Bringing PhD Training to Academic Innovation Projects

By Shana Melnysyn

Dr. Sarah Moncada is a Project Coordinator for the Academic Innovation Initiative in U of M’s Office of Academic Innovation. She graduated from U of M with a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures in December 2016.

Dr. Sarah Moncada helps facilitate the Academic Innovation Initiative, a year-long effort launched by the University of Michigan President’s and Provost’s Offices in September 2016. The Initiative aims to generate conversations and experiments to improve learning experiences at the university. Key goals include: expanding the reach of the university to diverse pre-college and post-college learners; improving the residential educational experience; and thinking about how to overcome structural barriers to learning. Current projects at the Office of Academic Innovation look towards the future of education, helping students and faculty think about things like “The Transcript of the Future”—how can transcripts be reimagined in order to more accurately represent the breadth of learning experiences that people accumulate in college? How might the university document and measure extracurricular accomplishments such as volunteering or leadership experiences in the transcript of the future?

Dr. Moncada at a development team meeting for the Translation Networks project (photo credit Alex Holmes)

While working on her PhD in Slavic, Moncada gained experience that helped prepare her for her current position. She worked as a Graduate Teaching Consultant at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), where she counseled fellow Graduate Student Instructors from across multiple departments on a wide range of teaching issues including classroom management, communication, and lesson design. Moncada worked with a special group of consultants to offer workshops and consultations on instructional technologies. This work introduced her to new applications and platforms, and it exposed her to teaching priorities and practices from many disciplines.

Partly inspired by this experience, she did a Mellon Public Humanities Fellowship with the Translation Networks Project. The fellowship allowed Moncada to contribute to the design, development, and user-testing of new instructional applications. Her role with the project entailed interviewing instructors from several departments about their diverse approaches to translation studies and the ways they might use the Translation Networks tools in their courses. She then advised the development team on instructors’ goals and needs. Working on a project with such diverse stakeholders–faculty, graphic designers, software developers, librarians, and educational consultants–helped Moncada build several skills that are important to the work she does now. She gained practice writing accessibly for a variety of audiences and gained substantial experience working collaboratively. Both can be hard to achieve while working on solitary research for a humanities dissertation.

One of the things Moncada enjoys most about her work at the Office of Academic Innovation is its collaborative nature. Many of her day-to-day responsibilities involve working with faculty, staff, and students from across the university–joining forces with constituents from across the schools and colleges to design and plan interdisciplinary events. She also curates the Ideas2017 Challenge, which collects ideas from the university community and the public about how to design the best academic experience for the 21st century.

Moncada’s experience pushes back against the assumption that developing skills and experiences outside the purview of one’s own research and writing during doctoral studies is a distraction or a waste of time. She found that the opposite was true—working on projects outside of her research helped structure her time while she was writing her dissertation. Indeed, her trajectory shows just how important it can be to gain extracurricular experiences, as they led her into a position that is enjoyable and intellectually fulfilling.  She enjoys the flexibility, collaboration, and work-life balance that her current position affords. She even finds the time to do volunteer translation work for non-profit organizations through the university’s Language Resource Center, using her Russian and Ukrainian language skills to help others.

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