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LaGuardia Community College: Serious about Social Justice through Teaching

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Modern Language Association’s 2016-2017 Connected Academics Proseminar written by Connected Academics Proseminar Fellow Carolyn Ureña. She will be co-facilitating a workshop on connected careers with Tara Coleman on March 30th. You can read her previous post here.

By: Carolyn Ureña

In January, this year’s Connected Academics proseminar visited LaGuardia Community College, where Rutgers Comparative Literature alumna Dr. Tara Coleman teaches in the English Department. She joined a panel of professors and administrators who shared with us their passion for teaching as an extension of social justice and emphasized the ways that teaching in community colleges affords the opportunity to impact the lives of students on a daily basis.

During the visit we learned a number of striking statistics from LaGuardia’s President, Dr. Gail Mellow:

  • More than 50% of college students attend community colleges.
  • Most low-income, black, and Latino college students attend community colleges.
  • Specifically at LaGuardia, 60% of students are foreign-born, and 87% are English language learners.

Realizing that so many college-bound students move through the community college system before attending four-year colleges sheds new light on our own emphasis on student diversity at Rutgers, and suggests that we as teachers should consider the fact that community colleges are for many students an important part of their educational trajectories.

Humanists, Dr. Mellow told us, have the power to create world that people want to live in, and working at a community college afford the opportunity to transform the way these students see their futures. We heard again and again how highly motivated and appreciative students are of their professors. At LaGuardia, service and committee work bring faculty and administrators together to actually implement change and organize programming that impact the entire community. Social justice and equity are not abstract concepts; they are the bread and butter of the every day.

So how does working at a community college count as an “alternative” career? Another way to ask this question might be, why aren’t discussions about teaching at community college more prevalent in graduate programs? One reason, Dr. Mellow suggested, is that as with other alternative careers, faculty may not know much about the work that goes on at community colleges. And yet, as I listened to the panelists describe their experiences I got the sense that many members of our graduate community would actually find this work not only appealing but also very much in line with their commitments to expanding access to high-quality education to diverse student populations.

Teaching is Essential, but Research Remains Important

If you are interested in working for a community college, remember that teaching is paramount. It will be more important to demonstrate your growth as an educator–something you can do by seeking opportunities to teach the same course multiple times–rather than simply a variety of one-off courses. Be proactive and ask a professor to observe your teaching and write you a letter of recommendation well in advance of when you will actually need it.

A common misconception about teaching at community colleges is that faculty research takes a backseat. At LaGuardia they value innovation in the classroom as well as scholarly engagement; professors have a higher teaching load than at research-driven institutions, but they must nevertheless attend conferences and remain abreast of their fields.

Reflect on your Goals

The greatest lesson from this visit was a call to ask ourselves, early and often: What are we actually doing in graduate school? Why are we here, and what is the purpose of getting a doctoral degree? Is the only purpose to become a prominent scholar? Or, are we here because we want to truly democratize knowledge and increase access to quality education?

This is not to suggest that we view the four-year college (or the community college) as a monolithic entity — each school is different. The key is to take the time to reflect and ask yourself, what kinds of institutions and careers will allow me to fulfill my goals? As the Connected Academics initiative is working to make clear, depending on what you aim to accomplish, there are a multitude of careers and paths you should consider, both inside and outside the academy.

Reflecting on the Purpose of the PhD at Ithaka S+R

This is the third in a series of posts about the Modern Language Association’s 2016-2017 Connected Academics Proseminar written by Connected Academics Proseminar Fellow Carolyn Ureña. You can read her earlier posts here and here.

By: Carolyn Ureña

Carolyn is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature and a 2016-2017 Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellow. Her dissertation develops a critical framework for understanding the ways in which a sustained encounter between disability studies, the medical humanities, and the racial phenomenology of decolonial theorist Frantz Fanon can generate new conceptions of health and healing.

As a Connected Academics Proseminar Fellow, I have really appreciated the opportunity to meet with organizations outside of the academy that have hired humanities PhDs who are passionate about the work they do. Recently, our conversations have become especially inspiring, as we’ve engaged in lively discussions regarding the purpose of graduate education itself.

In November we visited Ithaka S+R “a not-for-profit service that helps the academic community navigate economic and technological change” that is part ITHAKA, the organization behind the well-known academic database JSTOR. Such mission-driven organizations are important for PhDs-in-training to explore because, as we discussed during our visit, PhDs have a strong desire to do something that matters and to contribute to the broader good, both within and beyond traditional career paths.

Ithaka S+R seeks is to improve student outcomes, increase college access, and reduce costs for college student. Acknowledging that recent institutional hiring patterns, including the increased adjunctification of the university, are not a viable long term solution, the group works with higher education organizations–university, libraries, learned societies–to develop qualitative and quantitative studies to better understand which policies are working best toward advancing the particular institution’s goals, especially with regards to issues of diversity, talent management, and cross-institutional collaboration. For example, this might include developing and disseminating surveys on faculty demographics as well as crafting ethnographic narratives that are then analyzed to better understand how to improve outcomes for students. One of their most recent projects is the American Talent Initiative, which includes 30 partner universities and which “seeks to substantially expand access and opportunity for talented, lower-income students at the nation’s colleges and universities with the highest graduation rates.”

A highlight of our visit was an exciting discussion about the purpose of the dissertation, a conversation that even made its way onto Twitter. How does the use of the document change when preparing for employment in the academy, or outside? Can we break down the components of what it takes to write a dissertation to better understand its value? These questions are open-ended, but what remains clear after our visit to Ithaka S+R is that it will be increasingly important for graduate students to be able to dissect the components of what it takes to make a PhD, in particular what skills we gain that are applicable across fields and disciplines. This shouldn’t be too difficult, though. As proseminar fellows were reminded during our visit, crafting arguments, analyzing evidence, and developing and organizing information are among our most valuable humanistic skills.

 

 

Connected Academics Proseminar. October 2016: Networking as Problem Solving

This is the second in a series of posts about the Modern Language Association’s 2016-2017 Connected Academics Proseminar written by Connected Academics Proseminar Fellow Carolyn Ureña. You can read her first post here.

By: Carolyn Ureña

For the October meeting of this year’s Connected Academics Proseminar we visited The New York Public Library, where we met with Ph.D.-holding NYPL staff members working on exciting projects in the digital humanities, as well as curating and acquiring rare books for the library’s collections. What stood out most to me during our discussion, though, was the need to rethink the meaning of “networking,” which is vital to the work of building relationships and making strides in just about anything you do, but still manages to sound like a “dirty word” for lots of graduate students. In today’s post, I’d like to suggest a two different ways of thinking about networking to make it seem more familiar.

Networking as Problem Solving

This idea came about in a discussion I had with another proseminar fellow, as we realized together that networking is happening whenever you share a problem with someone or ask for help, thereby offering them the opportunity to help you out. Countless times I have shared a challenge with a colleague or professor here in Comp Lit, not really seeking anything in particular other than to express a frustration or road block. And countless times, the person with whom I was speaking would offer me a text, a resource, or suggest an actual person I should connect with in order to help me move forward. Having a conversation, in other words, and sharing something about yourself while also learning about someone else: that’s networking.

Networking as Acknowledging Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Which brings me to my second point. Networking can be a useful way of acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses. No one expects you to know everything – about your topic, your academic field, or a non-academic industry you find yourself drawn to. Acknowledging what you know and what you don’t know, and then actively taking steps to meet people who can help you address the gaps in your knowledge can both strengthen your projects and plans and help you reassess your goals.

For example, in my own work as a graduate fellowship advisor at GradFund, I was recently tasked with coming up with strategies to increase the reach of our services and make sure more students knew who we are and what we do. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I acknowledged that I wasn’t sure how to do this but considered who might, and I reached out to former supervisors in academic services roles with whom I’d been in touch on a semi-regular basis. These conversations led to new contacts who provided insights into my project I hadn’t considered, while also giving me the opportunity to test out new ideas before bringing them to GradFund.

The fact is, when it comes to networking you’re either already engaging in it or might soon be doing so without even knowing it. Sometimes it helps to reframe or rename things to help you realize how familiar they really are. It really isn’t much more difficult than having a conversation with someone known or new, and the more you do it, the easier it will become.

For more on what networking is and how to do it, check out the MLA Connected Academics website.

Connected Academics Proseminar: September 2016

This is the first in a series of posts about the Modern Language Association’s 2016-2017 Connected Academics Proseminar  written by Connected Academics Proseminar Fellow Carolyn Ureña.

Carolyn is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature and a 2016-2017 Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellow. Her dissertation develops a critical framework for understanding the ways in which a sustained encounter between disability studies, the medical humanities, and the racial phenomenology of decolonial theorist Frantz Fanon can generate new conceptions of health and healing.

 

Last year our very own Tara Coleman, who now holds a tenure track position at LaGuardia Community College, participated in the inaugural MLA Connected Academics Proseminar. This year, I’m excited to carry the torch and share what I learn with our readers in as close to real-time as possible. To read more about Tara’s experience, check out my two-part interview with her from Spring 2016.

The Andrew W. Mellon funded MLA Connected Academics initiative seeks to expose doctoral students in language and literature to the variety of careers available to people with Ph.D.s. In light of the changing job market, now more than ever it is essential to think more broadly about the kinds of work we imagine ourselves doing after we graduate. The exciting news is that many professional organizations–like the Mellon Foundation, the MLA, and the American Council of Learned Societies–are encouraging graduate students to consider the wide variety of careers for which you will be qualified. The more prepared you are for what may come, the better your chances of finding meaningful and fulfilling work after the Ph.D.

Career Exploration as Prototyping

Although many graduate students imagine an academic career in linear terms (undergraduate degree, grad school, tenure track faculty position, Assistant, Associate, then Full Professor), the reality is that most career paths are not so straightforward. Enter the concept of “career exploration as prototyping.” This means trying new things–teaching, volunteering, taking on small projects in new fields or industries–as a means of exploring what you like and what you don’t like to do.

You might be wondering how time consuming or worthwhile it might be to explore different career paths, and ultimately this will be a question of your own schedule and interests. However, keep in mind that developing new skills–like running workshops, managing groups of people, and developing a budget for a project–can be very useful for your job search, both on and beyond the academic job market. If you do pursue the academic path and land your dream job, depending on your institution you will find yourself advising undergraduates as well as graduate students, and you will be in a much better position to encourage their exploration if you have done some of it yourself.

Seek Opportunities to Expand Your Skillset

Part time work and projects can also enable you to write more convincingly in your job materials about your ability to manage teams and projects. My own experiences as a research assistant, as a teacher for Prep for Prep , and as Fellowship Advisor at GradFund  have not only given me greater confidence as a researcher, teacher, and writer; working in these roles allowed me the opportunity to creatively engage a different part of my brain. These experiences enriched my dissertation by encouraging me to rethink how my project can impact my community, while also allowing me to hone my ability to describe my work succinctly to a wider range of audiences.

Join the Conversation

The conversation about exploring alternative or complementary careers is not new, which means there are a good number of resources to help you begin to explore different paths. Initiatives like the MLA’s Connected Academics work to make this conversation more visible, and one easy way to get involved is to follow related groups on social media, such as @MLAConnect and the #withaPhD  hashtag on Twitter. When you meet with other graduate students, take some time to ask them about their interests outside of their research. Explore the MLA’s excellent list of job sites  for positions in Business, Government, and Not-for-Profit Organizations to get a sense of what kinds of careers are possible. And, finally, check out this eye-opening list of transferable skills for Ph.D.s in the Humanities  from the MLA Commons blog for Connected Academics–it will help you understand how your teaching experiences, for example, have prepared you to “devise and implement metrics for success” and “keep detailed administrative records.” You might be surprised to learn how qualified you already are!