Educational equality and racial integration

Educational equality is on my mind constantly these days—it’s a central tenet of our mission at the Futures Initiative and a core value for CUNY. Even though we focus on higher education, the role of K-12 public schools looms large. SAT scores are a great indication not of aptitude or achievement, but of average family income. The experiences that kids have in public schools affect whether they go to college, graduate, and find a rewarding career.

The latest episode of This American Life features Nikole Hannah-Jones in an investigation of the stark performance gap between majority black and majority white school districts in Ferguson, MO. Even sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the degree of school segregation is extremely high, and the gap in educational quality at predominantly black and predominantly white schools receive is staggering. Hannah-Jones reports that one in two black kids in St. Louis attend a school that have been partially stripped of accreditation. For white kids, that number is one in 25. Stats like that suggest that race is even a stronger indicator for educational quality than family income.

The powerful episode focuses primarily on a smart, driven girl attending middle school in the Normandy school district—the same district that Michael Brown graduated from. The quality of education there was so poor that the district’s accreditation had been in on probation for 15 years. When the district eventually lost its accreditation completely, the student was able to transfer into another district in the city along with 1,000 other students who opted to do the same. The new district, which was predominantly white, promised far greater opportunity. The girl and her mother were delighted, even though the transfer meant a long bus ride to a school 30 miles away.

The parents of kids in the school district she was transferring into, however, were not pleased. The episode includes disturbing audio from a town hall meeting where the parents expressed concern about the effect the incoming students would have on their district. Though one parent adamantly insists that it wasn’t a “race issue,” the language that the parents use to voice their fears is vicious and racially coded. The parents worry about low test scores. They fear violence. They compare the situation to an earlier one in which they opted not to extend public transportation to the area so that they could prevent “the different areas” coming into their neighborhood. One mother proclaims, “I shopped for a school district. I deserve to not have to worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed.” The crowd cheers.

The blatant appeal to money shocks me. Isn’t basic physical safety something all our kids deserve? At the bare minimum? How can it possibly be that we think safety at school is a privilege of wealth, rather than a human right?

In any case, as Hannah-Jones discusses, the parents’ fears did not come to pass. The whiter, wealthier school district did not deteriorate. And yet, the unintended experiment with desegregation came to an end as the state found new options to keep the failing district running. The black kids went back to their schools and the inequality continued.

The main thrust of the story is that integration works, but it’s hard, and by and large we have been unwilling to stick to it (or even try it, in many cases). During the court-ordered integration, the achievement gap between black kids and white kids diminished—but we rarely even talk about school integration now.

There are systemic issues at play and individual ones. As a white woman raising a little brown girl in a quickly-gentrifying neighborhood of Brooklyn, I’m grappling with these questions now. Which is the very best school for our daughter? What values do we care about most in her education? How can we, as a family, both model and fight for the things that matter to us and that we think are best not only for our daughter, but for society? Everyone wants the best for their kids. Parents shouldn’t have to buy their way into a safe, high-quality educational environment for their little ones. That shouldn’t be the way public education works.

Pretending that all schools are equal is clearly not working. What can we do to fight for equality now, today? The urgency of these questions is one reason we’re hosting a series of workshops and discussions at the Futures Initiative that will focus on pedagogical practices, race, equality, institutional change. The approaches we take in the classroom have a major impact on our students, whether we’re talking about K12, community college, or graduate school. Join us as we work through some of these crucial questions together.

Relying on contingent labor affects research, too

Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. This is perhaps the most important refrain of the adjunct activism movement, and the one that is most likely to lead to change. If the primary goal of colleges and universities is to educate students, then the ways that labor conditions affect student outcomes should be of central importance.

In addition to teaching, another major facet of universities is affected by the increasing reliance on contingent labor: Research. In the humanities, the impact of precarity on research hinges mainly on the absence of time and support for research and writing, but in the sciences the impact on research is more direct. While most contingent positions on the humanities are teaching-focused, postdocs in the sciences are generally research-driven. Much like adjunct lecturer appointments in the humanities, short-term postdoctoral positions are on the rise in the sciences, and the effects on research output are becoming more and more visible.

As Brenda Iasevoli reports in NPREd, the increasing reliance on postdocs for lab research—and the decreasing support that those postdocs receive—is directly affecting the quality of research. In the article, Gary McDowell (who holds a PhD in biology) notes that there are a rising number of article retractions, a shift he attributes to researchers altering data in the face of the increasing pressure of the academic job market. The UK bioethics report he uses to support his claim also suggests that senior scientists may not have enough time to devote to training junior researchers in best practices. (Echoing this claim, a recent joint report from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine argues both for better pay and stronger mentorship of postdocs, according to this Boston Globe article.) If both research integrity and teaching outcomes are being compromised by poor labor conditions, then everyone with any stake in higher education should be working to solve the problem.

There is some movement on that front. National Adjunct Walkout Day marked an important moment in the effort to raise awareness about faculty labor conditions. One thing that makes activism around contingent labor issues so difficult is that there are so many valences of contingency, some of which are more problematic than others. A postdoc can be a career turning point—my 18-month stint at SCI and the Scholars’ Lab was transformative. But the experience wasn’t positive by accident; it required careful structuring, mentorship, and opportunities for me to have ownership of certain projects. All of that takes time and energy on the part of staff and faculty. Similarly, well-structured graduate teaching positions are invaluable opportunities to learn effective pedagogical approaches *before* deciding whether one wants to seek a faculty career. There are elements of short-term, contractual positions that are essential opportunities for growth. The problem (well, one problem) is that these good examples are becoming eclipsed by exploitative short-term or part-time positions, and are sometimes lumped in with them in unhelpful ways.

It’s not easy to untangle these threads. CUNY has reduced the teaching load of most doctoral students to one course per semester, which is wonderful. But CUNY also relies heavily on adjuncts who earn an average of $3,275 (as reported by CUNY Adjunct Project based on data from Professional Staff Congress, the union for CUNY faculty and staff). I don’t know what the numbers look like for postdocs and grant-funded researchers, but I hope to learn more as part of our research efforts at the Futures Initiative. For advocacy efforts to be most effective, we need to have a much better understanding of the full picture of contingent labor across academic structures to that we can target our efforts toward the most problematic elements while strengthening the positions that provide genuine professional development. Both teaching and research stand to benefit from the effort.

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!