This postcard comes from Halifax where I am attending the annual meeting of the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools (NAGS)
April 20th, 2012

This postcard comes from Halifax where I am attending the annual meeting of the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools (NAGS). I have blogged about NAGS before. It’s a cozy club. We just finished Day One of panels and meals, the US and the Canadian deans having exchanged ideas, political stories, and travel tips. Halifax isn’t necessarily looking at her best mid-April, and the wind off the harbor water is cold enough to produce hat head, but for the American visitors the city holds an exotic appeal. I get that. There are steel-grey frigates in the harbor and maple leaves on our flags, and although we share the same sea with the deans from New Jersey or Massachusetts, it’s definitely different here.

I think the difference tends to get exaggerated when we compare experiences of graduate student funding. We always sound so much more progressive and supportive of graduate education. Our institutions are public and our provincial governments are obliged to fund our post-secondary institutions. A speaker representing MITACS, a federally-funded initiative aimed at enhancing professional skills for graduate students, makes this country look enviably awesome. Quebec students are marching in the streets against tuition fee hikes that wouldn’t even cover the cost of a one-semester parking rate at a US school. These meetings always generate the view that it’s simply better up here.

But, as someone pointed out today, Canada’s productivity growth ranks 15th out of 18 countries at comparable levels of development, and the government is preoccupied, as others before it have been, with being more innovative. This is part of a much longer discussion about why this is so, how we might measure innovation, and what we need to do to generate more of it. The March federal budget is, by some accounts, a deliberate turn to this matter.

We aren’t here to be discussing such vexing issues, however. We are here to find points of common interest. And nothing screams common interest more than interdisciplinarity, that which we continue to promote and continue to find difficult to manage. Today’s panel on the topic stressed how deans from both sides of the border succeed in supporting interdisciplinary graduate programs in spite of ongoing resistance. The barriers are the same: faculty workload issues, territoriality, suspicion of the benefits of such approaches to knowledge, institutional intransigence, and so on. But ultimately, and after a good discussion, there was a feeling in the room that we shouldn’t worry about coming up with one all-purpose model of managing interdisciplinary programs. We should just get on with making such programs happen, come hell or high water.

The afternoon panel also demonstrated how far we have gone toward offering professional enhance development programs for our students. At first I thought the panel wouldn’t stimulate much discussion but I was clearly out to lunch. Discussion extended well into the pre-banquet stretch of late afternoon. For the most part, no one thought in terms of American or Canadian practices. We were all talking about the importance, even moral obligation, to equip all our students with the right tools for a working life well beyond the academy. This is as true for students in Halifax or St. John’s as it is for those in Hartford or New York.

Tomorrow we will compare notes about integrating postdocs into our cultures, as well as other topics, and I would put money on it that my panel on social media will reveal that both American and Canadian deans have never considered opening a twitter account, by and large. We will also hand out teaching, mentoring, and dissertation awards to deserving recipients from both sides of the 49th.

I like hanging out at NAGS. It’s both satisfying to have one’s national pride stoked a little, and reassuring to be reminded that we’re all in the same boat.

Next year we gather in New Brunswick—New Jersey, that is.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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