College for Everyone: Cathy Davidson on The CUNY Humanities Alliance

Cathy Davidson, Co-Director of The CUNY Humanities Alliance, describes why the new partnership between The CUNY Graduate Center and LaGuardia Community College is a unique approach to supporting transfer students.

There are more philosophy majors at LaGuardia Community College than at any other college in the northeast. Philosophy and the humanities at LaGuardia are not add-ons or frills, but essential survival skills.

Our first blog in this series features an interview with renowned scholar of cultural history and technology Cathy N. Davidson of the Graduate Center, CUNY.  Her latest book is The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (Basic Books; September 5, 2017). She spoke with us about the Graduate Center (GC) of the City University of New York (CUNY)’s Humanities Alliance, an initiative launched in 2014 in partnership with LaGuardia Community College (LCC) that is dedicated to training PhD students in the most successful methods for teaching humanities courses. At the core of this partnership is the Humanities Alliance Graduate Fellowship program, a unique opportunity for CUNY doctoral students to train with LaGuardia Community College faculty and implement their new skills by teaching their own classes at the college. LCC offers some of the largest and most popular humanities programs in the CUNY system. Approximately 900 undergraduate students each year benefit from this collaboration. 

Q: What distinguishes the partnership between CG and LCC from other, similar programs?

CD: One of the things that is unique about this program is that we have gotten rid of the deficit model. We don’t think of community college as a deficit. Students come to the classroom in a community college with enormous depths of knowledge. Their experiences are different than those of their peers at elite traditional school students, but they’re no less valuable. Community college students arrive with important and inspiring depths of knowledge about life, multiculturalism, ambition, and surviving in a hard world. The way we see it, teachers in graduate programs can learn much from the way community colleges focus on pedagogy. Graduate students can and should observe from them how to translate their cutting-edge research into work for introductory students.

Q: Why focus on pedagogy?

CD: Since the 19th century, four-year colleges and research universities have approached humanities education almost as a pre-professional degree: the implicit assumption is that everyone who earns the undergraduate degree aspires to be a humanities professor one day. And that's not the case; it’s actually quite rare that someone with a bachelor’s in the humanities goes on to graduate school and then becomes a tenure-track humanities professor. As a result, there’s a mismatch between the way the undergraduate degree is constructed and the life and career one might have after the degree is obtained. That's another one of the lessons that four-year colleges and research universities can learn from community colleges: how to make the humanities truly relevant to all lives – not simply to the profession of the humanities.

Q: One of the chapters in your latest book is 'College for Everyone,' which addresses the fact that graduate students are not taught to teach. How did that dynamic arise?

CD: In the book, I wrote about the origins of the American research university in the 19th  century and how different it was from the parallel origins at the same time of the community college. At the research university, you don't deign to teach pedagogy. Graduate students are assumed to learn by imitation the research mastered by their professors; the ones who are most like their professors will learn to be experts the same way their professors are. We know that even at research universities, the average college teacher spends 60 percent of his or her time on teaching. It's an unfortunate legacy of the founding of the research university that graduate students almost never learn anything about pedagogy. In our Humanities Alliance, we focus on the relationship between teaching and knowledge, and we encourage graduate students to translate their cutting-edge research into what they teach to introductory students. We believe that translation improves both the teaching and the quality of the research.


Book cover: The New Education by Cathy N. Davidson, published by Basic Books in 2017.

Q: The mentor relationship for graduate students at both GC and LCC is one of the hallmarks of the Graduate Center/LaGuardia Community College. How does that mentoring program work?

CD: The mentoring program at the Graduate Center is essentially a collaborative of several teams from several different programs, including the Teaching and Learning Center and the Futures Initiative as well as the faculty. There is a similar consortium of people working and offering workshops at LaGuardia. At LCC, each graduate student in the program is paired with a mentor—a model teacher and scholar-- whose classes they shadow and to whom he or she can talk about teaching.  The second-year graduate students help to conduct workshops at the Graduate Center with the entering graduate students, focusing on their professional development, including on connecting their doctoral work to what they're teaching in the classroom, and to showing how that relates to the lives of their undergraduates.

Community college students are likely to be working 30 hours a week or more. Many of them have families. Teaching graduate students how to translate their theoretical work into these students’ engagement with issues in their world is one of the key factors that motivated this program.

Q: How do community colleges apply the humanities to the public good?

CD: There are more philosophy majors at LaGuardia Community College than at any other college in the northeast. Philosophy and the humanities at LaGuardia are not add-ons or frills, but essential survival skills. One of the things that CUNY Humanities Alliance Fellow Anton Kociolek has done is attuned his course to the headlines.

How do you understand what fake news is, and what it means? What does it do if you believe all news is fake? What does it do to undermine the media? What does it mean to live in an epistemological world where nobody knows what is true or isn't true? What kind of cynicism does that invite, and how does cynicism relate to autocracy and authoritarian regimes? Why do so many authoritarian regimes begin by discrediting truth? And I just think that's a brilliant way to make it clear that philosophy is engagement.

Philosophy is everyday life in America. That's different than the way it's often taught in four-year colleges, where philosophy is about training you to become a philosophy professor.

Q: Community colleges don’t necessarily use the term “humanities;” instead courses we think of as humanities may be called critical thinking, or English as a second language, or composition, or American Literature.

CD: The term “humanities” is a difficult one for non-academics; it doesn’t have a clear reference. Everyone knows what “history,” “literature,” or “philosophy” are and why they are meaningful. I use the term “humanities” when it is useful—but I almost always define it when addressing non-academic audiences.

Q How do you think that approach to the humanities has served the students at these schools? Is this reflective of community colleges’ different attitudes toward teaching these disciplines?

I believe the future of the humanities is very bright at community colleges precisely because it can be applied to the demands people face in the world outside of school. You have to know who you are as a person, how to think about the ethical things in your life, how to evaluate the situations you're in, how to communicate well, how to trace the history of a certain idea, what culture is and how a global inter-culture operates in your specific world. Over 50% of LaGuardia students were born outside of the US and they speak over 100 languages.  You have to know about culture and globalization in a world where your 25 classmates might come from 24 different countries other than the one where you were born. It's a very, very different apparatus there and a very different cultural situation there. 

Q: How did you select participants?

CD: We were looking for superheroes, and we found them. By that I mean the exemplary LaGuardia faculty, the graduate students, and the undergraduates who participate in our year-long special undergraduate humanities enrichment seminar. Everyone juggles multiple roles. They are all extraordinary people.

Q: Which community college students get to take classes in the program?

CD: LaGuardia President Gail Mellow likes to say "it's easy to be selective—like a Stanford or a Harvard—where you just pick the top four percent." What she means is that the historical research university is grounded in being as selective as possible. But her job and LaGuardia Community College’s is to educate the “top 100 percent.” Yet everything about being a graduate student at a high-prestige program like that of the CUNY Graduate Center is about selectivity. So the Graduate Fellows have to apply a different lens when they think about their role, which is to identify and help the “top 100 percent” to learn.  Seeking the top 100 percent means you're always asking "Who are we leaving out—and how is this class addressing those needs?” 

It’s a very different mentality than the intimidating harangue delivered by so many admissions officers around the country, to every new entering class: “Look to the right, look to the left. Only a third of you will be graduating in four years!” Instead of trying to “weed” people out, the goal—despite all the odds faced by community college students— is retention. And that must be accomplished while focusing on learning and quality and high standards.  That’s a real challenge, and it may be the single biggest pedagogical imperative of such a program.

Q: The GC/LCC partnership has been active for almost two years. What are some salient lessons?

CD: It's important to realize how structurally and philosophically different community college teaching is from four-year colleges. Community colleges tend to have more collaborative community meetings where they talk together, which graduate students tend to find unusual. Respecting the enormous workload of the community college faculty is important; so is acknowledging the really differential salary structures and status differences between four-year and two-year colleges.

Q: Did those differences cause bumps as you implemented the program and are there lessons there for others?

CD:  I very much wish we had had a year to work out partnerships, to really discuss these ideas, to build greater understanding of each other’s situations, pedagogical assumptions, and obligations. Because of time constraints, we were, as people often say at CUNY, building the plane and flying the plane at the same time. The status differential between four-year colleges and community colleges required us to engage in a lot of on-the-ground trust work. 

I think it would be great to have a year of seminars with faculty and administrators and graduate students, from both institutions, before beginning a complex program.  It’s easy for people to feel disrespected and to inadvertently disrespect others when you do not realize what assumptions and requirements they bring.  Until you trust one another, it’s easy to treat one another with suspicion. Remember, no program like this existed before that we know of—not here, not anywhere.  I admire our team for our ability to make changes, to listen, to adapt and respond, to work on improving the program and on improving relationships. 

I, personally, wish we could have had a few test flights before actually getting everyone on board the plane. It would have made for a smoother flight. On the other hand, my admiration is even higher because of how much our colleagues, administrators and faculty and students, have accomplished in a such a short time and how much we’ve been able to model for other programs coming after us.

Q: What other advice would you have for others considering similar partnerships?

CD: There has to be – underlined and highlighted-- a person directly responsible for the administration of the program who is not part of the teaching or advising staff. For us that is Deputy Director Kaysi Holman. She’s a juggler who is able to handle all of the competing demands, down to the incompatible academic calendars of the two institutions, course assignments, scheduling meetings, and many more details than you could begin to imagine. I know the structural, infrastructural differences we see are replicated at every university and community college.  Having someone whose job it is to make sure everything works right, to run interference, so that faculty and students can concentrate on teaching and learning is, to my mind, absolutely key. Without infrastructure, the grandest ambitions for learning cannot succeed.


Community Colleges and the Humanities in the 21st Century


Executive Vice President Mariët Westermann on a new Mellon initiative to support community college students, and why nurturing the next generation of humanities scholars has broad implications for the country.

More In This Series

Gail Mellow on Broadening Access and Strengthening Engagement with the Humanities at LaGuardia Community College

Gail Mellow, President of LaGuardia Community College, shares insights on the value of the humanities in a community college setting, as well as the transformative nature of the CUNY Humanities Alliance, a Mellon-funded program that trains graduate students in the most successful methods for teaching humanities courses to a diverse student body.


From Theory to Practice: Learning How to Teach the Humanities

Anton Kociolek, one of nine 2017 CUNY Humanities Alliance Fellows, spoke with us about how he built an effective humanities-driven curriculum with support from LaGuardia Community College faculty mentor Emmanuel Nartey.