This piece was originally presented as the opening remarks to “Teaching and Learning with New Majority Students: Lessons Learned from the CUNY Humanities Alliance,” on May 3, 2018. You can find my recap of the event here, and a video is forthcoming from The Futures Initiative.
As a postdoctoral fellow with the CUNY Humanities Alliance, I’ve had the experience of seeing the program being built from almost the ground up. Now that I’m at the end of my fellowship, I am glad for the opportunity to take a step back to reflect on all that we have done and learned together.
This program is among the first of its kind to connect doctoral education in the humanities to community college teaching. While some graduates of Ph.D. programs may go on to teach at community colleges—and this most certainly includes some of the Graduate Center’s alum—community college teaching has not been a part of doctoral training. Indeed, in most graduate programs, teaching of any kind is an afterthought—treated as something that “can be learned along the way” at best, and at worst, a distraction from the research and publishing that gets framed as the “pure” work of scholarship. This is part of a broader failure of our institutions, and graduate programs in particular, to take teaching as seriously as we do research in preparing a new generation of scholars.
The CUNY Humanities Alliance is a partnership between the GC and LaGuardia CC that was designed to prepare doctoral students in using the most effective, student-centered methods to teach introductory and general education in the humanities (and humanistic social sciences) in a community college setting. The program provides structured professional development, mentorship and resources to these educators, while providing expanded course offerings and enrichment activities to LaGuardia CC students.
Why community colleges? It’s about the students served by these open-access, public institutions: At a college like LaGuardia, our students are mostly low-income and first-generation college students; they are Latinx, Black, immigrant, or the children of immigrants-—like many of us here today. They are “new majority” students, in the words of some education researchers and university administrators—in case you were wondering about the meaning of our title for this discussion. The students who attend community colleges are not the privileged elite, the fewer than 1% who attend colleges that seek to maintain their “highly selective” status by excluding larger and larger numbers of students. As the President of LaGuardia, Dr. Gail Mellow, likes to say, community colleges like LaGuardia are about “educating the 100%.” They exemplify CUNY’s mission—a mission this institution has had since its very beginnings as the Free Academy in 1847—to educate “the children of the whole people” of New York.
While the students who attend community colleges are often from communities that have been marginalized or historically excluded from higher education, the community college as an institution is hardly a “marginal” phenomenon, and attending one is increasingly becoming the norm. Today, nearly half of all U.S. undergraduates attend community colleges.
The humanities are an important part of CUNY’s mission to educate the whole people, a mission that I understand to mean not only all of the people, but the people as whole beings. There are those—like the 45th President of the United States, for instance—who claim they do not know what a community college is “for” or would have you believe that community colleges are only good for vocational training; that this is the only education that working-class people and their children, and especially working-class people of color, need, want and deserve. Do not believe them.
Because if I have learned anything from my time with the Alliance, it is this: Community colleges are places where some of the most vital conversations in the humanities are taking place, and the students they serve represent our future.