Beginning of semester musings: Grit? Community!

When I first heard the word “grit” used in the higher education context and learned about the research findings, presentations and publications about “grit” by Angela Duckworth, I questioned the use of the word “grit” and the premise that “grit” was the primary characteristic for student success.  Duckworth (2007) defined grit as “perseverance and passion for long term goals” (p. 1087) which are important to success; her writings emphasize that working hard is key to success.

Through my lens as a VP and Graduate Dean, I was thinking about graduate education and graduate students and how and why they are successful in Graduate School.  Many words and descriptors come to mind about the graduate education experience but “grit” wasn’t one of them. There is, and should be, so much more to success in graduate school than working hard and focusing solely on having grit.

Yes, graduate school can be challenging and definitely stressful at times. Stories and personal narratives often focus on the struggles faced by graduate students.  Words used often include “having to tough it out”, “plugging away”, “no sleep/all work”, and “surviving graduate school”. Rather than reinforce what I believe is the negativity associated with surviving as the primary narrative of graduate school, I opt for thriving in graduate school. In the spirit of changing the narrative and fostering a sense of academic community, I wrote a blog about thriving in graduate school which was published almost exactly two years ago.

A few weeks ago, I read an article by Laurie A. Schriener entitled “The Privilege of Grit” in the November-December 2017, Volume 22 (5) of About Campus which I found quite intriguing and compelling.  She questioned some of the scholarly foundation of grit, suggested that there is privilege implicit in grit, identified some dangers of grit, and offered an alternative to grit as a thriving ideology and cultivating a thriving campus.  This article is a must read and needless to say, I was delighted that she recommended thriving as a viable alternative to grit.

Schriener (2017) described three steps in “cultivating a thriving campus” which resonated well with me and the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative offered through the VT Graduate School. The three steps included – building a sense of community, student learning as the heart of the institutional mission, and bring out the best in others.  The VT Graduate School through the TGE initiative uses building a welcoming, inclusive and affirming academic community as the foundation.  Among our goals are to prepare our graduate students for whatever careers they will pursue with the career critical skills and to complement the disciplinary education in the academic colleges. Related, VT has developed the VT shaped student (interdisciplinary, holistic and experiential education) approach which is consistent with the thriving ideology.  At the graduate level, we utilize the Transformative Graduate Education umbrella and the Graduate School’s commitment to inclusion and diversity to help educate the VT shaped learner.

In preparing our graduates to become 21stC global citizens and for jobs and careers that might be unknown today and still evolving, the Graduate School has assumed the responsibility to provide opportunities for graduate students through which they can enhance their knowledge, skills and abilities for success. Individual traits like perseverance and passion are important to success but there is much more to success than simply working hard and having grit.  Progress in graduate school also involves community (a safe, welcoming, inclusive global community) and is measured one semester at a time.

Spring semester 2018 has begun.  Here’s to thriving in graduate school.

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