In a state of helplessness, I wrote a guest post for John Warner’s blog on Inside Higher Ed. As I’m on parental leave for most of this semester, I have been watching my college “go online” with its instruction from afar, so I thought if I put together some of my thoughts on teaching online, I could be of help.
I wrote the post thinking of all the instructors at my college who were posting back and forth on the faculty listserv about their anxieties about using technology. And then there are some emails from folks over in EdTech with links to trainings and tutorials. I’m thinking, “This is all well and good, but how are the servers going to handle all this?” And also, I’m pretty competent with technology, and even I had a lot of technical kinks to work out in the process of deploying my online classes last semester. There’s absolutely no reason to tax everyone further with these ridiculous expectations.
This article by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, which I read right after I wrote mine, gets to the heart of the politics of this suddenly online education crisis:
Ask yourself: Do I really care about this? (Probably not, or else you would have explored it earlier.) Or am I trying to prove that I’m a team player? (You are, and don’t let your university exploit that.) Or I am trying to soothe myself in the face of a pandemic by doing something that makes life feel normal? (If you are, stop and instead put your energy to better use, like by protesting in favor of eviction freezes or packing up sacks of groceries for kids who won’t get meals because public schools are closing.)
I wish I knew how to put my energy to “better use,” but until I figure out what that looks like, I’m hoping that a few people who read my article will ease up a bit on themselves and their students.
One extraordinary thing I’ve come to appreciate in the past two years at Hostos is the fact that its history is fascinating and even inspiring. As I learn more and more about the institution—why it was founded, whom it serves—I feel quite privileged to be a member of its faculty and in a position to promote its mission. I have been affiliated in the past with institutions built upon shameful legacies, so to serve an academic community with the potential to dismantle oppression motivates a lot of the pedagogical work I do.
I’ve been collecting materials about the college to use in my developmental and first-year writing courses, largely because I’m interested in learning more, but also because the issues raised by those who established this campus remain pertinent today (educational apartheid, poverty endemic to the South Bronx). And, for that matter, students love learning this bit of history. So many arrive at Hostos largely because of proximity and affordability, so when they learn that they just so happen to be at a school whose mission relates directly to their own educational goals, and when they identify with the reasons for which people founded the school in the first place, this knowledge ignites a spark.
Below, I’m compiling a list of articles and resources for future reference, and because I think everyone can benefit from learning more about this particular history. It’s a tale that documents the power of grassroots organizing, the importance of the Young Lords and other 1960s radical movements, and the educational obstacles endemic to historically oppressed communities.
I finished my second year as an assistant professor of English at Hostos a few weeks ago, and while I was tidying the end-of-semester detritus in my office, I took a picture of the fastidious four-month wall calendar I maintained since the term:
For a full time, 4-5 position, this was a relatively “light” term thanks to both what CUNY calls “junior faculty release time” (which relieves profs in their first five years from 24 hours of teaching) and my service as a faculty advisor to our writing center. It took me nearly a year to fully grok how “hours” work for full-time staff, but here’s the short of it (in case any of my friends in wealthy R1 institutions want to know what they’re missing out on, and in case any of my friends on the ever-lasting job market are contemplating a career at a community college): full-time CUNY instructors at the 2-year colleges teach 27 hours per year, meaning 5 then 4 three-hour courses each semester, respectively. (Getting assigned to 6-hour developmental courses reduces the total number of courses you teach each semester, but it still amounts to a lot of hours in the classroom. ) You’re also required to hold a few office hours a week in addition to your service. I didn’t formally learn much about “service” in grad school, but a large part of “service” translates to “many, many meetings.” In short, this Spring I managed to secure myself a schedule in which I taught only one course (!) and thus was ostensibly responsible for coming in twice a week to teach it.
Or so I thought. That sounded great, right? Like, damn I have to come in twice a week? Imagine all the articles I’ll finish! Imagine the book proposal coming together! The conference talks! But look at that calendar. This is the thing: I still had to attend all those meetings and events and trainings. I had to lead PDs for Writing Center tutors on various Fridays. FRIDAYS!? (The former high school teacher in me is shaking her head at my precious new standard for daily life, of course.)
All this busyness, for which the idea of a light schedule had ill-prepared me, meant that I discovered a weird axiom that is probably applicable to many jobs in service- and teaching-heavy institutions:
No matter how many hours you think you’ve secured for writing and research, meetings will take up all the space anyway.
No one can “see” you working alone on your book, deleting, suffering, rewriting, suffering, ILL-ing books from CUNY libraries in other boroughs (FYI I have been told by our circulation librarian I’m the second-highest user of their services of all the faculty), suffering, and doing all that reading that goes along with it. So that invisible labor—which, to be clear, is also required of CUNY 2-year college professors for tenure (though many community colleges don’t have this requirement)—doesn’t seem to count quite as much in the short term because it’s invisible. Saying “no” to committee invitations and professional development events is extremely difficult.
Down the road, I’ve been assured and counseled, the end result of putting effort into writing and research actually counts more heavily toward tenure and promotion than the fact that you’ve attended 63 meetings in a semester. But the daily work of protecting that time, and the superficial cost of doing so, make it difficult. I’m realizing that as someone who is passionate about research and writing, the work of protecting that time while developing a meaningful relationship to the daily life of my extremely vibrant college is going to be the serious work I have to do for myself in this position.
So this has been the main lesson of my second year, made visual by this white-board calendar. I will conclude this post by zooming into my favorite event of every Spring:
I’ve been thinking about an adage that one of my education grad-school professors would repeat (I got a Master’s in Teaching Adolescent English from Fordham in 2006). It went something like this: a good pedagogical practice will work as well in a pre-school as it does in a college classroom. Good pedagogy is sound, no matter what the level of instruction. It doesn’t sound as deep as I remember it sounding at the time—I think the professor phrased it better somehow—but I think about it when a college instructor criticizes what I do (sometimes implicitly) as “baby-sitting.” For instance, I require that students use calendars to organize themselves, and I give them a few points every once in a while for maintaining it. I know that this doesn’t sound as deep as analyzing Socrates or whatever, but students appreciate the training. If a student doesn’t have their own calendar, I give them what I call “Milsom’s Bootleg Calendar.” It’s just a Word document I’ve made with a blank calendar on it. The calendar includes all the important semester dates (the last day to withdraw, for instance). I now have a couple students who find me at the beginning of the semester requesting copies of the Bootleg Calendar, so I always make extra copies. When I taught high school, I would identify the students who liked to draw, and I’d get them to illustrate the Bootleg Calendars before I made copies. I hope to do something like this again.
I say all this because making college accessible to my students—people who have been “historically excluded” from higher education—means training them how to organize their time. Most of them work full-time, many have families to care for, and yet they also are balancing a full course load in order to remain eligible for financial aid. Few use calendars to arrange their busy lives, so getting students to develop the habit of self-organization can make a huge difference.
When I was in fifth grade, each student in our class received an old-fashioned, spiral-bound student planner which we were forced to use. My teacher Miss Smith would draw a replica of it on the board—very fastidious—and would show us what and how to write in it. My school provided these calendars for all of us through eighth grade. They were a part of the curriculum, in a sense. When we got to high school, I remember that a few of my classmates still would purchase them on their own because they loved them so much. I can’t remember a year of my life, since fifth grade, that I haven’t used some sort of planner. My elementary middle school teachers were very deliberate in how they trained us to make use of planners. Their support meant that by the time we entered high school, planning was a habit.
The fact that many of my students—whose average age is 27—have not been trained to manage their time means that they start out with a disadvantage. The fact that they gotten this far in their education without that skill in the first place is a testament to their gumption and dedication.
I have long loathed all the conventions of syllabus writing, largely because I have seen how semester after semester, we all put so much stock into what we put into them—read my post from the fall and witness how much I agonized last semester about typeface sizes as a way of procrastinating from actually writing the damn thing, and read about my deepish dive into accessibility statements—just to see them discarded within weeks. That is not to say that I don’t think those things are important to consider, but I also sometimes think that we fetishize the syllabus and its contents, agonizing about what it says about us and our beliefs, as a way of imagining we have more control than we do. Sure, it gives you a sense of comfort in times of duress. (How often are we told to put things in because, you know, “CYA”?” Cover your ass”? -a big refrain in public education.) And when students mess up or don’t comply, it’s a great, exculpatory relief for us to be able to say, “Well it’s on the syllabus! You should have read it!” (Do you say “in” or “on”? I say “on” for some reason. Probably regional.) I also know that I’m insecure about my inability to predict or pace my courses when I’m planning them out. I have been in a classroom teaching literature and writing for eleven years now, and I really struggle with this.
Also, I know that our institutions scrutinize our syllabi. I suspect partly that is because they are scrutable, material objects. (One piece of feedback I received on mine was that my list of books was not in MLA format. I didn’t know that was a requirement. I don’t think it is–it’s just an unwritten convention of my department.)
So much energy gets expended upon syllabi while our actual teaching and the ways in which we treat students go unscrutinized. And that’s fine with me. I’m thankful for the relative freedom I have day-to-day in the college classroom, so please, scrutinize my syllabi all you want! Public school teachers in New York City—where I taught high-school English for four years—can expect unannounced drop-ins and often paranoia-inducing surveillance (and don’t get me started on the cameras put into classrooms in Eva Moskowitz’s charter schools). And I never had to write a syllabus when I taught high school! (We had a curriculum we could follow. Totally different.)
This is all to say that this semester, I’ve written an essay, and I’m slapping it right on the front of the syllabus. Sounds boring. Probably. But at least it includes a picture of Marvin Gaye, whose What’s Going On? album and song are going to structure the theme of the course.
I’m putting this all there partly to have something to point to when I tell them to write an essay. It foregrounds the actual work of our course: writing about stuff we care about. It shows that I am a writer too, and I am insecure about how I write. It does things I expect of their writing: it includes parenthetical citations, probably has some errors or typos, includes a block quotation, and has an MLA Works Cited at the end. The essay also rationalizes the course’s focus (read the end), which is inspired by the story I read about why Obie Benson wrote the song. (Al Benson helped write the lyrics.) After witnessing police shoot thousands of protesters during the “Bloody Thursday” protest in Berkeley in May 1969 . . . No, just read what I wrote, because I find myself on the verge of re-writing the essay. The story is moving and felt just so pertinent in this era of MAGA hats and walls and family separations.
One other thing I’d like to reflect on here is that when I was writing the essay for the syllabus, I was noticing the way in which I was thinking about the students reading it. A lot (most?) of my students were not born in the U.S., so they might not know about things like the “National Guard” or the fact that Ronald Regan was governor of California and was also a U.S. president in the 1980s. I assume also that a bunch of my U.S.-born students wouldn’t know this. Heck, I didn’t actually know exactly what the National Guard was until I just looked it up. There are ways of presenting students with sophisticated ideas (which they can handle) that don’t presume prior knowledge in a patronizing or punitive way. I try to attend to that in my classes and by telling students to look up things on their phones the second they don’t know a word, or when they haven’t heard of an event. (I also really try to change the narrative they’ve heard from a lot of profs and teachers not to use Wikipedia. As someone who edits Wikipedia for fun and is familiar with its standards, I think this is garbage advice, and I bet literally everyone who gives this advice uses Wikipedia.) This is particularly important when you teach a lot of first-generation college students and students from other countries. You have to make things seem accessible, and you have to not be a jerk about it. As an aside: I was just in England for a research trip, and I didn’t even know how to order a god damn hot cup of delicious coffee with half and half in it! Because the whole culture of coffee in England is TOTALLY different, and I just got confused at every turn. I mean, that’s just coffee, not my college education. And I literally study British language and history and literature as a profession. I tweeted about this here:
British or British-informed people of Twitter: how does one ask for, like, half-and-half, or at least actually fat-filled non “skinny” or “semi-skinned” or however it’s called milk for one’s coffee? I get 🤨🤔 responses from ppl when I inform them I want thicker milk. 🥛 🐄 ☕️
I plan to force students to read my essay on the first day of class. I’ll use it as an opportunity to teach them how to annotate. We’ll talk about the citations and how they’re punctuated. (And I’ll see who the confident readers are based on who volunteers.) We’ll talk about the fact that I left in curse-words from the original quotations—I anticipate that this will shock some of them. And we will talk about the questions I raise at the end of the essay. After we read this, I’m going to show them Cardi B’s Twitter video about the wall as an example of how to approach inquiry like this. She’s well-informed about politics and political debates, she’s a Dominican from the Bronx—like tons of my students, and she’s asking provocative questions about things that don’t make sense in the world that should be fixed. Like the fact that people are working without getting paid on behalf of a president who wants to build a wall. She also raises issues of “respectability” (cf Higgenbotham) that I want to talk about.
To end the first class, I will let students write for a bit about questions they have about “what’s going on” in the world today. To raise the stakes a little bit, to make it more fun, and to adjust them to moving around and publicly sharing their ideas with their classmates, I’ll let them loose to put some of their questions on the board. I hope it will be entertaining, and I also hope that it will make them interested in the course. For a lot, if not most of these students, it will be LITERALLY THEIR FIRST DAY EVER OF COLLEGE, and I want them to feel like their voices are interesting and needed. I read somewhere that something like 60% of college students never talk in their classes, so I hope to put these students in the 40% by the end of the first day!
Over this break, I’ve been perusing all the articles I can find about Hostos Community College. I can’t decide what Lisa W. Foderaro’s June 7, 2010 article—about Justice Sotomayor’s plan to speak at Hostos’s Graduation—is driving at in its tone. It calls the college “scrappy,” both in the title and in the body of the article. Okay, if scrappy means “poor” and “holding it together” and “pugnacious,” sure. I guess that works. But I also detect a great deal of snobbishness throughout the piece (link here).
For instance, the article seems to congratulate the school for acquiring a new president in 2010, one who “brings a scholarly gravitas to a college where the only admissions requirement is a high school diploma or graduate equivalency degree.” (He went to Yale and Columbia for his own education.) I mean yes, it’s a community college. That’s how it works. That doesn’t mean the college’s scholars and students wouldn’t have any scholarly gravitas of their own, nor do I agree at all that having a Yale degree (ahem!) or a Columbia one ensures gravitas in the first place.
The article seems bent on proving what a dear condescension it was for the (then) newly appointed Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, to “make good” on a promise she made to the school before she received her appointment to the Supreme Court. She’d promised to give a speech to the school her mother attended.
I take issue with the imagery Foderaro uses to describe Sotomayor’s journey from our college’s neighborhood to the Supreme Court. She lauds the Justice for “having traversed an invisible canyon — from a Bronx housing project to Princeton University to a prominent seat on the federal bench.” As if one is bad and the others are good; as if one is a shame and the others are inherently valiant (Justice Alito anyone? Justice Thomas? Really?). The distance the Justice crossed is neither “invisible”—by dint of effort and talent, the woman overcame obstacles both obvious and highly visible to people from the South Bronx, who have far fewer resources than Sotomayor’s Princeton peers; nor is it a “canyon”—it’s two hours by car from the South Bronx to Princeton.
By the way, Sotomayor’s speech, given a week after Foderaro’s article came out, is here: