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.

Erin Hotchkiss receives the Lindeman Award from the American Association of Limnology and Oceanography

ASLO honors Erin Hotchkiss with the 2016 Raymond L. Lindeman Award
Dr. Erin Hotchkiss, a faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech and a Global Change Center affiliate, recently received The Raymond L. Lindeman Award from the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO). This award honors a scientist of 35 years of age or less for an outstanding peer-reviewed, English-language paper in the aquatic sciences. ASLO awarded Dr. Hotchkiss with the 2016 Lindeman Award for her paper, ...

IGC Fellow Angie Estrada awarded a doctoral fellowship to continue amphibian research in Panama

IGC Fellow, Angie Estrada was awarded the SENACYT-IFARHU Doctoral Fellowship 2016. She will receive three years of support to continue her graduate education in the Department of Biological Sciences under Dr. Lisa Belden’s supervision.
SENACYT (National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation) is Panama’s government authority in charge of planning and implementing the national strategy of science and technology. It is the equivalent to the NSF in the United Sates. SENACYT supports outstanding Panamanian students who are pursuing undergraduate, graduate and ...

Global Change Center Science Policy Fellowships give undergrads experience in Washington, DC

From VT News
The Washington Semester program at Virginia Tech began offering undergraduate students the chance to spend summers learning the ins and outs of policymaking on Capitol Hill 20 years ago.
Today, the university’s School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), which houses the summer program, has partnered with the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech to ensure students are exposed to the role science plays in this process.
As part of the new collaboration, the Global Change Center has established ...

Global deal limits the use of hydrofluorocarbons

From The Guardian
A global deal to limit the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in the battle to combat climate change is a “monumental step forward”, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has said.
The agreement, announced on Saturday morning after all-night negotiations in Kigali, Rwanda, caps and reduces the use of HFCs – a key contributor to greenhouse gases – in a gradual process beginning in 2019, with action by developed countries including the US, the world’s second worst polluter.

IGC students float down the New River in Bucket Boats

Postcard from the New River
On a recent Saturday in September, a group of IGC graduate students launched 3 “Bucket Boats” just above McCoy Falls on the New River. The Bucket Boats, which are an older style of raft that are not self draining (thus necessitating the use of a bucket to bail water out of the boat after a rapid), were outfitted by the Virginia Tech Whitewater Club.
The IGC crew spent the day floating downstream, through the series of slow-moving ...

Michelle Stocker and team name a new species of extinct reptile

From VT News
Iconic dinosaur shapes were present in animals for at least 100 million years before dinosaurs themselves actually appeared.
A study published in Thursday’s issue of Current Biology describes how a multi-institutional team of paleontologists, including Virginia Tech College of Science researcher Michelle Stocker, identified and named a new species of extinct reptile estimated to be 230 million years old – predating dinosaurs.
Called Triopticus primus — meaning the “First of Three Eyes” because the large natural pit ...

Reed Noss, leading conservation biologist and naturalist to visit Virginia Tech

From VT News
When a group of Virginia Tech graduate students were nominating potential guest speakers, the choice was unanimous.
The students in the Interfaces of Global Change (IGC) Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program decided on Reed Noss, a leading researcher in conservation biology and the natural sciences, for a special visit to campus on October 6, 2017.
During his visit, he will give a lecture on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. in the New Classroom Building, Room 160, entitled “Forgotten Grasslands of the ...