Category Archives: Higher Ed

New Beginnings

After my daughter was born in 2014, I couldn’t believe how hard it was to avoid clichés when everything was so startlingly new to me. She was growing so fast, I felt so much joy and so much exhaustion, I worried about diaper rash and breastfeeding and the state of the world. Thoughts of health and growth and happiness and safety—just like every new parent, ever. So many things I had never felt before, but that had been felt and expressed by countless parents across time and space. Words failed me.

I had my second child, a baby boy, this past July. Having watched myself transform into a parent when my daughter came into the world, I feel (somewhat) less stunned by the simultaneous wonder and triviality this time around. Becoming a parent feels miraculous and utterly mundane, a tension that recurs every day through brand-new smiles and endless repetitive tasks, through deep hope and moments of frustration.

So now, with the paradoxes of life with a new human very much on my mind, it’s time for me to return to work and think once more about the ground that we as educators prepare for the generations to come, while building on the work and wisdom of many who have come before. I am at once not ready to be back, and happy to be returning.

I am grateful for the unfailing support of my colleagues, who made it possible for me to be completely focused on my family and my health during these past three months. And I’m full of admiration for the hard work it took our union, PSC-CUNY, to obtain paid parental leave not only for me, a birth mother, but for any new parent in a full-time position. This kind of support, both institutional and personal, is too rare in workplaces in the U.S. and I do not take it for granted.

In the weeks and months ahead, I will be blogging about my book project, Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work; our work at the Futures Initiative; and issues around higher education more broadly. And I’ll be trying to bring more of my whole self into these posts than I sometimes do, which may mean reflections on parenthood (especially motherhood) in an academic workplace—especially given that my breast pump often provides my writing soundtrack these days.

So with deep thanks again to all who support me, I’m happy to be embracing the new beginning in my personal life and bringing a fresh perspective to my work.

Pausing to Reflect

This has been… a big year. While the Futures Initiative team and I formally reflect on the past year through the exercise of writing and designing our annual report, and while we plan for an unusual year ahead, I’d like to take a moment and offer a more personal reflection as well.

In working on our annual report, I and others on our team have been struck by how much the Futures Initiative has accomplished this year, and how far we have come in just three years since our founding in Fall 2014. From the collaborative writing and publishing experience of Structuring Equality, to our growing collaborations across the GC and CUNY, to the way our ongoing programs like team-taught courses and peer mentoring are thriving, it has been a banner year for the program. I look forward to sharing sharing that document when we wrap it up.

And yet, this has also felt like a particularly difficult year, one laden with anger at unjust systems and the persistence of white supremacy, with sorrow at lives wrongly taken, with uncertainty as the political climate threatens to wreak havoc with higher education and the lives of CUNY students.

The particular day that I’m writing this has started with sorrowful news that is at once uniquely terrible and also broadly emblematic of the year we have come through. This morning, before the day had even begun, I read in the news about too many lives taken:

  • Charleena Lyles, a mother of four and pregnant with her fifth child, was shot and killed by police after calling to report a suspected break-in in her home in Seattle. Lyles reportedly had a history of mental health issues. This morning, she becomes yet another example of police violence against black people in a year filled with names of those wrongly killed. The news feels unbearable and unsurprising at once.
  • Nabra Hassanen, a seventeen-year-old Muslim girl, was killed after leaving a mosque in Virginia following Ramadan prayers. The incident is not even being investigated as a hate crime, which seems utterly inexplicable.
  • One person was killed and eight were injured when someone drove a van into a pedestrian zone near a mosque in London. All those injured and killed were Muslim, and the driver reportedly targeted the Muslim community intentionally.

This is just today. Attacks like these have been far too common all year, and while incidents like these against women, against Black people, against Muslims, against people with disabilities are not new, the pace at which they are happening and continuing to happen despite more extensive reporting feels dizzying in the worst way.

It is against this backdrop that the Futures Initiative does our work. We continue to work across CUNY and the HASTAC network in support of innovative approaches to move toward greater equity in higher education. Our work feels more urgent than ever, though it also feels like we have so very far to go.

Beyond all this, it has been a big year for me personally as well. I’m expecting baby #2, a boy, later this summer, and my pregnancy has been very much present in my work—in an embodied way, as fatigue and headaches and other discomforts have distracted me in ways I’m not accustomed to, and in an emotional way, as I think about the world this baby boy will grow into.

I started a post early in my pregnancy that I never developed. Its working title is “Rage” and it is just four sentences:

I learned I was pregnant a few days before the presidential election. Trying to nourish a pregnancy and raise a small child in this nightmare of a political scenario has been incredibly difficult. I recently found out that the child I’m expecting will be a boy. While the dominant model of masculinity in the U.S. is nothing short of horrifying, you better believe my spouse and I are going to do everything in our power to raise both our kids to be strong, caring, feminist, questioning adults.

Those early days of assimilating the knowledge of a new life with that of our country’s new political realities were rough. I’m thankful to work in an environment where the emotions around identity, family, and politics can inform the work we do. The shock of new pregnancy has worn off, as has the shock of this new presidency. As a team, we are planning for my absence, preparing for the year ahead, recalibrating our goals and expectations to engage with the current political climate without being consumed by it.

We have great plans in store for next year. As we work toward building stronger connections across our faculty fellows, graduate fellows, and others in the FI orbit, we’ll be launching a new series called “Thursday Dialogues.” These graduate-student led discussions will focus on research, public projects, themes in this year’s team-taught courses, matters of professionalization, and more. We will continue our University Worth Fighting For series, with a theme of “Transforming Learning” and event topics focusing on pedagogy for LGBTQ educators; community college teaching; and Cathy Davidson’s forthcoming book, The New Education. Our undergraduate Peer Mentoring program will shift slightly as we run our first Undergraduate Leadership Institute. We’ll forge deeper integrations with the Humanities Alliance as it enters its second year. Through it all, our graduate fellows will be taking on more leadership roles than ever before, and I’m both sad to miss it and excited to see where they take our programming.

I’ll close this post with deep gratitude to my team members at the Futures Initiative and HASTAC, from whom I am constantly learning. I look forward to all that is yet to come.

Practicing what we preach?

Today, our Futures Initiative team—graduate students, postdoc, and staff—will be taking a step back to consider how we are doing relative to our stated programmatic goals. The two things that I find most important about this temperature check are (1) that the suggestion came from within the group, not from administration; and (2) that we’ll be pausing to evaluate not only our public-facing work, but also the quieter, less visible side of what we do: our individual work, our group dynamic, and the day-to-day ways that we may or may not be inching towards a more equitable system of higher education. Through the discussion, we’ll be looking for ways that we can bring our individual and collective goals into closer alignment, and ways we can improve our own practices.

I direct our group of fellows, and one of my major goals as the program enters its third year has been to cultivate trust, openness, and leadership among our team—and the fact that this discussion is happening is an encouraging sign that we are moving in that direction. The Futures Initiative is unusual in the degree of ownership that graduate students take in shaping and running the program. Each fellow has a specific domain in which they take the lead, such as web development, social media, research, communications, and even directing sub-programs like HASTAC Scholars or our peer mentoring program. We continually refine the structures that govern our time and energy, not only for efficacy, but to foster reflection about the connections between our programmatic goals, our individual hopes and challenges, and each fellow’s ongoing scholarly development.

Our team’s weekly meeting structure has been one of the key elements in working toward the kind of dynamic that will not only help our program to succeed, but more importantly, will create unique opportunities for connection, collaboration, and growth. As many teams do, we gather weekly to report on our individual projects and progress. The fellows take turns leading these meetings, giving them the chance to lead their peers while also establishing structures that will ensure all voices are heard. The meetings are not long, but recently, we have been making it a point to spend time on personal updates—giving us all a moment to talk about achievements, challenges, self-care, and more. In the unreal political climate that we’re currently facing, these moments of connection and vulnerability have been incredibly valuable.

The ways we structure our group’s work reflects our aim of developing integrative structures in higher education—systems that emphasize meta-cognition as we reflect together on what we are doing, how we’re doing it, and where there might be points of connection that we hadn’t anticipated. The fellows are all gaining crucial professional skills, too—everything from event planning to communications to leadership and collaboration more broadly. As I have written elsewhere, learning these kinds of skills—especially in the service of projects that students find meaningful—is incredibly beneficial to students’ likelihood of success in any career, whether in the classroom or in any number of professional contexts.

For the Futures Initiative, these skills are not ends in themselves, but tools to empower the next generation of leaders to continue building systems that work toward equity and public reinvestment in higher education. As a program, we are constantly working toward institutional change—not only through the content of our public programming, but through our work structures and our shared values.

We have a long way to go. While I strive to make decisions that reflect a commitment to our values of equity, social justice, and student-centered learning, sometimes I act out of expediency instead. We are working to see our own blind spots, to engage voices that challenge our own perspectives, and to consider ways that we can be more deeply collaborative—all of which can be difficult and uncomfortable. We will likely uncover tensions and challenges in today’s conversation. By creating the space for these tensions to come to light, we can collectively transform them into opportunities to grow.

What is the Futures Initiative? Defining and Redefining our Goals

The Futures Initiative can be difficult to describe. We work at the intersection of pedagogy, technology, professional development, and public engagement, all in support of fostering a more equitable higher education system for all. We’re trying to find better and clearer ways of saying that, not only through our mission statement, but through all that we do—from programming to written materials to the architecture and design of our website.

We’re in a sweet spot of the academic calendar from a program development perspective—far enough into the summer to feel rested from the slower pace, but close enough to the upcoming semester to be gearing up and getting excited. Yesterday, the Futures Initiative staff and graduate fellows held a mini-retreat to think not only about the activities and programming we plan to host in the year ahead (we’re working on some pretty fantastic events—more on that soon!), but also to take a step back and think about our program’s mission and goals and how we articulate them.

Here’s one of the ideas that emerged from yesterday’s brainstorming session:

Sketch of three interlocking circles labeled Pedagogy, Technology, and Professional Development

I love this simple sketch. To me, the large circle underscores our main goal—equity in higher education—while the three interlocking circles of pedagogy, technology, and professional development clarify our approach to creating institutional change to support that underlying goal. It’s not at all polished, but already it is helping us to think in clearer ways about what we want to undertake in the year ahead, and why.

This process of reflecting on who we are and what we do has been iterative in the best way. We hit the ground running in our first year and made things up as we went, jumping into opportunities that presented themselves and meeting and listening to people with far more depth of experience at CUNY than our little team of three had. When that year ended, we took a breath, reflected on what we had done and what seemed to resonate with the community, and then together with our graduate fellows developed a new mission statement and plan for the year ahead. We can only do this collaboratively, as we think together about what we are proud of, where we can do better, and what our highest aspirations are.

That first reflective process brought about the University Worth Fighting For, a powerful series of events and workshops that addressed equity and social justice through the lens of engaged pedagogy and non-hierarchical learning structures.

With the current political and cultural climate, the aim of fostering structures of equality within and around the university seems more important and urgent than ever. The nuts-and-bolts planning is still to come, so I don’t know yet exactly where we’ll take the program in the year ahead—but I can’t help but think we’re onto something big.

CGS Position Paper – Opportunities Created by Emerging Technologies

The following is a position paper for an upcoming workshop on the dissertation convened by the Council of Graduate Schools (January 27-29, 2016). I’ll be speaking on a panel focusing on what new technologies enable us to do with this critical milestone in graduate study. My main argument is that while the affordances of specific technologies can be exciting, more important is the shift toward collaborative, creative, and public-facing scholarly work that today’s digital platforms allow. 

UPDATE: The full agenda and all participants’ position papers are available at http://cgsnet.org/cgs-future-dissertation-workshop.

As the capstone of doctoral training, the dissertation is the pivotal moment when graduate students synthesize and articulate their research, marking the transition from apprentice to scholar. It also serves an important professionalization and normative function: graduate students learn what is accepted as scholarly work based on the submission requirements for their dissertation and the values of their committee. If digital projects are to remain an important avenue for the articulation and public sharing of scholarly work, that work must be professionally viable for people from the outset their careers. By rethinking dissertation requirements, graduate students learn that exploratory, cutting-edge work is encouraged from day one, not something that must wait until after securing tenure. This means more than simply allowing different file formats to be submitted, however. The conversation must go beyond specific technologies to focus on the values we embrace, the methods we consider crucial, and the potential for impact that we can imagine in the dissertation process (where “we” includes all those involved in shaping the structures of graduate education).

These issues are not unique to the dissertation as a work of research. The same questions of values, methods, and impact are at the heart of the changing landscape of scholarly publishing systems, and new developments in one domain will undoubtedly affect norms and expectations in the other. With that in mind, a discussion about new opportunities for the dissertation must also touch on ways that innovative scholarship is received and recognized at later stages of a scholar’s career, including expectations set out in the tenure and promotion process. I would argue that placing greater emphasis on public engagement, collaborative work, and creativity in both dissertations and other scholarly work, while also maintaining an open stance toward technological innovation, will result in meaningful research whose reach extends far beyond the academy.

Publishing is about making knowledge public. As tautological as that statement is, the central value of making research public is sometimes lost in discussions about scholarly communication. At the heart of research and publication is the goal of bringing new insight into the body of human knowledge. This happens in different ways—sometimes the best audience to reach is small and specialized while other times it is more powerful to reach a broad, interested public. Digital tools allow us new ways of doing each. Because working in digital environments and using new tools and platforms can involve a wide range of different skill sets, such projects often involve multiple people with varied and overlapping expertise. The collaborative process of working in digital environments is not merely expedient, however; it can also have a deep influence on the nature of the work itself, resulting in a project that may be more sophisticated and complex than a series of individual projects by the same people would be. Further, digital environments allow for expansive thinking and creative ways of articulating an idea thanks to the multimodal and multimedia capabilities of current web design.

The value systems that define dissertation requirements are shaped by what we consider the values and purpose of higher education to be. This is another reason why it matters greatly that robust digital projects have the potential for meaningful impact beyond the academy. Public engagement is an essential part of understanding higher education as a public good, and as such is critical to the mission of the Futures Initiative, a program I co-direct with Cathy Davidson. Based within the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY), the Futures Initiative is part of the largest public urban university system in the United States. CUNY educates an incredibly diverse student body comprising 500,000 students across New York City’s five boroughs. Understanding education as a public good, especially in the context of a huge public university system in the heart of a thriving city that is also home to massive income inequality, means that engaging with a broader community is critical to its success.

As part of the Futures Initiative’s work, we connect not only with colleges across the CUNY system, but also with a global (though predominantly North American) community called HASTAC: the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory. Though innovation is often thought of as something for elite and well-funded institutions, the Futures Initiative and HASTAC both see innovation happening out of necessity. Teams across the CUNY campuses have developed incredible projects (like Commons in a Box, OpenLab at City Tech, Vocat, Science Forward, and more) in part to stitch together such a diverse and geographically dispersed group of working commuter students, faculty, and staff. At the Futures Initiative, we place a strong emphasis on pedagogy, labor issues, and public engagement. Making effective use of digital tools allows us to do our best work in each of these domains and have a greater impact than we otherwise might. Understanding equity and innovation as two facets advancing a single goal allows the Futures Initiative greater clarity of purpose and approach.

Further, if we see equity and innovation as linked, rather than opposed, then it follows that recognizing a broader range of scholarly products makes it possible for scholars with varied backgrounds and skillsets to break new ground—it opens up new avenues so that scholars, departments, or institutions do not maintain the status quo, gatekeeping in ways that allow only certain kinds of people and ideas to advance. This kind of work also makes research and scholarship more accessible to different kinds of publics as people’s work is shared through different channels and platforms. Both HASTAC and the Futures Initiative sites are public, so anyone—regardless of whether or not they are affiliated with a university or any other institution—can read, contribute, and become a part of the network.

In addition to networks like these that foster communication in new ways, scholarly work itself is also changing. There is an increasing prevalence of born-digital work that pushes at the limits of traditional forms, and some of the most creative work is being done by emerging scholars on dissertations.

One of the Futures Initiative’s kick-off events in fall 2014 was a panel called What Is A Dissertation (better known on Twitter as #remixthediss), in which graduate students and recent graduates shared projects that don’t resemble the proto-monograph of most dissertations. The work by these remarkable students and recent PhDs includes the use of Tumblr and other social media to share and discuss historical photographs of black women; ethnographic work on contemporary youth created using video and the multimodal platform Scalar; the ecology of proprietary data, explored and shared using mapping visualization tools; a dissertation on comics in comic form; and more.

These students and recent graduates are doing top-notch research and sharing it in ways that make it compelling to a wide audience. Still, many of them noted that they faced resistance to their projects at some stage of the process, and found that they needed to carefully articulate the value of their projects to ensure the scholarly merit was recognized. As they found, scholars often must provide traditional materials as an additional component to their groundbreaking work, translating their projects into more familiar media. This puts an added burden on emerging scholars and acts as a disincentive from pursuing creative projects in the first place. Nevertheless, sharing work publicly and collaboratively not only benefits the public, but can also serve the individual scholars by making their work accessible.

Despite lingering fears that sharing work online will make formal publication less likely, some publishers see online engagement as an advantage and are thrilled when a work already has an audience ready and waiting. For instance, Nick Sousanis, Post-Doctoral Scholar at the University of Calgary and one of the #remixthediss panelists, had a book contract with Harvard University Press in hand before even finishing his dissertation. He was able to achieve this not only because his graphic novel Unflattening is brilliant and beautiful and innovative, but also because he had built a strong audience by sharing his work-in-progress online, thus demonstrating to the publisher that the book was marketable in a way that not all academic works are.

Other scholars have had similar experiences. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Associate Executive Director and Director of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association, shared her book Planned Obsolescence—an exploration of technology, publishing, and the academy—online for public comment. In effect she created an experimental publishing environment for her inquiry into academic publishing. The work received hundreds of thoughtful comments in a medium that allowed much more dialogue than traditional double-blind peer review. The open environment gave Fitzpatrick an opportunity to polish her work in conversation with peers, leading to a stronger final work, a positive collaborative experience, and an audience that was eager to see the final product. This deep level of interaction was possible in part because Fitzpatrick had already built an online community through countless interactions with peers. This is important to note because networks online work the same way they do in person—they must be built over time.

These are merely two examples of online engagement and the publishing of works-in-progress that led to traditional book publications. But what about more innovative, born-digital publications? New platforms like Scalar, developed at the University of Southern California under the direction of Tara McPherson, allow scholars to present research in creative, dynamic, multimodal ways that allow for incredible nuance, insight, and beauty. As one example, artist and educator Evan Bissell created a multimodal project called The Knotted Line to examine the history of incarceration, education, and labor. The exceptionally interactive result is something completely different than a traditional article on the same topic would be, even if the research were the same.

Purdue Assistant Professor and Digital Humanities Specialist Amanda Visconti’s digital dissertation, Infinite Ulysses, is another compelling example of the power of born-digital work. Combining deep literary insight with interface design, web development, community building, and best practices in user testing and analytics, Visconti has created a space for collaborative interpretation of a text. Since its launch, hundreds of readers have annotated James Joyce’s text. Further, Visconti has provided an invaluable service to the community by blogging every stage of her research, development, and defense, helping to make transparent the hurdles that other emerging scholars might anticipate when working on digital projects.

If programs begin to welcome new kinds of dissertations, they will also need to work backwards and reformulate the kinds of training that their graduate programs offer. Research methods and courses might be paired with professional development opportunities to learn skills that will allow graduate students to create the best kind of project to suit their research. They might encourage more interdisciplinary work as well as increased collaboration. Most creative projects are not the work of only one person, but incorporate the expertise of many—someone (or some team) who develops an extensible tool, a developer who customizes it for a new purpose, a designer who determines the best way to present information to a particular audience. If each of these collaborators has deep grounding in humanities methods and values, the entire project can cohere in a powerful way. To enable programs to move in that direction, there needs to be a conscious decision to start valuing collaborative, interdisciplinary work from students in the early stages of the program.

Celebrating the scholarly merit of differently-inflected, public-facing dissertation projects also means that students will be primed to succeed in more varied career paths. The skills they gain will help them to become excellent faculty members, too, who can work to further innovate the higher education landscape. Innovative projects may require specific skills—like video editing, web development, or database design—and they will undoubtedly require more generalized skills such as project management, navigating institutional hurdles, and public engagement. Fostering innovative scholarly work is a key aspect of helping students to be better prepared for multiple career possibilities. In other words, changing what constitutes a successful dissertation has the potential to change a great deal about graduate programs, from start to finish in a student’s tenure: what programs look for in prospective students, how they structure coursework and exam requirements, and what kinds of careers graduates pursue.

Importantly, expanding our interpretation of success and rigor to include a broader range of projects that lead to more and varied career opportunities also has the potential to expand access to and equity within higher education. Access to higher education (and to good quality K-12) remains highly unequal across the country, with test scores mapping not to true achievement or potential but to school district and family income level. If we continue to look for the same types of outcomes in terms of scholarly work and career paths, we are likely to perpetuate the existing system. If, instead, we celebrate different kinds of successes, we are likely to attract a greater diversity of students who want to pursue a graduate degree for more varied reasons.

Our vision for the dissertation is expanding, but much work remains. Collaborative dissertations remain rare, even though deeply creative projects may require many hands. If we want to tackle the most complex questions, we might productively think of each student’s dissertation as one aspect of a larger project, as Todd Presner describes in his notion of the “20-year dissertation“. Technologies will change, so while issues related to building new skills as well as technical affordances and limitations may seem most pressing, questions centering on the purpose and values of higher education, and for the dissertation as the capstone of a doctoral degree, are far more important. If we care about higher education as a public good, we must find ways to foster graduate students’ most creative, innovative, and engaging work.

Works Cited

Bissell, Evan et al. “The Knotted Line.” Updated 19 Aug. 2014. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. <http://knottedline.com>

Davidson, Cathy N. et al. “What Is a Dissertation? New Models, Methods, Media.” #alt-academy: Alternative Academic Careers. 30 Dec. 2014. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. <http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/pieces/what-dissertation-new-models-methods-media>

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York: NYU Press, 2011.

Presner, Todd. “Welcome to the 20-Year Dissertation.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 25 Nov. 2013. <http://chronicle.com/article/Welcome-to-the-20-Year/143223/>

Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Visconti, Amanda. “Infinite Ulysses.” 2015. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. <http://www.infiniteulysses.com/>

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.