#DLRN15: Early Reflections from a (Non-traditional) Student

The first #DLRN15 is over. It will be – as Mike Caulfield pronounced from the closing panel – one of those conferences that he (I) will “reflect on for months to come.” There may be some bigger, more important things to be said about #DLRN15 than what follows, but this is where I am with my thoughts one day after the conference ended.

I came to #DLRN15 in what feels like a transitional space. I am a (non-traditional) student, but one that has done a couple of things and met some people; one that is in the last months of her dissertation research; one that hopes to move into to a different professional voice relatively soon.

I also came to the conference with some expectations. More than any conference I have attended in #highered (or medicine, for that matter), #DLRN15 promised to be a ‘thing’ with ‘all the people.’ One of the other participants pulled me aside for confirmation – was this “the core community” he was seeing? “Yes,” I answered, “a core community on the fringe, but I think you are right nonetheless.”

To be invited to join such a gathering as a speaker felt like getting a golden ticket – not so much to Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory as to the war room. Maha Bali asked me during our Virtual Connecting Hangout why I expected any conference to be transformational. I answered (I think), but with further reflection, it’s not that I expected some sort of transformation to take place as much as I expected to come to this ‘thing’ with ‘all the people’ to sweat and metaphorically untuck my shirttails. I was (am) ready to work hard. I was (am) ready to wage some undefined yet seemingly eminent epic and impossible battle.

I came to #DLRN15 with expectations.

I was lucky enough to grab a spot in the pre-conference dinner, which was not so much a dinner as an evening-long work session in which we verbalized and (began to) solve the “stuck questions” of higher education. It was an exercise of thinking-by-doing with limited time and intimate partnership spaces. For me, it was perfect. It was the best conference-related experience I have ever had.

When the more conference structure emerged the next day, the pre-conference war room atmosphere dissipated, and I began to wonder what the conference was actually supposed to be about. As one panel member said, the conference strands (as they played out) did not seem to build to a solution-based conversation on the bigger question of how we can positively impact the trajectory higher education. Instead, I began hearing – particularly at the end of the first day — many of the same ideas I hear regularly in other spaces. An offsite friend asked me if it felt like friends reading their blog posts to one another, and the answer is yes, yes it did. Maybe because we were all tired, maybe because the situation is too dire, or maybe because not everyone reads everyone else’s blog posts, I felt like we wallowed a bit too much in things already said, and in a way that was US-centric, traditional institution-centric, and faculty/staff-centric. And when other (non-US, non-faculty/staff) voices were brave enough to nudge the trajectory of the conversation, they weren’t shot down, but somehow others came neatly behind and nudged it right back to the majority narrative.

It was during that session that I became a “them” instead of a “we.” However, even as a (non-traditional) student voice, touted as the center of our purpose and practice, I was neither confident nor decisive enough to ask other conference-goers politely, out loud, and in the physical space of the session if they might consider (a) stepping back and reframing what was openly called the “rant discussion” or (b) explaining to a student why it was necessary to have that conversation then, there, and in that way. I regret that I couldn’t be brave, like the administrator in the front of the room. From a (non-traditional) student perspective, that administrator was brave, measured, empathetic, and reasonable and I really hope I will be just like that someday.

One of the take-home themes from #DLRN15 was that best teaching and design ideas (as well as the probable Answers-with-a-capital-‘A’) will emerge from thinking, communication, and implementation that seeks to be accessible, adaptable, and flexible. It is a UDL-type approach (and in no way anti-intellectual, as one of my off-site tweeps suggested). However, even as we talked about busting binaries, we made so many of our own missteps into binaries that I considered turning it into a drinking game. Faculty versus administrator. Stream versus garden. Traditional versus non-traditional students. Also, given attempts to focus on non-traditional students and the number of non-traditional students in the room, I found it ironic how often we chose to question whether there were student voices in the room. When we found some student voices and asked them to speak in their student voice, they were the (self-defined) traditional students.

However – and this is probably the most important sentence of this post – each time someone fell into a binary, someone else would challenge it, and the binary would fall apart. It was a beautiful and inspirational thing to see. The people who attended this conference were trying – they were working hard, earnestly, and empathetically. They were also working together. I made mistakes too and I have counted them, those that I know of. If it had been easy – if people hadn’t struggled, if mistakes hadn’t been made – it would have been a sign that the bar had been set too low. Sure, I had crazy expectations, but I think everyone did. I think that’s why we tried so hard. As we discussed on the first day and in the context of (nontraditional) students, if we don’t expect big things of students, we cannot dream big solutions or help them accomplish big things. #DLNR15 wasn’t the war room I was hoping it to be, but it felt like it might be a staging area for that epic and impossible battle that seems to be on the horizon.

On a more personal note, I had a lot of learning moments – discipline-based and deeply personal. I met people who will be in the acknowledgment section of my dissertation. I even met a person who did something to change the acknowledgment section of my dissertation. I am truly grateful for the opportunities afforded to me and the work that the conference organizers and conference goes did.

From the voice of the (nontraditional) student, I hope we get to do this again, because it was the best, most trying, most personally exposing and challenging conference I have ever attended. Rock on, #DLRN15, with your messy self.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. marciadevlin says:

    Great blog Laura.


  2. Maha Bali says:

    Hey Laura, thanks for this. I still am amazed how many feelings and hopes and frustrations came for you and others at this conference. Thanks for writing this

    On another note – i am unsure how you mean you are a non-traditional student? PhD students don’t have a “traditional” age, background, etc. sure, you’re mature in a way and work full-time; so do many PhD students. Sure, you were already established in a non-edu career. That’s quite common for people who do graduate work in education. I’m not sure what “traditional” means in that sense. You are definitely unique, but there is no norm to set you against. It’s not like undergrads who are expected to be 18, never worked, never had kids. That’s a traditional students there, and when someone older, poorer, with kids, of a different race joins, they can be termed non-traditional

    And of course my context is completely different and i never got a chance to discuss that. I should blog it really soon. How is it that i am all the way in Egypt and i talk always about context, and yet i find these comversations valuable? It’s tricky, but i need to unpack it

    Finally – enjoy writing the acknowledgments section of your thesis. Always makes me happy to write one for anything i do – my thesis was my fave coz it’s 2 pages long 🙂

    Love u loads, Laura. Looking forward to you finishing this and…who knows what next? Hopefully HUGS


    1. Laura Gogia says:

      Hi Maha,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Sure, I am not trying to claim real hardship or prosecution and I think you know that, because you know me and because both of us would think that for me to do so would be utterly ridiculous. One thing that became clear at the conference is that different geographical regions have different terminologies for many of the same things. For example, this was my first brush with “casual faculty” (I think I have that right) to describe adjunct faculty in Australia. What might not have been clear from a distance is that we all had to define the most “basic” things before we spoke – what is staff? what is faculty? what is connected” etc. And so I was writing in the context of the conference and the way it was defined during Marcia Devlin’s keynote (overlaid, of course, with the way I define it here, in Virginia) – which is, first and foremost, a student who comes with a more diverse background than the average student. The second layer to that is that non-traditional students tend to have more and very important other identities that often are held in tension with the student identity. Finally, non-traditional students tend to approach situations with a different collection of cultural capital and therefore might feel “other” and be treated as “other.” I think Marcia would then move with you into the realm of disadvantaged (I don’t really “think” as much as I watched her do so in her keynote). Like everything else, nontraditional is a spectrum and “disadvantaged” is a spectrum as well. I could regale you with the struggle of language, culture, and lack of background knowledge (or, like Marcia mentioned in her keynote, “What font am I supposed to use?”) that I ran into when I started my phd program in education, but I won’t because I figured it out; I’m resilient and I was willing to adapt and I succeeded and became a stronger student because of it.

      In my context, in the United States, there are “traditional students” and “nontraditional students” in phd programs – and yes we are stepping into binaries and stereotypes but only for a moment and it’s really not my point but I feel like I have to in order to respond fully. Namely, the traditional students are those that move right through from undergrad to masters to phds. They are young. They are (usually) unmarried or by the time they are in the midst of their programs, maybe getting into a serious relationship. They do not have kids. They don’t have a lot of money but they have a great time with each other. They get to do awesome internships and fulbrights etc – in part because they can move around easily and they aren’t supporting children. “Nontraditional” are the (typically) older ones with families who often complete their programs on a part time basis because they are working as well. My previous qualitative research into this suggests that these part-time students have an entirely different phd experience than the others and with very different challenges…I really don’t think that’s a surprise.

      However, my point for being so pointed on my (nontraditional) status has little to do with the conversation above. It has to do with the fact that I can think of a big handful of people at DLRN15 who were there as nontraditional students and the funny thing is that no one recognizes their student identities. In fact, I suspect that most attendees assume that the people I’m thinking about already have their phds. Therefore, knowing that there are these students sitting in the room, it was really funny to hear people ask (several times) why there were no students in the room. And it was interesting to me that none of us spoke up (why? I have ideas on that). And then, when the decision was made to pull students up on stage, the “recognizable” phd students (and, yes, they self-identified as “traditional” so I’m not putting words in) were the ones who were pulled. I think that’s all very interesting. It wasn’t the main point of this blog post, but it’s interesting.

      How’s that? 🙂 Love you back, Maha.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Maha Bali says:

        I wonder if you all assumed… I get what ur saying… You all assumed that the word “student” wasn’t addressed to you (even if you paid a student rate to get to the conference). I think I was like that too as a PhD student who was part-time and remote and married and had a full-time job (but using student status for discounts). But to be totally honest, all thru thw talk of non-traditional students i am thinking undergrads. I tend to assume grad students aren’t traditional. I didn’t realize it’s common for ppl to continue straight thru (which is ridiculously funny coz that’s EXACTLY what happens in Public universities here. It just rarely happens in my own American one because we seek degrees from Western countries and it takes time and resources to work it out).


  3. Laura Gogia says:

    Yeah but – and I don’t see this as a dialectic counterpoint to your statement because it’s not, but rather a movement forward together in conversation – given the conversation…the idea of teaching and learning and placing the student in the center…these things apply just as much to graduate students as undergraduate students. Possibly some of the problems we have with graduate programs is the fact that faculty aren’t thinking of these people as students as much as “assistants.” There is a vulnerability to being a student that I think can be even worse as you get older, depending on who you are and what your context is. I may be outing my own insecurities more than representing a group right now. I’ve never discussed with others why they don’t wear their student status like a badge. Maybe it’s because they have bigger badges to wave or because they don’t think it has added too much to their overall experience. Hard to say.


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