Three Graduate Center Professors Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

April 26, 2023

Linda Martín Alcoff, Ofelia García, and Virginia Valian join the prestigious honorary society.

Linda Alcoff, Ofelia Garciá, and Virginia Valian
Linda Martín Alcoff, Ofelia García, and Virginia Valian (Photo of Valian by Alex Irklievski)

Professor Linda Martín Alcoff (GC/Hunter, Philosophy, Women's and Gender Studies), Distinguished Professor Virginia Valian (GC/Hunter, Psychology, Linguistics, Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences), and Professor Emerita Ofelia García (Urban Education,  Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures) were elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which, since 1780, has recognized accomplished individuals and engaged them in addressing pressing challenges. This year, the academy elected 269 new members, drawn from academia, the arts, industry, policy, research, and science. CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez was among them.

The three Graduate Center scholars address a range of issues affecting society including racism, sexism, and the education of bilingual students.

“With the election of these members, the academy is honoring excellence, innovation, and leadership and recognizing a broad array of stellar accomplishments,” said academy President David W. Oxtoby. “We hope every new member celebrates this achievement and joins our work advancing the common good.”

Alcoff, a prominent philosophy scholar, has long been interested in topics of epistemology and metaphysics. “The issue of metaphysics raised questions about how we name what is, and the issue of epistemology raised questions about how we know what we think we know,” Alcoff said in a 2015 interview with The New York Times. “Hence, these sub-fields opened the way for me to consider the contestations over reality as well as over authority.”

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She has applied metaphysics and epistemology to contemporary issues that are personally important to her, including sexual violence, racial identity and racism, feminism, and critical race theory. She sometimes weaves autobiography into her work, including her experiences as an immigrant to the U.S. — the daughter of a Panamanian father and an Anglo-Irish mother from the U.S. — and of being a survivor of sexual assault.  

Her recent books include Rape and Resistance: Understanding the Complexities of Sexual Violation; The Future of Whiteness; and Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self, which won the Frantz Fanon Award. She has also edited or co-edited 11 books and written over 100 journal articles. She contributes opinion pieces to The New York Times, The Guardian, The Indypendent, and other outlets. She is currently writing two books: one on race, cultural racism, and the crisis of white identity and another on how to decolonize epistemology.

In 2019, she organized the first Black Women Philosophers Conference at the Graduate Center with the late Distinguished Professor Charles W. Mills (Philosophy). She co-directs the Mellon Public Humanities and Social Justice Scholars Program at Hunter College, which supports undergraduate students who blend humanities research with civic engagement. She is currently a visiting scholar at the Advanced Research Collaborative at the Graduate Center.

Alcoff is a proponent of scholarship that engages with issues of interest to people outside of academia. “I think the biggest mistake is to think that publicly engaged scholarship is not intellectual work or is lesser in some way,” she said in a 2022 interview. “That’s the linchpin that we need to change for there to be a cultural shift within university life.”

She added, “If you work, like me, on rape or whiteness, I feel it’s absolutely essential to engage with movements, activists, and all kinds of publics to make the philosophical analysis meaningful and informed.”

She shared advice for current Ph.D. students: “You do your best work when it is work you believe in and find important.”

Valian, a psychologist, works on gender equity and on the psychology of language — areas that she says don’t overlap. She is especially well known outside of academia for her groundbreaking work on the misperceptions that keep the glass ceiling in place for professional women. In her book Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, she argues that nonconscious hypotheses, what she calls gender schemas, about men and women influence how they are seen and ultimately how far they advance in the professions. The most important professional consequence of these gender schemas, she writes, is that “men are consistently overrated, while women are underrated.” She uses data from several fields to explain why people make inaccurate judgments and evaluations despite their best intentions.

“It's hard to see the big picture from one's own personal experience,” she said.

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That first book has fueled additional research and projects, including a subsequent co-authored book, An Inclusive Academy: Achieving Diversity and Excellence. She consults with institutions and organizations to improve gender equity, and she directs the Gender Equity Project at Hunter College, which has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Sloan Foundation.

She also studies how young children learn the structure of language — how they put words together. She directs the CUNY Language Acquisition Research Center, where she works with Graduate Center Ph.D. students studying first- and second-language acquisition.

“Language acquisition is magical,” she said. “Imagine yourself at age 18 months and think of everything that's involved in conveying a thought: You have to choose the relevant words from your exceptionally limited vocabulary, you have to pronounce those words, you have to order them, you have to deal with the fact that your cognition is limited, and your knowledge is close to nil. How do you manage to do that?”

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She added, “I like the fact that acquisition intersects a lot of fields — syntax, computational linguistics, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, philosophy.”

She offered two pieces of advice to Ph.D. students: “One, have high aspirations and work hard. Two, make sure that the people close to you have high aspirations for you and encourage you to work hard. You may not even need one if you have two.”

Garcia, a sociolinguist, is known for her contributions to language education, especially the education of Latinx students in the U.S. She developed a theory of translanguaging: the idea that all multilingual people approach language with a single repertoire of linguistic resources that they draw on to make meaning. They don’t have separate named languages. In a co-authored paper, she described it as “an approach to language pedagogy that affirms and leverages students’ diverse and dynamic language practices.”

“My work has pointed out the social and cognitive injustices of giving monolingual students, and not racialized multilingual ones, the freedom to learn with their full linguistic/semiotic repertoire,” she told the Graduate Center.

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Born in Cuba, Garcia moved to New York City with her family when she was 11. “I am a New Yorker, a bilingual Latina, and my work as a researcher and teacher has been grounded in my life in a bilingual family and community,” she said.

Her best-known books are Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective and Translanguaging; Language, Bilingualism and Education, co-authored with Li Wei, which won the 2015 British Association of Applied Linguistics Book Award. She co-edited several books including The Oxford Handbook of Language and Society; Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity; Negotiating Language Policies in Schools: Educators as Policymakers; and Imagining Multilingual Schools.

She has received several significant awards and honors including an honorary doctorate from Bank Street Graduate School of Education; the Charles Ferguson Award in Applied Linguistics from the Center of Applied Linguistics; and the Lifetime Career Award from the Bilingual Education Special Interest Group of the American Education Research Association (AERA). In 2018, she was appointed to the National Academy of Education and received the Graduate Center’s Excellence in Mentoring Award.

She joined the Graduate Center faculty in 2008 after being a professor at Columbia University Teachers College and, before that, dean of the School of Education at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University. While at the Graduate Center, she co-created CUNY-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals (CUNY-NYSIEB), a collaborative project to improve the education of emergent bilingual students across New York State, funded by the New York State Education Department.

She found a home at the Graduate Center in the Urban Education and LAILAC programs, she said. “I am proud to count among my doctoral students, young scholars who are transforming the field of educational linguistics,” Garcia said.

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Garcia is a three-time CUNY graduate, with undergraduate and master’s degrees from Hunter College and a Ph.D. in Hispanic Literatures and Languages from the Graduate Center. “I often say I owe everything I am today to CUNY,” she said.

As a Graduate Center student, she said, she was “given the freedom to learn beyond the boundaries of one program.” She added, “Without the Graduate Center, I would not have been given the courage to believe in myself and make meaning for myself.”

She shared this advice for current students: “Without fear is what I would wish Ph.D. students. To see and say sin miedo, with your own lenses. Believe in what you see and hear, who you are. Value your own communities of practice.”

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