On Starting Graduate School: Lessons from Willy Wonka and Inigo Montoya

I reflected on two movies I watched with my children over the summer as I prepared for Graduate Orientation this year.  I realized that these movies actually framed, from my perspective, a preparation for the mindset required for excelling in graduate school.  Over the past several years I have been trying to encourage graduate students to shift their perspective from the kinds of strategies that helped them to be successful in their undergraduate program, to what would allow them to be successful in graduate school.  This year I tried the movie approach.  Here is what I thought.
The two movies I drew from are Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the 1971 version with Gene Wilder) and The Princess Bride.  I selected a quote from each movie to focus on.
Willy Wonka: And Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he’d ever wished for.
Charlie: What happened?
Willy Wonka: He lived happily ever after.
Photo of Willy Wonka from 1971 Movie
In starting graduate school particularly after confirming acceptance into a program, there could be this sentiment.   All the hard work has paid off.  You have wanted something for so long and have worked so intensely to make it happen.  There has to be a moment or even longer to savor that feeling.  To a certain extent this part is true.  You should be congratulated for an incredible job well done.  On the other hand, that isn’t all there is.  I don’t know where the point is where one lives happily ever after (or even if in terms of personal development that is something to reach), but I will say that graduate school is not the point of happily ever after.  I believe the situation is much more like in quote 2
Inigo Montoya: Is very strange. I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.
Westley: Have you ever considered piracy? You’d make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts.

Photo of Inigo Montoya

My recommendation to students is to live by this second quote in graduate school.  There are several reasons why this is apt.  First, there is a recognition that you have been working toward a single goal for a very long time. You have prepared in a certain way and it has been successful for you.  Much like Inigo you worked and worked and finally attained your goal.  There is the excitement Willy Wonka noted, but what about the plan?
Inigo cannot continue to apply his revenge strategies for the rest of his life.  Similarly, you cannot continue to apply your “getting into graduate school strategies” in graduate school.  This means if you have worked with a singular goal get the highest possible grades every course and have taken on multiple extra curricular activities to gain new experiences and distinguish yourself among a large field of applicants or just to improve yourself and learn more about the field you may need to consider a change.  Like Inigo you need to consider “piracy” because you really will make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts.  Ok.  Maybe you don’t want to sail the high seas, get scurvy, and pursue treasure.  However, the Dread Pirate Roberts was a singular presence.  He was also the captain.  Maybe consider what it means to be a pirate captain.  I did a search for qualities of a good pirate captain and came across this site:
I am so grateful for the qualities that were offered there.  Thank you Captain Python!
The key factors listed were: Discipline; Being Human; Taking Risks; Tactician/Decision Maker; Courage and setting an Example; and Cooperating with Your Officers.
Discipline: OK, you don’t need to make people walk the plank, but what about self-discipline?  This is an incredibly important quality for your success in graduate school.  Sure you need to “buckle down” and work hard.  I’m not talking about that kind of discipline.  For a pirate captain you need to balance between too much discipline where you risk a mutiny and too little discipline where you aren’t respected or listened to.  If you are too rigid in dealing with your self and your instructors and supervisors, you will not be successful.  Mutiny on this scale is not something to be toyed with.  Similarly, if you don’t demonstrate enough discipline you won’t be successful.  You won’t be taken seriously and others may question your commitment.  Program directors definitely don’t want to think that of their large pool of applicants, they filled a spot with someone who doesn’t seem to want to be there.
Being Human:  In this case, it is about knowing your limits.  The pirate captain weighs input from other experts.  The captain who always thinking he/she knows it all can’t possibly know it all.  If your goal in graduate school is to know it all, you won’t be successful.  A mark of wisdom is recognizing your limits, but knowing that you can find answers if you seek them out.
Taking Risks:  Sometimes I meet undergraduate students who don’t want to take risks in courses because they fear for their GPA or they don’t want to try something very new and different because it could take the focus away from their program.  This is not a strategy for graduate school.  I find it is embracing diversity and other areas of knowledge that fosters creative and the kind of integration that you need to do in clinical situations.
Tactician/Decision Maker:  Making good decisions has to do with managing resources and understanding the pros and cons associated with different courses of action.  In graduate school there are fewer right/wrong answers and more answers that carry good and not so good consequences.  A tactician weighs those things quickly and anticipates consequences.  Sometimes you even end up tactically needing to make a decision that costs in in the short term, but pays off in the long run.  If you focus only on points in a class, but don’t actually grasp larger concepts, you haven’t won.
Courage and Setting and Example:  Here is an easy carryover example.  In my undergraduate classes if I offer an open ended question to the class, “Who knows the difference between synthesized and digitized speech?”  I might get downward stares from a room with the occasional hand up.  The idea again is being conservative.  There isn’t a big gain in answering even if you are right, but there is a perceived loss if you answer and get it wrong.  In graduate school be courageous.  Raise your hand.  Ask questions.  Put your ideas out there.
Cooperating with your Officers:  There is a zero sum game mentality that can happen in undergraduate programs.  If there are only a finite set of spots to get into graduate school then if someone else succeeds, you lose.  I’m not sure that is 100% accurate, but there certainly is a hefty amount of competitiveness that gets spread in programs.  You may not be sincerely happy for someone else’s success and instead focus on what their success means for your standing.  In graduate school, it is so critical to be strong with your classmates.  You aren’t competing against each other anymore.  You are all on the same ship and you sail or sink together.
In my experience the qualities above are in so many of the graduate students I interact with on a daily basis but they tend to be manifested differentially.  Some students embrace and cultivate these qualities and I believe they are the ones who become truly outstanding clinicians.  There are several I would proudly bestow the title of Pirate Captain on.  Are you ready to be a pirate captain?  You’d make a wonderful one!
Incidentally, the @ouCSD Staff gave me this the next day…

Photo of Potato Head Pirate in box

DVD cover of casebook

AAC: An Interactive Clinical Casebook

Thanks to Plural Publishing for helping me and Aimee Dietz produce AAC: An Interactive Clinical Casebook for speech-language pathology students and professionals.

Aimee and I set the stage for the resource by considering what it takes to move from being a beginning to an expert clinician.

This was a project 4 years in the making.  We are so grateful to the incredible contributing authors for their work and to the people and families willing to share their stories so that students and professionals can learn and grow as a result.


Technology section

I have been in classrooms where cell phones and laptops are strictly prohibited and students who are reading newspapers are also called out to put them away.  I’ve been in others where technology is omnipresent and unrestricted.  My classroom tends toward the technology side. My compromises deal with blatantly held-up and open newspapers (merits a comment from me) and my “technology section” (keep reading for info).

designated cell phone area graphic

Although I have a technology “friendly” classroom, one line I do have is for students who may be distracting other students.  As such, I ask that students who are using laptops restrict their usage to taking class notes.  For those who have multiple windows open, I ask that those students consider the students behind them who might be distracted.  Ultimately my policy is that students who have multiple windows open should sit in the back of the class to minimize such distraction.  I have likened the technology section to the smoking section.  It is a place where people can go recognizing that they may be hurting themselves, but that it is an area where they can do so.

Many policies like this seem to fall under a basic idea of “respect for others” in the classroom.  You shouldn’t engage in anything in class that would interfere with someone else’s learning.

Twitter in (and out of) the Lecture Hall

twitter logo with two people facing each other and holding mobile devices

One of my first blog posts was titled “The Death of Discussion Boards.”  After using online discussions, for a while, I gave up after fatigue on the part of both me and my students.  Students complained about participating and frequently did not read other’s posts.  It seemed more like a blog than anything interactive.  I used them originally to create a sense of discussion in an electronic forum, but I had lost that feeling.  I had never used Twitter before, but became interested in the possibility after attending a conference presentation in 2007.  At the time there weren’t great answers as to how exactly to use Twitter, but Twitter users had excitement.  After lurking, I decided to try it around discussion of a single topic in a class.  I then slowly expanded my use in different classes and more broadly.  Some of the issues I confronted were: How do you get students Tweeting? Should everyone be required to Tweet? What is a reasonable expectation for Tweets? How do you handle offensive content that is posted? How do you grade it? What is a good class size? Should you follow students? Should Twitter be for in and out of class?

As I gained experience in using Twitter in and out of the lecture hall I arrived at some of my own insights on these and other questions, and look forward to discussing this with both students and lecturers alike this week on @WeSpeechies.

Choosing a minor to go with CSD #slp2b

My advisees frequently ask me, “What should I minor in?” or “I heard having a minor is a good thing, which minor should I choose?”


I can think of many good reasons to add a minor. Maybe you took a course in an area and decided you would like to learn more. As you take more classes you find that it is of interest to you. If it arises out of your interest, I’ve never known someone to be disappointed. Minors can also be the logical result of a double major that just isn’t feasible for your own personal situation. Ultimately with a double major you frequently need to choose a primary direction anyway, so choosing a major/minor split might be a good way to start figuring it out. In other cases individuals choose minors to complement their major. I think this is fine, but I still think there has to be some kind of personal motivation there. There still needs to be interest, and I would even argue some passion for the topic. A minor still requires a prescribed program of study so following through with all the requirements still takes a commitment on the students’ part. Imagine majoring in something you weren’t particularly interested in. It would be much more difficult to complete. Majors that complement CSD logically can include things like linguistics, communication studies, and psychology, but they could also include physics, nutrition, or another health related field that could add depth or breadth to a CSD major. Just be sure these areas are truly of interest. Because…


There is a reason NOT to minor.

If you are minoring in something not out of your own interest, but out of a desire to distinguish yourself for graduate admissions, this is not a reason to minor in something. As someone who has been on graduate admissions committees and as someone who is now a program director, I look for students who passionately pursue their own interests. Pursuing something just to distinguish yourself to me is more like the student telling me what they think I want to hear. Students who are always looking for “the right answer” may struggle with clinical situations where there isn’t necessarily one single right answer. Whether I agree or not, I want to know what students are interested in. My experience when students minor in something that they aren’t passionate about is that they generally don’t do as well as when they take classes in areas they really like. Consequently they lower their GPA and their distinctiveness rather than increasing it. They then experienced frustration with both the content and their grades. This is a lose-lose situation.

do it

As someone who majored in voice performance, I can tell you that your interests and your passion (as well as your demonstrated ability to perform in CSD classes) is what distinguishes you. Minors are an opportunity to pursue something of high interest to you. Ultimately getting the minor doesn’t even need to be your end goal if you have taken courses of interest. I was three credits short of minoring in Italian. It never held me back that I didn’t complete it (to my knowledge) and I never regretted not finishing the minor because I took courses of high interest, pursued study abroad experiences, but then ultimately decided to study some other languages as well.

I am not saying, don’t minor. I am saying let your minor grow out of your interests whether it is passion for a topic or a desire to broaden your perspective on a topic within CSD (but that is still interest related). Please, please, please, don’t minor in something because you think I want you to. I want to know what you want.

The Ultimate Flip: Intervention First in Teaching SLPs

There has been a lot of discussion of the “flipped classroom.” It generally refers to classroom time being focused on hands on activities while lectures and reading assignments are completed outside the classroom.  There is another flip to consider in SLP.  The flip of assessment and intervention coverage in the classroom. #slpeeps #slp2b

Flip Throw

Assessment drives intervention.  I know this.  I believe this.  It is a critical foundation for AAC practice.  You have to understand a person’s needs and skills so that you can appropriately match the technology to those needs and skills.  Does your teaching sequence have to match that though?  What I intend to explore is the idea that it doesn’t.

Let me lay out several reasons why I’m considering this change:
1.  Students don’t get enough time on intervention.  There is so much to say about assessment.  Good assessments are critical.  But if you spend too much time talking about assessment, you may run out of time in the semester to talk about intervention.
I keep hearing from students that they know a lot of how to assess, but don’t feel at all confident when it comes to intervention.  This poses a serious problem for them.
2.  Expert AAC clinicians are not linear thinkers.
3.  Students needs to not be linear thinkers and they are already set up for way too much of it.
4.  Students are already doing clinical work in intervention.  Frequently they are on either a diagnostic rotation or an intervention one, but there frequently isn’t continuity there for many reasons.
5.  Students who transition to work in the school system inherit a caseload.  Going back and doing assessment with everyone there would require reengagement of the IEP process, which takes an extended period of time and STILL requires that intervention be done in the meantime.

So how will I accomplish this?  I plan to present a case per week where there are intervention goals and activities already illustrated.  Students have access to the assessment information as well, but the focus will be on the goals, research related to the intervention technique(s) and programming/ideas for how to implement a goal in a given clinical session or in a given setting.  At least one App (probably more) will be discussed with each case.  At the end of the course after the students have had some experience seeing intervention, we will discuss assessment.  We’ll look at tests/checklists/profiles/informal methods with regard to the cases we have already discussed.  They will still be getting all the information.

I am writing this so that I commit to doing this.  I have frequently promised to do more related to intervention in my class.  Now I am publicly committing to it.  Look for future blog posts to see how it turns out or feel free to comment 🙂

What about the hats?

It was graduation weekend.  The graduation program has information about the robes and hoods including detailed descriptions of each of the colors and the variants.  There is information on the stripes of a doctoral robe.  But what about the hats?

Tanya Coyle @SLPTanya was the first to ask about this on Twitter after I posted a selfie of me with some other graduates.  We then had a discussion about hats and regalia in general.  I knew that my style hat was actually an “upgrade” purchase with my gown.  There were different “models” to choose from when I graduated from my Ph.D. program and I elected for  the “medium” package which included some stylized accents and rounded hat rather than mortar board style hat.

The same day I had my exchange with Tanya, a unknown person asked me about my hat after the ceremony.  Beyond talking about my “upgrade” I really didn’t have any further information.  In fact on the third instance when someone asked about the mortar board, I was still without any insight.  For me, a three time point of inquiry from different, independent sources within two days calls at least for a Wikipedia search.  So that’s what I did…

Evidently my gold tassel is reserved for the doctoral hat.  The information is from the American Council on Education according to Wikipedia.  Although I frequently thought of my hat as a beret, it actually is a “tam“.  In the deep recesses of my memory I seem to recall tam was the box I checked, but I can’t be sure.  It also was interesting to learn that in some countries a personalized hat is prepared by one’s workgroup members and reflects one’s area with different trinkets and symbols of the profession.  Although the undergraduate ceremony featured a number of customized hat decorations, I did not notice any Ph.D. ones.  An interesting tradition.  As someone interested in symbolic communication, it is definitely something to think about.

Etiquette for the Classroom: Early and Later Opera

The other day in class, I was pushing the end of the classroom time and some students were getting up to leave.  I continued speaking as part of my delivery was relating a few anecdotal experiences. I was trying to deliver them with a more comedic style and even got the occasional laugh. I did not insist that people immediately sit down until I was finished talking.  On Twitter some students complained about how rude it was that people were getting up and leaving. Presumably those actually leaving were not on the feed to tweet a reply.  This incident got me thinking about classroom culture and my role as a performer.  As such I fall back on my singing training and on what I know about the history of opera.  I came out with more comparisons than say actual answers, but thought I would share the threads.

As someone interested in singing and classical singing my mom took me to the opera.  I learned some things about attending opera (or really classical performances) from attending. I learned a lot about classical singing style, and how a huge variety of stories could be told by singing the entire (or most of) the content.  I learned the context of famous arias I had only heard in isolation.  I learned other lessons too.  The lessons included be quiet, sit still, listen thoughtfully, and the idea that everyone else somehow gets this and if I am bored I may just be either too young or not trying hard enough. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed the performances, but if there were sections that seemed to drag on or were otherwise inaccessible to me, I learned that I still needed to sit there and be quiet.  At the very least I should confine myself to looking through the program (as long as I did it quietly).  I have more positive memories than negative ones, but the idea of the culture of the performance is an interesting one to me.  I always considered opera to be “high culture” where etiquette was extremely important.

I remember how surprising it was for me to learn in college that early opera was more like a show put on in the middle of a mall than it is now in the concert hall.  The venues were smaller (maybe even large rooms in someones homes at the beginning) and people played cards, had drinks, talked and generally carried on.  The recitatives had clear markings at the end, in part, to alert people that an actual aria was about to start.  The arias themselves were chances to show off.  Interesting performers were rewarded with the attention of the audience.  uninteresting ones were not.

So how did opera go from “all in a night’s entertainment” to “the” nights entertainment?  It has been a little while since I studied the history of opera, but my recollection is that over time one of the reasons for the change had to do with larger orchestras and more complex machinery (something that got increasingly complex in some traditions).  With the move to the concert hall and a changing audience came new etiquette.  I’m sure socioeconomic factors came into play and the system became more and more formalized.

So where is the college classroom on this continuum?  I think it varies, but we are certainly not at the point of early opera.  In general I believe the expectation is something much more formal.  So what is to be done with the student who finds the “performance” dull or inaccessible?  Is the best solution to sit quietly and if you don’t like it to find something else quiet to do?  Is it the student’s obligation to work hard to educate him or herself to more properly enjoy the performance?  Indeed I have found that careful study of an opera before I go greatly enhances my enjoyment and the accessibility of the medium.  So is that the bottom line?

In my class my primary objective is that students don’t interfere with the learning of other students.  Beyond that I don’t try to be in charge of someone else’s decisions about what they do.  If they come in and get something from what I have said, then that is great.  I work to give them a quality product.  I suppose I land more on the side of the interesting performer.  Some days I “nail it” and others I don’t.  I’m in charge of me and students are in charge of themselves.  They just can’t interfere with anyone else’s path in that regard.  I’m not sure how to encourage people to “study the opera” before class.  I know that it can be useful for opera and for classes.  It was however a realization I came to on my own.