In this episode of Rocking the Academy, co-hosts Roopika Risam and Mary Churchill talk with Katina Rogers, co-director of Futures Initiative at CUNY Grad Center and author of Putting the Humanities PhD to Work (Duke UP, 2020). We talk with Katina about the changing face of graduate education, misalignment between values and structures within higher ed, and her innovative work trying to change that. Find us on Twitter: @roopikarisam, @mary_churchill, and @katinalynn.
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Music Credits: “Come Right Here” by Tendinite, licensed under a Creative Commons 4.0 CC-BY-NC-ND license.
Mary Churchill [00:00:06]: Rocking the Academy is a podcast that's changing the future of higher education. Your hosts, Mary Churchill and Roopika Risam, bring you conversations with the very best truth tellers who are formulating a different vision of the university. Do they rock the boat? Yes. But in doing so, they rock the academy. Rocking the Academy is sponsored by Johns Hopkins University Press, publisher of excellent books on higher education.
Roopika Risam [00:00:35]: On this episode of Rocking the Academy, we chat with Katina Rogers, an administrator, researcher, and faculty member at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her primary role is co-director of Futures Initiative, an incubator that advances equity and innovation in higher education through student-centered teaching and learning and promotes reinvestment in higher education as a public good. Katina also serves as co-director of the CUNY Humanities Alliance, Director of Programs and Administration of HASTAC, and as an adjunct faculty member in the GC's Master's Program in Digital Humanities.
Katina, we're really excited to get to talk to you today. You have been an incredible advocate for graduate students. Just last week, I had the privilege of being part of the Futures of Graduate Education session at MLA that you organized with Stacy Hartman. We'd love to hear a little bit about how you came to this work. What was your journey into becoming such an amazing advocate for doctoral students?
Katina Rogers [00:01:34]: I'm really appreciative of the way that you framed that, and I'm so happy to be here talking with you both about this because conversations we've had, Roopsi, have really been informative to my own way of thinking as well. I came to this work through what seemed at the time to be a roundabout path. And now as I look backwards, as I think is true for many people, I can find a through-line. But that wasn't necessarily true for me as I was moving through it.
I have a PhD from the University of Colorado in Comparative Literature, and while I was working on my dissertation, I moved to New York City for personal reasons. The fact of moving away, I think, started to open up some different possibilities for me. While I was working on my dissertation, I started working as a temp at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and was eventually hired there full time. And I was working on Board of Trustee relations and some HR stuff and a lot of back-of-the-house work for Sloan. What was really interesting while I was there is I got a chance to start seeing some of the infrastructure outside of universities that supports research and teaching, which I had never seen. I hadn't seen the kinds of strategic questions that can really, essentially shape a field. It was fascinating to be in an environment that was scholarly in its mindset but not located within a university. And I think that was really the first time that I was starting to work on questions of infrastructure, and I found that I really liked it.
After my time at Sloan, I was wanting to get back a little bit closer to the humanities world. I was hired at the Scholars' Lab at the University of Virginia, working with Bethany Nowviskie and Abby Smith Rumsey to wrap up 10 years of programming that had been funded by the Mellon Foundation and to really think about, given everything that they had been learning about the changing world of scholarly communication, what would that mean for how graduate students were being trained. So it was while I was there that I started thinking really critically about the types of career paths that people go into and how graduate training might shift to be a little more intentional about what those pathways look like.
I spent some time after that working with the Modern Language Association and had a chance to think about how professional societies have a role in setting the norms in these conversations. The MLA and other organizations like it have a really good opportunity for saying this is what we expect to see as a discipline from different programs in terms of adjunct wages and how we evaluate scholarship, how we're sharing our scholarship. And then I came to CUNY, where I got to actually start implementing some of the types of programming that I had been researching. The thing that all of these share in common is that I have found that I really love thinking about the systems and structures that make different work possible.
Roopika Risam [00:04:04]: That's great. I mean, I'd like to follow up with a question about foundations, I worry about--in the context of philanthropy and charity--the level of control that the people who hold the purse strings are able to exert over the kinds of programs that we are able to get funding for. And I'm curious, from your perspective working inside Sloan, how did they balance it?
Katina Rogers [00:04:28]: That's a really complicated question. And I mean, what I would love to see is a situation in which universities had adequate public funding to where they didn't need to be going for private support. Private funding is not a solution for the the challenges in higher ed today. I will say that what I found at Sloan is that they had a very strong intention to invest in people and trust the work that the people were doing. I think that does still carry a lot of risk because how can they evaluate who's able to do that? Any foundation is going to be looking at a person's scholarly record, which is measured across metrics of prestige that tend to benefit some scholars more than others. And it can be harder for emerging scholars or scholars whose work doesn't look as traditional to gain a foothold within those spaces. I will say, I've been really inspired by the shifting priorities at the Mellon Foundation to really support community colleges and access oriented institutions. That kind of intentionality in foundation spaces to think about ways that private funding can reinforce hierarchical and prestige oriented spaces is really important.
Mary Churchill [00:05:41]: So switching gears, your book, Putting the Humanities PhD to Work, is coming out later this year. What are the key insights that readers will find in your book?
Katina Rogers [00:05:43]: Oh, gosh, I'm so excited for this book to come out. It's really been wonderful to work with Duke University Press and with Ken Wissoker. I hope that people come away understanding that career development is not a standalone issue. I think one of the things that I have found really challenging when talking about career pathways is that often it gets separated from questions of equity and inclusion and labor structures, especially in evaluation--as though somehow it was separate from all of those other interlocking reform efforts within the academy. And so, in the book, I really try and focus on those points of intersection between the practical and structural matters of graduate education more broadly and how thinking about career pathways has to be really deeply embedded in those questions of values and labor and equity. I hope that people also come away with some concrete ideas of how they might move forward, whether they're students or faculty members or administrators. I try to both talk about those larger picture things, as well as some more concrete ideas for how people can get started depending on where they are.
One of the things that has really emerged for me has been a sense of misalignment between values and structures. You know, coming from a public institution like CUNY, there's a sense that is quite palpable that CUNY wants to serve the students of New York City, whoever those students may be, and it's absolutely an access-oriented institution, an institution focused on equity. And at the same time, the structures that govern it as an institution look very much like the structures of elite institutions. And those structures don't always serve the same values. And sometimes they actually undermine those values. And so things that I think are often taken for granted within university spaces, like requirements for tenure and promotion or what the dissertation might look like, those are sort of accepted as part of the bones of what graduate education or a faculty career looks like. But they may actually be working at cross purposes to the goals of the institution. I have found those points of tension to be a really interesting space to consider--like what might we think about differently in terms of those structures, so that we can really think about how to advance the goals and values that we say as an institution that we have, rather than supporting other values that we might be trying to work against.
Roopika Risam [00:08:01]: It's been so long since Maggie Debelius and Susan Basalla's So What Are You Going to Do with That? book, and so much has changed in the academy that your book is, I think, coming at such an important time.
Mary Churchill [00:08:11]: It's shocking to me that a university will go through a really big 10 year strategic planning process and put forward the goals for strategic planning and not redo tenure and promotion evaluation criteria. It is completely disconnected from the strategic plan and goals of an institution. They're not linked. And I think you're absolutely right. If this is what you want to achieve, these are the goals you set forth. You've got to revise your tenure and promotion criteria because faculty will not be able to help you meet those goals if you don't.
Katina Rogers [00:08:46]: Absolutely. And then I think people tend to be surprised when initiatives fail. But when those goals have not been set up in a way that things are working together towards the same aims, of course things fail. I've been really thinking a lot lately about Sara Ahmed's book On Being Included and that image of the brick wall. I mean, I think we see this absolutely in terms of "diversity" initiatives. But we see it also in terms of other types of strategic planning where the institution or a program might say, "Yes, this is the thing that we want to achieve or accomplish" but they don't look at the underlying things that are working against that and then they wonder why nothing changes.
Roopika Risam [00:09:22]: So going back to this question of foundations and doctoral education, you and your colleagues at CUNY recently received a $3.15 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to continue your work improving doctoral education. Tell us a little bit more about this work.
Katina Rogers [00:09:37]: Sure, and we're so appreciative to the Mellon Foundation for this. I'm really excited to be able to do this work along with Luke Waltzer, who's director of the Teaching and Learning Center at the Grad Center. Kaysi Holman is going to be continuing her work as Director of Programs and Administration for the project and David Olan is the PI. So, we're thinking about what are the various elements that work together to support (or or not) the different aims that we have as an institution. And at a place like CUNY, we have 25 campuses around the five boroughs of New York City. The university system serves 500,000 students--250,000 of them are degree seeking. Many, many, many of the students in the CUNY system are the first in their families to go to college. Many are speaking other languages in their homes. Most of them are working. Many are also juggling caregiving responsibilities. So there's a lot going on in our students lives and CUNY really works to support them.
And, at the same time, what we see at CUNY, as at many institutions, is that when you look at the structure of who is in the institution at various roles and various levels, the institution becomes whiter and increasingly male as you get to areas of more traditional prestige. So the community college students are far and away the most diverse component of our university community. And as you go through the four-year colleges, the Graduate Center where most of the doctoral education happens, you see the student body composition changing. And the same is true at the faculty level as well, where the faculty members who are working as adjuncts and who are the least supported, there tend to be many more women and people of color who are serving in those roles. And as you get to the more senior faculty at the Graduate Center, that diversity becomes less and less.
So we're thinking about how all of these different systems within CUNY are working with one another, from the community colleges to the senior colleges to the Graduate Center. And I think one of the reasons that we started pursuing this grant in the first place, four years ago, was that it felt like there was a significant disconnect between graduate education and community college teaching. We were finding that even at the Graduate Center students--unless they had either gone through community college themselves as a student or had taught there as part of the adjunct work--if they hadn't had those direct experiences, they didn't have a clear sense of what the advantages were of working within a community college, how rewarding and fulfilling that could be, especially for someone who really wants a teaching-focused career, and how important the community colleges are to the mission of the university. And so we wanted to have some more intentional points of connection between graduate education and community college teaching because it is doctoral students who will be the ones who step into faculty positions and leadership positions and community colleges in the future.
We see this as an opportunity to create new structures that support many reform efforts at once. In this new iteration, we're partnering with four community colleges and we're going to be focusing not on teaching but on all of the different types of educational support that happen around the classroom space--things like educational technology and curriculum development, teaching and learning centers, writing centers. All of that really supports students and supports faculty, but doctoral students don't always have an opportunity to see what that work looks like. Another important part of this grant is advocating for the importance of the humanities education for all students. I think that we've been seeing, rhetorically, in the United States in recent years, a strong pull towards community colleges as vocational education. So we're trying to reinvest in that and really focus on the fact that, particularly for students who are coming from very complex circumstances, navigating many different cultural contexts in their day-to-day lives, that having a deeper understanding, an opportunity to examine art and music and literature, can help them to also have different lenses of understanding on navigating their own spaces.
Roopika Risam [00:13:34]: So fantastic. And you are hosting a really interesting conference in May. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Katina Rogers [0013:41]: The conference is called Graduate Education at Work in the World. And it's going to be co-sponsored by the Futures Initiative, which is the organization I co-direct at the Grad Center, and the Publics Lab, which is a relatively new program at the Grad Center that's focused on public engagement, mostly within the humanities and also in the social sciences. So the conference is going to be be an opportunity for people to come together and really think about some of these questions of career pathways in that broader context of graduate education reform.
The conference should include a really wide range of participants. There should be students-- undergraduate students and doctoral students--faculty members, administrators, people who are junior in their career, senior people, coming from New York City and the region as well as people coming from more rural environments and more regional contexts. And I think that all of those different perspectives really help to think through some of the assumptions that seem unchangeable in a given institutional context, but actually look quite different in other spaces. We're going have keynotes by Melissa Deshields and Micah Gilmer from Frontline Solutions. The two of them work with foundations and nonprofits to think about how those organizations might meet their own goals. So I'm really excited to see what kinds of conversations emerge from that.
Mary Churchill [00:14:52]: And so our final question is what gives you hope for the future of higher education?
Katina Rogers [00:14:58]: I will say I think that hopefulness, in some ways, is a discipline. I don't always feel hopeful. There's a lot that's really difficult right now in higher ed. And I think that, for me, focusing on those spaces of hope and optimism has been really important to being able to continue to do the work. And a lot of times administrative work can feel sort of disconnected--and it's been really in working with students, especially working really deeply with graduate students, which I get to do every day. I have been so lucky to work with Cathy Davidson, who founded the Futures Initiative, as well as HASTAC, another organization that we co-administer. Cathy has a very hopeful and optimistic outlook. And I think that that perspective has really helped me to think about my own tendencies towards, at times, skepticism and despair and think about the ways in which the work that we're doing can make a difference, even in difficult times.
Roopika Risam [00:15:57]: You have been listening to Rocking the Academy. Rocking the Academy is sponsored by Johns Hopkins University Press, publisher of Why Can't They Write? Killing the Five Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities by John Warner, now available in paperback where books are sold.