9 Wilco

Fünf Jahre sind seit der letzten grossen Wilco Platte “The Whole Love” vergangen. Dieses Jahr fügte die Band um Jeff Tweedy ihrem Katalog anstatt eines weiteren epischen Werkes eine kleine, feine Indie Folk Platte bei. Gerade mal 36 Minuten dauert “Schmilco”, die Hälfte der zwölf Songs sind kürzer als drei Minuten. Dennoch braucht es Zeit die Vielfalt zu entdecken, die in der melancholischen Grundstimmung des Albums lauert. Anspieltips sind der folige Opener “Normal Amrican Kids”, das düstere “Common Sense”, das langsam von den Gitarren aufgelöst wird, das an George Harrison erinnernde “Someone to Loose” und das lennoneske “Shrug and Destroy”.

Global Perspectives Program’16 Ecuador (GPP’16): Reflections beyond

The Global Perspectives Program in Ecuador (GPP’16) occurred during the week of Thanksgiving break in November, 2016. This was the second year for graduate students to visit Ecuador in partnership between the VT Graduate School and the University of San Francisco de Quito.  Most of us (7) were able to travel spend the week starting with a day long visit to the Mindo Cloud Forest, comprehensive visits to two universities in Quito (USFQ and the National Polytechnica School or EPN)  and to the Galapagos (USFQ-G); one was able to extend her visit to Tiputini in the rainforest of Ecuadorian Amazon.  The trip is documented through tweets via storify and will be shared in VT news story in January 2017.

As with other GPP programs, the Ecuador trip was indeed a very informative and enriching visit.  As intended, we learned about higher education in Ecuador from a public and private university perspective.  We gained knowledge and understanding about the environmental diversity of Ecuador including the cloud forest, Galapagos, Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest and life near the equator at 10,000 feet elevation.  We were introduced to the vast array of cultural diversity and rich history of Ecuador. GPP was once again a wonderful educational opportunity for professional development.  And as usual, opportunities for personal growth and development presented themselves throughout the trip.

Although this blog post was initially conceived as a posting about the Ecuador experience, the contemplation and writing are triggering reflections that extend beyond GPP16 Ecuador to the VT Graduate School global perspectives program (GPP) in general.  Yes, these trips are about learning about higher education, visiting universities and cultural sites,interacting with university personnel (administrators, faculty, staff and students), sharing local food and beverages, and more.  It is about gaining knowledge and understanding and it is also about building relations and sharing time and space.  It is about professional and personal growth and development.

Based upon my experiences in leading the Global Perspectives Programs within the umbrella of the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative,  I am convinced that it is possible to transcend and transform the typical graduate education experience in meaningful and significantly beneficial ways.  Graduate Deans can make a difference and should be engaged with the academic preparation and professional development of our graduate students as well as the personal growth and development important for life and work in the 21st century.

The experiences provided through the Global Perspectives programs for the past 12 years have allowed me to witness the development of strong connections between and among participants during each trip. (Note: the participants come from a variety of disciplines and usually do not know each other prior to the trip). Each GPP group tends to develop a special connection and bond which continues to evolve (visibly) across the days of the trip and exists well beyond.  And I am thankful for the opportunities to enhance my knowledge and learn something new every time.

This was the case for GPP’16 Ecuador.  We enjoyed our unique experience and shared some very special moments. As we came together from our different academic worlds and lived experiences, we spent time together, really listening and hearing each other, sharing stories and views and feeling “safe” enough to be brave in asking questions and engaging with difficult dialogues and challenging topics. Although not particularly articulated as outcomes, honesty and authenticity were anticipated and were realized.  The conversations were real.  There’s something to be said about getting away from our daily (and typical) environments to sitting on a large balcony with a view of the ocean to stimulate conversation and communication. It is important to note that communication and connection occur not just as a result of conversation but occur in other ways. We were comfortable with silence as important in sharing time and space and connection. This become evident during our Ecuador experience. The connections were and are real.

Given the strength of our connection, we were able to engage in authentic discussions of serious topics which continued throughout the trip.  At one point, I was asked to describe the “whys” of the decision-making process for the GPP experiences. The question led me to reflect upon the intentionality of the process and the principles by which the experience evolves. There is reasoned and reasonable intentionality behind the logistics, sequence, the visits, expectations and anticipated outcomes. As a result of the question and conversation that followed, I have continued to examine the underlying philosophical underpinnings and the principles for the program. This is the easy part for these can be described. The more challenging part of the answer rests in the process of decision-making which unfolds organically, and mostly goes unnoticed, throughout the trip and lies at the essence of the GPP experience. It is this essence and genuineness that creates the long-lasting connections among the GPP participants.

Shortly after our return from GPP16 Ecuador, the Fall semester came to a close with graduate commencement ceremonies. This year like previous years, there were several graduates who have participated in the Global Perspectives Program (GPP) and are now not only VT alumni but also GPP alumni.  As each one crossed the stage to receive their degree, we shared a moment in which the special connection of the GPP experience was present and very real.

Interdisciplinary Arts Integration in Higher Education: A Global Perspective

The Global Perspectives Program (GPP) offered a unique opportunity to observe and explore ways in which the arts play a role in international higher education. As a member of the GPP, I observed and explored areas of arts impact and interdisciplinary arts integration at various universities throughout Switzerland, Italy, and France. This essay explores the role of interdisciplinary arts integration in the context of liberal education, arts as a form for student engagement, and arts as a form of contemporary pedagogy.


Interdisciplinary arts integration in the context of liberal education.

The American Association of Colleges and Universities defines liberal education as “An approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change.” (AACU, 2007). Liberal education provides broad learning across disciplines in combination with an in-depth study of a specific major. Liberal education instills students with a sense social responsibility, critical and analytical thinking, transferrable and practical skills, and the ability to apply these skills in real-world scenarios.

Arts integration is a pedagogical methodology that suggests the arts can be used to create and demonstrate knowledge across disciplines. The Kennedy Center’s Changing Education Through the Arts (CETA) program identifies arts integration as, “An approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form.” (The Kennedy Center, 2014). Through the creative process, students connect an art form to another subject area while meeting evolving objectives across disciplines.

An article written by Fareed Zakaria (2015) for the Washington Post, explains that a broad general education is necessary for fostering critical thinking, creativity, and innovation across disciplines. Zakaria explains that innovation is the result of interdisciplinary experiences that fuse arts, social sciences, and humanities into science, technology, engineering, and math. Arts integration provides a deeper and more meaningful experience through interdisciplinary practice that intrinsically fosters creative thinking and innovation.

At first glance, arts education is not all that different in Switzerland than the United States. The Swiss Education System approaches advanced arts education through an applied track. Students entering into arts majors can pursue bachelors or advanced master level degrees in a specific discipline however the applied approach does not offer the Ph.D. which tends to focus on research as the primary methodology. Ongoing discussions regarding the development and implementation of a Ph.D. in dramatic arts have been a recent topic within Swiss higher education governing bodies and the University of Basel. Offering a Ph.D. in dramatic arts would open the door for a deeper discussion regarding arts as a form of research and the role of arts research in the context of higher education.

Similar to many cases in the U.S. higher education system, the arts, humanities, and social sciences appear to be in service to STEM disciplines but are an integral part of the educational process. Interdisciplinary arts integration is about recognizing arts and design as an intrinsic property to STEM disciplines. An article written by Henry Fountain (2014) for the New York Times titled, “Putting Art in STEM,” recognizes engineering and art were not always completely separate disciplines. The article goes on to explain that while engineers focus on how something works, artists focus on the overall user experience and contribute greatly to the design elements of a given project. The article also notes that few schools within the U.S. higher education system require engineering students to take art. In the few instances where arts integration is a requirement of engineering programs, students notice a dramatic improvement in creativity, visualization, and using arts as a method of communication.


Arts as a form of student engagement

Utilizing the arts as a form of student engagement is another example of arts integration. Arts as a form of student engagement focuses on the intrinsic and instrumental values of arts programming. Intrinsic value is defined as personal value and includes captivation, pleasure, expanded capacity for empathy, cognitive growth, creation of social bonds, and expression of communal meaning. Instrumental benefits of the arts include improved test scores, improved self-efficacy, learning skills, health, development of social capital, and economic growth. These benefits are considered instrumental in that the arts are viewed as the instrument for achieving them. Arts as a form of student engagement combines arts experiences with arts practice. This leads to increased creativity and innovation that result in interdisciplinary arts experiences.

In June of 2016, The University of Zurich launched an interdisciplinary arts installation in partnership with an organization called Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art. The installation included 30 new productions exhibited in three different ways: at a satellite venue, in a classical art institution, and in the form of a film screened at the Pavilion of Reflections, a temporary pop up venue built specifically for the event. The event, titled Transactions was an interdisciplinary look at joint ventures and the result of encounters between international artists and representatives of Zurich-based occupations. In addition to the new productions, a historical exhibition comprised of more than 100 artifacts explored the various ways in which current and historical working worlds have been portrayed in art.

Another example of an interdisciplinary art installation occurred at the University of ETH in the form of a pop-up restaurant called Taste Lab, a research project designed to explore the intersection of science and food. The project was developed and implemented by a physicist and an economist, both alumni of ETH. Collaboration of this nature is not uncommon given one of the primary core values for ETH is creating a culture of empowerment inclusive of the scope for creativity and innovative ideas. Despite the aesthetic value of the pop up venue and intentional design elements of architecture and culinary interactions, the creators of Taste Lab viewed their project as a research project and not as an interdisciplinary arts installation proving that oftentimes arts impacts are happening without individuals being aware of it.


Arts as a form of contemporary pedagogy

The Academy of Art and Design in Basel is a living example of interdisciplinary arts integration and contemporary pedagogy. The Academy’s three pillar approach towards arts education included learning, research, and labs that utilize student centered and problem based learning as methods for knowledge creation and knowledge transfer.

Learning is undertaken through a cluster approach of foundational education. The first cluster focuses on art, design, and media based research which includes applied research, aesthetic judgement and critical methodology, production in art, design and media, and quality assurance. The second cluster called “Poetry of the Real,” includes examination of processes and methods, new forms of narration, poetry, and technique. The third cluster focuses on the impact of culture and the relevance of culture in society. This cluster provides in-depth examination on critical discourse, economies of aesthetics, and the impact of art, design, and media as forms of contemporary practice.

Arts as research represented the second pillar of practice at the academy. Research areas cover a wide array of process and practice including audio-visual media design in tertiary-level education, design immediacy, cultural spaces and design, critical artefacts, visual communication, analog and digital modeling, and many more. Arts as a form of research was also a focus of SUPSI which sought to connect artistic activities and the role of the arts in the lives and well-being of the people and the local area.

The third pillar of educational practice at the Academy of Art and Design is lab experience. Designed to foster creativity through the iterative process, lab requirements included a specific number of hours to be conduced in the area of arts practice as a form of research. Students follow the same type of scientific method used across STEM disciplines to develop practical application in their field. Notably, the Academy of Art and Design is holistically focused in visual arts and design with bachelor degree programs in industrial design, interior design and Scenography, art, fashion design, and visual communication. Master degree programs include studio design, visual communication and image research, fine arts, and teaching of art and design.

Arts as a form of research has been a growing trend within higher education which is slowly recognizing the value of the arts and design in contemporary problem solving. U.S. organizations such as the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru), the Arts Research Center at University California Berkeley, the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, and the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) at Virginia Tech are only a few examples of university based organizations committed to advancing arts integration within higher education.

As societal problems continue to grow more complex, contemporary problem solving will require new ideas and out-of-the-box thinking in order to address challenges on a global scale. Interdisciplinary arts integration fosters creativity and innovation by recognizing arts and design are intrinsic to every discipline and necessary for collaborative problem solving. As interdisciplinary arts integration continues to grow as a focus of modern higher education, universities would benefit immensely through an open exchange of ideas, processes, and practices for implementation. This would lead to a future of higher education where interdisciplinary arts integration is truly a global perspective.


Association of American Colleges & Universities (2007) What is a 21st Century Liberal Education? Aacu.org. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/leap/what-is-a-liberal-education.

Fountain, H., (2014, October 31) Putting the Art in STEM. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/02/education/edlife/putting-art-in-stem.html?_r=0.

The Kennedy Center. (2014) What is Arts Integration? Arts Edge. Retrieved from https://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/educators/how-to/arts-integration/what-is-arts-integration.

Zakaria, F., (2015, March 26) Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous. Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-stem-wont-make-us-successful/2015/03/26/5f4604f2-d2a5-11e4-ab77-9646eea6a4c7_story.html


VT-shaped individual: graduate student focus

Shortly after his arrival at VT, President Timothy Sands established an initiative entitled Beyond Boundaries and challenged the university to envision the future for Virginia Tech informed by four concepts: VT-shaped discovery, communities of discovery, nexus of discovery, and continuous innovation.  The key messages associated with Beyond Boundaries include the following (adapted from www.beyondboundaries.vt.edu):

  • purpose driven and person centered approach
  • disciplinary depth and interdisciplinary capacities
  • flexible curricular design and research addressing complex needs of communities and society
  • land grant mission of outreach and application of knowledge with commitment to service through “Ut Prosim”
  • inclusive and diverse communities

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 12.14.01 PMIn keeping to the conceptual framework and key messages, the VT shaped student was born. As shown in the figure, the “T” represents the disciplinary depth (3) as well as transdisciplinary knowledge (1).  The “V” represents the informal communal learning (2) and the guided experiential learning (4).  The graphic lends itself nicely to the VT symbol that has come to represent Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

While much of the internal conversation has already focused on the undergraduate student, the concept applies to graduate (and professional) students. Specifically, “the challenges of the future require the capacity to work in interdisciplinary teams, engage in critical and creative thinking, collaborate with diverse people, communicate effectively, and conduct oneself with a deep sense of ethics.”  And indeed these “requirements” are key elements of the Graduate School’s initiative entitled Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) developed in 2003.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 9.41.07 AM

As is shown in the figure and articulated on the website, the transformative graduate education (TGE) initiative “pushes the boundaries of traditional disciplinary academic education and provides the philosophical underpinnings for a truly innovative graduate education experience.”  TGE is framed by four cornerstones (pillars): knowledge, scholarly inquiry, leadership, and social responsibility.  Our efforts and activities are grounded within the fundamental principles of interdisciplinarity, inclusion and diversity, ethics, innovation (technology) and global perspectives.

Beyond the myriad of courses and programs offered, let me Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 10.51.00 AMhighlight a few examples of the ways in which the TGE initiatives contributes to the preparation of the VT-shaped graduate student as described above.

To address the “deep sense of ethics”, all graduate students must demonstrate understanding of academic integrity and satisfy an scholarly integrity and ethics requirement officially recorded on their graduate plan of study.  For more information, see ethical pursuits in academe and ethics requirement.

In order to help graduate students “communicate effectively”, the Graduate School offers a variety of approaches:  two graduate courses – Communication Science (2 cr) and Citizen Scholar Engagement (3 cr) and recognition as a Citizen Scholar.  In addition, the Graduate School also offers a course entitled Inclusion and Diversity in a Global Society (3 cr) and actively promotes an affirming and welcoming graduate community and the Office of Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives (ORDI).

The “T” educated individual stresses both disciplinary depth and interdisciplinary breadth and the VT Graduate School has actively engaged in developing initiatives and opportunities to foster interdisciplinary programs and interdisciplinary thinking.  Among these are the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Programs (IGEPs), the development of the individualized interdisciplinary PhD program (iPhD) and support for the Interdisciplinary Honor Society (IDR) established by VT graduate students.  These are fine opportunities but it is time to extend beyond boundaries even more.

For many years, I have advocated for interdisciplinary thinking and proposed the “pi” metaphor for interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary graduate education.  Picture5In this graphic, disciplinary depth in more than one academic area is stressed and strong connections across the disciplines are emphasized depicting transdisciplinarity.  I would argue that expanding beyond the “T” to the Pi (π)-educated can be seen as a valuable approach in the preparation of graduate students to become the adaptive innovators needed for the 21st century workforce.

By adopting this philosophical approach in alignment with the VT Beyond Boundaries initiative, the goal of a VT-shaped graduate student can be realized not only through the opportunities to become Pi (π)-educated but also for graduate students to gain valuable knowledge, skills and abilities through the programs offered via the Graduate School’s Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative.


Responding to tragic events

Recent world and national tragic events have prompted me to reflect on the responsibility of the Graduate School to reach out to those impacted by such events.  And the importance of doing so for the individuals as well as for the broader graduate community.

Graduate Schools tend to be places in which graduate students from many walks of life, social identities, nationalities, and cultural perspectives exist within the university.  A very diverse community which Graduate Deans should build to be more “inclusive” especially to counter the existing university culture of academic silos and lonely journeys through Graduate School.  An inclusive community which can be characterized by understanding and caring.

Although valuable throughout the graduate education journey, an understanding and caring community is especially important in times of tragic events, political uprising and natural disasters. When these happen, the experience and impact of these events vary depending upon the particular connection of the individuals to the event(s).  Not everyone responds in the same way or with the same emotions but the responses are real and deserved to be acknowledged.

Recent events within the past few months have definitely impacted the graduate community (and more) at Virginia Tech and beyond. Tragic events in Paris and Nice, Baton Rouge (2), Orlando, Minnesota and Dallas are but a few examples that have impacted the lives of VT graduate students and the communities with which they identify (e.g., black, gay, Hispanic, international, law enforcement and more).  Reaching out to individuals from these communities directly (e.g., email), statements of support and information sharing via social media, in-person gatherings, and dialogue sessions are strategies that we have used here under our GLC Cares program.

In addition to understanding the individual impact, it is very important to recognize the value of the “learning” (teachable) moments for others in the graduate community.  Even though the tragic events might be acknowledged within the university community, active engagement with the underlying issues (e.g., racism, terrorism) and impact upon individuals are often not.  As Graduate Deans, I believe that we should to take the opportunity to create a space to encourage meaningful and relevant dialogue about the issues and events to enhance our knowledge and understanding of the world.  In doing so, we can engage as global citizens in a world that so desperately needs greater cultural  understanding and the willingness to communicate.

It seems a simple thing to do to reach out and engage with graduate students.  It is and it’s so important.