Becoming an Interdisciplinary Polyglot: Heather Zwicker

Dean Dean It rhymes with keen. You have to have a lot of keen If you want to be a Dean.

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Dean Dean
It rhymes with keen.
You have to have a lot of keen
If you want to be a Dean.

There's an ease and breeziness that you feel when welcomed into Heather Zwicker's office. From the tea & coffee cozy that awaits her guests, to the Images of Research mounted to her wall, Heather's office feels as though it's as much for her visitors as it is for her. It's welcoming, shows off the spectacular work of the U of A's graduate students, and includes wonderfully quirky finds, like the poem Ode to Her Ladyship Heather, Dean which was penned by her very own mother.

Sitting down to chat with her about the start of her deanship, I was reminded of a few things - she's fiercely passionate about creating the best experience possible for graduate students, is intrigued by the interdisciplinary space that she occupies, and is still very much (and delightfully so) an English prof.

You officially became the Dean and Vice-Provost of the Faculty of Graduate Studies & Research (FGSR) on July 1, 2017 - so how is the experience so far?

It is just fantastic! It's been fantastic for a couple of big reasons, the first being the team that I work with here. Everybody who walks into Triffo Hall comes to work to make life better for graduate students. I could not work with better people. And the other thing is that it's just inherently interesting to be in the middle of everything across campuses. I sometimes describe my job as a matter of asking everyone I meet, "so what constitutes knowledge in your discipline, and how do you 'know'?" And it's an endlessly interesting question with endlessly interesting answers.

Speaking of being in the middle of things, what is it like to lead an interdisciplinary faculty, like FGSR?

It means that you are always on your toes intellectually; that you can't take anything for granted. And it means that you can be certain that there's always more to know than you came to work knowing that day.

As a faculty, we do a lot of translation work. We need to translate what happens on one part of campus to another part of campus.

How did you prepare yourself and the faculty to perform that type of translation work?

I knew when I came in that I had a really steep learning curve around some of the areas that I knew less well, and so bringing someone like Debbie Burshtyn into the fold early was really important. She's from Medical Microbiology and Immunology, which now comes trippingly off the tongue, but maybe didn't at first. Bringing in people who could represent the parts of campus that I knew less well was important to me.

Now, I feel as though my Humanities background gives me a facility with languages, so it's like I'm becoming an interdisciplinary polyglot. I find that I'm able to help translate between disciplines and it's still my aspiration to be able to move back and forth between these different areas better.

I also work very closely with John Nychka, who is a design thinking genius, and the two of us are trying to find ways to encourage innovation across disciplines.

What other endeavours have you been up to?

So far, improving the culture of supervision and moving toward mentorship has been a huge thing. We have been building professional development opportunities and really shaping the conversation around what the career expectations of our graduate students should be. But the development of these initiatives involves a cultural shift that will take a long time. And it really has to be an all-in venture. We need every supervisor to be thinking forward to what their students should be doing at the end of their degree.

We're also moving on graduate student mental health and we want to see more Indigenous students in graduate school. We want it to be plain that graduate school is a place of interest for indigenous students, and a place that they can come.

How has your own graduate student experience informed your work ?

You know, it was a different time [laughs]. But it really was a different time, and it was a very different context and a very different setting. For example, we didn't talk a lot about mental health [back then]. Now, I think that developing a culture of accountability for supervisors is important - and that comes out of some of the things that I experienced, or more to the point, observed, in graduate school.

But one of the great advantages of going to a place like Stanford, is that people there are always looking for the best practices. As the dean now, it's still one of the things I find myself doing - I'm always looking around to see who in the country, or who in the world has good ideas that we can import here, and Stanford's one of them.

What have you found so far?

Examples I look to include UBC's Public Scholars Initiative, which is fantastic. I'm really really intrigued by that. We look to Queen's University because of the work that they were able to do very quickly around learning outcomes. And Waterloo has done some good stuff around developing apps to support graduate student mental health.

I work really closely as well with my counterpart at the University of Calgary. We've adapted their "Great Supervisor" event for our own people because I want to be able to invite our own great supervisors over to Triffo Hall and raise a mug to them!

Looking further afield, the entire country of Australia has done incredible stuff around professional development, especially Australian National University (ANU).

What do you hope other schools will be able to learn from us?

I hope that the work that we've done around graduate student internships and experiential learning is something that they aspire to. I hope that our mentorship academy - which is kind of our long term hub and spoke model for developing supervisory and mentorship capacity within the disciplines - is something that people pick-up and admire from us.

I hope that we are able to actually pilot the use of restorative practices, which our Associate Dean, Bryan Hogeveen's been working on in collaboration with the Student Ombuservice, and Student Conduct & Accountability. That triad works really closely on this, so I hope that we are able to implement restorative practices in a way that provides better conflict resolution. It's tricky, but especially in the very close relationships between PhD students and supervisors, where all parties have an awful lot at stake. And I understand why we have the dispute resolution mechanisms that we do, but they tend to be quite confrontational; somebody wins and somebody loses. So a more restorative approach to that would be very welcome.

What are your hopes for the faculty moving forward?

One in five U of A students - 20 percent - are graduate students. That means that with 80 percent undergrads, that's understandably what people think of first when they think of [U of A] students, but one in five is a pretty substantial proportion. And it's not just that, it's that our graduate students are so intimately connected to the research enterprise at the university. We have no time to waste - we are preparing students to go out and transform the Alberta economy and to make jobs and to realize their ambitions and to put their visions into action. And we need to expose them to a broader range of disciplines before they leave here.

That's why FGSR is indispensable to students and programs - to students achieving their career objectives and to programs in knowing that they've delivered a high quality experience.

Finally, if you had to sum up your U of A experience in just three words, what would they be?

You know I'm an English professor, right? Just three words…

Exciting. Challenging. Supportive.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.