CUNY responds to Atlantic piece on demographic trends

UPDATE: CUNY has responded to Hancock and Kolodner’s article, requesting its withdrawal based on many significant factual errors. Here are my thoughts on that development.

My latest post addresses issues raised in an Atlantic article by LynNell Hancock and Meredith Kolodner that examines trends at CUNY’s senior colleges and, based on their analysis of those trends, questions CUNY’s commitment to serving the population of New York City.

CUNY has now issued a response to the Atlantic piece. In the response, Senior Vice Chancellor Jay Hershenson points out numerous factual errors and requests that the piece be withdrawn. One such error is in the enrollment trends themselves, which form the basis of Hancock and Kolodner’s argument. According to CUNY, minority enrollment is increasing in the senior colleges, not decreasing (as Hancock and Kolodner state):

The article paints an inaccurate picture of declining minority enrollments at CUNY highly selective colleges. The authors of the piece received enrollment data from CUNY in October, 2014 indicating that new Black student enrollment increased by 1 percent over the period from 2008-2009 to 2013-14. Hispanic new student enrollment increased by 5% over the same period.

In addition, since the fall of 2013, the upward trend has continued. The number of Black students admitted to CUNY’s highly selective senior colleges has increased by 15% and the number of Hispanic students has increased by 23%. The representation of both groups has also risen as a percentage of all new students.

CUNY’s response also notes that the main profile included in the Atlantic piece is similarly misleading. I can’t fathom how the authors came to misrepresent the story in such an egregious way. It is deeply unfortunate, because the inaccuracies undermine important underlying questions about higher education.

I stand by the questions I raise in my earlier post—about equity, labor conditions, and the mission of public education—but on their own terms, not on the basis of the Atlantic piece. I hope Hancock and Kolodner respond to shed some light on how they came to their conclusions.

Equity, Innovation, and Higher Ed as a Public Good

As I described in an earlier post, following extensive discussions with my colleagues and our program’s graduate fellows on the goals and mission of the Futures Initiative, we came to adopt “Equity and Innovation” as our program’s tagline. These are our top priorities—the guiding principles we return to for each project we undertake. They are the elements we consider to be most important in thinking about the future of higher education.

Why this particular focus? Keeping both equity and innovation in sight at all times will prevent us from falling into the trap of thinking that one comes at the expense of the other. I’m still very new to the CUNY system, and I am astounded by its complexity. It is huge (274,000 students working toward degrees), diverse (nearly 200 languages are represented among the student body), and relative to other colleges and universities, very affordable (80% of students graduate with no tuition debt). But as LynNell Hancock and Meredith Kolodner’s recent piece in the Atlantic notes, the demographics at the top-tier senior colleges are very different than at the community colleges, and they’re less representative of NYC as a whole. (Don’t miss other great reflections on the piece by my CUNY colleagues, including one by Futures Initiative Fellow Danica Savonick and another by Anthony Picciano, Professor and executive officer of the Urban Education program at CUNY GC.) Further, while the affordable tuition is incredible, the starting per-course rate for adjuncts is less than $3,000—woefully below the MLA’s recommended per-course minimum of $7,320. Higher education is a public good, which means that access and equity are fundamental. If we focus on innovation and prestige and lose sight of the public university’s mission, we fail to serve our own communities.

Equity and innovation are already at the heart of some of the most exciting work at CUNY (and across the higher education system). The combination is key to the new hybrid approach to General Chemistry that, in its initial pilot at Hunter College, has increased pass rates from 60-70% to 85%. It’s fundamental to Eduardo Vianna’s Peer Activist Learning Community at LaGuardia Community College (described in Ginia Bellafante’s recent NYTimes article) that helps students stay engaged and focused. It’s what we hope to do through Mapping the Futures of Higher Education this spring. In all of these instances, smart use of technology is part of the approach, but good pedagogical practice is the driver.

One of the most thought-provoking sessions I attended at the recent MLA convention in Vancouver was a panel on the paradox of non-tenure track faculty and the first-year student experience. As panelists noted, first-year students are a particularly vulnerable part of the student body, and yet the NTT faculty members who often teach their courses lack the resources to provide the degree of mentorship and engagement that directly affects student retention. In this and in too many similar examples, the students in the most delicate positions are the ones that lose out. If the core values and aims of higher education are sacrificed in the drive toward greater prestige and increasing tuition dollars, we will all lose. The essential challenge is to maintain a focus on the mission of public higher education, with equity and innovation as the twin guiding principles.

Two months in: A few thoughts on the Futures Initiative

[Cross-posted at hastac.org]

My work with the Futures Initiative began with such a flurry of activity that I’m only now catching my breath and reflecting on what we’ve done and what we hope to do. As part of that reflection process, I’ve worked with my colleagues and our program’s graduate fellows over the past few weeks to develop a charter for our work together and to revise our mission statement. The time we’ve spent thinking through our values, our goals, and our priorities has been incredibly clarifying and invigorating. The charter is still in the works, and I look forward to sharing it once it’s finished. Here is the mission statement, which is also posted to our various sites:

The Futures Initiative aims to advance greater equity and innovation in higher education. Housed at the Graduate Center and reaching throughout the CUNY community, the Futures Initiative empowers the next generation of intellectual leaders with bold, public, and engaged teaching and learning. The Futures Initiative fosters greater understanding of the complexities of the higher education landscape by spearheading qualitative and quantitative research in areas such as academic labor practices and reward systems, open-access multimedia publishing, data visualization and interpretation, and institutional change. Through HASTAC@CUNY (a hub of the online network Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory), the Futures Initiative extends its collaborative peer-to-peer practices across institutions, disciplines, national boundaries, and economic and social disparities, promoting reinvestment in higher education as a public good.

Without a doubt, our top-level goals—advancing equity and innovation in higher education—are sweeping. But the Futures Initiative takes an approach of experimentation, inquiry, and collaboration that makes working toward these goals more manageable. (We’re indebted to many people and places who have helped shape that ethos; for me, the deepest debt is to my colleagues and friends at the Scholars’ Lab.) We’re approaching questions about pedagogy, scholarship, and academic labor from many different angles, which gives us opportunities to reflect, learn, model new approaches, and highlight the creative work of our colleagues throughout the CUNY community rather than simply forging ahead on our own.

One branch of our program so far includes public talks and open sessions, which provide a venue for discussion of complex topics both within the Graduate Center and beyond thanks to the affordances of Twitter, livestreamed video, and the HASTAC network. In the two months I’ve been here, we’ve co-sponsored events on innovative dissertations, platforms for multimedia scholarly publishing, the role of ProQuest in the dissertation landscape, and new modes of evaluation for online and blended learning environments.

A second strand of our work will happen in the classroom. In fact, we have an incredible opportunity to work not only in a single classroom, but in a vast network of classrooms across New York City’s boroughs. In the initiative’s inaugural course, Cathy Davidson and Bill Kelly will be working with a class of graduate students in a wide range of disciplines, all of whom are teaching courses in various CUNY campuses. The class will think together about new approaches to teaching that can best prepare students for our highly networked world, and each week, they’ll test out new models in their own classes. The course depends not only on the deep engagement of the graduate students, but also that of the undergraduate students that they teach. All become peer teachers and learners. This is a pilot year, really, and next year the effect will multiply as six pairs of faculty members teach six classes of graduate students, whose undergraduate teaching will stretch even farther throughout the CUNY campuses.

And finally, we plan to launch a research project that investigates ecosystems of academic labor and research. I’m very excited about this component. There is so much happening right now with academic labor, all of it highly charged: increasing reliance on contingent faculty; more positive attitudes toward alt-ac careers; growing length of time spent in postdocs (mainly STEM, with a bit of an uptick in the humanities/social sciences); major draw of industry careers (again, mainly STEM). To my knowledge, these factors haven’t been carefully examined relative to one another. My previous research has focused on the career paths that humanities scholars pursue, and I’ve written extensively about why I think the increasingly positive attitude about these varied trajectories is a good thing. But that’s only one piece of the post-higher ed picture.

More and more, I’m interested in better understanding how the university’s core mission is affected by post-graduate career options. One of the big questions I’m grappling with, and that I look forward to examining more rigorously, is whether colleges and universities may be losing some of their most brilliant, dedicated scholars to alt-ac and industry jobs because staying on an academic track increasingly means enduring precarious and poorly compensated positions. And if that is the case, what is the broader societal impact? On one hand, we very much need deeply trained scholars participating in the workforce across all sectors of our society. But that can’t eclipse the importance of teaching the next generation of scholars, professors, and intellectual leaders.

I don’t know what I’ll find when I research those questions, but I really look forward to doing so. Relying both on existing datasets and (hopefully) new data collection, I plan to look first at the CUNY community, then outward to the broader higher education landscape across the US.

All of this feels like an incredibly promising start to the Futures Initiative. It’s a privilege to be charged with thinking through these big issues in collaboration with such wonderful colleagues and students.

Join us for “What Is a Dissertation?”

[Cross-posted on HASTAC]

This Friday’s #remixthediss event will be a great way to end an exhilarating first week at CUNY. I’m looking forward to hearing about our panelists’ innovative dissertation projects, and to discussing questions, ideas, and other models with everyone who attends in person and virtually. It’s amazing to have all of this coming together while I’m still feeling my way through a new place, getting to know new colleagues, and figuring out new systems.

My own dissertation experience was about as analog as it gets. New to New York City and far from my own department in Colorado, I wrote much of it in the serenity of NYPL’s Rose Reading Room. Whenever I finished a chapter, I’d print it and mail it to my dissertation advisor, who would mark it up with questions and comments and mail it back to me. I managed my research materials with Zotero, but that was about it in terms of digital tools.

Perhaps because my own project was so traditional, I love hearing about the creative ways that graduate students are presenting their research. I learned so much in the process of writing a traditional dissertation, but the most important elements had little to do with the format of the final product. I often wonder how I might approach the project if I were starting my dissertation now—I suspect it would look quite different, even though only a few years have passed since my own graduate work.

Taking a creative approach to presenting new knowledge can foster a much deeper learning experience, since it requires constant evaluation of a wider range of variables. Moreover, digital projects on the open web can reach a wider audience than most traditional dissertations, resulting in more engagement, discussion, and refinement. The challenges of completing a dissertation that takes an unusual form can be significant, but for those getting started, there are models and resources that offer invaluable guidance and lessons learned. For instance, the Graduate Center Digital Fellows have developed a terrific resource page, Amanda Visconti is documenting each step of her own digital dissertation process, and the MLA offers Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Work.

Even if you can’t join us at the Graduate Center in person, we hope you’ll participate virtually. Check out the live stream from 4-5:30pm EST on Friday, October 10, or participate on Twitter using the hashtag #remixthediss. Hope to see you there!

New Horizons

I am incredibly excited to announce that I will soon be joining the Graduate Center at CUNY as Deputy Director of the Futures Initiative and HASTAC@CUNY. The initiative, directed by Cathy Davidson, aims to develop innovative models for graduate education that will stimulate institutional change while also empowering the current generation of graduate students—which is to say, the next generation of professors, leaders, and agents of change.

The opportunity to help shape this initiative is exciting and a little daunting. The Graduate Center will be an amazing place to think through questions of the future of higher education not only because of the extraordinary work being done there, but also because, as a huge public university in a distributed urban setting, it offers a particularly interesting vantage point on systemic issues such as public support for and access to higher education. It also presents an opportunity to investigate critical questions related to labor practices given that, as is true nationwide, contingent faculty members shoulder an ever-greater proportion of undergraduate teaching duties. Finding a sustainable and equitable way forward is essential to a strong future for higher education. I look forward to thinking through the ways in which all of these questions intersect.

This good news carries with it mixed emotions, since I will miss working with my colleagues at the MLA, from whom I have learned so much. I have deeply valued my time working there. MLA Commons has made great strides since its launch, thanks to member feedback, our outstanding technical team, and the strong leadership of Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Rosemary Feal. The decision to take this new opportunity has been a difficult one. I look forward to future opportunities to collaborate with the MLA in their tireless efforts to support the work of humanities scholars and the overall health of the discipline.

The Futures Initiative is in its early stages, so I’ll be doing a great deal of listening and learning as I get started. Watch this space to see the ideas and questions I’m thinking through in this new role, and join the open Futures Initiative group on HASTAC to take part in the conversation!

New #Alt-Academy section on graduate training

Since its launch in 2011, #Alt-Academy has provided a space for scholars working in and around the academy to explore and describe the relationship of our work to the broader ecosystem of higher education. Now, under the leadership of co-editors Melissa Dalgleish and Daniel Powell, #Alt-Academy will begin a more focused exploration of the role of graduate education in a changing scholarly environment. In their words, the new section, Graduate Training in the 21st Century, “focuses on the challenges, the potential, and the pragmatics of the graduate school years that precede the move into one of many academies.” Read more about the project and consider submitting an essay for the first cluster, Beyond the Proto-Monograph: New Models for the Dissertation.

Announcing a New Phase for #Alt-Academy

I’m incredibly pleased to announce that I’ve begun work as coordinating editor of #Alt-Academy, where I’ll be building on the work of Bethany Nowviskie and the 32 authors who contributed to the site’s inaugural collection of essays. Nowviskie launched the first iteration of the site in 2011, when the term “alt-ac” was just gaining traction as a useful shorthand to describe the kinds of intellectually satisfying careers that many humanities scholars pursue in and around academic institutions.

The conversation has evolved a great deal since then. There’s new data available about the kinds of work people are doing and the career preparation they’ve had; scholarly societies like the AHA and the MLA are investing resources in additional data collection and programmatic recommendations, not to mention hosting discussions at their annual conferences; and the term itself has become both more commonly used and more hotly contested.

All of these things are signs of a maturing discussion. When the term “alt-ac” was coined, it appealed to many because our collective vocabulary lacked a term for the kinds of work it suggested—work that built on their scholarly training and perhaps contributed to the larger academic system without being a teaching- or research-focused job in a university. The label itself is not particularly important. What matters is the discussion about the careers humanities scholars pursue, and the ways that discussion can inform the structure of graduate programs so that they better support students across a broader range of employment outcomes.

With the conversation evolving, it’s only fitting that #Alt-Academy should undergo some changes as well. In addition to the change in editorship, we’re making the first volume of essays available for download as an e-book. We’ll also be publishing new content more regularly, beginning with a new cluster of essays edited by Brian Croxall, called Looking for Signposts. Watch for this cluster—and others—to grow in the year ahead as we continue to publish new material. And if you want to get involved as an author or cluster editor, we’re always looking for fresh ideas! Here’s how to contribute.

Thanks to everyone who has helped to make this site what it is. I look forward to exploring where the conversation goes from here.