The FI Team Structures Equity into Collaboration, A Model for In-Class Group Work

In the photo above, former FI fellow Dr. Siqi Tu smiles as we sing her “Happy Birthday” before she blows out candles on a cake made for her by FI fellow Gus Jimenez. This my favorite photo of my 3.5 years at FI because it captures all the joy and kindness one finds on the FI team. Cathy N. Davidson and Katina L. Rogers have built a truly supportive and student-centered environment at FI. They showed me what a student-driven administrative structure looks and feels like, empowering all of us, as fellows, not only to contribute but also to lead.

It’s hard to describe how fluid the work stream is among FI fellows. One need arises and someone who has capacity to fill in volunteers. An academic year is waiting to be planned and then everyone develops an idea for a workshop (often co-organized among fellows who share similar interests) and suddenly we have a full line-up of events planned. The team is large enough that if one fellow needs to take some time to attend to something — be it personal or professional — there are always enough people on the team willing to take up the slack until our colleague comes back to work. Both the planning and the doing are shared among us. All this is largely due to the tone and culture of the Futures Initiative, which follows through on its mission for equity and innovation in higher education all the way down to how a 1-hour internal meeting is structured and run.

How do we establish that kind of democratic working model and camaraderie among our students in our classes? This feels almost impossible during a global health crisis where many students taking courses online will never meet one another in person, but it’s not impossible. Recently, Cathy N. Davidson, the founding director of the Futures Initiative, and I wrote an op-ed on the topic for Inside Higher Ed in which we describe “8 Ways to Improve Group Work Online.” We take our examples from all kinds of participatory learning methods from service learning to ungrading. There is one point that I find particularly important to the behind-the-scenes success of FI: “Create an equitable distribution of labor and assure students that you, not they, are responsible for this aspect of the collaboration.”

In group work it is essential to establish clear roles and responsibilities, and it’s important that students not volunteer to take on more than what they were assigned. When issues arise that affect the group, it’s the instructor’s job to manage this aspect of the collaboration. As Cathy and I wrote in IHE:

“One key difference between student online collaborative projects and those in the workplace is accountability. In a class, too often the most dutiful students are so worried that an irresponsible classmate will bring down their grade that they often jump in and assume the supervisor role. That’s unfair to everyone in different ways. Supplementing students’ group meetings with one-on-one meetings with you allows you to ask, “How is group work going? Have you heard from all your peers this week?” You can offer to nudge a missing student, for example, with an email. To tame your own scheduling, give students a spreadsheet, Calendly or another way to set up time for one-on-one meetings with you.” (Read the full op-ed here.)

In my 3.5 years at the Futures Initiative, what I really appreciated was the transparency of the leadership. Katina Rogers, who co-directs the Futures Initiative and the CUNY Humanities Alliance, always takes graduate fellows’ labor seriously and she thoughtfully considers how we (and she) manage our time. When I routinely worked more than my assigned hours per week, she helped me plan time off and didn’t let me leave our one-on-one meetings (which supplemented the larger team business meetings) without putting that time on the team calendar. When I worried that I couldn’t volunteer to take up a task, she made it clear that the team was at capacity and the task could wait. It wasn’t my responsibility to worry about it–it was hers–and Katina helped me make peace with not volunteering for everything, especially when I didn’t have capacity to do so.

Saying “no” to things does not come easily to me. This was a crucial lesson I learned about myself while I was at FI. The key to practicing healthy boundaries at work, in my view, is in the leadership: Katina structures equity into the very foundations of what we do behind the scenes at FI every day with her tremendous leadership, care, and respect for the graduate fellows’ time. It also helps that the whole FI team believes in the importance of everyone’s wellbeing. I learned to trust my colleagues to recognize that if I said, “No, I can’t do that,” that it wasn’t out of laziness on my part or for any other reason but the fact that I was already doing the best I could. They knew that. Cathy (for whom I worked as a research assistant) knew that. It just took me time to realize that they knew that. Academia trained me not to trust people, to assume that they would assume the worst if I were anything less than excellent. Slowly, over the course of several years, the FI team taught me another way, and a much better, more healthful and equitable way.

The FI graduate fellows made our business meetings the safest space for sharing possible. I know no other in academia like this one. We have shown up for each other in ways that decades-long friends would: to celebrate, to grieve, to solve problems, to correct course, to organize, to bolster courage and confidence, to smile over cups of tea and delicious cakes, and so much more. I embrace them like I would a family, and they push me to work harder and with renewed passion and hope for social justice and equity in higher education.

The participatory learning methods I picked up at the Futures Initiative also showed me what a good, fair, generous, and inspiring manager in the workforce ought to do in any number of situations. This is yet another lesson from Katina: how to put the humanities PhD to work (read more about her book here). In my new role at Transformative Learning in the Humanities (TLH), I will take these lessons with me to structure equity into every part of what we do both in our program and behind the scenes.

Thank you for a truly amazing and transformative 3.5 years.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309