Inclusion as learning community: Initial reflections on the journey

Diversity and multicultural were two of the early terms that were used to describe efforts toward increasing demographic diversity in the corporate world and higher education dating back to the 1980s.  Since then, the terminology has continued to evolve as have the efforts and activities.

Many of the initial efforts were focused on access to higher education by individuals of diverse backgrounds especially individuals of color.  Recruitment became a priority with less attention paid to retention and graduation although these would follow. These early efforts and initiatives were based mostly on compositional diversity.  Studies were done, data collected and analyzed. Recommendations made and strategies put forward which became common practices at colleges and universities around the United States. Chief Diversity Officers (CDO) and associated offices were established and charged to increase diversity, including efforts for faculty, staff and students.

In developing successful retention strategies and degree completion among students of diverse backgrounds, universities were forced to examine the university environment and how the climate (perhaps ‘chilly climate’) influenced not only access but more so retention, and ultimately graduation. As a result, support programs and student success offices evolved. And the language and terminology continued to evolve.

The terms of “inclusion” and “inclusiveness” were made prominent by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) Inclusive Excellence initiative.  Many universities would ultimately adopt this approach and the “inclusion” terminology now leads many offices and initiatives.

Virginia Tech adopted the AACU inclusive excellence approach which guided our most recent diversity strategic plan and led the way to our current initiative.  Since early fall 2014, Virginia Tech has embarked on a journey toward inclusivity through our “InclusiveVT” initiative.  In developing the university-wide initiative, VT President Sands indicated that inclusion comes first and with inclusion diversity will follow. Through InclusiveVT, senior administrators were charged with the responsibility to propose and implement specific initiatives designed to foster inclusivity throughout the university.  These efforts are focused on people, programs, and policies and are identified with the four aspects of inclusive excellence: access and success, campus climate and interior up relations, education and scholarship, and institutional infrastructure. In an attempt to increase communication and university engagement with the initiatives, activities and resources are posted on the website, information shared via twitter (@inclusiveVT) and through our blog entitled diversity dialogue.

As indicated above, there are many activities and efforts underway at Virginia Tech which can move us toward becoming “inclusiveVT”.  But the efforts and conversation must be pushed further.  If we are to become truly inclusive I believe that we must embrace inclusion as a learning community – not necessarily a Learning Community in the more formal sense but a learning community in which we (faculty, staff, students) work together with shared goals and aspirations.  In this learning community we will need to work together and collaboratively.  Not as top down or bottom up but as fellow travelers on this journey.  In this learning community, we can and must learn from each other regardless of one’s position or status.  We must be open to hearing the voices of others who are different from us and sharing openly.  As a community, we will need to understand “white privilege“, micro aggressions, and unconscious bias and engage in efforts to create affirming environments for all.  We should feel empowered to speak and required to listen.  In this learning community, we can and will learn.

The journey has begun.  Please join us and offer your reflections along the way.



Blogging in graduate education

Blogging has a role in 21st century higher education including graduate education.

Although blogging and blogs have been around for more years, Gardner Campbell (currently Vice Provost for Learning Innovation and Student Success at Virginia Commonwealth University) was on the Virginia Tech faculty and passionately advocated for the use of blogs for the undergraduate students in the VT Residential Honor’s College. In August 2011, he wrote that blogging could “catalyze learning” through the framework of “narrate, curate, and share”.  His efforts inspired me as Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education to establish my own blog and to incorporate blogging in Graduate School administrative activities and more importantly as an integral part of the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative. (Note: currently we are also engaged in other types of social media [e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LInkedIn] but the focus here is blogging).

For the past several years, blogging-as-pedagogy2blogging has become an integral part of several graduate courses offered within the Graduate School’s Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative including GRAD 5104 Preparing the Future Professoriate, GRAD 5114 Contemporary Pedagogy (GEDI), GRAD 5214 Diversity and Inclusion in a Global Society and GRAD 5014 Ethics and Scholarly Integrity.  Embracing “blogging as pedagogy” in these courses, graduate students are encouraged to “reflect, read, write and share” with their colleagues on topics related to not only preparing the future professoriate but current issues facing higher education.  Although some expressed initial hesitancy to blog and were new to blogging, most of the graduate students became actively engaged with blogging.  Many commented that they enjoyed learning a new skill and found it valuable.  Indeed, blogging is an important aspect of modern learning.

Beyond its use in graduate courses, blogging was introduced to the faculty and graduate students associated with interdisciplinary graduate education at VT specifically through the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education program (IGEPs).  Each IGEP has created a blog that feeds into the “mother blog” hosted on the website which provides the shared space for cross IGEP discussion.  Another example is the use of blogs with the Global Perspectives Program organized through the VT Graduate School.  The “grandmother blog” for the Global Perspectives program gathers and shares blog posts from several “mother blogs” including GPP Switzerland, GPP Chile, GPP alumni, and from the graduate deans experience.  This provides but one example of how individual blogs can feed into a common space for collective reflection on global perspectives and engage colleagues around the world.

Blogs are but one form of communication in today’s academic world.  In sharing and disseminating our scholarship, we have typically used publications (articles, books, exhibits and more) and presentations. Technology used in our connected world allows for other ways of sharing today.  Blogs use a different voice and often reach different audiences in different ways but represent a valuable tool for scholars and practitioners.  Graduate students as the future faculty and career professionals need to gain these skills as part of their graduate degree and preparation for the 21st century workforce.

“I”, “T”, and “Pi” as metaphors for graduate education

In my role as Vice President and Dean for Graduate School at Virginia Tech, I have thought a lot about transforming graduate education in general and more specifically about preparation in an academic area as well as preparation for career(s) after degree completion.  The graduate dean should think about these things and create opportunities and programs for graduate students to enhance their preparation for success in the career options they can pursue following degree completion. Academic area mentioned above does not mean simply discipline or department but rather encompassing departments, programs and includes multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary areas of study.  And careers refer to academic and careers outside academe and the fact that graduates should expect a lifetime of career changes.

Many of us in higher education often make reference to the “I” educated or the “T” educated individuals. The “I” has been used to refer to depth in the discipline and the “T” offering breadth beyond the depth within the discipline. Breadth can be understood in terms of going beyond one’s discipline moving toward multi or interdisciplinary thinking.  Breadth can also be interpreted as moving toward a more holistic education that of a well rounded person.  Although applicable to graduate education, this breadth has been associated more commonly within the undergraduate experience; education in a discipline plus educational opportunities beyond one’s major(s).

I have reflected on the “I” and the “T” in the context of and advocating for interdisciplinary graduate education.  In a blog post entitled “interdisciplinary thinking, Pi and adaptive innovators”, I introduced the Pi symbol as a visual representation of interdisciplinary thinking and adaptive innovators.

Pi is primarily understood as a mathematical constant or a Greek letter.  Much has been written about Pi in those contexts but I use it here as a symbol of and metaphor for interdisciplinarity.   As shown above, the symbol Pi includes three lines: two vertical lines and one line across the top of the two vertical lines.  Beyond the straight line, each of these lines has an additional feature at one end.

I find the visual compelling in its simplicity.  Interdisciplinary thinking and education requires depth in one of more disciplines of study and the ability to integrate across the disciplines.  There must be a firm foundation (wider base) grounded in the knowledge within a discipline and a strong connection (anchor, hook) into the academic field(s) of study.  The horizontal line provides the link between the academic pillars.  Specifically, this line represents the link that facilitates meaningful connections between (among) the academic areas of study, integrates knowledge and understanding across the disciplines and extends beyond the pillars of the disciplines to situate knowledge and understanding in the societal context.

Societal context is important.  Academic leaders need to acknowledge and confirm the underlying principle and purpose of higher education “to educate” but we must also be mindful of the need to implement programs that incorporate the knowledge, skills and abilities for success in the work place. Reports from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) support and encourage interdisciplinary graduate education. Two additional reports from Educational Testing Services (ETS) and Council of Graduate Schools (CGS)  articulate clearly the responsibility of Graduate Schools to prepare graduates for the professoriate and careers outside pathreportcover





In our ongoing efforts to transform graduate education (and higher education), academic leaders should continue to support “I” and “T” education and we must definitely encourage more “Pi”-educated individuals.  The universities for the 21st century need scholars who have the depth, breadth, and integrated interdisciplinary perspectives to address the complex problems facing us in 21st century.

The questions we need to ask especially “why”

This semester many of us are engaged with a national initiative entitled Connected Courses. At Virginia Tech, we developed our own active co-learning group of faculty and graduate students to interface with each other and ConnectedCourses. And the dialogue ensued.

The first unit (of six) challenged us to engage with “why we need a why” and participants were asked to reflect specifically on “why we teach”.   Michael Wesch and his colleagues (Randy Bass, Cathy Davidson) shared some of their teaching experiences, introduced purpose driven not just content driven courses, and challenged us to contemplate “why we need a why“.  They asked us to share “why I teach”.

As I pondered “why I teach”, my thoughts quickly moved toward questions of “why” beyond teaching as related to the future of higher education and the future professoriate. We are often taught about the 7 questions – the who, what, when, where, how, why and why not. As one who is focused more on process, I especially appreciate the why, the how and the why not.

In the graduate course I teach, GRAD 5104 Preparing the Future Professoriate, we have been discussing the roles and responsibilities of faculty (teaching, research, service and more) and the changing nature of higher education. As the students consider their future as faculty, they must ask themselves which university they will choose and why, the roles and responsibilities they will embrace and why, the pedagogical strategies to utilize and why, the possibilities for change and why not, and how they will engage with colleagues, students, and community.  Inasmuch as the path forward for higher education requires dynamic mostly non-linear processes and will offer some exciting opportunities, the faculty and the future faculty must innovate, create, and lead change.  The questions they ask and answer especially the “why” will inform the future.



“Unruly Paradox”

Many words are used to describe the changing context for higher education in the 21st century – ‘change’ being one but more recently ‘disruption’, ‘innovation’, ‘global’ and ‘learning revolution’ are code for what is or should be happening in higher education.  But the use of ‘unruly paradox’ to describe the university was new to me until recently.

It was actually more than a decade ago when Ben Johnson (then Chair of the Board of Trustees for Emory University) coined the term “unruly paradox” in making reference to “the unrelenting swell and heave of change” which is a constant in the university.  ben_johnson520In 2000, Johnson articulated that “a great university is a thing of unruly paradox.  It is a place of tranquil reflection and a testing place and indeed a battleground of outrageous ideas”  He continued that a university “requires stability, yet is a catalyst for change. It teaches respect for boundaries, yet encourages pushing those boundaries. It is a place of self-conscious egalitarianism, yet a place of studied rank. It trains for the sacred, as well as the secular. It gleans from the past, to prepare for the future…”

How do we prepare for the future?  What will the universities look like in 10 years? How have they changed in the past 5 years?  As an ‘unruly paradox’, the university must manage the tensions of history, boundaries, and stability and the pushing of limits, outrageous ideas and being a catalyst for change.

Higher education more broadly defined must also accept the responsibility for change and adaptation. The pace of change is astonishing and doesn’t appear to be slowing down?  For example, when the class of 2014 entered in 2010, the iPad had been only recently introduced and four years later (for their commencement) there are four generations of iPads plus the iPad Air. The impact of technology and social media is significant not only in the “classroom” but throughout the university.

In addition to technology, there are many other factors that could be discussed here.  A critical factor I wish to highlight here revolves around access: access to higher education especially defining the student/learner, discussion of delivery modes and locations for learning as well as access to education, research, knowledge through open educational resources and open access publishing.

Other factors are brought to light by Drew Faust, President of Harvard University. In a recent interview with Bloomberg about the future and financing of higher education, she identified three major forces facing higher education: digital revolution especially its impact on learning and teaching, global context and expectations, and the breaking down of traditional disciplines boundaries. She briefly discussed MOOCs and other digital learning modalities as helping us understand more about learning and processing of information and that they must inform our teaching. Embracing a global perspective has become even more important and defining the global context and expectations more challenging. Yes, disciplines are evolving and transcending boundaries (albeit somewhat slowly at times) and moving toward the interfaces between and among disciplines and into interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary programs.

Change is challenge and a condition of an ‘unruly paradox’. Ultimately, change will impact the organizational structure as well as the functionality of higher education. Change is also an opportunity. One of our opportunities in preparing for the future is to embrace innovation and creativity within higher education and prepare not only ourselves but especially the students/learners to develop the “habits of mind to adapt to change”.  These habits will last a lifetime.



In the early 1990s a colleague used the word “futurisktic” or at least that’s what I thought I heard. (Note: I tried to give him credit years ago but he claims not to have coined the word).  Anyway, I was intrigued by the word that cleverly combined future and risk and I quickly adopted it for use in my musings about the future and in some of my presentations and publications.

Seth Godin wrote a recent blog in which he argued that “every presentation worth doing has just one purpose” and that is to make change happen.  According to Godin, “change, of course, opens doors, it creates possibilities and it’s fraught with danger and apparent risk.

 Much easier to deny this than it is to embrace it.”  Godin’s advice seems to fit with what I identify as futurisktic.

As a concept, “futurisktic” implies keeping an eye to and a vision for the future with attention to the opportunities and challenges (risks) associated with progress.  Being futurisktic is about change.  It is about embracing risk as an integral aspect of change.  Risk should not be viewed as a negative but risk taking will likely force us out of our comfort zones.  By doing so, it allows us to acknowledge and embrace the meaningfulness and value of change.  I’m not arguing for change simply for change sake or simply taking risks without thought.  Being futurisktic is about pushing ourselves and pushing the limits as is so wonderfully exemplified in the video entitled the future is ours.

Another example among many is the TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson about the learning revolution in which he describes the need for revolution not evolution. To actively engage in transformation and to acknowledge that often what stops us from making progress is the “tyranny of common sense.”  Robinson argues for and encourages us to become active participants in the learning revolution.

These examples are but a few of those that illustrate futurisktic endeavors.  They provide examples of intentional, purposeful and meaningful change – growth, progress and advancement.  We live in a time of rapid change.  As we engage change, I encourage us to be futuristic in our thinking with a willingness to take risks – that is, futurisktic!