Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Where do we go from here?

As the 2018 session of the Global Perspectives Program comes to a close, I reflect on my experience. The basic feature of the universities which impressed me the most can be distilled into two basic ideas: respect and support. I intend no sharp dichotomy between these two ideas. This post will explore the ways in which European and especially Swiss Unis support and respect their students to a greater extent than American schools.

Respect and support is expressed through the university systems of Europe in myriad forms. Foremost, the financial burden of an advanced education pales in comparison to the US system. Standardized with the Bologna Process, a bachelor's degree takes 3 years. The most expensive "price-tag" of a degree of the schools we visited was for non-swiss students at USI. At most they pay €4000 per semester. The extreme upperend cost of a degree, then, is €24,000.  This rate is commensurate (but less than) a relatively cheap in-state cost at Radford University for one year. The mean,  median and mode cost per semester for attending the European schools we visited  a probably fall much closer to €500. American students scramble for part-time work and start adult life wracked with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, growing with compunding interest. The Swiss are not finanxially hamstrung to start their careers. These financial differences are sure to express themselves in terms of quality of life, relationship success, and even productivity. While most Americans take any job to pay the bills, Europeans become entrepreneurs and masters of their crafts without fear of economic-suicide. 

This financial difference also manifests as a difference in respect. For example, Milano Polytechnic heavily subsidies PhD students to study abroad. This is a proactive initiative. Students merely apply. Virginia Tech, on the other hand, demands dozens of forms to partially recoup the money we spend, in advance, to attend professional conferences. Personally, I am awaiting a partial refund for plane tickets I bought in October of 2017. This places a massive burden on student who do not have spare capital or familial support. The default treatment of students is one of distrust. The initial financial burden is placed on students and on to through the assiduous management of bureaucratic can students hoep to be reimbursed.

The most stunning manifestation of this respect and support was expressed at the Design School in Basel. Students are empowered to engaged in "hyperwerk" which can be constituted by any meaningful expression of personal labor. Students can make gardens, sculptures or movies, with almost total discretion. They are funded in these endeavors for a full year. Further, they are provided an array of open spaces and equipment to realize their artistic vision. So far as I know there is no near analog to hyperwerk in the US.

To draw normarive conclusions from an editorializing piece, it seems that the European "respect and support" model works. Students and Swiss society thrive, with unparalled research productivity levels and excellent overall quality of life. These metrics certainly surpass the United States.

The International Expedition: Reflections on Latin Culture

After settling in Zurich for a few days, we moved to Basel then Riva San Vitale. Moving from the predominantly german, french, then italian parts of Switzerland offered many insights. The most striking contrasts were found in Swiss-Italy.

The train trip through the Alps from Basel to Riva is a visual spectacle. Scenic mountains, nestled towns, and modern engineering converged providing majestic views. Upon moving into the Lugano valley the passenger density and speaking volume clearly increased. Two drunk men embarked with a dog. They were engaged in a heated argument and were playing music with a cell-phone. One stumbled and stepped on his dog, who schreeked in pain. My mind immediately turned to Latin America. Personal discipline comes secondary to animated exchange, and epicurean delights. The Latin cultural influences persisted upon arrival in Riva.

Contrary to the norm of pedestrian right-of-way found in Zurich, drivers rely on an interpersonal, laissez-faire system. Pedestrians presuppose right-of-way at their own peril. Yes everyone besides the new-comers at the Steger center seem content with this system. night life proved much more lively and less structure than Zurich too. While Zurich has world-class bars and restaurants, I only saw young people drinking in public. By contrast, people in Riva freely spill into public space as festivities continue past midnight. Similarly, I saw drinking in the afternoon on campus at SUPSI, and by Lake Lugano. The heavy drinkers intermingled with families. Naked children ran care-free. Mutual suspicion and fear evaporated in the warm valley air.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Swiss Universities

The first days of GPP have been a whirlwind. We visited Uni Zurich, ETH, and the Uni of Basel. I'll divide this post into observations about the universities followed by some personal remarks.

The most incredible feature of these world-class schools are there incredibly low fees and tuition. For example, the universitiy of Zurich charges €480 per semester, total. I know STEM majors at Virginia Tech who pay that much for textbooks. This allows students to pursue education without fear or massive debt. This creates opportunities for risk-taking insofar as students are free to study their passions. While this certainly enhances overall quality of life, it also allows for innovative research. Students can pursue grand ideas and test uncharted hypotheses. Their intellectual possiblilties are not constrained by compounding interest on their student-loans.

Another distinctive feature of the Swiss system is the specialization of the respective schools. The University of Basel does social sciences and humanities scholarship. It is the only school to clearly claim a philosophy faculty (department), for example. Likewise, only U Zurich has abstract STEM disciplines such as Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. The University of Swiss-Italy (Usi) applies these topics to human health and well-being.
I take this feature of the the Swiss system to be a mixed-blessing. On the one hand, it promotes specialization which concentrates the best minds in any given field together, at one university. It is no accident that U Zurich claims 21 Nobel Prize winners and 3 Fields Medalists. One the other hand, this method deprives whole regions and universities of entire disciplines. In effect, it is a hyper-siloing. Elite faculty in one uni do not have any need to be able to communicate their theoretical understanding to others. It deters interdisciplinary work. I speculate that some of the tangible benefits of the research being done in Switzerland are lost in this way. A mathematician may be doing cutting-edge work which could solve current problems,  but only 15 other people in the world can understand that work, much less apply it.

On a personal note, I arrived in Switzerland mentally scattered. Managing my own travels and business while traveling across three countries left me a bit burnt-out. Since starting the program I have lost my pants (don't ask me how) and my cell-phone. In both cases, Swiss people were incredibly accommodating. I young man waited for 15 mins at the train station for me to return my phone. He refused money when I tried to offer it to him as a reward. After getting 8 hours of sleep, I am collecting myself. I dont intend to lose anything else. We are traveling to Strasbourg in France today. I won't lose my passport!

Monday, May 28, 2018

Arrival and Initial Impressions - Switzerland

Having arrived in Zurich two days ago, I made many observations pertaining to the universities in the city without a formal introduction to the university system. Public policy and city infrastructure are very conducive to a lively intellectual culture.

Foremost, the city's infrastructure contributes to social activity and overall quality of life. First, the many pathways, parks and staircases provide innumerable areas where people gather to talk and enjoy their evenings. Students gather in the evenings to enjoy drinks and talk. Their attention is directed towards each other rather than screens. Second, fountains offer beautification, hydration and temperature regulation. I saw many people dip to drink a gulp of water, wash their face and otherwise enjoy fresh mountain wayer. This makes for healthier, happier students. The contrast case of New York City  standouts,  as students I know there  must pack water and strategically remember where  bathrooms are  hidden throughout the city. These which, I believe, contributes to the vitality of the city and it's universities. Third, the mass transit systems facilitate cheap and efficient transportation, negating the dangers and costs of driving. Zurich makes navigating a pleasant break from work rather than a stressful bookends to work. The city provides the background conditions for academic success.

I'm sure the actual universities do so as well.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Eve of Departure - GPPVT18

In the week before departing for the Global Perspectives Program (GPP), I graduated, interviewed for a full-time academic position, and attempted to sublet my apartment. I prepared for a month-long trip and graded the final papers of ~120 students. I allowed myself little time to anticipate or appreciate the experience to come. Nonetheless, a number of surprising considerations arose in anticipation of GPP and traveling. My considerations were largely pragmatic considerations about what to pack.

First, prioritizing and managing attire proved challenging. My clothing for the trip consists of either formal attire, or - for lack of a better  phrase - casual-gym attire. Given the professional context of GPP, the latter are obviously not useful during business hours. This led to two considerations. First, I realized that I should consider comfort and utility in my professional attire. After all, we will spend a fair amount of time outside in the summer during our travel and campus-visits. Presumably, I will be expected to wear business-casual attire in most future professional contexts. While this may seem like a somewhat trivial point, it is an important one. GPP provides the opportunity to begin this process. Much like the advice often given with regard to selecting quality shoes and a good mattress, it also holds that we will spend a lot of time in business clothing. I aspire to be comfortable and professional. Achieving the former will contribute to the latter, I predict.

 The second broad consideration I noted is an interesting asymmetry between gender-normed professional. Men usually wear many more pieces of clothing and layers to be professional. Personally, I am envious of the summer-dresses and sleeve-less tops which are deemed appropriate for women. An analogous outfit for men would be akin to Fred Flintstone. My point is not one about the relative burdens of benefits of living in a gendered society. Sweating in a suit-jacket does not atone for history.  Rather, my point is simple and liberatory.  I am confident that the vast majority of men who wear professional clothing would be eager to buy and wear lighter, summer-friendly business attire. There is an interesting inertial problem. No one wants to be the first to take that initial risk of attending a business-meeting dressed like Mr. Flintstone. As future professioriate, one minor way to make the university more inviting is to consider ways of accommodating people comfortably.
Maybe there is social-space for post-gender professional attire. My next post will be about my initial impressions of Germany and Switzerland. Stay tuned!

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

Anticipating GPP Travels

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.