. With openness and transparency, hopefully students will feel that I and the classroom environment I create allow them to grapple with these topics.

Preparing a New Class

We are officially on day three of the new fall semester. This is the first semester in my life that I am not in the classroom as a teacher or a student. It is a little strange. Especially with the flexibility of my time. However, it does not mean I am not involved with teaching at all. I am one of the teaching supervisors/assistant for the teaching mentor for my department as well as a fellow for GrATE.

In my department we have a well-structured program of teaching apprenticing leading to independent graduate instructors. There is support, guidance, and oversight every step of the way when teaching within the department. I appreciate having this, as there are always people to go to and discuss teaching challenges and ideas. My role in this as a senior graduate student and assistant to the teaching mentor, is answering questions, providing feedback on syllabi and course sites, and generally keeping track of what is required by the department and university. As I keep saying to people, for some reason I have the institutional memory and understanding of policies where I am often the contact person for quick questions.

Within the role a fellow for GrATE I hold office hours in the GLC every Tuesday afternoon. I only had one person join me this week and it was a new student from my department who needed assistance with the LMS, Canvas. There is an interesting thing with the transition to Scholar to Canvas, and probably between any LMS’. Some people jump on the bandwagon quickly and are willing to give it a try and use any new technology to the best of their abilities. Others are slower to transition and really don’t want to. But that is an aside.

The start of any semester has people who have never taught before or never taught at a specific institution before. There are learning curves, such as figuring out a new LMS. But last week when we were speaking at the GTA Workshop, a lot of the new graduate students were wanting to know the first steps of preparing for a new course. The student who joined me in office hours is in the midst of helping a new faculty member prepare a course while also working with a returning faculty member in a different class. This GTA has a great view of what it takes to prepare and how once you prepare, it becomes easier and easier over time to get ready for a new semester.

At this point in my career (year 4 of my PhD work), I have prepped for three new courses and am getting ready to prep for my fourth new course. The pattern I tend to take when preparing for a course I have never taught before includes:

  • Seeking out syllabi and information from those who have taught the course before me. This primarily includes from within my own department, though it can include seeing what those teaching similar courses outside of Tech do. There are a lot of syllabi available online, which is useful to update assignment ideas and see which textbooks are being used. At some point, hopefully, GrATE will have a repository of syllabi as well.
  • Start reading through the textbooks. For some courses I have had a choice as to which textbook to use and some are standardized within the department. I have worked with both systems and don’t particularly have a preference. Mostly because, with the standard textbook, the number of different options I’ve seen don’t compare to what was chosen before my time.
  • As I work through the textbook(s), I am also updating or creating any slides and lectures I am planning on having. Again, this depends on what has been done before me in my department. Some courses have a more complete shell for us to launch from than others.
  • Thinking about, updating, and creating assignments for both in-class and out-of-class. Writing out the instructions and rubrics for assignments is helpful for me to do before updating the syllabus.
  • Update the syllabus. This includes updating any information that may have changed—office location changes, websites that are out of date, policies that changed over the summer, etc. I also update the assignments and the point system I am using for that semester. Each semester this gets more and more refined, even when teaching different courses, much of the information is similar across syllabi.
  • Creating the course site. One of the aspects of Canvas that I appreciate is that the course site shell is already created for us with the roster included. That has saved at least an hour or two of headache and fighting with technology. I also appreciate that with Canvas we can link information every time we use it, so students are always able to access what we need them to, no matter where they are on the site. The entire course set-up takes some time, but it still is less time than our previous LMS. If you need assistance with the course site, there are wonderful people all over campus who are great resources!
  • At that point, I am ready for the semester to begin! I typically prepare the first week’s announcements and/or anything particular I plan to do the first day of class (shifts for online teaching and in-person teaching). Of course, there are always things you are shifting throughout a semester, but you should be on solid footing to continue on with the semester!

Research and Funding

This blog post is in part processing a few research thoughts and working on research statements for my Feminist Research Methods course.

Last week was Grad Ed Week at Tech. Part of what that brought other than the wonderful free food that all grad students love, was the inductions of new members and associates for the Academy of Graduate Teaching (GTA) Excellence and Graduate School Awards. Of my classmates in Feminist Research Methods a few of us were recognized. Jordan Laney and I were named and inducted as two of the three Founding Fellows of the Academy. She also won a teaching award at the Awards Banquet while I was recognized for my service work.

12799238_10154145210823578_5632464424736611130_n   [Picture from Academy Social and Induction]

During the Awards Banquet those who won a lot of the awards were from lab disciplines and the qualifications that their letter writers presented was about the amount of grant money the grad students received and the number of publications they had. One person who won an award had received $85,000 in grant money for their research. Other grad students had over 10 publications. After the Banquet, I was left with amazement that grad students could have that many but also the realization that their disciplines have different opportunities than mine. No matter how I look at it, even if I include all the grants and fellowships on my list for the Feminist Research Methods assignment to practice writing applications for money, it would not equal $85,000. In a lot of ways doing feminist and critical work means that money is a little bit harder to come by to complete. There are of course ways to shift what you are doing to do the work, but I am not sure the only way to complete work is to do it where the money is. Limiting the work to only where the money is, limits the research questions being asked and who is being discussed.

10398574_10154152117878578_6151948063232028333_n      [Picture from Graduate School Awards banquet]

Additionally, to do thorough feminist and critical empirical work takes a lot of time to complete and not always as easily dividable into multiple publications as lab work can be with a lot of people working on multiple projects all together. It can be important to do slow scholarship, as I have discussed before, to ensure that the work is worthwhile and makes an impact on the world. What we do is not just about the number of publications that we get or how much money we bring in, as much as our advisors and society want to argue it is, it is also how much of a citizen to our university and the world we are being. Are we helping those around us and those who may not have had the same experiences we have had? We do not have to necessarily perpetuate the Publish or Perish mantra or continue to only work in the neoliberal rat-race. However, as I write this, a friend from another university posted on social media about a GoFundMe page to help pay for her travel, supplies, and compensation to participants for her dissertation work. Sometimes to do the work we want and feel led to do, we have to get creative in how we fund it! It also requires us to be able to translate our work to multiple audiences.

The rest of this post will be on my research, to work on how I present myself as a researcher. I am in this awkward period where a few projects have been wrapped up and are submitted to journals or are close to being submitted and am just getting started on my next projects (including my dissertation). I have not fully gotten in the swing of the publication pipeline. So, I am trying to figure out the best way to present not only the research that I have completed up to this point but also how to describe my dissertation work. I also have a tendency to expect everyone to be on the same train I am, so I welcome feedback from my classmates as to what I am presenting.

Research Statement: My overarching work is on gender and sexuality within the family context. This includes intimate and family relationships through kin altruism and kin networks, family diversity (including sexual minorities across the lifespan and singlehood), dating and partnership choices, and sexuality education through media and families. Most family scholars want to strengthen families, relationships, and sexual health. However, when people do not define family in the same way, we need to understand how diverse family structures function including their strengths and weaknesses. The more we understand all relationships, including families of non-genetic kin (families of choice), the more we can work with all families to be the best they can be with success broadly defined.

Future Research: I will continue to work in the above areas, with my primary focus in my next projects on sexual minority baby boomers. Much of the literature of older LGBQ adults discusses the health challenges the community faces, using minority stress theory as the guiding perspective (it’s where the money is). When the literature discusses families it is often in that LGBQ individuals don’t have children and are not married (neither necessarily true and becoming less and less true). There has been the discussion of families of choice and caretaking in the face of health crises, such as AIDS and cancer. So, the primary question overarching both projects is how does the literature and LGBQ older adults conceptualize family?

I am particularly interested in single lesbian baby-boomers. There has been a renewed focus on singlehood, particularly single women as seen in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day 2016 with the Washington Post doing a series on singlehood, movies of ever-single women (“Hello, My Name is Doris”), and a set of books being released about single women that goes beyond the discourse of “how to get a man” (see Bolick, 2015 and Traister, 2016). The entire fact that the primary discourse until recently surrounding singlehood has been about what is wrong with women and their approaches for not being married is problematic in that it perpetuates compulsory heterosexuality (Rich, 1983) and heteronormative discourses. Historically, lesbian women have always been considered single because their relationships were not recognized legally and frequently not recognized by their families of origin (Franzen, 1996). Thus, for lesbian single women, there are two discourses—those that are legally single and socially single. My focus will be on legally and socially single lesbian women of the baby-boomer generation. They came of age during a time that allowed for more women to be single and to be out as non-heterosexual. It is also the generation that is beginning to retire and face old-age. So, how do women who are lesbian identified, unmarried and uncoupled define family? How does their position as historically marginalized individuals plan for their later years and retirement?

 

Slow Scholarship and Building Community to Thrive in Graduate School

When I first started at Tech, for my PhD and after my masters, I wasn’t thinking about friends or colleagues. I was so focused on starting my new program and succeeding at what I came for. I had some “townie” friends still around, which were wonderful in reminding me to stop what I was doing work-wise and be present in having a social life. Different groups of friends—some near, some far are important as is family in whatever way we define that. But finding and giving support to one another as graduate students and as professionals is also important. This can be a challenge as people move in and out of town—the transient nature of a college town and this stage of our lives.
The further I get into graduate school, especially following a long break in my hometown without most people around, I have been thinking more and more about community. Though, it must have been on my mind for longer than I realize, because I spoke about it a lot with Cathy Grimes as we talked when she was writing the story about the Academy of GTA Excellence. Dean DePauw has been writing about challenging us all for thriving in graduate school rather than just surviving. Part of what she discusses is the community that the Graduate School can bring for students. Between reading Dean DePauw’s blog post, some of the books for pleasure I read over break, and even the readings we have already had in my Feminist Methods course this semester, I really think we all need community to thrive in graduate school and beyond as we enter into our career in academia or industry.
We live in a neoliberal society, and our universities are no different. Everything is about making money, being the best, being competitive—between each other and between institutions. We are all about being elite. We are about pride and self-promotion. We are all about output, rewards, maximizing our utility, impressing the world, and building up our CVs (Brooks, 2015). We like to compare ourselves to others, though we are especially good at comparing ourselves through others’ highlight reels that they choose to tell us about in person or through social media. I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a bad habit of looking at people’s CVs when they are public to compare myself to them. Especially newly hired assistant professors, so I have some idea of what I need to do to get a job once I am finished at Tech.
With the world of academia constantly shifting and those who are young and still entering into long-term academic employment, we are forced to be publicists for ourselves—yes, advocate for ourselves, but also promote ourselves via websites, blogs, cultivating our online presence. We are supposed to be known—but only for positive things and our academic work. So, when we are trying to be our best selves, which for many of us include trying not to be too prideful and to be humble, being forced into this public self-promotion is a challenge. Even as I write this, I am aware that it is a form of self-promotion. Yet, the part that I like about blogging and posting when I write to multiple places, is it helps to bridge some of the gaps of different colleges and institutions, where I can then begin conversations with people from multiple locations around the country and even the world. It is a way to build a community and network in a digital space, that then can bring community in a physical space. It allows people to broach conversations with you that they may not normally do so. It allows you to process through what is running through your head, as I am doing now.
Mountz et al. (2015) wrote about slowing down our work and our scholarship. That we should challenge the status quo of the academy. This can be in part by not competing with each other. We don’t need to be all about the quantitative areas of our life and work—a counting culture. We do not need to force self-surveillance and self-auditing. I think this includes not touting how many hours we worked that week. I fully admit that I am a workaholic and yes, I know how many hours I work on average, but that has more to do with knowing how many hours I need to be busy so that I am not bored and thus, grumpy.
We live in a society that focuses on and touts busyness. We like to tell each other how busy we are and often in frantic ways. It is nice and better when we get the chance to stop and spend time together, even if it is time to stop and spend time together working. It can be more important about slowing down or stopping to take the time to listen, converse, engage with each other. In this time to slow down we build community, we allow for creativity. We allow time to process everything that is going on. You never know what sort of connections you might make—personally and in your work. Dwight Eisenhower supposedly said that people should make mistakes slowly, as it was better to proceed to a decision gradually rather than rush into anything before its time. That life organized around self-restraint rather than self-expression (Brooks, 2015).
Some people take writing retreats—especially if a group is working on a project together and are at different institutions. But I don’t know that it has to be as big as taking a weekend or week to go somewhere to work together that can help build community, slowing down scholarship, etc. It can be as simple as sitting in a coffee shop working together at a table on your own thing in silent solidarity. It can be getting together with those who are in your program at someone’s home to chat, catch up, and eat goodies, and drink for those who do so. Though I think traveling together builds community faster and in a different way than hanging out can. But I also think that community is built in a multitude of ways. It can be through different groups we are involved with–including groups outside of the university world. For some people this is through religious organizations. I like having multiple groups of friends and community to turn to to help me slow down and process things. Not every friend or group can do and be everything for us.
With slowing down and coming together, we can make our work environments better and more supportive. We can listen to and read what others/each other have to say. It allows time to stop, reflect, reject, resist, subvert, and collaborate, allowing more reflexive academic cultures (Mountz et al., 2015). We can talk about work, we can talk about life—they are not clearly delineated unfortunately. We can step forward in discussing our dreams, our failures, and our fears to help each other do the same. We can come together to have these discussions and to work through our differences with care and grace.
Community is a challenge in our individualistic society. It is difficult to cultivate, to maintain, etc. Graduate school can be an incredibly lonely time. Added to the natural stress of being constantly challenged to go outside our comfort zone, the loneliness is all the more acute. We may have people we see regularly that we like, but do we have people we can turn to in crisis or as we are processing things? Do we have people who will stop with us and slow down, talk through what we are doing with work and with life? Or are we trying to compete with those we are around too much to get to know each other and see their point of view and benefits? I think this is part of why I have enjoyed traveling with my Graduate School colleagues in the last year—it allows us to slow down, talk, step outside our academic disciplines even for the 8-12 hours we are visiting campuses or in meetings.
In the end, it is about assisting each other, supporting one another, learning about one another’s work as we navigate this bizarre, stressful, yet thrilling period of our lives that we call graduate school.

Readings
Brooks, D. (2015). The road to character. New York: Random House.
DePauw, K. P. (2015). Thriving in graduate school. Retrieved from: https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/kpdtge/index.php/2015/12/01/thriving-in-graduate-school/
Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B.,…Curran, W. (2015). For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME, International E-Journal for Critical Geographies.

Transformative Graduate Education in a Transformative Year

I have not blogged much this semester. In part because it was a weird semester in that I was not teaching (it is amazing how much that kept me on track with all of my other work!). I also was not taking any theory or content courses and I was not doing any of the Future Professoriate courses for the first time since Semester 1 at Tech. This program was one of the things that drew me to return to my hometown and earn my degree at Virginia Tech. Knowing I wanted to work in academia for my career as a faculty member, the program of preparing future faculty as teachers, scholars, and productive academic citizens greatly appealed to me.

This semester, I have still tried to be involved with Preparing the Future Professoriate (PFP) and Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) as I could. For one, the building of the Academy of Graduate Teaching (GTA) Excellence has gotten some press. I am proud of the work that we have done to build a community of current and future instructors/faculty. I am writing about TGE and PFP, because, though I am not yet a faculty member (someday soon I hope!), I am already seeing the strength of these programs that our wonderful Graduate School Dean has developed for us at Virginia Tech.

This year I was asked to serve as the graduate student representative for a subcommittee to a university project. This subcommittee has faculty, staff, administrators, and students sitting on it along with support staff for the project. The project has gone very differently than I was expecting in multiple ways. The one that has caught my attention time and again has been the lack of understanding of the basic functions of the university by faculty, including the mission statement and how that navigates decisions by administrators. Each time I am able to explain the functioning of higher education and our university, I am thankful for all the opportunities I have had within PFP and TGE. Each time I have a slightly different perspective of where higher education is and where it should go, I am thankful for the programs. I am seeing first hand how having courses and discussions and experiences that teach what life in academia will be and challenging the status quo within that is beneficial as I prepare to enter into the professoriate.

In the last 7 months I have also taken two trips (check out #gppecuador and #gppswiss15 on Twitter!) and in relation to TGE, which really were transformative. Each time I have returned from these trips with my colleagues from across colleges on campus, I have written in my notes that I am excited and proud of the future in higher education and research with them. We are the 21st century faculty. We are the ones who will be higher education, can change it, the ones who can challenge the status quo. More and more I think that takes on a global perspective. The world is getting smaller and smaller with access to Internet and easier travel. When we were at the Swiss Embassy in June, someone from the Council of Graduate Schools brought up that there are plenty of jobs available for finishing graduate students, if you look at the world as a whole rather than solely at the United States. I think our scholarship and understanding of higher education also should not be U.S. centric, rather than seeing the strengths and challenges of higher education around the world. How this looks for each of us, I don’t know. I am not even sure how I want it to look for myself at this point. That is something I am still wrestling with. But, I am confident that as 21st century faculty, we need to understand the global perspective.

 

Traveling

I was not particularly good about blogging while in Switzerland and I still have not really caught up with it. Probably over time as I get back into the habit of blogging this fall.
However, a quote caught my attention recently that very much plays into how I am feeling about my time since the trip, so I will do a quick post.

“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” – Pico Iyer

The reason that quote spoke to me right now is that even though I have been back in the United States for two months now, I still feel like I am picking away at what I learned and observed while in Switzerland. I am slowly connecting what worked there and what happens here and how those things are similar and different. I think this will be ongoing for quite a while as I continue on my path at Virginia Tech and even after I leave Blacksburg.

Michael asked most of the group on our last night in Riva San Vitale why the Global Perspectives Trip was so good and if it had to be in Switzerland. I’m not even sure what I responded then, but as I reflect on the quote and on that question, I think the trip is powerful and meaningful for all of us who have had the honor and privilege to go on it because we are not in the U.S. Yes, you could have “grad school camp” relatively close-by and learn a lot of things about other nation’s higher education, but it is being forced into a situation and a country that you are not familiar with that changes you the most. The country probably does not have to be Switzerland, but it does have the best of multiple worlds—where English is not a primary language, but most people do know it. That is helpful for those whose first time out of the U.S. was this trip. Traveling so far away from home meant that we were all ready to be transformed. We went into it with an open mind and curiosity and we got a lot out of the experience because of that.

I look forward to more transformative travel in the coming times.