Two weeks ago, members of the Futures Initiative along with a handful of eminent CUNY administrators met with the current Chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities, William ‘Bro’ Adams. Chairman Adams was interested both in our perception of the NEH and the work that they do, and the current struggles we face as humanities practitioners—with an eye towards ways that NEH might help support our work.
As a cultural studies practitioner, I was interested in how our conversation was bookended by interpretations of the film American Sniper. For me, debating the kinds of political, socioeconomic, and ethical questions raised by cultural artifacts is central to the role of the humanities in materializing a just and equitable democracy. If the humanities aren’t a social priority, we risk losing these skills of critical questioning, and becoming passive consumers of the entertainment industry.
Chairman Adams framed his remarks around two central questions, which I’ve paraphrased:
- How do we teach and learn effectively in a changing environment?
- How can we promote the humanities as a public good?
After discussing the historical role of the NEH and some of their initiatives including summer seminars and the open book project, the conversation veered towards the ethical difficulties of new technologies, and the urgency of the humanities in helping us understand the affordances of new, rapidly-changing digital hardware and software.
Surprisingly, and much to my pleasure, pedagogy and teacher-training emerged as important opportunities for generating public audiences for the humanities. And not just the training of graduate students, but the training of high school and elementary instructors as well. As a graduate teaching fellow at Queens College, which has historically graduated many of New York City’s finest K-12 instructors, I understand how connected these two are. In many of the classes taught by our generation of humanities educators—my experience has been with other adjunct instructors—we incorporate humanities advocacy into our classrooms, inviting students to reflect on the social value of humanities learning as we discuss Shakespeare, Romanticism, or American studies. The students we teach in those classrooms will then go on to educate the city’s youth.
It was no accident that pedagogy was the topic of conversation among CUNY educators. As a doctoral student here, I’ve been impressed with the efforts of CUNY faculty to emphasize pedagogy in graduate student education. At least within the English department, these efforts are partially inspired by CUNY’s history of radical teacher-poets, many of whom taught in the SEEK program during Open Admissions. While members of the Lost and Found project are busy researching and publishing the archived teaching materials of inspirational authors and educators like Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and June Jordan, other members of the CUNY community are organizing events like “Pedagogies of Embodiment,” “Teaching CUNY at CUNY,” the “Feminist Pedagogy Conference” and the sociology department’s “Purposeful Pedagogy Conference.” Despite the commonly-circulated notion that it is our research and not our teaching that will maybe get us a job in this inhospitable job market, many CUNY faculty and students refuse this binary through our daily practices, understanding the interconnectedness of teaching and research. Indeed, the Futures Initiative team was present at this meeting with Chairman Adams precisely because we are trying to trouble this binary, along with traditional distinctions between the humanities, the social sciences, and the hard sciences. As a group, we discussed the ways in which monetary incentives might be used to encourage contemporary humanities practitioners to prioritize pedagogical training in order to promote the humanities as a social and public good.
Like graduate students across the country, CUNY doctoral students often have to teach many classes in order to earn a living wage, stretching us thin, and making it difficult to devote time and energy to humanities advocacy through our teaching. Material incentives for pedagogical dedication, innovation, and inspiration would support humanities educators in our efforts to bring about a more just, equitable, and democratic future.