A party with cake, champagne, and dancing may help mark traditional anniversary celebrations. In the case of ASPECT — the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought — at Virginia Tech, the capstone event will be a consortium of wisdom and words.

ASPECT will commemorate its first decade of success during its annual graduate conference on March 22–24. This year’s conference theme, “Doing Interdisciplinarity,” will pay homage to both the program’s past and its focus on interdisciplinary theoretical and empirical research.

“The founders of ASPECT had a vision for a unique program,” said François Debrix, director of ASPECT. “They created a doctoral program at the intersection of the humanities and social sciences that would feature interdisciplinary scholarship and research.”

When Tim Luke, a University Distinguished Professor in Political Science who twice served as director of the program, began designing an innovative new political science doctoral degree at Virginia Tech in 1998, he also laid the foundation for ASPECT. While working with an array of university administrators throughout the years, his original concept expanded to include other departments in what was then the College of Arts and Sciences. The degree potential gained speed in 2003 with the approval for additional faculty hires and graduate teaching fellowships.

“The first formal class was admitted in 2008,” Luke said. “But for the previous three years we created a successful certificate program as a placeholder to attract graduate students who wanted to get a quick start into the program.”

Now housed within the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, ASPECT is a collaboration among the departments of HistoryPhilosophyPolitical Science, and Religion and Culture, though it works with many other areas across the university. This cross-disciplinary program allows students to engage in ethical thought, cultural scholarship, political economy, social and political theory, intellectual history, critical world-order analyses, aesthetics, performance arts, and visual studies.

As of May 2018, there will be 30 ASPECT graduates pursuing careers in higher education, government, advocacy, or nonprofit organizations.

“From the start, the goal has been to prepare people for jobs both in and outside of academia,” Luke said. “If you look at the alumni and their achievements, it’s fairly remarkable in how well they’re doing. We have focused on teaching, making sure students go into the workforce with enough interdisciplinary preparation to fit easily into their chosen field.”

And that’s why Mary Ryan of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is pursuing her doctorate through ASPECT.

“I chose the program because of its interdisciplinary and theoretical nature,” said Ryan, who’s serving as a member of the March conference planning committee. “I worked in nonprofits before starting my doctorate. I had an applied political science background, but I wanted to write and needed to expand my understanding of the theoretical issues underpinning social inequities.”

She didn’t want to restrict herself to a typical political science degree because she sees how issues connect in a variety of ways.

“I love that ASPECT gives me the chance to combine multiple disciplines I’m interested in, such as sociology, moral philosophy, and political science,” she said.

Ryan, who expects to graduate in 2019, is moderating a conference roundtable, “What to Expect after the Ph.D.,” along with fellow student Leigh McKagen. The roundtable will feature panelists from seven universities.

Conference planning committee members in addition to Ryan, McKagen, and Debrix are all current ASPECT students: Rob Flahive, Hirbohd Hedayat, Robert Hodges, Faith Skiles, and Emma Stamm. They have planned panel sessions that involve students and faculty members from Virginia Tech and 14 other national and international universities.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary, the committee invited three ASPECT alumni to give plenary addresses about various experiences, opportunities, and challenges related to interdisciplinary graduate education. The alumni — Aaron Stoller (Ph.D. ’13), director of first year experience at Colorado College in Colorado Springs; Jamie Sanchez (Ph.D. ’16), an assistant professor and director of Ph.D. of Intercultural Studies at Biola University in La Mirada, California; and Robert Kirsch (Ph.D. ’12), an assistant professor at Arizona State University in Tempe — will discuss research, teaching, outreach, and diversity and inclusion.

Sanchez, who is giving a lecture on advancing diversity in graduate education, credits ASPECT with helping her find her place at her current workplace.

“The rigorous training I received in ASPECT prepared me to get a tenure-track position in a very competitive market,” she said. “Additionally, in my current roles, I rely on the training I received in the classroom, in my research, and in serving on dissertation committees.”

The 2018 ASPECT Graduate Conference will take place on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus at Squires Student Center, the Graduate Life Center, and Newman Library. All are welcome to attend this free three-day event to understand how an interdisciplinary approach can affect the academic landscape, to learn more about the program, and to help celebrate the program’s first decade of success.

“I believe ASPECT is one of the country’s strongest interdisciplinary programs and that the advanced culture of critical theory and engagement in the program is unmatched,” said conference participant Jordan Hill (Ph.D. ’14). “It’s an honor to attend this 10th anniversary conference, and I see it as a chance to reflect on how far we have come and to look — with great pride and confidence — toward a bright future.”

Written by Leslie King