On the eve of departure…

I have been trying to figure out how to express all of the feelings I am having on this ‘eve of departure’. This post has taken me more days to write than I care to admit. Writing has always been hard for me, especially when I am trying to express my emotions, and preparing for this trip has definitely been emotional for me.

I know that I am about to embark on a life-changing experience and honestly just the preparation for the trip has been profound. Although this is not my first time traveling abroad, it is the first trip that I have had to prepare extensively for: researching my GPP topic and the university that I will brief the group on, practicing German, planning hostels and trains/busses for my ‘extracurricular’ travel. I bought my first suit. It is hard to express the feelings I had wearing my new suit and modeling for my girlfriend over video chat. I turned 31 earlier this year and I think it is appropriate that I finally own a suit. It is symbolic of the new chapter of my life that began when I started graduate school. I think the following quote gives a sense of what I am feeling:

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read one page”

-St. Augustine

(Although this quote is commonly attributed to St. Augustine, it is most likely not directly from him)

This trip has already begun to turn the pages of my book.

This experience has also brought up feelings of sadness and appreciation. I want to apologize for what I’m about to do: quote a Kanye West song (seriously I’m sorry).

“we wasn’t supposed to make it past twenty-five, jokes on you we still alive”

-Kanye West, “We Don’t Care”

I grew up in a family of five; I have three brothers and we were raised by a single mother. We relied on food stamps and subsidized housing resulting in our family living in some pretty sketchy places where break-ins were a common occurrence and we, quite literally, couldn’t have anything nice because it would just get stolen. My mother worked her butt off to slowly move us out of those rough neighborhoods, begging landlords in good areas to accept a family on section 8 (subsidized housing) which is the landlord’s choice in New Mexico. Many landlords do not want to deal with the added hassle of dealing with a renter on section 8. They are required to have the property inspected yearly which often reveals maintenance that they wouldn’t have to perform for regular renters. I am going into all of this detail because I know that I would not be in graduate school or even have graduated from college if my mother had not been so determined to get her family into good neighborhoods with good schools. My brothers and I often remind each other that the odds really were stacked against us and it is really amazing to reflect on the success that we have all had. My brother Diego will tell me, “you know you weren’t supposed to make it past twenty-five.”

My mother was one of the strongest and most inspirational people I have ever had in my life. I lost her to breast cancer in 2004 and I still, nearly 13 years later, tear-up thinking about how important her perseverance was to my success. I wish she could see how far all of her sons have come. She would be so excited and proud to see me embarking on this journey.

I also have a sense of appreciation about being one of the lucky few who were selected to participate in this program. I know so many smart, deserving people that, just because of their life situation, have not been able to realize their potential. I am so grateful to be a part of this experience, I just wanted to recognize all of the worthy who did not get a chance to be a part of this trip and, more generally, attain some degree of higher education.

I think that the best use of my participation in the Global Perspectives Program will be to use the insights and experience that I gain to help inspire the students that I will one day interact with. This brings me to the last quote that I would like to include in this post:

“Traveling- it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

-Muhammad Ibn Buttuta

(This quote may be from him but again there is some controversy)

I am so excited about the growth and perspective that I will gain over the next several weeks. I have already felt the expansion of my self-understanding and am looking froward to the many stories that I will tell as a result. Finally I would like to sincerely thank Dean DePauw for everything that she does for students around the world and for facilitating this once in a lifetime experience.

Thanks for reading and until next time, Aufwiedersehen.

Open Access

The open access movement is a shift in the ideology of how scientific research should be published and shared with the scientific community and society as a whole. Open access journals do not charge a fee to readers or require a subscription to access them. Instead they cover the costs of publishing by imposing a one-time fee on the author(s) at the time of publishing.

I looked at an open access journal called “Modern Mechanical Engineering” which is published by Scientific Research. The aims of the journal are:

Modern Mechanical Engineering (MME) is an international journal dedicated to the latest advancements in mechanical engineering. The goal of this journal is to provide a platform for scientists and academicians all over the world to promote, share, and discuss various new issues and developments in different areas of mechanical engineering.

The journal explains its open access and article processing charges as:

Modern Mechanical Engineering is an Open Access journal accessible for free on the Internet. At Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP), we guarantee that no university library or individual reader will ever have to buy a subscription or pay any pay-per-view fees to access articles in the electronic version of the journal. There is hence no revenue at SCIRP neither from the sale of subscriptions to the electronic version of the journal nor from pay-per-view fees. Yet, the online publication process does involve costs including those pertaining to setup and maintenance of the publication infrastructure, routine operation of the journal, processing of manuscripts through peer-reviews, editing, publishing, maintaining the scholarly record, and archiving. To cover these costs, the journal depends on Article Process Charges (henceforth: APC), also called Publication Fees. APC are due when a manuscript has been accepted for publication.

The APC for the journal is $599 and it offers assistance for publications that are being submitted from low-income countries. Although this cost can seem high at first glance, it is much lower than the profits that many of the closed journals make on their subscription fees.

The journal reports that “The 2-year Google-based Journal Impact Factor (2-GJIF) is 0.71.” This is a fairly low impact for a scientific journal, however with the open access movement gaining support the impact of these journals will likely grow. A continuing issue with the academic culture is that most universities and researchers have access to closed journals and therefore do not have a great incentive to include open access publications in their regular reading. Impact factors are directly related to the number of citations that journals receive. The more that academics decide to include open access journals in their research and cite them, the greater the impact factor will be for these journals.

Higher Ed and Ethics in Society

Every person must make ethical decisions throughout their lives. Small decisions like choosing to recycle, living more efficiently or choosing products produced ethically are all fairly easy and do not typically keep people up at night. The ethical decisions that are much harder are those ones that have huge impacts on our lives or require one to take a stand, often with some risk or consequence involved.

One of the major responsibilities of higher education is to provide students with the means to examine their own ethics and challenge the accepted ethics held by our society. As a society, we need to have open and respectful discussions about the ethical code that we hold. We need to consider not only the people in our society but also people around the world. Furthermore, we need to examine how our (un)ethical practices affect the ecosystems and the global environment.

Maybe I am just being too optimistic, but I believe that most people are decent at the core. The differences between people are insignificant when compared with the similarities. We all want to feel respected and have a hope for a better future. There is a growing opinion that people from different cultures and opposing political views are fundamentally different from each other. I think that society needs to disrupt those viewpoints and create a forum in which all people can actually have their voices heard and feel that they have some control over the future of the ethical code that our society holds.

As students in higher education, we need to demand a change in the way students are taught and dismantle the elitist views that can separate us from less educated people. Our educated viewpoints are no more or less important than those from uneducated people. We also need to find innovative ways to show all members of society the lessons and results of the work that is done in higher education. I do not think that college is the right life decision for all people, but I do believe that all people should benefit from the work that is done at universities and I think that academic institutions need to do a better job of spreading the knowledge that they discover and promoting the impacts that they have on society as a whole.

MFA or PhD: what is the future of the terminal degree for artists?

In the past, the standard in America has been that the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is the terminal degree for an artist. There are an increasing number of programs, however, offering a PhD in art. This introduces the question of what is really needed to succeed as a professor in the arts. Inside Higher Ed explored this topic in the article, For Artists: MFA or PhD? 

In my opinion the MFA should still be considered a valid degree for teaching, especially for those teachers that focus on the studio arts. The option of a PhD should also be available to artists who would like to explore art in a more academic direction. A concern I have is that many artists are not pursuing a PhD because they truly would like to think and write about art, but because they feel that they need to in order to attain a teaching job at a top university. A quote form the article referenced above shows this motivation:

“Most colleges and universities don’t understand that the M.F.A. is a terminal degree,” said Tammy Parks, a painter currently teaching at New River Community College, in Blacksburg, Va., and also enrolled in the low-residency Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts, which is based in Portland, Maine. She hopes to earn a Ph.D. in 2016, thereby “enhanc[ing] my employability” at the four-year college level.

“I didn’t feel I needed a doctorate, but the Ph.D. is the terminal degree in other areas, and it is what college and university administrators understand as the terminal degree. So, I decided to get a Ph.D. so we can close the discussion. Let’s move on.”

For Artists: MFA or PhD?

I believe that education is extremely important and certainly promote the access to PhD programs for artists. Administrators need to understand that different academic disciplines have their own measures of accomplishment. I believe that the MFA degree should be held in high regard and artists should not feel that they must obtain a PhD to become teachers at the university level. It can be difficult to determine how a doctoral degree changes an artist and their work. In some cases it may not significantly improve the art produced and in a worst-case it may have negative impacts on the work produced. I would encourage all people, not just artists, to really think about what they want to get from a graduate degree and make sure that their program aligns with and enhances their long-term goals.

Creating Better People

One of the most important aspects of higher education that I feel is often forgotten, especially in my field of engineering, is teaching students how to be better members of society. Engineers can get so caught up in the details of their studies that they can forget that the whole point of engineering is to improve the everyday lives of people. One of my favorite musicians, a bass player by the name of Victor Wooten, gave a commencement speech at the University of Vermont and in it he talks about something that his mother used to tell him and his brothers when they were younger:

What does the world need with another good musician? Mom, would say, ‘we have plenty. What the world needs is good people.’

This was very insightful and I believe that it extends to all professions. Yes, the world needs good scientists, teachers, doctors and many other professions, but I believe that to truly have a positive impact on the world one must first be a good person. I think that a holistic view of the way we educate people needs to become more prevalent, particularly in the sciences. We need to teach young engineers to not just create new technologies or make discoveries, but to think about how their work benefits society. Furthermore, I believe that in general we need to encourage people to evaluate how the decisions they make and the way in which they live their lives impact the people and world around them.

Selfishness and a lack of understanding are prevalent in modern society. People say that they care about reducing pollution, preventing global climate change, making an impact on world poverty and equality, and many other important ethical issues. But I feel that it far too often ends there, with just something they say and not actions to help change these problems. I think that until people are willing to sacrifice some of their own time, money and convenience to make more conscientious decisions about how they live their lives these global issues are going to prevail. I am truly hoping that the education systems can help to create this shift by teaching people to consider their own impact on the world. As members of the human race, I believe that we all have the responsibility of taking care of those who do are less fortunate than ourselves and to preserve the environment for future generations. In short, we have the responsibility of being good people.

A Change to Higher Education

If I could change one thing about higher education it would be the grading system. I understand that in some ways it is a necessary evil, however, I think that grades promote a competitive sentiment in learning which I do not feel belongs. Students should not be comparing themselves to other students, but rather, should be trying to absorb as much information from a class as they can. I also do not think that our notion and language surrounding not passing a class should be “failure” because people learn things at their own pace. I would like to be in an education system in which not passing a class was not looked at with such harsh negativity, but simply an opportunity to try to learn the material again.

In this system, however, I would want the passing expectations to be more stringent than what we currently expect from students. I think that we generally push students through the education system as quickly as possible, without allowing them time to really understand many of the difficult topics. There are several classes which I passed with an A or B as an undergraduate that I feel I now need to go back and relearn.

I understand that these ideas would most likely slow down the education process and I can imagine that many people would not like that. It seems like people are in such a rush to finish school and go get a job that they forget how important the learning process is and also forget to enjoy being a student. I think that part of the problem is money and the cost of education. Students do not want to stay in school any longer than they have to because it is expensive and if they had to take out loans, they want to start paying their loans back as soon as they can. I had to take out significant loans to fund my undergraduate studies and can certainly understand these concerns. For this reason, I think that another important part of changing higher education is to make it more affordable.

I do not truly believe that we will be able to completely eliminate the grading system, but I would like to encourage my peers, many of whom could become the professorate of tomorrow, to consider how the grading system promotes an atmosphere of competition and how they can change that sentiment in the classes they will one day teach.

MOOCs

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a relatively new concept in higher education and offer access to online courses for free to students. The following infographic shows some of the universities that are offering these classes and gives some information about the students who are taking advantage of this new form of education.

moocs-ivy-league-free

I think that this free access to education is a wonderful idea and a great service. When I look at the breakdown of students, however, I notice that over 50% of the students who are enrolled in MOOCs already have at least a bachelors degree. While I believe in the importance of continuing education and support the use of these services for people to increase their skill sets, I think that as a society we need to figure out how to promote higher education to those people who do not have a college degree. This could be by simply promoting these types of programs more or by creating resources to make these programs more accessible. I think that community centers or libraries could be good infrastructure that could be leveraged in order to build support and access to MOOCs. By advertising in these spaces and providing computers that students could use to access their classes, I believe that more people would be aware and have access to these free courses.

The Importance of Grammar

I was recently introduced to the song “Oxford Comma” by the band Vampire Weekend. The opening line is, “Who gives a fu** about about an oxford comma?” I had to look up the definition of the oxford comma and found that it is commonly known as the serial comma and “is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list” [Oxford Dictionary]. This made me really think about what the meaning of the song is. The conclusion that I came to is that it is making a statement about all of the proper grammar that we learn and how important these constructs are when we are actually trying to convey an idea. I believe that understanding grammar and being able to clearly convey an idea is very important, however, academics can sometimes forget that the end goal is to simply convey an idea and as long as this objective is realized successfully, the grammar is insignificant.

I feel that educated people often look at people who may not use proper english, either using slang terms or a regional dialect, as being less intelligent. This is a mistake and I would argue that a person who is thinking critically and conveying their thoughts clearly is intelligent regardless of how ‘traditionally improper’ their language is.

I am reminded of Alan Alda’s communicating science workshops and his goal of getting scientists to convey their ideas using simple concepts and easily understood language. I think that it is so important for educated people to realize that the language they use can lead to either inclusion or exclusion and it is a choice that they must make. I firmly believe that the more inclusive that we can be as a society, the better all of our lives will be.

Supporting our Undocumented Brothers and Sisters

Last week I attended a training session on how to become an ally to undocumented students. Coming from New Mexico, I have had close contact with  many wonderful documented and undocumented immigrants. I believe it is so important to educate the public on the challenges that these people face and begin to correct the misconceptions that so many people have.

One of the first things that I would like to share is the language that is often used to discuss the issues of undocumented people is inconsiderate and derogatory. This is especially true of the term “illegal” which we often see in the media and some may use without realizing that it could be offensive. The material given out in the training did a very good job of discussing this term: “… actions are “illegal” not individuals themselves. This term further perpetuates stereotypes of immigrants as law-breakers, foreigners, and a burden on society. It undermines the complex experience of undocumented immigrants.” As a society, Americans need to change the negative connotation that is associated with immigration and come to a realization that we are all descendants of immigrants.

The second thing I would like to share is a flow chart that was presented during the training depicting the complex path that an immigrant must navigate in order to achieve legal status.

Roadmap to a Green Card

This chart shows one part of their struggle: the bureaucracy that they must navigate. What it does not show is how much time the process takes or the green card application fee. According to the website that the chart was taken from, immigrationroad.com, one should expect the process to take 5-15 years just to get a green card and another 5-7 years to achieve citizenship. Furthermore, the fees for filing a green card application are $985 for a person between the ages of 14-78 and $635 for a person under the age of 14, as long as they are filing with a parent who is also paying an application fee. I wanted to share this flow chart and these fees because many people do not understand why undocumented people do not just “get their papers” or are not aware of the significant hurdles that a person must go through to achieve legal status.

I think one of the most powerful and important misconceptions that societies hold is that immigrants are “taking away jobs.” This viewpoint is so powerful because so many Americans are suffering economically and are having difficulty finding employment. I do not blame people for wanting to protect their families and their means for providing for them. The evidence is, however, that immigrants, and especially undocumented immigrants, are not actually having a significant impact on the job market. The following is a link to the National Academies of Sciences report, from which these conclusions are drawn: The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration . The study found that the group that experiences the biggest economic impact from the inflow of immigrants are people without a high school diploma. I believe that instead of trying to exclude people from our country, we need to do a better job of educating people and preparing them to work in a world that is becoming more heavily dependent upon technology.

I am interested to hear what some other people think about this issue. In my experience, working with diverse people who contribute different perspectives has always created better results. Furthermore, I believe that policies based on exclusion are destined for failure.

Mission Statements

Mission statements are often overlooked by most of the students at an institution of higher learning, I am certainly guilty of this myself. They can be, however, a very revealing look at the goals and values that an institution holds. I felt that it would be interesting to compare the mission statements for two very different universities, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMT) and the University of Cambridge.


New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology:

New Mexico Tech serves the state and beyond through education, research, and service, focused in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Involved faculty educate a diverse student body in rigorous and collaborative programs, preparing scientists and engineers for the future. Our innovative and interdisciplinary research expands the reach of humanity’s knowledge and capabilities. Researchers, faculty, and students work together to solve real world problems. Our economic development and technology transfer benefit the economy of the state and create opportunities for success. We serve the public through applied research, professional development, and teacher education, benefitting the people of New Mexico.

The University of Cambridge:

The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence.


I am intrigued by the vast diversity in these two statements. I like that the University of Cambridge had such a concise mission statement. A single sentence is enough to convey the core values that the university holds. I also like that the mission statement for NMT specifically addresses helping New Mexico because the state has a large under-educated population and I believe that more needs to be done to make higher education accessible to those people.