Virginia Tech graduate students call RE: Reflections and Explorations, a blog for which they write, an ongoing conversation and opportunity to share research questions and ideas.

If you google “reflections and explorations,” the first hit on the results list takes you to a blog written by Virginia Tech graduate students.

RE: Reflection and Explorations began in 2013, organized by graduate students associated with the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance as a platform for sharing commentaries and analysis. All graduate students are eligible to submit essays, said institute Director Max Stephenson Jr., who wrote in October 2013, marking the blog’s 25th essay, the series has become “a microcosm of the broader university, which it evokes and invokes.”

“It started as an opportunity to give students a forum that was interdisciplinary in character to both share and develop their thinking,” said Stephenson, a professor in the School of Public and International Affairs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. “The whole is mapped against the broader aims of the institute. The series, like the institute, aims to treat a diverse array of governance concerns at multiple analytical scales and across disparate domains."

Writers come from across the university’s graduate programs, and include both master’s degree and doctoral students. From the first post in January 2013 by Lyusyena Kirakosyan—now a Ph.D. graduate of the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought program—who wrote about the power of narrative, the series’ weekly essays have offered research, analysis and exactly what its title suggests, reflections and explorations of a spectrum of issues.

For example, food systems and their relationship to social justice; intergenerational theater as a tool for dialog and community building; gender identity; and sustainability are among the topics examined in recent posts.

Christian Matheis, Sarah Hanks, Anna Erwin, and Sarah Lyon-Hill are among the many students who have contributed to the blog. All four have written more than once, and in a recent interview at the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance, all described the process as far more than a quick-hit post on a social media platform.

Erwin, a third-year planning, governance, and globalization doctoral student from Topsail, North Carolina, said, “I write in the blog because it is a great resource for graduate students, and myself, to express ideas. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be, but I grew a lot.”

Lyon-Hill, also a third-year planning, governance, and globalization Ph.D. student who hails from Toledo, Ohio, said she began writing to share ideas and conversations. “RE is like the abbreviation for ‘regarding’ on an email,” she said. “It’s going back and forth. Different students talk and share ideas.”

Hanks, a second-year doctoral student in agricultural, leadership, and community education program from Virginia, said she uses the blog to test new ideas, “and think deeply and generatively about them.”

Matheis, a doctoral student in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought program from San Antonio, Texas, agreed, and said the blog also provides a way to consider new approaches to issues outside what may be the “dominant conversation” in a field.

He offered an example of a recent blog post he wrote, which began as an essay for a seminar course. The RE essay, "Refuge, Refusal and Consent: how should resettlement agencies treat people seeking refuge?" led to development of a panel discussion for the Association of American Geographies conference in April, after which he received an invitation from a publisher to submit a book proposal on the concept he had explored in his essay.

“That would not have happened in a conventional way,” he said. Other students also have developed conference papers and presentations from RE posts.

“I have a greater appreciation for deep thinking and novel ideas that comes from the cultivation and care given to presenting ideas that bounce against the boundary,” Hanks said.

Stephenson, who edits all of the submissions, agreed with Hanks’ assessment. “The range is so broad. They are really thinking out loud about their research.”

Students said each post requires several revisions between the time it is submitted and final publication.

“It’s not like one rewrite or revision. It’s like four,” said Hanks. “Max really calls your attention to thinking deeply and being aware and self-aware. You do not turn in something for RE that is not mindful.”

Matheis said Stephenson’s editing is “a strategy lesson along with a vocabulary lesson.”

“He challenges you,” Erwin said.

“When you turn it in to Max, there is going to be some serious feedback,” Hanks said. 

“You’re writing precisely,” Lyon-Hill said.

“I have thought of Max sitting at his computer at 11 p.m. and hitting his forehead,” Matheis said of the process of reviewing first drafts. But he said Stephenson’s edits and suggestions are always helpful. “You get very careful encouragement.”

“Max allows you to develop your voice,” Hanks said. “He has developed my capacity to think differently.”

Contributors said they have become stronger writers with each essay.

“I can see progress even from what I’ve posted in the past,” said Erwin.

RE contributors also said the blog also has helped them write for a broader audience than scholars in their own domains.

“I think about deconstructing jargon,” Matheis said. “I think about having to target things for a broader audience.”

 “I’m thinking critically and analytically about who is going to be interested and how to write so they understand,” Lyon-Hill added. 

Erwin, who shares her posts with family and friends, said Reflections and Explorations is “an opportunity to share with those who are not part of the academic community.”

“It helps to share in a more accessible way,” Hanks said.

Matheis said the blog serves as a form of outreach beyond the academic community. “It also ties to the university’s land grant mission, by sharing scholarship and research in an accessible way.

“It’s easy to forget the land grant mission of public knowledge. You don’t need a subscription or to register to read the blog.”

Graduate students interested in contributing to the RE: Reflections and Explorations blog can learn more on the blog website. To read current blog posts and explore the archives, visit the RE: Reflections and Explorations website.

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