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.

Sounds of GPP’16

The Global Perspectives Program is an intellectually stimulated and academic enriching experience.  GPP is about growth, both personal and professional.  It is a social and community or relationship building experience including elements of sharing space, finding place, and communicating.  GPP is a collective and individual journey that can be enjoyed through our multiple senses.

The GPP’16 experience has been documented through multiple venues and media.  The many visuals (e.g., tweets – #gppswiss16 and @gppvt, instagram, Facebook) and narratives (e.g., tripvis, tweets, blogs, posts) will capture the essence of GPP’16.  The GPP experience also includes a variety of tastes (e.g., coffee, food, wine) and smells (e.g., chocolate, bread, cheeses, flowers).  The kinesthetic sense was definitely experienced by walking 5-10 miles/day, often achieving more than 15,000 steps/day (as determined by Fitbits and other such devices), and climbing stairs regularly.  And the particular motions of the trains.

Another sense we experienced – sound.  Inasmuch as sounds were so much a part of our daily lives in the past two weeks yet relegated more to the background than the visuals, tastes and smells, I will take this opportunity to reflect upon and highlight some of the sounds of GPP’16.

Church bells.  One of the first things that we noticed is the regular ringing of the church bells.  They are ever-present in announcing the “time” in fifteen minute intervals – a special chime once for 15 minutes after the hour, twice for 30 minutes after, three for 45 minutes after and four at the top of the hour.  The hour is announced with a different bell chime and the numerical ringing for exact number appropriate for the time.  Although there are some variations and the timing for each church might vary slightly, the church bells are a constant of the sounds of Switzerland.

Trains.  Trains (and trams) are everywhere as well.  Given the Swiss trains “run on time” or at least mostly on time, we hear the trains passing by on a regular schedule.  The sound of the train varies by the type of train (e.g., local, regional, tilt train, fast train) and its destination.  There were also the cargo trains that sped rapidly through the train stations.  The differing sounds included the unique opening and closing of the doors which are dependent upon the train type – buzz or clicking type sounds and rolling out of the steps. Short whistles are blown when some trains are ready to depart as the conductor rushes onto the train.  Announcements are made in 4 or 5 languages (Swiss German, French, Italian, Romish, English).  And the sounds of the train stations themselves are like small cities with the hustle and bustle of shopping, eating and catching trains.

Sounds of the city (e.g., Zurich, Milan, Basel, Strasbourg) are similar to other large cities. The sounds produced by the trams, buses, cars and pedestrians (especially tourists) are abundant and contribute to the overall sound of the city and traffic.  Bicycle traffic is apparent and contributes mightily to intensity of people moving about the city.  Because the 2016 UEFA League Championship were held in Milan, this year the sounds were especially loud and focused on the upcoming finals and team rivalry.

Sounds in Riva San Vitale, Bellinzona and Lugano were less intense.  Sunrise (and even sunset) brought the sounds of birds and other natural events.  Rain and wind were common this year although the sounds varied with the extent of rain and the intensity of the wind. Sounds came from the lake and seemed to bounce from the mountain sides. Even the sunrise seemed to have a sound – a quiet unfolding of blue skies.  Early morning gatherings of local residents and their dogs were common.  Although I don’t understand Swiss Italian, there was pleasure in listening to the conversations of greeting and sharing among friends and neighbors. I felt as if I was allowed to ease-drop into the conversation and witness a moment without the disruption caused by outsiders.  (We don’t intend to disrupt but our presence changes the dynamic – another topic for the future is “ethical sightseeing”).

Throughout the trip, the differing accents, words and inflections associated with regional dialects and languages were fun to detect and try to understand.  When we listen carefully, the ways in which English was spoken helps us understand more about the native language of the speaker.  As part of our education, we must thank our colleagues for speaking English and listening to us try to speak their language.

Less obvious as “sound” perhaps were the sounds made by the GPP participants during our travels.  I can still hear conversations of participants as we walked toward a destination spanning at least two blocks.  Some voices carry more than others; some are not easily heard.  Others walked in silence, listening intently or saving our breath while ascending steps to ETH and UZh or Castlegrande in Bellinzona. Beyond the human voices, there were different sounds associated with walking on the cobblestones, rocks in the Villa’s garden and other types of pathways we encountered.

Our voices increased in volume and intensity as the trip unfolded and we became more connected and comfortable with each other.  It was very clear to outside observers that we were “tourists” traveling together although our purpose was not known. The volume of our voices revealed our enthusiasm and excitement about the trip (and perhaps the loudness of individuals from the U.S.).  The volume and intensity varied across the days depending upon our daily schedule and extent of our activities.  There were times when we became silent or slept.  I noticed this during times of fatigue and toward the end of the trip as the transition back to our ‘former’ lives became more of a reality.

A sound highlight this year was music.  Many participants shared their musical talent. Throughout the trip, we would hear music from the keyboard played in the villa’s main room or a guitar played in the fireplace room, or a spontaneous chorus of voices during some of our excursions.  There were sing-alongs in the village after hours and serenades to our wonderful benefactor Lucy after dinner and the marvelous Director Daniela.  An original song entitled “A rainy day in Riva San Vitale” was composed and performed by Willie Caldwell.  Thanks.

It is somewhat difficult to capture the essence of sound in this blog but the sounds were real and provided wonderful additions to the experience.  In previous years, I have encouraged participants to observe the “windows and doors” and beyond.  Now I will add to “listen” carefully and to discover sounds that surround us. The GPP experience is truly about the sights and the sounds and much more.

Eve of departure: GPP’16 Year 11

Once again, I find myself on the “eve of departure” for the Preparing the Future Professoriate: Switzerland program also known as Global Perspectives Program (GPP).   This year marks the 11th trip to Switzerland with brief side trips to Italy and France or Germany in some of the years. In addition, there have been ‘eves of departure’ to Latin America; once to Chile and several now to Ecuador.  These represent some of the efforts of the VT Graduate School to encourage graduate students to embrace a global perspective and become global citizens.  Personally and professionally, I value a global perspective and want the same for VT graduate students.

On this ‘eve’, I think about the graduate students (15) who will participate this year and the colleges and universities (8), the countries (3), the UNESCO cultural heritage sites (2) and the Embassies (U.S., Swiss) we will visit.  We will meet and interact with professors, students and administrators.  Together with UniBasel and University Zürich (UZh) participants, we will explore aspects of the theme this year focused around the “EU’s Modernisation Agenda” during the GPP Seminar at the Steger Center in Riva San Vitale.  Our work in Riva San Vitale will be in preparation for the discussion at the Global Summit at the Swiss Embassy in Washington DC in June.

Our days will be full (and long) and rich with knowledge and greater understandings. The graduate students will pursue their individual topics to share their findings at our final seminar and in the digital GPP manual.  We will be briefed about the universities we visit as well as the cultural experiences.  We will debrief about our visits and experiences.  We will travel by airplane, trains, bus, and trams at least.  We will walk miles (kms) every day.

We will observe. We will listen. We will ask questions.  And throughout, we will reflect.  Reflection is an important component of the GPP experience. Participants are asked to keep a journal of their reflections including questions that I pose before departure and during our trip.  Journal prompts include entries about expectations and anticipations, what is a global university, surprises and reflections about Switzerland, learning outcomes, observations, and more.

There will be photos, videos and more photos. Group photos. Selfies. Photos of universities. Photos of food. Photos of castles. Photos of the Alps, windows and doors and more.

We will use social media: Twitter, FaceBook, Blogs, Snapchat, and more.  (I expect that I will learn to use other platforms this trip).  Our hashtag is #gppswiss16. And our trip will be captured in route through http://tripvis.org and via Storify upon our return.  So follow us as we share our individual and collective journeys.

The time will pass quickly and already has.  Our journey started in January five months ago and now it is time to “meet me at 15:00 (3pm) in Hotel St. Josef in Zürich on Sunday May 22nd”.

Envisioning a 21st century university

What defines a 21st century university?  How do we envision a vibrant university for (of) the 21st century?  How can we transform traditional universities?

Although these discussions began in the 1990s, focused attention on change for today’s universities is happening now as institutions of higher education find themselves at a metaphorical “fork in the road’. Change has happened in higher education throughout time but the pace of change in society today is far greater than it has ever been – so rapid that it is indeed difficult for universities to keep up let alone anticipate change.

Through my lens as an academic administrator and professor, the university of the 21st century must be adaptive, innovative and agile. As technology continues to evolve and the complexity of societal problems increase, the nature of work (and life) changes and jobs are changing more rapidly than degrees. There seems to be a growing gap between the university curriculum and the knowledge and skills needed for the 21st century employment. Thus, one example of significant challenges for the university is to prepare graduates for jobs (work) that don’t yet exist. To meet this challenge, the traditional university curriculum approach must become more inclusive, adaptive and individualized with emphasis upon interdisciplinary and integrative thinking as well as experiential learning with real-world projects.

Currently, Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands has issued a challenge and engaged the university community in a conversation about transformation and changes facing the university entitled “Beyond Boundaries“.  Beyond Boundaries is a “visioning process to support two interrelated goals: advancing Virginia Tech as a global land-grant institution, and strategically addressing the challenges and opportunities presented by the changing landscape of higher education”.  Four thematic areas of inquiry provide the context for change: advancing a global land grant, preparing students for the future world,discovering new funding models, and envisioning the campus of the future. The initiative has been in part framed around the anticipation that “a generation from now:

  • life and work will be more global, mobile, technology mediated, interconnected and less steady/stable
  • students will seek knowledge, expertise, opportunity, flexibility
  • campus will comprise heterogeneous networks and innovation hubs facilitated by technology”  (from Beyond Boundaries presentation March 31, 2016)

In conjunction with this initiative and as other institutions of higher education engage with transformation and envisioning a 21st century university, it will be important to examine existing structures and functions of our universities today.  As described in “An Avalanche in Coming” (2013), some university traditions and practices might need to be “unbundled”.  Examples include how outputs are measured (e.g., research, degrees, learning), how the people (e.g., faculty, staff, students) will be connected to the university (e.g., locations, networks), how curriculum is developed and how teaching/learning is delivered/received. Specifically, it will be important to contemplate questions such as:

  1. What if we rethink knowledge acquisition without or beyond degrees?
  2. What if we rethink access in terms of access to skills not just the university?
  3. What if  we rethink the education of students for the ability and skills to undertake projects rather than for specific jobs?
  4. How do we evaluate interdisciplinary and integrative learning?
  5. How do we implement a funding model that decreases costs and student debt?
  6. How do we envision partnerships to prepare the future generations for the workforce?
  7. How do we achieve authentic globalization and adopt a global perspective?

These are just some of the questions to be asked and topics to be explored.  They are likely to be viewed as somewhat controversial or with skepticism but they will foster lively and informative dialogue about transformation of institutions of higher education (IHEs) into 21st C universities.  The challenges are real and so are the opportunities that follow when IHEs are willing to take some risks.

Continuing this line of thinking more related to my role in graduate education – what will graduate education look like in the future? How can we transform graduate education so that graduate students develop the intellectual and professional skills meaningful for complex problem solving needed for the 21st century workforce?  What is the future of the dissertation?  More on these in an upcoming blog.

 

 

Being Futurisktic

Institutions of higher education (IHEs) have often been viewed as slow to change and to prefer, and even perpetuate, the status quo or the “way we have always done it”.   Thus, IHEs often appear to be (or are) risk-averse and reluctant to change.  But change is clearly needed amidst the many challenges facing higher education today.  In addition to the challenges, there are many and varied opportunities and possibilities.

In thinking about the future for higher education and working toward transformative change (evolution and especially revolution), the challenges tend to visible immediately and the associated risks often become the reasons that we question if we can or if we should move forward. Even though progress is always possible, change is often limited by the risks or the perception of risk and possible failure. Some academic leaders are risk-averse or take actions that appear to be risk-averse, but I would argue that risk must be acknowledged and welcomed as a part of our growth individually and professionally and institutional change.

To effect change we must adapt our thinking to be futuristic and simultaneously embrace risk as a critical element for significant progress to be made; that is futurisktic.  Futurisktic thinking can also be seen as a way of thinking not just about the future but as a mindset for engaging with today’s challenges and associated risks in pursuing the opportunities that emerge.

A few thoughts about being futurisktic relative to graduate education. Graduate deans and graduate schools can be agents for change by taking the risk and leading the way in challenging the status quo.  For graduate education, the status quo has played out in many ways but only two are mentioned here: assumption that ‘surviving graduate school’ is the norm and the way to evaluate performance is primarily through known markers of success while ignoring or dismissing failure.

Obviously we should strive for success but still note that much can be learned from failures. For graduate education, academic leaders should accept the responsibility to create the space for encouraging graduate students to take risks in pursuit of greater understanding knowing full well that failure is possible. As we know well, failure is a critical component of learning and research.

Surviving graduate school has been the recent rhetoric about the graduate student experience and I advocate to change the rhetoric and reality from surviving to thriving. Thriving provides an alternative metaphor for the experience and should guide us toward to the future. Thriving doesn’t mean lowering of quality or expectations. It is about empowering graduate students and providing the space to seek opportunities and take risks. Thriving allows for more creativity and innovation within the graduate education experience.  As a Graduate Dean, I encourage us to think differently about graduate education for the future (that’s a topic of a future blog), take some risks and encourage being futurisktic.

Futurisktic: of the future that includes risk (that’s okay) and taking risks (that’s good)

InclusiveVT initiatives: Graduate School updates

InclusiveVT was developed in July 2014 as a framework for Virginia Tech to become a more inclusive and diverse university.  An overview of the effort, recent report and events can be found on the website, the inclusion and diversity blog and through social media (twitter, Facebook, Instagram and more).

As part of the effort, senior leadership was asked to develop three initiatives for implementation starting during the 2014-2015 academic year. As one of those administrative units, the Graduate School had previously developed many programs and opportunities focused on diversity and inclusion including an office of Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives (ORDI) and wanted to develop initiatives that would promote pervasive change and actively engage constituency groups across the university in transformative change.

In this post, I will report specifically on the progress made on the Graduate School’s three InclusiveVT initiatives:  holistic admissions, inclusive Graduate Life Center (GLC) and affirming environment for graduate education.

Holistic admissions in graduate education

In preparation for action, Graduate School staff investigated the use of holistic admissions at selected universities in the U.S. to identify promising practices. The next step was to survey departments and programs to determine the admission practices already in use at VT.  After reviewing the results of the surveys and wanting to identify admission criteria beyond the typical GPA, GRE scores (or other standardized test scores) and reputation of the university, we decided to make changes to the Graduate School application and the letters of recommendation process. Based specifically on information provided by our departments and programs we modified the application so that applicants could provide additional educational experience for consideration in admissions: community involvement and/or service; leadership; overcoming social, economic and/or physical barriers; personal and/or professional ethics; recognition of achievements over time; and research and scholarship.

In alignment with the personal attributes critical to academic success studied intensively by Educational Testing Services in its development of the Personal Potential Index (PPI), we modified the letter of recommendation form to include specific questions about the following: communication skills, ethics and integrity, initiative, innovation and creativity, planning and organization, and teamwork. Letter writers are asked to evaluate the applicant on these attributes and then provide a brief statement about the most compelling reason to admit the candidate. Full letters of recommendation are still to be submitted.

The changes in the application and the letter of recommendation form were designed and built in such a fashion that departments/programs can “sort” by the additional educational experiences and personal attributes as well as GPA and other measures departments wish.  Admissions committee are encouraged to use these experiences and attributes systematically in determining qualified candidates and not just “sort” by high GPA and high GREs. Specifically, department are asked to “sort” initially and then revisit the applicant pool to “sort” at least two more times to expand the pool by the addition of those who were rated high on the pertinent additional educational experiences and personal attributes of value for academic success. We have collected data on the demographics of the pool of qualified applicants (admissible or admitted) in the last three years and will compare these with the data to be collected starting for Fall ’16. It is anticipated that these changes will allows for an increase in the size and diversity of the pool of qualified applicants. Beginning in mid Fall’15, we have conducted workshops and information sessions about holistic admissions and I am personally holding college-level meetings to discuss holistic admissions and affirming environment for graduate education.

Inclusive GLC and Affirming Environment for graduate education

These two initiatives are both focused on creating an affirming and welcoming “space and place” for graduate education; the first initiative is focused on the Graduate Life Center (including the Graduate School) and its people, program, place, policies and more and the second is focused more broadly on the broader university departments and programs. Specific activities have included the establishment of a GLC advisory committee to define inclusivity in terms of the physical space, attributes and policies of the Graduate Life Center. Also in the mix is an examination of the GLC promotional materials, evaluation mechanisms, and future programs. Educational programs and workshops have been initiated for GLC and Graduate School employees for understanding unconscious bias and micro-aggressions along with a commitment to the Principles of Community and inclusivity in hiring of new employees and in the annual review process of current employees.

Many efforts are directed toward creating more affirming and welcoming environments for graduate education. Among these are an revised entry survey and an exit survey developed to understand why individuals chose to enroll (or not) at Virginia Tech and to gather information about their experiences at VT upon completion of their degree. These have been helpful in enhancing the graduate experience at VT. We have also conducted “mid” surveys and more recently “climate surveys” to evaluate the climate for graduate education and wherever possible to determine why individuals chose to leave VT. With the goal of retention and provision of pertinent services and programs for our students it is important to understand more about their characteristics, varying attributes and multiple identities. Thus, we developed a post-admissions, pre-enrollment survey so that they can provide additional information about their needs and desires so that we can provide meaningful support services and programs.

Throughout this year and beyond, we will be conducting workshops and information sessions and gathering data about affirming practices and information about the graduate students’ experiences.   We are working with departments/programs to assist faculty and graduate students in dialogue about understanding privilege, unconscious bias and micro-aggressions. In support of these efforts, I have authored a series of blogs on academic bullying, expectations for graduate education, understanding stress and more to share my reflections and offer resources for others to create or enhance affirming environment for graduate education.

The most recent endeavor is to change the rhetoric and reality of graduate school from surviving to thriving. Stay tuned – more to come on Thriving in Graduate School. Your thoughts and comments are welcomed.

Understanding stress in context to thrive in graduate school

Graduate school should be challenging but doesn’t need to be overly stressful. Stress can come in many forms. Many graduate students will likely say that they experience stress in graduate school and that’s just part of being a graduate student.  As a graduate dean, I hear this frequently and understand but it is time to change the paradigm from surviving to thriving.

A quick “google” search easily reveals a number of blogs, books and articles on tips for surviving even thriving in graduate school.  One example is the blog entitled Graduate Student Way and a recent post with advice from three PhD students.  It is worth a quick read to understand that one is not alone and the feelings are common among graduate students.  It also points out that warning signs of stress should not be ignored but understood and addressed.

Other examples include an article on 12 tips for surviving and surviving in grad school, a self-published book by David Nguyen which offers some basic tips for surviving graduate school and an archived site from University of Oregon called Survive Grad School that contains some valuable information.  Many Graduate Schools today offer resources and guidance for graduate student success on their websites, at orientations and workshops and through social media (e.g., UNL, UBC, GMU).

Lots of good advice and tips are available but I wish to encourage actions of a more personal nature that are often de-emphasized during graduate education. Here, I pull from the advice offered by University of California at Berkeley (UCB) regarding stress and graduate school.  Please read and consider the four primary points that are encouraged: make yourself a priority, take control of your life, avoid procrastination through time management, and look for social support.  These tend to go counter to the perceived “survival” nature required for graduate school and the toughness and persistence at all costs needed for success. Rather, I would argue that taking time for oneself is critical.  Although a graduate student can sometimes feel as if one doesn’t have control, it is important to exercise one’s agency and control over one’s life.  Further it is important to learn to say “no” and to establish some balance between graduate study and personal life. Of course, time management is crucial to academic progress and when there’s lots of work to do and deadlines, managing one’s time becomes even more important. As is a key component of the VT Graduate School’s experience, establishing a community (communities) and social networks for support are critical.  These are essential within the academic setting as well as beyond the university setting.

In my welcome remarks to incoming graduate students, I share four conditions for graduate study: academic quality, time to fiddle, a baggy idea of truth, and a sense of community.  I encourage the graduate students to reflect upon these throughout their graduate study and to realize that failure is a part of the learning process.  I also encourage them to work hard and to play as well.  To thrive in graduate school is to enjoy the challenge and to pursue opportunities as they present themselves.

One additional thought.  Keep a sense of humor because it helps to keep one grounded and attentive to the richness of the graduate experience.  Visit PhD comics.

Thriving in Graduate School

Thriving has not been the typical term used to describe the graduate education experience; rather “surviving” has been the term associated with earning a graduate degree. But now it is time to question this existing paradigm and move from surviving to thriving through the implementation of affirming, and yet still challenging, environments for advanced learning and research. High expectations and quality standards can be and should be maintained but the academic bullying (subtle or overt) and questionable professional behaviors must be eliminated.

Based upon their research of faculty conduct with graduate students, Braxton, Proper and Bayer (2011) derived a “normative structure” that includes “inviolable norms” and “admonitory norms”. The inviolable norms included disrespect for student efforts, misappropriation of student work, harassment of students, whistle-blowing suppression, and directed research malfeasance. The admonitory norms were identified as neglectful teaching, inadequate advising/mentoring, degradation of faculty colleagues, negligent thesis/dissertation advising, insufficient course structure, pedagogical narrowness, student assignment misallocation, and disregard for program.  As a result of their work, we can better understand these broad categories of faculty behavior and can provide “guidelines of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors” for graduate education.

To address and counter these “norms” found in graduate education, we need a cultural shift and commitment of faculty and departments as well as the graduate school to encourage strategies that foster an affirming environment for graduate education.  Examples might include (but are not limited to):

  1. Development of quality mentoring programs and recognition for faculty who engage in mentoring (e.g., outstanding mentor award, mentor of the month)
  2. Professional development programs for faculty and graduate students (e.g., Transformative Graduate Education) in the roles and responsibilities of a 21st century faculty member including teaching/learning, advising/mentoring, directing thesis/dissertation, lab management, and more.
  3. Graduate teaching assistantship training programs (e.g., GTA workshop, Academy for GTA Excellence) and recognition for graduate teaching excellence (e.g., GTA awards)
  4. Emphasis upon inclusion and diversity especially inclusive pedagogy and affirming diverse environments. Workshops and education to understand unconscious biases and eliminating micro-aggressions (see Tool_Recognizing_Microaggressions)
  5. Building graduate community within and beyond departmental/college boundaries; Graduate Schools can play a significant role and assume responsibility here as well.
  6. Utilization of holistic admissions process and ongoing inclusive retention strategies
  7. Annual progress review with honest constructive feedback; equitable appeal process
  8. Establishment of an Office of the Graduate Student Ombudsperson
  9. Establishment of an honor code, ethics requirement, graduate student handbooks and expectations for graduate study
  10. Engage and work closely with graduate students in creating positive learning environments
  11. Communicate directly and work closely with faculty to create academic environments in which graduate students can thrive
  12. Celebrate achievements and graduate student success

Thriving not surviving.  Please join me in the conversation.

Expectations for Graduate Education: Virginia Tech Graduate School

The Virginia Tech Graduate School is committed to providing a “rich learning environment” for graduate students and a quality graduate education experience.  To do so requires clear communication about policy and procedures and especially the expectations for graduate study.  The VT Graduate School’s commitment is articulated in the “Expectations for Graduate Education at Virginia Tech.”

Originally created by graduate students and faculty in 2003, the expectations document was revised in 2011 and highlights the “vital elements of 21st-century graduate education, including ethics, civility, professional and academic development, teaching/learning, and inclusive community”.  The document describes the graduate environment promoted at VT and articulates expectations for graduate students, faculty, departments (programs, schools) and the Graduate School.  The document also includes a section on mentoring and a section on complaints and the appeals process.  A summary of the expectations are shared in a printable format as well.

The expectations are discussed in relation to major components of graduate education: progress toward degree, research and ethics, teaching and training, professional development, assistantships and financial aid, and community.  Although written in 2011, the expectations still provide relevant guidelines for graduate education today. Examples include the following:

  • Clear communication about departmental and Graduate School policy and procedures
  • Regular communication between faculty advisor and student
  • Understand and adhere to responsible conduct of research and scholarly endeavors
  • Discuss and agree upon requirements and expectation for authorship
  • Ensure that graduate programs conform to the highest academic standards and remain relevant through appropriate curriculum
  • Adherence to professional codes of conduct, student conduct and honor codes
  • Provide appropriate teacher training and professional development opportunities
  • Provide annual feedback to students and provide opportunity for students to correct academic deficiencies
  • Ensure fair and equitable treatment of students
  • Provide a safe and collegial work environment; respect work-life balance and working conditions
  • Provide pertinent resources and mentoring for degree completion
While the information seems fairly straightforward and common sense, it is valuable to have the expectations clearly identified and shared with the graduate students and faculty in order to provide the foundation for a quality graduate education experience at the beginning of one’s graduate study and to remind faculty, departments and the Graduate School of our collective responsibility for quality graduate education. The goal of graduate education should be to provide the academic context(s) and mentoring that allows graduate students to demonstrate their ability to achieve, their desire to succeed and their commitment to future professional contributions.
Unfortunately, academic bullying and questionable professional behavior are still prevalent in higher education.  And as I mentioned in the previous blog entitled Academic Bullying and graduate education, these must be eliminated from graduate education and replaced with a challenging yet affirming academic environment.

Academic bullying and graduate education

A recent study by Gentry and Whitely (2014) entitled “Bullying in Graduate School: Its Nature and Effects” concluded that although graduate students did experience ‘aggressive and exclusionary’ behaviors associated with traditional definition of bullying they tended to reject the use of “bullying” to describe their experiences. (see The Qualitative Report 2014 Volume 19, Article 71, 1-18 http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR19/gentry71.pdf).  The behaviors were experienced were as more “covert and indirect” rather than typical images of playground bullying.  These behaviors could also be described under the umbrella of micro aggressions, incivilities, and acts based upon unconscious bias.  To emphasize the importance of understanding these behaviors, how they manifest  themselves in graduate school, and the significant impact that they can have on graduate students, I have written about and will continue to use the terminology of “academic bullying“.

Academic bullying manifests itself in many different ways and can include intimidation, humiliation, belittlement, embarrassment and undermining one’s authority.  Academic bullying also includes behaviors or comments that indicate disregard of one’s concerns, ignoring contributions, minimize one’s efforts in the eyes of colleagues, and other means of exclusion or withholding information.  Expectations of unreasonable workload, limiting earned vacation and prohibiting graduate student’s own agency for professional choices and personal decision could also be inappropriate.  As is well known, comments or behaviors that are sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic and more are unacceptable and can fall under the umbrella of academic bullying and should not be tolerated.  Academic bullying occurs throughout the academic or professional space; in the classroom, in meetings, at conferences, in the laboratory setting, in face-to-face interactions, and of course through email and social media.

Essentially, the behaviors and actions described above would be considered unprofessional and could be considered as “misconduct”. In their book entitled Professors Behaving Badly: Faculty Misconduct in Graduate Education, the authors (Braxton, Proper & Bayer, 2011) provide some more specific examples based upon their study including the following (more discussion in a later blog post):

Professors behaving badly

• Publishing an article without a graduate student among the authors who made significant contributions to the study.

• Prohibiting graduate students from expressions differing viewpoints.

• Requiring additional hours of work per week regularly beyond that of the assistantship and on nights, weekends and vacation times.

While it is important to understand what constitutes academic bullying, it is just as important to understand the context for graduate education and what would not be considered as academic bullying.  Graduate school should be challenging and is sometimes difficult and frustrating.  Graduate school should not be demoralizing although students might occasionally question their ability to perform.  Graduate students need to understand the conditions for graduate study set by the Graduate School and the department or faculty.  Obviously there are policies and procedures that need to be followed.  Academic freedom is valued and respected for graduate students and faculty.  Freedom of speech is a right but must be exercised in an atmosphere of respect for others. Disagreements are likely and emotions will be expressed but must be civil.  To read about the VT Graduate School’s description of the graduate environment, link here.

Communication and clarity are key to success in graduate school.  The next blog will focus on expectations for graduate study and ways in which we can move the conversation about graduate school from surviving to thriving.