Tag Archives: futures initiative

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.

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.