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Perspectives of a Tired Grad Student

Limiting Inventiveness in Academia

This week in class we were talking about authorship and Dr. Depauw mentioned that she believes that you have only earned a degree if you are the first author on the thesis or dissertation that got you that degree. I was caught off guard by this comment because I was not aware that some students have other individuals as authors on their theses/dissertations. In my Master’s program the student does their own research and is the only author on their thesis when they are done; their committee members are acknowledged, but the student is the sole author.

This conversation on having additional authors made me wonder how much freedom these students have in choosing what they want to study for their thesis/dissertation. The amazing thing about my program is that I was given the freedom to study whatever I wanted as long as it related to communication in some way. My program advisor tells grad students that we are should find something that we are interested in, and even if there isn’t someone in the department who specializes in that area the faculty will do whatever they can to find individuals who can help them throughout the process. This freedom that I was given is one of my favorite things about my program and I can’t imagine having felt pressured to study a topic that fit with a particular professor’s area of research.

I am taking a course this semester that involves completing a research project/paper, and while trying to get my topic for this project approved I continued to be met with pushback from my professor any time I made a suggestion that was too far from her own area of research. I have been extremely annoyed at the limitations this professor has placed on the students in this course, so I cannot imagine having to feel this oppression when completing one of the most important projects I had ever worked on.

I am very interested to hear from all of you on this topic. How much freedom did you have in choosing your own thesis/dissertation topic? For those of you who might be in a program that allows for less freedom in choosing what you research, how do you handle these limitations? Has anyone ever stood up against this restraint, and if so, what happened?

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Research Beyond the Researcher

Drew Story’s opinion piece Give People What They Paid For in Inside Higher Ed really caught my eye. In this piece, Story addressed the declining support and funding for scholarly work. Two sentences in particular caught my eye:

“For too long, colleges and universities have held a monopoly on new knowledge, mostly with specialized language, but recently more with exclusivity. The fact is that, aside from what the news media passes on, the public can’t access scientific research in its original published form.”

In the same vein, Maximillian Alvarez writes, “The biggest obstacle to democratizing access to and production of academic knowledge is the reality that many academics and academics-in-training don’t actually want this to happen. The university currently provides incentives for knowledge producers (greater prestige, salary bumps, more freedom with reduced teaching loads) that make it altogether undesirable for those in elite institutions — and those who desperately want to join them — to reject the system of privileges from which they benefit, or hope to someday.”

This statement gets at my biggest issue with higher education and scholarly research. All throughout my college experience, and especially while in my Master’s program I have been exposed to (or maybe more accurately forced to read) scholarly article on scholarly article. If I hadn’t attended college I likely would not have read even a tenth of the scholarly articles that I have. I don’t know anyone who spends their spare time perusing academic journals; many people aren’t even aware of the overabundance of articles that are out there overflowing with information, and why would they when people like me, who have a degree and are in the progress of getting a second, still struggle to understand them sometimes.

To combat this issue, Story suggests that researchers include a “General Public Summary” with their regular article. This summary would be aimed at the general public, meaning that it would be written at no higher than an eighth grade reading level and would be freely available to the general public on the publisher’s website. Although I think this is the start of a great idea, I think that the issue of making the public aware that this information exists and getting them to see value in utilizing it remains a difficulty.

I am NOT a very research oriented person; the idea of spending the rest of my life collecting, analyzing and writing about data makes me want to crawl in a cave and hide, and part of these reason for this negative attitude toward research is the result of its exclusive nature. I am a firm believe in the idea that research should be conducted for the good of the public, and research can’t help the public if it isn’t available to the public. I am trying to practice what I preach by making my thesis as practical as possible for the people involved and directly providing them with an “executive summary” that is created for the purpose of aiding them in applying my findings to their everyday work, but I am already finding that in order to make it “valuable” in the research world, I am sometimes limiting its practicality, and it’s a shame that this is the case.

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I would love to hear from some of you in other disciplines about how prominent this issue is in your field, and your thoughts on it.

 

Common Core: A Common Problem?

Today I came across an Inside Higher Ed article written by Arthur Garson and Robert Pianta that caught my eye. Read the full article here. In this article, Garson and Pianta explored college’s requirement of students to take “core curriculum,” or as we call them here at Virginia Tech Curriculum for Liberal Education or CLE, courses. The authors argue that these common core courses are arbitrarily selected, and are an expensive waste of time for students. They suggest that a more effective alternative would be to have “a group of successful people from across the country, from all walks of life, led by evidence-based educators” create a new list of subjects that anyone considered “educated” should know, and implement this new list of prerequisites at all universities. They say that colleges should then experiment with these courses to determine how they impact student outcomes to decide which courses should remain a part of this core curriculum.

Their second suggestion was that these core curriculum courses should be online courses, saying that “students’ on-campus time is better spend on other endeavors and it’s inefficient for every university in the country to design and teach the same core courses. They say it would make more sense to create “a marketplace of online courses” that can be used by all universities.

I think these authors have made an important point. I was lucky to come into Virginia Tech with a large portion of my CLE courses already completed. Already having these courses completed meant that I was able to finish my undergraduate degree in only three years, which saved me thousands of dollars. The authors mention that these online courses could be available for high school students to take before coming to college, and I think this is a great idea, especially for students who attend high schools that offer few college level courses. My high school offered very few AP or Dual Enrollment courses (only two I think). I was lucky enough to be accepted into a Governor’s school, where I was able to earn the college credits I mentioned earlier. The authors did not say whether these online courses would come at a lower cost than other courses, but since they would require no professor, I would assume that they would.

The authors speak pretty harshly about common core courses, and although I think they make a few valid points, I do not see all of these courses as worthless, and I do not think that all of them should be taught online. Some students simply do not learn well online. Virginia Tech’s online format for math classes would have been a nightmare for me if I hadn’t already completed all of my required math courses. I think it is important that courses also offer these core courses in an in-class format for students who don’t do well with online classes (maybe just less frequently).

I am interested to hear what your thoughts are on the common core courses and some of the suggestions that the authors have offered.

Developing Evaluation Standards

I recently read an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about how the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oklahoma State University (Bret Danilowicz) has developed a new program for measuring department effectiveness. This program would evaluate the effectiveness of each program based on nontraditional factors, like the amount of philanthropic gifts the department receives and how well students learn.

Mr. Danilowicz decided that, because of the diversity among the various programs, he would not be able to come up with one set of standards that would be fair across the board, so he developed seven measures that could be used for evaluation. The seven measures are as follows: “ethnic and gender diversity among faculty members and students; faculty workload; the size and vitality of the department’s programs; philanthropy; research; student learning; and student retention.” Mr. Danilowicz allowed the departments to create their own improvement plans and measures of assessment based on these seven characteristics.

I was extremely skeptical when I read that this program would be using the amount of monetary gifts given to a department to measure the program’s success, but now that I see the various factors that can be taken into consideration, I am much more intrigued by this system. I can also see how this system could create a number of disagreements between the different programs. I anticipate that Mr. Danilowicz has had to address concerns from faculty and staff that other departments do not have improvement and assessment plans that are as difficult as others, or that the characteristics to choose from are not suitable for all departments. It makes a lot of sense to allow the people working in the department, and therefore know the most about the department, play a role in determining how they should be evaluated on their success.

This article got me thinking that I have no idea how Virginia Tech handles departent evaluations. Do any of you who teach know anything about your department’s evaluation process? Although I understand that our departments probably don’t want to overwhelm their GTAs, as people who are looking to go into higher education, I wish we had more exposure to some of these aspects of the job.

 

On a Mission to Learn

When instructed to look at two college’s mission statements, I was drawn to the two schools that are most relevant to my life: Virginia Tech and Wytheville Community College.

Wytheville Community College is committed to providing access to lifelong learning within an environment of academic excellence.

To achieve its mission, Wytheville Community College is guided by the following principles, all of which are related to teaching and learning and help the college meet the needs of the communities it serves.  The “Guiding Principles” are:

  • to provide programs and courses of instruction, through the associate-degree level, encompassing occupational-technical education, college transfer education, general education, developmental education, continuing education, and workforce development
  • to offer a comprehensive program of student-development services
  • to provide a broad range of instructional technologies, methods, materials, facilities, and instructional support services that accommodate students of varied backgrounds, interests, and abilities
  • to create an educational environment that facilitates learning through a curriculum that broadens perspectives, leads to responsible citizenship, and sets standards that support the highest level of performance
  • to serve as an important linkage between secondary education and four-year colleges and universities
  • to enrich local communities, by making available resources in people, facilities, libraries, and programming
  • to take a leadership role in helping shape the future direction of our communities
  • to present diverse cultural opportunities while promoting the heritage of Southwest Virginia
  • to enhance economic, cultural, and educational partnerships between WCC and the communities we serve
  • to ensure a healthful and safe environment on campus
  • to be fiscally responsible and accountable
  • to promote accessibility and affordability; and
  • to ensure quality in all programs and services.

I chose to look at this particular college’s mission statement, because my thesis focuses directly on this school. This college also happens to be 10 minutes from the house I grew up in. This college is where a large percentage of the people I graduated high school with attended, and where my mom works.

I was surprised (although I shouldn’t have been) at the attention to community in WCC’s mission statement. This college is located in a small county with a population of less than 30 thousand people. A large portion of the people who grow up there stay there for the rest of their lives; this place is all they know, making it important to them.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) is a public land-grant university serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to its mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.

I wanted to look at Virginia Tech’s mission statement, because (as ashamed as I am to admit it) in my four plus years as a Hokie I never have. Where I was surprised that the first mission statement put so much focus on the surrounding community, I am surprised that Virginia Tech’s mission statement does not mention Blacksburg. Having been at Virginia Tech for as long as I have I see Virginia Tech as an extension of Blacksburg and vice versa. One would not be the same without the other. I feel like Virginia Tech’s mission is (like a lot of mission statements) a bit vague, where WCC’s mission felt more specific. I assume Virginia Tech avoided specifics to allow for growth within the University, but it just feels a bit impersonal. Being so familiar with Virginia Tech, and knowing how special this university is, I simply don’t believe this mission statement does Virginia Tech justice.

The Ethical Dilemma of Ethical Dilemmas

“The fact that we have schools does not mean we have education. The fact that we have hospitals does not mean we have health care. The fact that we have courts does not mean we have justice. We need professionals who are “in but not of their institutions, whose allegiance to the core values of their fields makes them resist the institutional diminishment of those values.”

This quote in Parker Palmer’s article really stuck with me. I think that in every field we have issues where what we learn in school isn’t necessarily what is done in the world of work, whether this be because of lack of time, money, or effort. Obviously this disconnect is an issue, but the bigger issue is the gap in education that we receive in terms of ethics. We’ve discussed numerous times the cursory attention that ethics are given in education, and the more I think about it the more I see this gap everyday.

While writing this I’m sitting across the room from my boyfriend who has a degree in engineering, and he confirmed that he doesn’t recall any of his classes addressing ethics. This man could go out and build buildings, create weapons, design computer programs, and a million other things I’m unaware of, and not once did anyone ever prompt him to consider the ethicality of doing so. Luckily he has a good head on his shoulders, and is a very culturally and environmentally aware person, but what about those who aren’t. What about those engineers or doctors or biologists or teachers who didn’t grow up being taught to think about how their actions impact others? If these people aren’t learning this in their personal lives, and aren’t learning it through their educations who knows what could happen.

There is so much deception, damage, and corruption in the world already. If we don’t, as Palmer says, “humanize” ourselves, and begin to educate in a way that emphasizes the effect rather than the result things will only continue to get worse.

Despite my examples being primarily engineering related, this isn’t an issue that only impacts the hard sciences. We all need to humanize our students. What good does it do for me to teach my students how to give an effective persuasive speech if I don’t address the ethical implications of this type of speech, and when this type of speech might be inappropriate.

We often shrug ethics off as something that everyone already knows, but judging by the current political state in our county I believe we have to accept that everyone doesn’t always know the difference between right and wrong, especially when the lines begin to blur, money becomes involved, and your personal security is on the line. I am throughly convinced that ethics need to be a more prominent subject in my course, and I hope you do too.

From Drones to Organ Donation We Cover it All

Teaching public speaking allows me to meet a wide array of students all with immensely diverse backgrounds. My students come from a wide range of majors and places. One of my favorite things about teaching public speaking is the fact that I can allow my students so much choice and range in what topics they discuss in the class. They never fail to amaze me with the multitude of topics that they choose to cover, and I am even more amazed with the varying knowledge and experiences they back themselves up with.

I can’t imagine how bored I would be if I had to sit in a class day after day and discuss the same types of topics over and over again. I love going into the classroom on any given day and knowing that I will learn about any range of topics from utilitarianism to organ donation and from computer vision to Gestalt Psychology.

This freedom does come with responsibility on my part however. Although students generally choose to talk about things like the growing use of drones or the financial collapse of 2008, at least a few times a semester I will encounter a more controversial topic, like abortion, capital punishment, religion, or gun control. I try to give my students as much space as I can to be themselves and talk about topics that interest them, but I have to keep the class as a whole in mind. There is a fine line between giving my students freedom in the course and giving them a platform to push an agenda, especially when it’s a controversial one that has the potential to offend other students, cause arguments, or harm the welcoming environment I strive to foster.  I have felt it necessary to suggest that a student avoid a topic they chose to give a speech on. Although some teachers would say this stifles creativity and diversity, I believe it is important to teach my students that in a group as diverse as ours some topics either aren’t appropriate to talk about, or must be discussed extremely carefully, and that they do not have the time or expertise to give such sensitive topics the time that they deserve in order to be covered fully. I would never want a student to take on a difficult topic and end up giving a speech that would harm or suppress relationships with other students or hurt their credibility in the eyes of their classmates. Diversity of ideas and opinions is an essential part of my classroom; however, so is mutual respect.

An Age Dilemma

As someone who is extremely close in age to my students (I have a student this semester who is actually a year older than me) I struggle with being my “authentic teaching self”. If asked to describe myself as a teacher, I would describe myself as: friendly, supportive, encouraging, etc. One word I wish I could use to describe my teaching style is open. Although I do try to be open with my students to an extent, I struggle to feel like I can open myself up to them to the extent that I would like to. My worry is that if I open myself up more I will lose the air of professionalism that I have been able to create. My hope is that once I am in a more “professional” role, rather than working in a GTA capacity, I will feel that I have the freedom to be more open with my students and create stronger connections without the fear of losing their respect.

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I went to college to beat my friends at Jeopardy

Robert Talbert’s statements regarding the nature of lectures have really gotten me thinking about just how silly education has become in some ways. Talbert says, “Resorting to a lecture because I need to “cover material” is just an admission that I didn’t design my course well. If that’s all the lecture is for, put it online so students can at least pause and rewind.” This point reminded me of a large lecture class I took as a sophomore while in undergrad. I recall the teacher well. She tried to make the class fun and interactive by showing videos and talking about popular culture related to the course. I could tell she was doing her best to make this class engaging. However, I absolutely despised this class. Three years have passed and I am still annoyed by this class (if you don’t believe me just ask my mom, I complained to her about it on the phone just last night).

Why did I hate the class so much you ask? Well in my mind it was completely useless. The class was supposed to teach me about media, and in a way it did, we learned about music, television, internet, etc. What infuriated me was that the teacher spent most of the class spitting random facts at us like, that the first country song was recorded in 1922, and these facts were what we were tasked with remembering for the tests. Maybe you’re thinking “okay what’s so bad about learning some media facts”? Well I’ll tell you. I left at the end of every class with a brain full of trivia wondering what on earth these facts taught me about media. When the professor would go over a theory related to media she would tell us the name of the theory, the basic premise, and who created it. That was it. There was no cohesion. I left the class with some information that might help me perform well when watching jeopardy, but I had no idea as to how these facts corresponded with one another or how they impacted the world of media or what any of this meant for the people who use those media. Nothing was ever connected and I never understood the impact of any of the things I was learning, so to me it was useless.

I feel like many students encounter this frustration, especially with the standardization that has overtaken education. We have a tendency to place students in these huge lecture halls and shoot facts at them and expect them to memorize them, but what good is this system? What does it matter if I know when the first country song was recorded if I don’t know what impact it had on the music industry? What good is it if I know that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 if I don’t know who was fighting or what they were fighting about, or understand the grand scheme surrounding this battle?

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that memorization is important sometimes. Trust me I wish I had dedicated more time to memorizing my multiplication tables, so I could quickly perform them on the spot. There are basic skills that we should memorize for the sake of time. If I am an accountant and I can’t remember what 12 times 13 is I’m wasting valuable job time by having to figure it out on a calculator. Then again is it really a huge deal if I don’t remember small details when it so quick and simple to just look them up? As a communication major I constantly had AP style pounded into my brain, and I understand that the purpose was so that I wouldn’t have to take the time to look up every single detail when writing a story, especially considering the time sensitive world we live in. However, considering it takes me about 3 seconds to find an answer with a Google search, is it really a big deal if I can’t remember that Arizona should be abbreviated Ariz.?

My point is, why have we lost sight of the importance of the big picture to focus on those small memorizable facts? If I have a puzzle and the pieces don’t include the interlocking tabs and openings I will never see the full impact of the picture. We have to remember to provide our students with the entire puzzle piece or risk them casting our subjects off as non-essential.

Not to mention the fact that despite being forced to memorize when the first country music song was recorded, when the Battle of Hastings occurred, and how to abbreviate Arizona according to AP style, I had to Google all of those things in order to include them in this post, so obviously something isn’t working.

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