Transformative Graduate Education in a Transformative Year

I have not blogged much this semester. In part because it was a weird semester in that I was not teaching (it is amazing how much that kept me on track with all of my other work!). I also was not taking any theory or content courses and I was not doing any of the Future Professoriate courses for the first time since Semester 1 at Tech. This program was one of the things that drew me to return to my hometown and earn my degree at Virginia Tech. Knowing I wanted to work in academia for my career as a faculty member, the program of preparing future faculty as teachers, scholars, and productive academic citizens greatly appealed to me.

This semester, I have still tried to be involved with Preparing the Future Professoriate (PFP) and Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) as I could. For one, the building of the Academy of Graduate Teaching (GTA) Excellence has gotten some press. I am proud of the work that we have done to build a community of current and future instructors/faculty. I am writing about TGE and PFP, because, though I am not yet a faculty member (someday soon I hope!), I am already seeing the strength of these programs that our wonderful Graduate School Dean has developed for us at Virginia Tech.

This year I was asked to serve as the graduate student representative for a subcommittee to a university project. This subcommittee has faculty, staff, administrators, and students sitting on it along with support staff for the project. The project has gone very differently than I was expecting in multiple ways. The one that has caught my attention time and again has been the lack of understanding of the basic functions of the university by faculty, including the mission statement and how that navigates decisions by administrators. Each time I am able to explain the functioning of higher education and our university, I am thankful for all the opportunities I have had within PFP and TGE. Each time I have a slightly different perspective of where higher education is and where it should go, I am thankful for the programs. I am seeing first hand how having courses and discussions and experiences that teach what life in academia will be and challenging the status quo within that is beneficial as I prepare to enter into the professoriate.

In the last 7 months I have also taken two trips (check out #gppecuador and #gppswiss15 on Twitter!) and in relation to TGE, which really were transformative. Each time I have returned from these trips with my colleagues from across colleges on campus, I have written in my notes that I am excited and proud of the future in higher education and research with them. We are the 21st century faculty. We are the ones who will be higher education, can change it, the ones who can challenge the status quo. More and more I think that takes on a global perspective. The world is getting smaller and smaller with access to Internet and easier travel. When we were at the Swiss Embassy in June, someone from the Council of Graduate Schools brought up that there are plenty of jobs available for finishing graduate students, if you look at the world as a whole rather than solely at the United States. I think our scholarship and understanding of higher education also should not be U.S. centric, rather than seeing the strengths and challenges of higher education around the world. How this looks for each of us, I don’t know. I am not even sure how I want it to look for myself at this point. That is something I am still wrestling with. But, I am confident that as 21st century faculty, we need to understand the global perspective.


“Political Correctness” in the Classroom

VT is the only school who is having a little bit of a firestorm due to ideology. Marquette University, a Jesuit school in Wisconsin, is having a discussion as well about ideology in the classroom and of students.  The story begins with a graduate student teaching a philosophy course and having a post-class discussion on same-sex marriage and whether students have the right with free speech to say homophobic, racist, or sexist comments in class. You can read more about this here and here.

A few weeks later, an associate professor with conservative leanings at the same school, published a blog post about this. He argues that the limiting of free speech is a tactic of liberals, especially by deeming something offensive. He also argues that in the “politically correct world of academia, one is supposed to assume that all victim groups think the same way as leftist professors”.

Overall, this has come to the topic of how much our “political correctness” in the classroom makes students feel like they cannot speak their opinion and that they “stifle their disagreement”. Of course, terms like indoctrination get thrown around as well.

Someone from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) also wrote a post based on this event at Marquette. She argues that those who are educating should “encourage students to voice controversial opinions” and that “students benefit from having their beliefs challenged, being asked to articulate and defend their own views, and being exposed to differing viewpoints.” I have to agree with that, though I definitely have concerns with other parts of the post. Even though I know my ideological biases, if students can critically reflect and think about a topic even when it is different than my own, then that is an important part of our job.

This story, like the one of the Young Americans for Freedom here at Virginia Tech, has been picked up by conservative blogs and news sites.  However, going back to the statement by the FIRE blogger, we need to have these conversations. We need to be critically reflective of our own viewpoints. Yes, I agree with the graduate student at Marquette that we need to do it respectfully and without homophobia, sexist, and racist comments in the classroom. But, I think if we can demonstrate how to have conversations on difficult and controversial topics without attacking any group that is benefitting the students and future society. There is much more to the Marquette debate as there is with the VT debate than we know from the two camps, but these can be the catalyst of discussion.

Diversity Courses

This week the Diversity in a Global Perspective course I am in at Virginia Tech and the Connected Course have complimented each other quite nicely. One thing on Tuesday in Diversity that we were discussing was how to bring diversity discussions and ideas to undergraduate students. This came up in part due to UCLA College of Letters and Science’s decision on Monday to require a diversity course for undergraduates. You can read more about this decision here. One aspect of this is to challenge students to be exposed to ideas, beliefs, and backgrounds that are different from their own.

One challenge we were discussing with a requirement like this is how to get students engaged in the material if they are required to take it. If students do not want to be challenged to think outside of their world view. We are seeing this challenge currently in the Graduate School with the Ethics requirement. Even with graduate students who have to take an ethics component in different ways, including a one-time seminar, we can see the tuning out and lack of interest. People are not willing to be challenged on ethical behavior for themselves or their future students. So, how do we have undergraduate students take a diversity course seriously and see the benefits of it? Sometimes when we teach courses like this and students opt in to them, it turns into a case of constantly preaching to the choir about the importance. In many ways that is the way it is in my graduate level Diversity course.

A peer who is also in both my Diversity course and the Connected Course suggested that we incorporate diversity into every course. This yet again can be challenging depending on the discipline. For example, how can an instructor in engineering introduce diversity into the classroom? Also, are there ways to do it without hitting students over the head with the information, where it feels to them like we are preaching? That might be part of where we are losing them. I typically teach Child and Adolescent Development and Human Sexuality and these courses allow for a lot of diversity to be incorporated in the discourse without students feeling like that is the entire purpose. Yet, there are still a few who resist the discourse of experiences different than their own.

As I was still processing the discussion on Tuesday from the Diversity course, I was watching the webinar from the Connected Course, Making Teaching with Technology Fair and Open. Around the 34 minute mark, my ears perked up because Dr. Nakamura mentioned including diversity into courses. Part of her argument was that we should not design courses where diversity is only covered one day because students will see it as B.S. and will not take the instructor seriously as being important. I thought that was an important point and stemmed well with my peer’s comment from the Diversity course. Maybe we do need to find more and more ways, no matter what our discipline is, to incorporate diverse views and experiences in engaging ways.

Black Studies Student’s Story at UVA

After seeing the “Dear White People” trailer and discussing critical race theory in our diversity class, I saw an article posted by a student at our local university, UVA. It is a student’s experience at a public ivy institution, which is also a predominately white institution. Particularly, it is her experience as the only Black person in Black Studies classes. It is a quick and interesting read. You can find it here.

Gender Diversity at Women’s Colleges

So, as many of you know, I attended a women’s college in Roanoke, Hollins University. Hollins frequently has been in the news about it’s policy for transmen students and it was mentioned in a news article yet again this week. The article can be found below:


I thought it was an amazingly well-written piece that the New York Times did on the issue of gender diversity at women’s colleges. Especially covering all the nuances and challenges that face the schools. Each women’s college has handled it differently. Hollins’ policy that gets so much press and hate was formed about 8 years ago with input from the student body as a whole, but more importantly, trans* students. That is something that the news stories frequently leave out. Overall, I have to admit that I am not sure the best way to handle this topic for women’s colleges, and it will be an ongoing challenge as we as a society challenge the notion of gender and sex.

Gender pronouns and Assumptions

As I was processing our last class I kept coming back to how people make assumptions about us based on how they “read” us. There are so many things that people around us believe about us that may or may not be true, especially true to ourselves. I remembered this article that was posted last week from Inside Higher Ed. It was written by a faculty member at Howard University on how she made one small change without too much forethought on the first day of class about not making assumptions and how it turned out to be a great experience for her and the students. It reiterates how important, even when awkward, to simply ask rather than make assumptions about people.

White Privilege in America

As I mentioned in class before, my social media sites have slowly become ways for me to get the sort of news I want and ignore what I don’t want to read about. Whether that is from the links I click on or the friends that post pieces that I agree with, I’m not sure. But anyways, this morning as I was looking at what people had posted on Facebook I came across this piece:


This organization writes and posts many items that tie in to this piece, but this one caught my attention due to the topic we are moving towards in class. It discusses many of the statistics about the privilege White Americans have throughout their life. By no means is it an exhaustive list, however.

Unintended Bias In the Classroom

As we were reading about and discussing bias both intentional and unintentional I had a moment of reflection about catching some of my own biases.

This is my third semester being a graduate teaching instructor, second of which is online. One challenge I have realized that I have with online teaching is your only impression of most of the students is based on what and how they write–about themselves, in their assignments, and in their forum posts. Many people when writing and posting things online have much less filter than when discussing something in person–for good and bad.

I consider myself a very open person. To many different lifestyles, beliefs, backgrounds, etc. However, that openness I think has led to an unintended bias on my part. I have had a few students write in posts and assignments about their strongly held religious beliefs (particularly Christian). Each time I noticed myself negatively reacting. I was consistently having to take a step back and think precisely why I was reacting that way. Were the students answering questions wrongly? No, not at all. It was just that they were writing something that I do not feel as strongly about as they do. I think context had something to do with it as well. When the students were not asked anything about religious beliefs and brought it in to their assignments I seemed to initially be less accepting of it. However, when I covered religious beliefs and human sexuality, anything the students said about religious beliefs I was open to. It is something I continuously have to think about and be aware of about myself and my teaching as I continue in my schooling and career.

This topic also brings to mind the Steven Salaita case that has been in the Higher Education news recently (if you haven’t heard about it, I encourage you to look it up). Dr. Salaita finally made a public statement this week for the first time since he found out that he was not going to be starting work at the University of Illinois last month. One thing that he said stood out to me about biases in and outside of the classroom. What he said was that while he was here at Virginia Tech, students never complained about his teaching and had very good reviews about his teaching. This is in contrast to University of Illinois’ concerns that he would create a hostile atmosphere in the classroom because of his beliefs. This stands out as a good example that even when you have strong personal beliefs about something political, religious, etc. you can leave it at the door and create an environment of mutual respect without bigotry.

Racial Biases

This week we have been reading about and watching videos that touch upon intentional and unintentional biases, particularly about race. As I was reading and watching the provided videos I came across this story from Huffington Post:


It is a story about a young man who changes his name on his resume (simply dropping one letter from his legal name) to try and obtain a job. He changed his name to sound more Anglican and was getting responses finally from potential employers. This is yet another example of bias on the part of so many people who came into contact with this man’s resume. They might not have even been conscious about their bias but it plays out in so many big and little ways.



Diversity test

This is a test to make sure the Diversity category works.