‘Take a SIP!’ says program director 

By Karen Herland

David Howes did not expect to become involved in an academic discussion about interdisciplinarity when he visited a storage facility while moving house last week.

“The manager of the facility recognized my name because a friend had told her to get in touch with me to find out about SIP [Special Individualized Programs in graduate studies]. She was contemplating a return to school,” said Howes, who is completing his first year as SIP Director.

“SIP is the most innovative graduate degree program in the province, if not the country,” said Howes. Students design their own program of study, either because their research interests cut across traditional disciplines or because the degree they seek goes beyond what their chosen department currently has to offer.

“The students we accept are all exceptional. They pose fascinating research questions and they are not satisfied with traditional ways of exploring them. They are committed to thinking outside of the box.”
Howes said that this year marks a record number of applicants and acceptances for the program, which currently supports upwards of 80 students pursuing Master’s or doctoral degrees.

Although SIP has been around for nearly 25 years, it has received a major boost under current Vice-President Research and Graduate Studies Louise Dandurand.

Howes is the first full-time director the program has had. Previously, SIP was just one of the many portfolios overseen by an associate dean of graduate studies.
In addition to appointing Howes (and Darlene Dubiel, as SIP Coordinator), Dandurand’s office has tripled the budget for research and teaching assistantships for students starting out in the program. “Students become apprentices of their supervisors,” Howes explained.

SIP continues to be administered by the School of Graduate Studies, but relies on input from a committee representing all faculties. Howes acknowledges that participation from Engineering and the JMSB has been negligible to date, but he is actively working to change that.

Howes does not see his directorship as having a standardizing effect on SIP; quite the opposite. “SIP is like a rhizome: no centre, just tendrils,” Howes observed. Research and knowledge can shoot out in different directions as needed, building on itself and covering new ground.

With this concept in mind, Howes has set up space at graduatestudies.concordia.ca/programs/SIP/ to showcase a number of “research currents.” These conceptual themes combine professors whose research interests overlap, although they may have very different disciplinary backgrounds. Among existing currents are Sensory Studies and Cognitive Science. By combining several researchers under these headings, Howes is facilitating a student’s ability to find supervisors and create an integrated program of study.

Although SIP is student-directed, Howes’s office does provide support for navigating university regulations and helps supervisors in their roles, which are generally less defined than supervisory positions within their own departments.
SIP also creates contexts for students to interact with each other, since such self-directed learning can be isolating. This year, for example, they have held a series of Friday afternoon discussions on grounded theory and participatory methodologies, allowing students to learn about each other’s research.
“This sort of mixing is what university research should be all about,” Howes said.


Concordia University