Mix it Up! How Equity Can Enhance Innovation–and How #FuturesEd Works Toward Those Goals

By Cathy Davidson|January 14, 2015|Reflection|0 comments

We’re all abuzz here with conversation, analysis, dismay, and all the rest about a recent article in the Atlantic that paints a grim picture of the way even the City University of New York–arguably the most equitable public education in America, where over 80% of our graduates leave tuition-debt free–still does not escape the inequality (and especially racial inequality) embedded it American education.  We are even more abuzz, I’d say, with this morning’s CORRECTIONS coming from official CUNY sources:  http://www1.cuny.edu/mu/forum/2015/01/14/response-to-the-story-in-the-atlantic/     However, the real issue of equity and innovation remains, even after all the facts are corrected or the article is withdrawn (which is what the CUNY official response demands).   Here is just one example, the appalling statistics for Black faculty: http://www.jbhe.com/features/55_blackfaculty.html :  “Nationwide, just over 5 percent of all full-time faculty members at colleges and universities in the United States are black.”

We’re proud that the Futures Initiative is dedicated to “equity and innovation” in higher education.  Right now, as we have noted many times in these HASTAC blogs, higher education exacerbates rather than ameliorates income inequality–providing more and more support and training for students from more and more affluent backgrounds.   Some call it the “educational apartheid” in America, that makes a vast majority of K-12 schools predominantly one race or another and bases school facilities, instruction, advising, and amenities on the income level of its local tax base.   Education, in other words, perpetuates inequity.

But here is something interesting: it is not necessarily the case that equity equals innovation.   We read countless articles about all the innovation coming out of Silicon Valley and in private schools throughout affluent areas of the US.  Yet some of the most innovative, creative, dedicated, and determined teachers we have met through the Digital Media and leanring Initiative work in schools and in after-school programs in America’s most distressed communities.   And, at CUNY, we see stunning innovation in the classroom, in programming, in curricular transformation, and in the students and faculty themselves far beyond the most elite programs at the most elite colleges.  Indeed, over and over we see brilliance arising as a response to stressed and challenged circumstances–largely by those unencumbered by any history or tradition to perpetuate a status quo that has never served the community.   Why preserve the status quo when it doesn’t work?   That’s a question for the most elite and the least elite universities.   But it is easier for that to be a real rather than a rhetorical question when the status quo doesn’t serve you.

Next semester, beginning February 3, we will be embarking on one of the most innovative ways of preparing the next generation of college professors and intellectual leaders in other professions that we have seen anywhere.   Our students are all doctoral students at the Graduate Center, and this place (I am new here so I can still say this) is elite by any standard you can imagine.   The quality of the faculty and the students is astonishing.   Yet this new program for preparing faculty is realistic in the different ways you teach and the different ways you learn in different disciplines, in different circumstances.  Our goal is success, not failure, and our enterprise will be to challenge all the conventional ways that students are told they are successes or failures by a society founded on “educational apartheid” where inequality is built into the system, the funding, the advancement, the assessment, and the very metrics.

All our graduate students are teaching in CUNY colleges–from those with admission standards as traditional and elite as any Ivy League university and from community colleges that are as open as any in the U.S.    It is the mix that is the innovation.   It is the mix that is the inspiration.  It is the mix that will allow us to be as creative about the future of institutions and about institutional transformation as possible.    We will be working together in the graduate class to deliver the most innovative and successful learning experiences possible for the undergraduates whether they are taking remedial math through a prison program at John Jay, or chemistry at Borrough of Manhattan Community College or narrative at Queens.

I think it is safe to say that, in this student-driven course, there will be greater diversity of educational institutions woven into the academic research, teacher training, and institutional transformation than most of us academics ever see, in a lifetime of teaching.  The CUNY colleges we are partnering with: Borough of Manhattan Community College, Kingsborough Community College, Laguardia Community College, Queens College, Hunter College, Lehman College, John Jay College, Brooklyn College, and City College of New York.  It is because of this diversity that this will be a creative, challenging, exciting, innovative learning experience for everyone.   No laurels to rest on here, thank you.

One of HASTAC’s mottos (“diversity is not our deficit; it’s our operating system”) and HASTAC’s method (“collaboration by difference”) will be in full play here.   And, as always, one harks back to the unforgettable mixed metaphor of Eric Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”:  “With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”  That means, you need diversity to even see the mistakes in code.  You have to have the jumble, the mix up, the bazaar or you simply replicate the status quo over and over and over again.

We could not be more thrilled by the mix of graduate students, with our partnerships with CUNY campuses, with our collaboration with the entire HASTAC network and with the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge at Duke University, and with all of you–anyone who wants to participate.

We will be hosting several open sessions to which you are all invited, online or onsite.  We’ll be posting those dates soon.   And we hope that you will join us in a variety of online and onsite events.   If you are a member of this Futures Initiative Group (sign up here, for free), you will be receiving updates about how you and your students can contribute.   Join us!   Mix it up!  It’s inspiring when equity leads to innovation.

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