Monthly Archives: March 2012

D’You Ever Wonder Why We’re Here?

Wow, pretentious title is pretentious.  But it’s an question that actually came up in my New Media Faculty-Staff Seminar.

The title comes from an online web series, Red vs. Blue.  I love Red vs. Blue.  It was one of the first, and is still one of the all-time best best, online machinema creations.  The first lines of the pilot episode go like this:

Simmons: D’You ever wonder why we’re here?
Grif: It’s one of life’s great mysteries, isn’t it? Why are we here? I mean, are we the product of some… cosmic coincidence? Or is there really a God, watching everything, you know, with a plan for us and stuff. I don’t know man, but it keeps me up at night.
Simmons: What? I mean why are we out here, in this canyon?
Grif: Oh. Uhhhhh. Yeah.

There are really two different ways to approach the question “Why are we here?”  For instance, someone might ask me:  Why are you studying at Virginia Tech?

  1. Well, they accepted me and gave me a stipend/tuition remission, so I’m here.
  2. Because at the end of the day,  I wish to become a professor at a small, liberal arts college.  The interdisciplinary program ASPECT will allow me to pursue my dual interests, that of religion and politics, in a way that will make me a well-rounded scholar at a small college.
Obviously, the first answer is very knee-jerk: Why am I in this place?  The second is more long-term:  Why am I on this path, and what is my goal?  The first starts the conversation.  The second gets us someplace interesting.

The question we kind of ended NMFSS with on Wednesday basically was a “Why are we here?” question for Gardner.  For me, it implied a lack of self-awareness of what we are doing.  I don’t expect Gardner to ever come in and tell us why we’re meeting each week, what the justification for each reading is, etc.  I will never be the “is this going to be on the [life] test (obviously we don’t have real tests)” kid in NMFSS.  The answer’s in the reading, the format, and in our conversations themselves.

I don’t wonder why we’re here (in NMFSS, that is.  Earth gives me a big headache).  I know (or at least, I think I know) why I’m in NMFSS.  It seems as a collective class, we all have an understanding, like Engelbart, that we are on the cusp of something… awesome.  There’s a reason we’re now calling most of the internet Web 2.0.  Web 2.0 is when the integration of material exploded.  Before, everyone had their own little space, their bulletin board, their journal, their family tree, their whatever online, and archiving websites (YouTube, Facebook, etc.) brought that information together in ways that search engines never could.  Web 2.0 didn’t do this on its own.  People did it.  People all over the world used their collective genius and energy to (mostly unpaid, at first) put together Web 2.0.  Web 2.0 is big.  Beyond big.  Huge. Ginormous.  OMGWHAAAAT-big?  Mother-of-all-Demos-level awesome that even Engelbart might be slightly impressed by.

Does that mean we do nothing in NMFSS, if we’re not actively solving a problem?  No.  I am constantly amazed by our readings, conversations, and group exploration.  So, what’s the “reason” or “point” of NMFSS?  I think the “question” to be answered is that we don’t need a problem to solve during the course of the semester.  That is not our telos.  By reading what we’re reading and discussing the way we’re discussing, we  learn to approach everything we encounter creatively.  Then, we need to share that information as widely as possible with the 21st century tools we have at our disposal, because otherwise, what’s the point of learning?   And we need to do all of this with an overarching love of learning, thinking, and doing guiding our thought processes.

I watched my parents go without to provide my brother and I with the best education they could, but I know so many others whose parents couldn’t find the means.   That’s probably why I am a big fan of disseminating knowledge openly.  I absolutely hate that academic journals are so expensive, or that lecture hall space caps out just because the fire marshall will come if we let in more people, or that students can’t go on trips (regardless of their abilities) because they can’t afford to.

Does it cheapen what we do as academics if we share it with everyone?  Absolutely not.  If someone is teaching for the money or the prestige, they probably should stop, because only the rarest professor gets either.  If one teaches because they have a love of learning and helping others to learn, then sharing knowledge with anyone and everyone should come as naturally as breathing.  If one is teaching at a land-grant institution, we get this.  This is that “service” part they bandy about so much.

New media allows us to do all of this in ways the writers of our texts hoped for.

That’s why we’re here.


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Expectations for Graduate Education

Did you know there was entire page devoted to “Expectations for Graduate Education” at VT?  Until PFP last night, I had no idea.

At a Glance,” the expectations are on four main parties:  Grad Students, Faculty, Program/Department, and the Graduate School.  Many of these responsibilities involve clear explanation of intentions and requirements, ethical behavior, the providing of information and support, and above all a hands-on approach to education.  The onus isn’t put completely on the student to just “figure it out”; all members are accountable in this system.

The Much Longer Document (22 pages) defines a graduate student, which is interesting to me, because I don’t know that I would have ever thought to define who we are:

Graduate students are individuals seeking advanced degrees or certificates, either full- or part-time, at any of the campuses or programs of Virginia Tech. They are in the process of advancing from receiving knowledge to creating, enhancing, and taking ownership of new knowledge. Graduate students have various backgrounds, life experiences, and goals. Graduate students have diverse needs related to their multiple roles at Virginia Tech, such as student, researcher, educator, mentor, emerging and advancing professional, engaged scholar, and responsible citizen. (Page 4)

I (mostly) like it.  The one thing I find missing is that we aren’t just Tech-oriented.  We, like all people, have roles outside of the university.  To be sure, it does say that we have “various backgrounds, life experiences, and goals,” but given how often the work-life balance is decimated in graduate school, a nod to the need for such a balance would be a welcome addition in my mind.

Many portions of the longer document talk about the relationship between students and their faculty/department/Grad School with regard to mentoring.  As that is an upcoming topic in PFP, I look forward to exploring this more

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Space and Place

OK, so I said I would write a MAL entry when I got back, and I will, but I haven’t had time yet.

I’m in Urban Political Geography, and for class today, we had to write a 2-minute response to this problem:  how do we/you claim space (other than buying it)?  This was my response:

Space and place have always been an interesting problem for me.  People often ask me where I am from, a question that on some level asks what area I claim as my own.  Being the daughter of a Navy personnelman, I’ve never had a good answer to this question.  People claim space and place by where they were born, or where they grew up the longest, or where their families are originally from.  None of these answers work for me:  I was born in Baltimore, two places can lay claim to the “longest lived,” and I have family from both costs of the United States.  Many Americans claim their countries of origin prior to immigration (I myself know I am primarily Irish, Swedish, and German), but I have no connection to those countries other than a date of immigration.

Potomac Street, Ridgeley, WVMy claims to place do not come from ownership, as I have never owned a house or a piece of land.  They come from memories and the emotions attached to them.  And for me, they are very geography based.  My strongest claim to home is the Appalachian mountains.  My grandmother was born in Keyser, WV, and I grew up in Western Maryland and the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia from 1995-2001.  The culture there is the one I most identify with, both from living there and from being raised by a father who spent his summers climbing around those mountains when he would visit his own grandparents.  Both of my parents still live in this area, and holidays and breaks are spent there as “home.”

Moving to Blacksburg was an emotional experience for me, because in so many ways, it reminds me of middle and high school memories.  While unique in its own right, Blacksburg shares much of the characteristics and culture in the space I grew up.  I notice familiar trees and flowers.  The mountains on the horizon are the same rolling shape.  The people come from similar social, religious, and economic backgrounds.  The memories here of course do not match the ones from my childhood.  I cannot point to the place I skinned my knee in seventh grade or the trees I took my sophomore prom pictures in front of.  Yet the cultural memory runs deeper.  Though the place is different, this new space is home.

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Experiential Learning

I’m a big fan of experiential (or performative, whatever you want to call it) learning.  I was pretty involved with the Reacting to the Past program at UGA (a curriculum created by Barnard College.  I was involved in the Athens game), which I think is one of the best ways to learn history out there.  I’ve seen it work both in “regular” and “honors” courses, bringing students out of their fear-shells and encouraging them to learn both in the classroom and on their own.

But what I really want to talk about today are the Model International Organizations programs, such as Model UN, Model NATO, and Model Arab League (MAL) (there are tons of others; these are just the ones I’ve done).  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard my former adviser at Converse College drop soundbites about the pedagogical merits of these programs.  And I would smile and nod, proud of how well he “spun” what we did, when it really just felt at the time like hanging out with other smart, politically minded people and an excuse to go on fun off-campus trips.

He was absolutely right, by the way.  It’s the best way to teach I’ve ever encountered.

It took getting out of the program as a student and working as a judge and on-site adviser to really see how valuable these programs are.  Not familiar with them?  Let’s use MAL as an example.

Students create a team of between 7-16 students (partners are allowed) who become experts on a particular League country they’ve been assigned (there are 21 of them at the moment–Syria’s been suspended).  Each student is assigned a committee with predetermined topics, which they research in preparation for writing legislation along with other countries at the conference.  Students spend the conference in committee meetings, split between formal and informal debate (governed by a modified form of Robert’s Rules) working on this legislation, which is then passed as a body of the committees at a Summit meeting.

Sounds pretty boring when I explain it, huh?  But it’s not, I swear.  Especially with a strong leader as chair, committees go from groups of shy (well, not everyone’s shy…) students who by the end of the conference are boldly demanding whatever is in their country’s interest.  Students go from hesitantly reading from sources to fully owning the knowledge, speaking extemporaneously from their own expertise.  All students can thrive in this model, from the most gregarious, outgoing speechmaker to the quiet, behind-the-scenes caucuser.  And no one type of student wins awards (yes, there are individual and team awards).

I started out in this program fairly timid.  As a freshman, I knew relatively little about the Middle East.  My first country assignment at a national conference, given to me day-of (there were some last-minute changes, and I was needed in a spot I had not prepared for), was a country I had never even heard of!  The conversation went a little something like this:

Adviser from Northeastern University:  OK, so I hear you need help with Eritrea.

Me:  What’s that?

Adviser:  I believe the proper question would be “Where’s that?”  We have a lot of work to do…

Me:  *beet red*

Because of the strength of this program, and a group of lovely students and advisers who stepped in to help me, I was able to (pretty badly) represent Eritrea in two separate committees, as well as present an Arab Court of Justice (think ICJ but regional… and made up) case representing Eritrea v. the League.  Was I stellar?  Absolutely not.  Did I learn a lot about how quickly I could research, learn, and represent material?  Absolutely.  Am I still friends with the adviser from Northeastern?  Yup!  That’s another great part about this program:  you meet people from all over the country and world that you will be friends and colleagues with for the rest of your life.

So, why am I talking about this?  In 2004, I first served as a student delegate at the Southeast Regional MAL (SERMAL) representing Jordan (Yes, Holly Jordan the delegate from Jordan.  My committee thought it was pretty funny too…  Libby Long, the delegate from Libya was also on my team.  My adviser wouldn’t let us switch.) in the Economic Affairs committee.  I was scared out of my mind.  I had only recently joined the team, and even my fellow freshmen had a few more weeks experience than I did.  In my ill-fitting suits, I stood up, knees knocking, and presented Jordanian thoughts on economic issues.  I had no idea what was going on.

These programs changed my life.  I went on to national leadership roles within this organization, sponsored by the National Council on US-Arab Relations and grew far more as a student and learner than I ever anticipated as an entering college freshman.  And the program itself has evolved so much since I started.  We’ve gone from murdering half the rain forest each year to nearly paperless conferences, with resolutions being projected on SMARTBoards and edited as a group in real time.  The 300 pages of CIA World Factbook info on each of the member nations of the League (which I did print and put in a binder I still have…) is now available as an Android app.

So now, 8 years later, I have the opportunity to lead a team from Virginia Tech.  Serving as Head Delegate, we will take a delegation, representing Mauritania, to SERMAL.  I am so very excited to help facilitate this opportunity for Tech students.  I’ve been pretty obnoxious about my excitement with them.  I hope they will get why I’m so spastic after we return home.  I promise to post pictures and reactions to how awesome it was!

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