Category Archives: Higher Ed

The time to reinvest in public education is NOW

More than a week into worldwide protests against racial injustice in the United States, the glaring resource discrepancy between police departments and other public services—including health care, social services, and education—is more apparent than ever. Calls abound to reduce funding to police departments, and are already having an effect. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced that he will shift some NYPD funding into youth services, and the Minneapolis City Council recently moved to disband the police department all together. 

Shifting funds away from punitive measures like policing and incarceration would immediately open up significant opportunities to better support individuals and communities. Education has long been a place where budget cuts happen first when city and state budgets are tight, something that the City University of New York is facing right now. Even though CUNY’s summer enrollment is up 17% as more students look to affordable online learning options in the midst of COVID-19, CUNY is bracing for budget cuts of 10-25%, which will entail significant course reductions and mass layoffs of adjunct faculty. Students from marginalized racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds will likely be hurt most significantly by these cuts, given that many are already in precarious positions—not only with respect to their education, but also with respect to their health, safety, and financial well-being. These compounding factors have been brought into painful clarity by the combined effects of COVID and police brutality.  Black lives matter.

At the very least, now is a time to re-examine funding priorities. More than that, we have a unique opportunity to both bolster funding to education while also reimagining how educational structures function. With classrooms shuttered and the future uncertain, now is the time to redesign the higher education system so that it better serves all students—and, by extension, the public. We can do this by reinvesting in public education. Such change is possible; after decades of underinvestment, the state of California has recently begun to restore funding to the University of California and California State systems. Other states must follow suit. Only with more robust public support can public colleges and universities fulfill their responsibility to do work that is meaningful to their communities. 

The rapid shift to online teaching lays bare the precarious labor structures that enable higher education to function. With campuses emptied of students and faculty, food services and facilities management are not needed, and many service workers have already been laid off. But that’s not all. In recent years, colleges and universities nationwide have relied heavily on contingent faculty members, often hired on a course-by-course basis with low wages and no benefits. This trend has become a crisis, with over 70% of the teaching workforce on short-term contracts. As colleges try to stave off financial shortfalls, many adjuncts will lose their jobs—a risk that already looms at Ivy League and public institutions alike, including the City University of New York’s John Jay College. Colleges have failed these workers. Faculty, administrators, and legislators have an opportunity now to think differently about labor, and to rebuild in a way that invests in higher education’s most important responsibility—teaching. But to prioritize such a significant change, public advocacy is urgently needed.

Public colleges and universities were in dire financial straits long before the pandemic due to chronic defunding by state legislatures. The University of Colorado, for example, receives less than 5% of its budget from tax dollars. The lack of funding has a major impact on learning, especially in light of the pandemic. Students in underfunded institutions already faced an uphill battle to obtain their degrees. Now, these same students are not only hampered by the rapid shift to online learning, many are also more vulnerable to COVID itself. In vast public systems like CUNY, crowded classrooms and deteriorating infrastructure make social distance and even proper handwashing impossible. Many of these students have historically been underserved by higher education and social services. They face housing insecurity and hunger, and often work in low-wage jobs that cannot be performed remotely. Illness, unemployment, and mourning are terrible new obstacles standing between these students and their goals.

If students cannot succeed, neither can the university. The pandemic is showing that publicly relevant research and teaching are key to our humanity and shared survival. Scientific research allows us to learn about transmission, treatment, and vaccination. Social sciences help explain the political, economic, and social structures that make this crisis that hit some people so much harder than others. The humanities help us to understand historical context, as well as the human, emotional, relational factors that make this a mental health crisis. And all over the world, people are turning to the arts as they look for signs of beauty and hope amidst pain and panic. 

To be sure, no quick action can solve systemic racism or decades of underinvestment. There’s a major risk right now that the inequalities of higher education will deepen. The House recently approved a $3 trillion bill that would offer short-term support to public colleges and universities nationwide, but it may not even be put to a vote in the Senate. In New York, the state and city budgets approved by Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio are forcing institutional leaders to make sharp budget cuts that may lead to significant job losses and reductions in course offerings. The most vulnerable students may drop out, while more privileged students may decide that CUNY’s affordability makes sense if classes are all online anyway. Such a change could dramatically shift institutional demographics, leading CUNY’s vibrant multicultural student body to become whiter, wealthier, and more homogeneous. 

A few months ago, the idea that every college and university in the US could shift to emergency online learning would have seemed impossible. And yet, that is exactly what happened. The rapid change is a reminder that the structures of higher education may feel immutable, but they were created by people—and can be changed. We can start today by reinvesting in public education.

Reflecting on a decade

2020 is on the horizon, ushering in a time of looking back and looking forward. January will bring not only a new year but a new decade, and a metaphorical connection to 20/20 vision. In the U.S., the year also brings a high-stakes and emotionally fraught presidential election that feels something like a moment of reckoning. Naturally, this is a time of reflection for many, myself included.

I’ve been thinking especially about how much has changed in my professional life in the last ten years. At HASTAC, we’re in the midst of planning our 2020 conference at UT Dallas, with a theme of Hindsight, Foresight, and Insight. That theme resonates as I reflect on my own journey. Part of this professional trajectory connects to another unexpected ten-year mark. As Twitter reminded me, ten years ago Jason Rhody and Bethany Nowviskie started describing their work as “alt-ac”.

I didn’t hear the term when Jason and Bethany first used it to describe their work. I hadn’t yet had the great pleasure of meeting them, and wasn’t even really on Twitter yet. I was still finding my footing: I had recently moved to NYC and had just started working at the Sloan Foundation, while still working on my dissertation. While I suspected I wouldn’t go out for faculty jobs when I finished, I didn’t have a clear idea of where my future path would lead, or how I might fit into the landscape of scholarly work someday.

As Bethany and Jason have described, the term “alt-ac” was a way to describe the really interesting work that had long been happening in spaces adjacent to and intersecting with the academy. It is work that is intellectually demanding, complex, and fulfilling—and sometimes invisible or hard to define. Through my work at Sloan, I had begun to see and understand the vast and nuanced infrastructure that supported, enabled, and complemented the work of academic research and teaching.

A couple of years later, I would begin working for Bethany as part of the Mellon-funded Scholarly Communication Institute, then embedded in UVA’s Scholars’ Lab. There, my work would focus directly on the constellation of alt-ac career pathways and how graduate education did or did not prepare people to thrive in those contexts. I learned so much in the years just after finishing my dissertation, in those first couple of jobs that set me on a path that, as a graduate student, I didn’t know existed.

As I reflect, I find my mind returning so often to those first years in NYC, to the ways my eyes began to open to the structures and systems that appear to be neutral and yet can be the difference between facilitating someone’s research and stopping it in its tracks. I’ve learned so much since then about the invisible and unearned privilege that I benefit from personally, and the ways that the systems around me have been created in order to maintain that privilege. And I hope that in some small way I have begun to work toward new kinds of systems that facilitate the work of many other scholars, researchers, teachers, mentors, and students.

Since those years, I have continued to ruminate on what it means to engage in academic work from the spaces outside the professoriate. My thinking has expanded to reflect more broadly on the value of graduate education, and how we can build more equitable systems that expressly value the full range of scholarly work that people do from many different vantage points. I’m eager for Putting the Humanities PhD to Work to come out next fall so I can share these ideas more widely. And that research goes hand-in-hand with the programmatic and administrative work I do for the Futures Initiative and HASTAC. My work draws on every bit of my doctoral education—plus so much of what I learned after my degree was finished. I am so grateful to the people I’ve had occasion to learn from—Bethany and Jason and so many others—not only in terms of the knowledge or ideas they shared, but even more importantly the care and hope and thoughtfulness with which they approach their work. I hope that I am able to pay it forward in the decade ahead.

For me, it’s dizzying to look back to 2009. Within the span of a single year, from mid-2009 to mid-2010, I moved to a new city, started working at Sloan, finished and defended my dissertation, got married, and watched as my parents ended their own marriage of 30 years. It was a lot. And it was also a beginning. Ten years later, even more has happened. I’ve moved across the river to Brooklyn. I’ve become a parent to two incredible kids, something I suspect I’ll always be adjusting to since their worlds and lives are constantly changing. I’ve held a few different jobs, all incredibly fulfilling. I’ve written a book! The term and concept of “alt-ac”—and the relationships have come about through doing that work—is interwoven with my own journey. It sounds cliché, but ten years ago I never could have pictured what my life looks like now.

All that to say: as this decade draws to an end, I can see that a lot has happened by any measure. Not all of it has been good, and yet as I look back, I am filled with gratitude.

Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Updates, abstracts, and more

Stylized book title and author name

I’m delighted to share that Putting the Humanities PhD to Work is in production at Duke University Press, and should be out in the world in time for Fall 2020! It has a fresh new subtitle (Thriving in and Beyond the Classroom), and a structure that has been much improved thanks to thoughtful comments and questions by generous peer reviewers.

In addition, our team at the Futures Initiative is using ideas in the book as a starting point for what I think will be an exciting nationwide conference in Spring 2020. This conference, Graduate Education at Work in the World, aims to collectively imagine and redesign graduate education to support students, scholarship, and the public good. If you’re interested in these topics, please consider submitting a session proposal (by Oct 21, 2019) or joining us in NYC on April 30-May 1, 2020. Graduate Fellow Cihan Tekay (Anthropology) will be leading much of the conference development, and I’m so excited to be a part of the conversations that emerge.

What has become incredibly clear to me, both through writing the book and now through the process of developing the conference, is how important it is to embed any discussion about career pathways in a broader context of the values and structures of higher education. Even when a university has deeply-held values about its purpose and mission (such as supporting the public good), those values can easily be undermined by inequitable structures. I think a crucial starting point for reform is finding where the tensions are between values and structures, as those points of friction often illuminate tacit values that work against the university’s goals.

These are the kinds of difficult questions that are woven throughout the book. It will be released by late summer 2020, and I hope it will be useful to graduate students, faculty, and administrators alike. Read on for an updated table of contents and abstracts:

Continue Reading Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Updates, abstracts, and more
Powerpoint slide with the title Putting the PhD to Work for the Public Good

Putting the PhD to Work—For the Public Good

I recently had the privilege of giving a joint keynote address at the Big XII Teaching and Learning Conference at the University of Texas, Austin, together with Adashima Oyo, doctoral student in social welfare, a graduate fellow in the Futures Initiative, and the director of HASTAC Scholars. Our goal in giving the talk was to situate the push for career preparation for doctoral students in a broader context of graduate education reform, including issues such as equity, inclusion, labor practices, and more.

Here’s the description we provided for the program:

Doctoral education opens doors to engaging and often unexpected pathways, with opportunities for significant public impact—an essential element of reinvesting in higher education as a public good. And yet, in many cases, faculty careers remain the default expectation. A number of programs are working to broaden students’ professional horizons, but it is not enough to talk about professional development in isolation.

The effort to prepare graduate students for careers beyond the classroom is most effective when it is embedded in a comprehensive discussion of the academic prestige economy, equity and inclusion, labor practices, and definition of scholarship. By providing thoughtful mentorship, material and intellectual resources, and flexible curricular and project design that considers the full landscape of graduate education today, faculty and administrators enable doctoral students to translate their skills and knowledge for different audiences and to conduct scholarly research that matters to their communities.

I’m sharing my part of the talk here. It contains some ideas that I’m still working through and hope to explore in more depth in future talks and writing. (Our complete slides are also available at

Continue Reading Putting the PhD to Work—For the Public Good

The problem with prestige

I recently had the honor of speaking alongside brilliant public scholars Jessie Daniels and Alex Gil at an NYC event hosted by the University of Edinburgh. The event, which was organized by (also brilliant!) Karen Gregory, Melissa Terras, Sian Bayne, and their Edinburgh colleagues, carried a daunting title: What is the future of the University? Teaching, learning, and research in a time of crisis. Karen asked each of us to prepare a brief “provocation.” I spoke about the problem with prestige, and about the challenge of moving from a competitive, prestige-oriented model of higher education to one that builds from (and creates) abundance, joy, and a sense of possibility. This was a very quick talk, and one intended to spark questions rather than provide answers. I’m sharing here an edited version of my remarks, as this is a topic I would like to continue exploring in my work—in my writing and speaking, and in my capacity as an administrator.


When I think of the future of the university, I think specifically of the future of the university as a public good. With that lens in mind, I would argue that one of the most fundamental (and under-discussed) issues in thinking about the future of the university is the question of prestige.

The prestige economy of higher education is often something that is a tacit undercurrent that propels and silently shapes both personal and structural decisions. From selecting a research topic, to student and faculty recruitment, to broader questions of institutional investment in particular programs or fields, there is nearly always an awareness of how such decisions will affect the relative prestige of the scholar, department, or university. That this would be the case seems impossible to change; it is part of “the way things are.”

But the pursuit and glorification of prestige has a deep impact on the way we do our work. For that reason, all of us who are invested in higher education must be willing to look directly at the role of prestige in academia, and to think critically about what constitutes scholarly or academic success. Until we are able to think more expansively about that, it will be very difficult to make headway on meaningful reform efforts, whether those efforts are centered on diversity and inclusion, labor issues, reinvesting in teaching, broader career pathways, or anything else.

A little bit about where I’m coming from: I co-direct a program that focuses in part on innovation, but not in the way it is typically framed. The Futures Initiative emphasizes innovation in service of equity in higher education, a positioning that upends the question of prestige and the usual gloss of educational technology to instead center equity and the public good. I also have a book in the works with Duke University Press called Putting the Humanities PhD to Work, which focuses on how to create broader career pathways for humanities scholars, and why that effort matters.

What I have seen is that when people have space to work differently, the results can be absolutely amazing. The undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members who work with the Futures Initiative do so outside of the structures of their departments, and have freedom and flexibility to explore ways that their work and ideas connect with other fields, and how they might apply to big societal questions. Grad students in our program run a series called “The University Worth Fighting For” that tackles a wide range of issues related to higher ed, and gives students a way to think really expansively about their work and how it can have an impact in the world. We also have a number of peer and near-peer relationships structured into the program so that people are constantly teaching and constantly learning from one another, formally and informally.

But these kinds of opportunities are rare. People in our program say they were waiting for this kind of opportunity, it brings their work to life, they couldn’t find it in their home departments. More typical modes of working and of assessing scholarly success revolves around what is valued as prestigious. This includes a pronounced dominance of research at the expense of teaching, service, leadership, and even collaborative projects (at least in the humanities). Teaching is under-supported, and faculty may rely on course releases to accomplish the work that is valued for tenure and promotion. Somehow we have created an educational system in which not-teaching is seen as a reward.

Broadening our sense of what matters must be paired with a critical consideration of the academy’s formal structures of evaluation (promotion, tenure, admissions). This structural component is essential if we want to make it possible for people to work creatively and thoughtfully. Otherwise, we will continue in the status quo, which relies on an overarching investment in a conservative understanding of success that hinge on a very traditional prestige framework. This leads to training students to succeed in the same ways as their predecessors, and generally repeating what has come before, in a professionalization process that is reproductive rather than generative.

As long as this is the case, real change is very difficult. Teaching remains devalued because it is often not incentivized within prestige economies, contributing to an increased reliance on adjunct faculty members who are not adequately supported or compensated for their work. Service is totally undervalued, and people (usually women, and especially women of color) who take on higher service loads may be implicitly (or even explicitly) penalized for not making enough “progress” on the kinds of work that are formally rewarded. In addition, recruitment of both students and faculty remains conservative—or people may be recruited to do things that the institution isn’t actually prepared to support, which is incredibly counterproductive and often personally damaging.

If we want to move away from this conservative model, we have to think about what really matters. Not what is prestigious, but why we do our work and what good it can do in the world. Some of the things that I consider core values and goals are:

  • Reinvesting in teaching
  • Fostering and celebrating work that has a significant public impact, and rewarding that work formally
  • Strengthening academic labor structures
  • Creating more inclusive structures
  • Bringing people into the field in new ways, looking for new kinds of scholarly products, and meaningfully supporting that work
  • Thinking more creatively about which students are primed for “success”
  • Supporting students and faculty through mentorship and especially peer mentorship

These values bring me to one underlying hope that we can create academic structures that are rooted in abundance and joy. On some days this seems frankly impossible. On other days, I see glimmers of hope through the work of individuals and programs that aim to work differently.

How can we get to a place where joy is a value that is supported structurally? Part of the answer involves material support for the full range of scholarly work (not just prestigious research), and part involves a fundamental shift in priorities. I think we see a glimpse onto this through the Futures Initiative, but I would challenge us all to think about how can we make it a part of higher ed more broadly. Scholarly work is all about creating new knowledge, new ways of being, new possibilities. It should be something that creates a mindset of abundance, but somehow higher ed has come to be dominated by a sense of scarcity and competition. How can we change that? Resolving this question is something that I consider worth fighting for as we look to the future of the university.


Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work

I’m excited to announce that Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work: Theory, Practice, and Models for Thriving Beyond the Classroom is in contract with Duke University Press. The book is a project that I have been working on in one way or another ever since working with the Scholarly Communication Institute and the Scholars’ Lab at UVa. The book will be a solid discussion of career pathways for humanities Ph.D.’s, from nuts and bolts to why it matters. In the coming months, I hope to blog about the project, especially some of the more complex questions I’m wrestling with. Feedback is most welcome.

For now, here’s the working abstract:

Intended for graduate students in the humanities and for the faculty members who guide them, this book grounds practical career advice in a nuanced consideration of the current landscape of the academic workforce and an emphasis on reaffirming humanities education as a public good. It explores how rhetoric and practices related to career preparation are evolving, and how those changes intersect with admissions practices, scholarly reward structures, and academic labor practices—especially the increasing reliance on contingent labor. The book also examines the ways that current practices perpetuate systems of inequality that result in the continued underrepresentation of women and minorities in the academy. Rather than indulge the narrative of crisis, this book invites readers to consider ways that graduate training can open unexpected doors that lead to meaningful careers with significant public impact. Drawing on surveys, interviews, and personal experience, the book provides graduate students with context and analysis to inform the ways they discern opportunities for their own potential career paths, while taking an activist perspective that moves not only toward individual success but also systemic change. For those in positions to make decisions in humanities departments or programs, the book offers insight into the circumstances and pressures that students are facing and examples of programmatic reform that address career matters in structural ways. Throughout, the book highlights the important possibility that different kinds of careers offer engaging, fulfilling, and even unexpected pathways for students who seek them out.

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.