Intentional and ethical scholar activism

The issue of ethics–ethical choices, ethical decision-making, and ethical action–is a longstanding topic of concern for academics, both as scholars and teachers.  When we think about ethics in higher education, we usually think first about scholarly integrity (e.g., plagiarism and scientific misconduct) and then perhaps codes of conduct and standards for professional behavior.  But there are additional aspects of ethics that should be discussed especially ethics associated with teaching and the ethics of service or engagement.  In this blog post, I will share briefly some musings about the ethics of service or engagement and scholar activism (e.g., scholar-advocate, citizen scholar).

Derrick Bell (2002Ethical Ambition), author of Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth, wrote that ethics requires us to think deeply about our positions on issues, and to take principled stands as a result of those positions” (p. 50).  In this statement, Bell didn’t reference academia specifically but the application to those of us in higher education (faculty, administrators, students) should be clear.  There are many issues facing higher education in general (e.g., accessibility, affordability, student debt, relevance, null curriculum) in addition to matters that might arise within a discipline (e.g. controversial research topics, methodology), but “taking principled stands” is not necessarily something that has come easily or often to many of us in academe. On the other hand, there are disciplines (e.g., sociology, counseling, Ethnic studies) in which “taking principled stands” is common and perhaps even a foundation for scholarship and teaching/learning.

In addition to the research and teaching/learning missions of the university, “taking principled stands” also applies to the service mission of the land-grant university or more generally the social responsibility of the university.  At land-grant universities, we are quite familiar with the “service” or engagement mission and regularly have employees with strong ties to the community (e.g., extension agents, service learning).  In some disciplines, faculty who engage with society are identified as scholar-activist or scholar-advocate.  But faculty from most disciplines are not and wouldn’t necessarily identify as scholar-activist or advocates but faculty could take “principled stands” on issues.

Whether or not one identifies as scholar-activist (advocate or citizen scholar) directly, I believe those of us who work in higher education have an ethical responsibility to society. In our roles as faculty (and graduate students) or administrators we are often seen as an “expert” and having “expertise”.  And we are sometimes asked to share this expertise beyond academic circles and within the broader society. We need to respond to such requests but acknowledge that acceptance of these requests comes with additional responsibility; that of understanding the perceived and real power associated with being viewed as an expert and to understand the ways in which we can ethically interact and engage the public and with the public. It is a given that there are various ways to solve problems.  When sharing our expertise, it is also important to acknowledge the involvement of others with differing roles and associated responsibilities and explore how best to invite, interact and engage with others to share their expertise.  It is important that we do not intentionally or otherwise allow our academic expertise to silence others.  So where do we begin the process of thinking about “principled stands”, being intentional and taking action, and becoming citizen scholars or scholar activists?  Graduate School provides a good starting place.

Through the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative offered by the VT Graduate School, graduate students have multiple opportunities to compliment their academic disciplinary degree and better prepare themselves for future and perhaps multiple careers. Two examples of many opportunities seem applicable here: Future Professoriate graduate certificate and Citizen Scholar engagement program.  Graduate students who wish to become future faculty gain knowledge and understanding about what it means to and to prepare to become faculty for 21st century universities through GRAD 5104 Future Professoriate course in which ethics and scholarly integrity are addressed.  In this class and in keeping with Bell’s premise above, we discuss what it means to think deeply about issues and to take principled stands as future faculty members.  In advocating for strong connections between academia and society, we have also developed a citizen-scholar program where graduate students can explore, learn and demonstrate their commitment to and be recognized for engagement with society.  These are relevant and fairly straightforward ways to encourage “ethical ambition” and “living a life of meaning and worth” as an integral part of graduate education.

In Ethical Ambition, Bell (2002) offers some reflections and personal stories that can guide us toward success ethically. In particular he challenges us to “live a life of passion” and to have the courage to take the risks for what we believe in.  He shares the importance of community (family and friends) for “support in hard times”.  And he indicates that humility should be our watchword and that we should have ‘humility to know when our best intentions go awry”.

An “ethical life is not a life of sacrifice; it is a life of riches. The satisfaction of choosing ethically enriches the fabric of our daily lives in ways we might have otherwise thought impossible” (Bell, 2002).

Be thoughtful and intentional. Engage honestly and ethically with society.

Interdisciplinary thinking

Klein bookThe higher education community has long discussed, debated and defined (and redefined) interdisciplinary education and research.  Published in 1990, Julie Thompson Klein wrote the first comprehensive overview of interdisciplinarity. Since then, many books have been written, articles published, and conferences held.  In the early 21st century, two prominent federal funding agencies (NSF, NIH) would articulate the importance of interdisciplinary research (and graduate education) through the publication of Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research (2004, National Academies Press) and NIH Roadmap Interdisciplinary Research initiatives (2005, National Institutes of Health).

With increased attention about interdisciplinary research including the notion of “grand challenges“, the development and implementation of interdisciplinary programs followed.  Leading the discussions at the graduate level was the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) that offered sessions during its annual meetings and summer workshops.  Having been a participant in these conversations, the focus was primarily on content knowledge and research methodologies cutting across disciplines and the development of graduate degree programs.  Examples of good practices exist (e.g., Penn State, University of California-Davis, University of Central Florida, University of Minnesota, University of Washington, Virginia Tech).  At Virginia Tech, we have also established a blog site as a means of sharing research across interdisciplinary degree programs as well.  And all the while, very little discussion has occurred around interdisciplinary thinking and its relationship to graduate education until CGS President Suzanne Ortega invited Vice Provost Frances Leslie (UC Irvine) and me to facilitate such a discussion.  A great discussion occurred; the results of which will be shared in a different forum.  What follows here are my reflections and musings about interdisciplinary thinking in preparation for and after that session.

I have previously blogged about interdisciplinary thinking and different metaphors for graduate education.  I proposed the symbol of “pi” as metaphor for interdisciplinary (transdisciplinary as well) imagesand preparing graduate students to become adaptive innovators.  My musings about interdisciplinary thinking continue and have been informed by Simeon Dreyfuss article entitled “Something essential about interdisciplinary thinking” published in 2011 in Issues in Integrative Studies (29, 67-83)

So how do I understand interdisciplinary thinking?  Interdisciplinary thinking (I-thinking) must extend beyond the sharing of content and methodology from different disciplinary perspectives.  I-thinking must reach beyond common courses, shared research projects, case studies and joint publications. I-thinking most likely involves team science especially collaboration and clear, direct communication.

I-thinking should involve problem solving as well as problem defining and problem posing.  Yes, it involves what is known as critical thinking skills however these are defined. It is about asking questions and “sitting with” the question before jumping to solutions or answers quickly.  I-thinking takes time and requires perseverance.

Interdisciplinary thinking is about different ways of knowing and knowing differently and knowing in relationship to other even dissimilar views. It is about differing modalities of thinking and learning which requires acceptance of and tolerance for ambiguity and dissonance and perhaps confusion at times.  Creativity and innovation are key components and outcomes of interdisciplinary thinking.

Interdisciplinary thinking is a non-linear process and doesn’t embrace dualities but seeks intersections and connections.  I-thinking is about acknowledging the notion of a “baggy idea of truth, understanding the multiplicity of truth and the ongoing search for evolving truth.  It involves looking for and seeing the “unobvious” – to see things in ways which might not be obvious.

Interdisciplinary thinking is not only integrative but much more.  Beyond analysis and synthesis across disciplines, interdisciplinary thinking must be iterative and emergent.

Dreyfuss (2011) wrote that the difference between disciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking is “a manifestation of how deeply one is wed to particular historical institutionalizations of knowledge” (p. 80). In order to prepare the graduate students for the future, graduate deans must encourage programs and provide opportunities to push beyond the historical institutionalization of knowledge and disciplinary boundaries into interdisciplinary thinking.  The abilities and skills associated with interdisciplinary thinking will serve all graduate students well in discipline-based or interdisciplinary programs.

So, the question now is how.

“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 academe.report 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.

“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.

 

Futurisktic

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!

 

Communicating scholarly endeavors

James Duderstadt, President Emeritus of University of Michigan, is reshaping higher education.  He has written and spoken about a university as a social institution with social responsibility as described in his book entitled A University for the 21st Century published by the University of Michigan Press in 2000.

Social responsibility is especially important for a land grant university like Virginia Tech. One of the ways in which a univerity can exercise its social responsibility is through sharing the research and scholarly endeavors of the faculty and the students, especially graduate students.  The “open access” movement is a possibility for sharing university’s research but I’ll save that discussion for another blog.  Instead, I wish to reflect about the ways in which a research land grant university like Virginia Tech can meet its responsibility to share the results of research.

As faculty and graduate students we have historically been educated and trained to communicate our research/scholarship to those within our discipline primarily.  We learn how to prepare powerpoint or keynote presentations.  We prepare posters and practice our 15 minute research presentations.  We practice reading and sharing our scholarly endeavors through other media.  But we have not typically been provided with opportunites to learn and therefore we are not as skilled in communicating our scholarship to others outside our discipline and especially not to the public in general.

Enter actor Alan Alda and “communicating science”.   On the occasion of the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools in 2010, attendees had the opportunity to learn about and experience the Communicating Science initiative offered through the center at Stony Brook University.  Many of us were in agreement that the initiative is a powerful program that helps “scientists” and scholars to develop communication skills.

Realizing the importance of this work, Virginia Tech has embraced “communicating science” and initiated a program here.  Within the context of the Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative of the VT Graduate School, Professor Patty Raun from the Theatre Department has offered sessions within GRAD 5104 Preparing the Future Professoriate graduate course and has established a new graduate course on Communicating Science.  Through this program and others we will engage VT graduate students with the social responsibility of the university to communicate science.

 

Seeing the unobvious: Fed Ex and other visuals

In higher education, we are taught to find meaning and to make sense of “our world”.  We work with data (although described differently by different disciplines).  We analyze and synthesize information.  We look for patterns – we look for trends.  We reconcile differences.  We identify the obvious and even sometimes we are encouraged to look beyond the immediate and the apparent to that which is unobvious.

Images and visuals are a part of our everyday lives.  Sometimes, they are ubiquitous; so much so that we might no longer see the obvious let alone the unobvious.  One visual that comes to mind is the FedEx logo.  The FedEx logo has become a relatively common sight.  It appears on packages, trucks, offices, and websites.  It comes in different sizes, shapes and colors.  And so you ask, why am I writing about FedEx?  (This is not a product endorsement but it does provide a good example).   Brief background.

FedEx logo design

I heard Daniel Pink, bestselling author of A Whole New Mind and Drive, speak at an annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools and would shortly thereafter invite him to VT as the 2006 Distinguished Graduate School Speaker.   Pink argued convincingly that we have entered the “conceptual age” in which the “whole mind” is needed to excel in today’s society.  His more recent work shares some “surprising” insights into what truly motivates us.

There’s much to learn from Pink’s work but a simple story about his son’s observation gives opportunity for reflection about the importance of that which we might not be able to see.  In his presentations, Daniel Pink often shares a story about his son viewing the FedEx truck and describing it as “the truck with the arrow on it”.  In this case, a child’s view reveals that which is obvious to him but not necessarily so obvious to others.

FedEx Home

It is easy to see the obvious (the words FedEx) but until encouraged to do so, we might not see the “arrow” (space between the E and the x).   As readers, we often tend to see and focus on the words and attend less so on the visual representation that appears in the “white” space.  There are many other examples but two are included here.  In the examples below, one can definitely see what is meant to be obvious but the unobvious – the Bronx skyline and the outline of the Australian continent – requires greater attention to the visuals.

Yoga Australia logo design

 

Our challenge is to have the unobvious become as real as the obvious.

 

Interdisciplinary thinking, Pi and adaptive innovators

Graduate education has long focused on depth in the disciplines.  Academic disciplines have provided a system for organizing scholarship through academically accepted set of methodologies, professional journals and professional societies.  Disciplines tend to have a critical mass of scholars and educate students in the cultural norms of the discipline.  They have served and will continue to serve higher education well but more is needed.

With strong disciplinary foundations, we must now move and actively embrace and engage more in interdisciplinary graduate education.  Due in part to the inherent complexity of nature and society, very interesting and challenging research questions can be found at the interface between and among disciplines – these will require an interdisciplinary perspective.  This  leads scholars and graduate students to explore problems and research questions that are not confined to a single discipline and require collaborative endeavors. National agencies (e.g. NSF, NIH) have called for more interdisciplinary efforts and provided funding opportunities such as the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) programs.

This brings me to the topic of depth or breadth and beyond.  Arguments are frequently put forward that graduate education should focus on depth of knowledge and thus, we must maintain a disciplinary focus and focus on the disciplines. Along with this argument, it is often acknowledged that although interdisciplinary graduate education does provide valued breadth, it lacks the depth.  I’ve worked with interdisciplinary graduate education for the past 20 years and would argue that interdisciplinary research not only requires but can achieve both depth and breadth as well as integration for success.

In my recent musings about interdisciplinary graduate education and research, I have come to visualize those with the depth of training and education in the discipline as I-educated individuals, those with the depth and breadth of training and education plus the ability to work across disciplinary lines at T-educated individuals, and those individuals with breadth and depth of education and training in more than one discipline and the ability to integrate knowledge across disciplines as Pi (π)-educated individuals. Through this lens, knowledge seems to be grounded in and emanate from the disciplines and then integrated across boundaries.  These are the scholars and scientists who will be able to serve as the adaptive innovators of and for the 21st century.

.

“Universities, therefore, will have to reconsider the priorities and practices of graduate education and training in order to prepare individuals……. We argue that graduate programs must not only educate future scientists to be experts in the methods, techniques, and knowledge of their chosen disciplines but to have the broader problem-solving skills that require learning, unlearning, and relearning across disciplines.”
Rhoten, D. 2004. Interdisciplinary Research: Trend Transition. Items and Issues 5, no. (1-2):6-11.