Q&A: Why the $3.15M Mellon Grant Matters

October 27, 2015

The GC's Cathy Davidson and David Olan discuss why the newly announced $3.15 million grant is so important to the Graduate Center, community college students, and the humanities.

Media have seized on the Graduate Center's announcement of its major $3.15 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with stories appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Politico, Inside Higher Ed, New York Daily News, Philanthropy News Digest, and other outlets.

Press coverage focused on how the new Humanities and Teaching Alliance will enable GC students to be trained in effective teaching techniques at LaGuardia Community College. The doctoral students will also teach at LaGuardia, expanding access to the humanities for approximately 2,500 undergraduates.

Among those leading the initiative are Distinguished Professor Cathy Davidson (English), director of the GC's Futures Initiative (FI); Professor David Olan (Music), Interim Associate Provost and Dean for Academic Affairs at the GC: and Professor Bret Eynon, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at LaGuardia Community College.

Professors Davidson and Olan recently sat down to talk about the project's importance, its ramifications for the humanities, and the outsized role of community colleges in modern higher education. 

What makes this partnership so groundbreaking? 

Cathy Davidson: Most elite graduate programs at research universities are set up, implicitly if not explicitly, to train students to teach at elite programs at research universities. What is so groundbreaking about this program is that it overtly asks how the humanities can be meaningful and urgent to all students, in particular community college students.

Because our Graduate Center Ph.D. students will be teaching and working with master professors at this extraordinary community college, with its incredibly diverse student body and its proud record of successful innovative teaching, they will be learning as much as they teach. One thing they will learn is how to seek within our most specialized research those profound foundational insights that make a difference in human lives-including for students who have no interest in careers in the humanities. 

David Olan: Principally, two things make the initiative so innovative. One is the specific commitment to training graduate students to teach at community colleges, both as graduate students and for the future as faculty members.

The other is the extensive mentoring program that this partnership will establish. Master teachers at LaGuardia will mentor the teaching fellows. The Teaching and Learning Centers at LaGuardia and the Graduate Center will offer intensive workshops for the teaching fellows. There will be an online platform through which all the participants, teaching fellows, faculty mentors, and LaGuardia students, can communicate, sharing work and ideas.

The integration of all these elements should have a huge impact on training our students in the most effective way and on the learning of the LaGuardia students. Another innovative part of the partnerships is to create a cohort of LaGuardia students with a special interest and aptitude for the humanities and provide them with added resources to deepen their engagement with the humanities by pursuing a four-year degree or even eventually graduate study.

Davidson: These graduate students will also be 'scouts' in the sense that, like LaGuardia Community College faculty, they will be finding those students who do have a passion for the humanities. The program offers supports and enhancements for those students who well might go on to be professors someday. This is crucial. 

A recent study has shown that college professors are about 86 percent white. If we are to truly change our profession, if we are to become as diverse as our students, then we have to think about how we teach, what we teach, who we teach-and who will be leading our universities in the next generation. 

So this partnership is groundbreaking on three levels: first and most obviously, it ensures excellent training of future community college professors; second, since the graduate students in the program will be working with master teachers at LaGuardia Community College, it ensures excellent undergraduate instruction with an eye to identifying undergraduates with special interests and talents in the humanities; and, third, because we will be hosting workshops at the Graduate Center about what we are all learning from this groundbreaking partnership, it will also inspire Graduate Center faculty to think deeply and introspectively about our own graduate programs: how can we reshape graduate education in view of the 'new majority' of college students? What can we do to ensure that the humanities are relevant and urgent to the lives of student students today?

Why is it so important to have a foundation in the humanities?

Olan: The humanities expose students to the variety of ways in which people have expressed the human experience-in music, art, literature, history, philosophy, theatre, dance. Students learn to read, listen to, and look closely at these many cultural objects and share the experience of people from many cultures. And just as importantly as part of that experience, they're encouraged to express themselves clearly and eloquently about their own experiences and cultures.

Davidson: The humanities encompass the most important skills everyone needs to succeed in the world: oral and written communication skills, listening skills, interpretive skills, language skills, critical thinking skills. They offer opportunities to understand multicultural and historical perspectives, crucial to navigate a complex society. They challenge us to be creative and they help us to think about all aspects of society-from political systems to technological innovations-from a human perspective. And, at their best, they can sometimes model the best ways to question injustice and resist it. 

There's a meme to the effect that science can teach you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex; the humanities can teach you why that might not be a great idea. There is some truth in that. People who say that college should be "vocational" and mean, by that, only technical are, in the end cynical and, I think, dishonest.

No one would relegate students at Ivy League schools only to STEM training. Every study of careers shows you also need to have an ability to analyze, explain, and communicate to succeed in a career, not just an ability to calculate.

The famous Google study of its own work force, for example, based on its own hiring and promotion data, showed that the glass ceiling for programmers is quite low. The people who moved beyond entry level positions were rewarded for being able to collaborate, communicate, have empathy for their coworkers, and analyze and interpret not just data but human situations.
How might this model work outside of the humanities?

Davidson: Everything I've said about the humanities can be reversed or inverted to be true about the STEM fields. That is, to think you can understand the humanities and the arts or the social sciences in 2015, without an understanding of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, is to miss key aspects of the world we live in. Yet graduate training in STEM fields needs to be enlivened and invigorated and rethought every bit as much as graduate training in the humanities and social sciences. We lose most kids in math around sixth grade, for example, because that's when the math starts getting too complex simply for rote, for having memorized the right formulas.
I would hope that a next stage of grant making might include a community college partnership for STEM courses that, like the humanities courses, focuses on student-centered learning, the best ways to help each student to mastery and to being able to apply what they learn in meaningful ways. Some of the brilliant pedagogical research and praxis being conducted at CUNY in the areas of remedial math education and introductory chemistry, to name just two fields, is very promising.
I'd love to talk to NSF about an expansive program partnering the Graduate Center with community colleges in these areas. Again, everyone learns from such partnerships.

Olan: We've designed this model to take advantage of the expertise of the humanities faculty at LaGuardia (at left), but it could also work in social sciences and STEM. The goal of this project is not just to enhance teaching but, ultimately, learning. There's no reason this approach, the mentoring, the workshops, the online platform couldn't be extended to other disciplines.

In January, President Obama unveiled his plan to make two years of community college education available free of charge to "everyone who's willing to work for it." Why such emphasis on community colleges?

Olan: Community colleges are a key part of higher education today. They provide the entry to higher education for almost half of today’s undergraduates, many of whom come from ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The foundation provided by community colleges is essential to acquiring the skills and knowledge essential to future academic and career success for a huge number of people.

Davidson: Since about 1980, we have seen steadily rising costs in higher education-private and public. Recent research shows that higher education now increases income inequality. That's appalling. Is that really the America we want? We need some way to reverse this tendency, to again better ways of ensuring that the most ambitious, optimistic, and energetic of our youth are able to educate themselves to become productive, fulfilled, responsible, future contributors to society. That's what the GI Bill was about and it made an enormous difference for a whole generation of American immigrants and first-generation college students in the 1950s.

It's in CUNY's DNA to be a public university dedicated to equality, one that gives all of its residents an opportunity to succeed. The 'new majority' of students entering college is again immigrant, first- generation college students, first-generation Americans, culturally and racially diverse. They deserve the same chance that a previous generation of Americans were given. Community college is the best place to locate that effort.
Are there plans to eventually expand this program beyond LaGuardia to other CUNY community colleges?
Davidson: We all think of this as an extraordinary, wonderful opportunity but by no means the last or the only one. We intend it to be a model and we hope that we can explore other models — with other community colleges, possibly with other four-year colleges as well, in other fields. We hope it is a model for CUNY and for the nation. We certainly all intend to work very hard toward that goal.

Olan: Preparing our students to be effective undergraduate teachers is an essential part of our mission. We hope this project will provide a model for training graduate students to teach not just at community colleges but at four-year colleges as well. An important part of the project will be creating an assessment process through which we can monitor the project closely and adjust as necessary so that we're confident about the success of the model. We'll also be sharing the results of our assessments in publications and a national conference so that others, inside and outside of CUNY, can see what we've done and hopefully draw on it.