Friday, March 30, 2018

Surprising and Intriguing Insights about Swiss Culture

In preparing for our Global Perspectives Program visit to Switzerland this summer, our cohort had the opportunity to learn from two Swiss graduate students who came to Blacksburg to present. While there presentations focused on higher education, I learned some interesting things about Swiss culture and political life as well.

First, I was surprised to learn that traditional gender roles have changed little in the past few hundred years, in Switzerland. While women participate in the work-force at higher-rates, a number of traditional 'values' remain. Foremost, all and only men have an obligation to serve in the military. While deferments and alternative forms of service are an option, it is incumbent upon every man to serve the Swiss state or pay a recurring fee for not doing so. This fee applies even if people are disqualified on medical grounds. In an age of increasingly technologically sophisticated warfare, this is an interesting anachronism, to me. Israel, for example, includes women in compulsory service duties. Likewise, the United States has increasingly opened its military-ranks, as women serve in a number of combat roles. Similarly, I learned that debates about women's suffrage - and efforts to rescind women's right to vote - continued into the 1990s. Evidently, social progress has not been achieved uniformly in Switzerland.
Second, the rate of political participation and direct involvement in affairs of state is astounding. The Swiss regularly participate in genuine national referendums. The people directly and collectively decide on issues range from voting rights (as in the above case), immigration, and gun control. This direct democracy is an interesting contrast to the US federal system, with its many points of mediation to direct or quell the 'voice of the people.' While each has it's own advantage and I am not going to defend one model over the other here, the contrast is interesting. I cannot imagine the entire US  collectively, and in one day, deciding whether assault-weapons can be sold to teenagers at department stores, for example.
Finally, the Swiss take great pride in their country. In another interesting contrast to the US, the Swiss willingly enact increased regulations and pay more to buy local, thereby preserve their cultural heritage and local economy.  Big Macs cost nearly $15 (USD) in Switzerland as a result. Retaining local industry and cultural standards leads people to be willing to pay much more for goods. While Americans tend to suggest that the bottom-dollar deal will always prevail (irrespective of the social or ecological effects), the Swiss show that this economic prerogative is not a feature of human nature, but a cultural artifact. This, in particular, is an important lesson for Americans as the state, public life and civic all recede in the face of 'bottom-dollar' rationales.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Global Perspectives Program

As our cohort's itineraries formalize, I am beginning to recognize the logistical demands of the trip.
For the group, I anticipate someone being very late at some point. Given the size of our group and the many points of departure/entry, avoiding all such incidents would be a remarkable achievement.
For individuals, packing an appropriate array of attire, without over-packing seems to be a challenge. Hopefully I can find a suit-jacket which is multi-functional.

As of now, I hope to enter or leave Europe via Istanbul. Most flights to Germany and Zurich go through Istanbul to or/from Zurich. Aside from the logistical considerations, I hope that seeing such a diverse range of nations and peoples will be informative, particularity in light of recent developments in European politics. From a historical perspective, Vienna and Istanbul are culturally rich and storied cities, spanning back thousands of years (if under different names). This exacerbates the packing and logistical considerations above.
As an experienced traveler, I think I am up for the adventure. All the more room for personal growth!

On a final note, I am surprised to learn  the substantive differences between American and European high-ed. As I understand it, doctoral students in Germany can work directly with a professor, having little institutional involvement. Given the extent of formalized application, including exams like the GRE and all the bureaucratic elements of degree-completion in the US, this is very surprising. While it probably dramatically reduces the extraneous burdens imposed on faculty and graduate students, the lack of institutional over-sight also risks potential abuses of power, as graduate students are in relative isolation and little little power in relation to their mentor.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Reflection on GPP Meeting One

A few highlights struck me during our first meeting for the Virginia Tech, Global Perspectives Program.  Foremost, it was clear that the room was full of motivated, dynamic people. One person was in NYC at the Grammys, others were traveling for professional reasons, and I, among others, could not attend the full meeting due to other commitments.  This group is clearly capable and productive.

The next event that struck me was the level of trust exhibited towards us by Dean DePauw. She said, "meet me at 3pm on May 27th at the hotel in Zurich" [roughly]. As a traveler, I very much appreciated this expectation/respect. As a cohort of motivated and competent Doctoral students, it seems appropriate to entrust travel to us. I do expect some complications, but I'm sure we'll manage.

Finally, the efficiency of scheduling regular meetings was remarkable. With so many people and competing schedules, it was a wonder that we found a common time quickly, and without the need to use a Doodle poll or any other technology.  I can already sense the energy that this cohort has, and I'm excited to see us operate as a team across Europe.