“We can’t fail. When your goal is to transform higher education, you can’t really succeed—so that means you can’t really fail. Everything we do will be interesting.” – Cathy Davidson
Unlike entering an established educational institution, where the forms and norms precede you, beginning work with the Futures Initiative felt like an aleatory encounter. There were no scripts here, Java or otherwise.
One of my favorite experiences was attending LaGuardia Community College’s Opening Sessions on “Innovative Collaborations: Celebrating and Building On Achievements in Higher Education.” I was so inspired by the passion of educators and their dedication to students that I could hardly believe the statistics they shared about graduation rates that hover around 25%. The faculty and staff in attendance were not only willing, but enthusiastic about (literally) jumping out of their seats at nine in the morning to play along with theater of the oppressed-inspired activities.
Before the talk, Cathy and I had spoken to Leigh Garrison-Fletcher and Andrea Francis about the pressing issues facing students and educators at LaGuardia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we had a generative conversation about the urgency of collaboration and innovation when faced with such scarce material resources.
It seemed to me like the educators at LaGuardia had firsthand knowledge of difference as an operating system (the motto of HASTAC). Flipping through the promotional material they sent us, I was moved not only by the severity and variety of obstacles faced by their students—poverty, difficulty with immigration and documentation, poor preparation for college-level work, limited English proficiency, just to name a few—but also by the diversity among their cultural pasts and educational aspirations. Nearly half of their students come from countries other than North America. A quarter of their students major in liberal arts and the humanities, another quarter study the health sciences. Business, technology, science, engineering, math, and the social sciences are also popular. Educators working in this environment have certainly long been exploring “difference”—of skills, experiences, and aspirations—as a catalyst for collaboration.
As Cathy and I were preparing for her talk at LaGuardia, I was simultaneously working on another project that, although less ostensibly, was no less passionately aimed towards transforming the future of higher education. In an effort to shake-up the weekly Friday Forums hosted by my doctoral program in English—stimulating conversations that follow a conventional format of a scholarly lecture followed by brief Q&A—the “critical karaoke” event I planned with Professors Duncan Faherty and Eric Lott invited brief, incandescent “readings” of a piece of music, from students and professors alike. We didn’t know who would heed our call, though we hoped that the event would showcase the different forms that meaningful intellectual work can take, celebrating the transformative power of performance, improvisation, play, failure, feeling, silence, and sound. These performances ended up ranging from the autobiographical to the profoundly social, from the transtemporal currency of the diva-figure to the collective tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri. Because the presentations were only three-four minutes, we were able to showcase the work of nineteen performers.
Similar to the questions that will be taken up at the Futures Initiative’s upcoming event, “What is a Dissertation? New Models, Methods, Media,” critical karaoke, I hope, prompted some reflection on the form of the Friday Forum. What is a Friday Forum? What has it been? What could it be? These are also the questions I want us to be asking about public higher education.
That LaGuardia’s Opening Sessions coincided with Critical Karaoke was not a coincidence: both were deliberately planned to inaugurate a new academic year, giving it a cautiously-optimistic glow. We (interpolate yourself accordingly) have oriented ourselves towards education with an oftentimes-irrational faith in its transformative potential amidst material depravity. And this academic year is no exception.
My critical karaoke presentation asked audience members to listen to the theme song of the television show, Community, “At Least it Was Here” by a band called The 88. Similar to the way in which the show ambiguously uses humor to depict the detrimental stigmas and stereotypes that surround community colleges, the song’s bouncy beat seems to conflict with its violent lyrics, providing an intensely ambivalent and messy listening experience.
Feelings of impatience, frustration, and exhaustion reappear throughout the song, sentiments that were notably absent from LaGuardia’s Opening Sessions. “Give me some more/Time in a dream/Give me the hope to run out of steam,” the band warbles, raising, for me, a generative question about the relationship—or maybe it’s dialectics—of “hope” and the attenuating feeling of running out of steam, especially when thinking about the project of public education.
I can’t help but think about W.E.B. Du Bois’ writings on education alongside the song’s most violent image: “Somebody said, it could be here/We could be roped up, tied up, dead in a year”—a strange way to begin a weekly comedy show about community college. In an eerie, important way, the show begins each week with this reminder of the violence surrounding the inception of public education: from death threats to school burnings. The nature of the violence surrounding education, however, has since taken the new form of divesting in Du Bois’ dream of “public education for all at public expense.”
What these examples share is a strange, unruly hope amidst violence. The work of the Futures Initiative, I hope, will be informed by the past, by projects like Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. Wilder’s history of the university suggests that we are working within a genealogy of failure, within and among institutions that have failed so many by perpetrating and perpetuating violence against black and brown bodies.
“Give us time and give us hope” the show’s theme song demands, “perform(ing) an insistence on wanting more in the face of scarcity” (José Muñoz). This must be our ethos as we think about transforming the future of higher education.
Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. Simon and
Muñoz, José Esteban. “Gimme Gimme This… Gimme Gimme That” Annihilation and
Innovation in the Punk Rock Commons.” Social Text 31.3 116 (2013): 95-110.
Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s
Universities. Bloomsbury, 2013.