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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.

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.