A Community That Stays Connected

By: Allison Pfingst
Reading Group Participant
Administrator and Advisor, Fashion Studies Program

Connection is a word that has come to take on tremendous meaning during the COVID-19 crisis. We are increasingly worried both about the effects that a lack of internet connection and of personal connection may have on ourselves and our students, as this pandemic shows few signs of slowing down. 

Yet as we face these serious concerns about the tenuousness of our connectivity, I am seeing it grow and strengthen before my eyes. It is taking new and meaningful forms that I believe, if we maintain them, will make Fordham stronger and more flexible than it has ever been.

Faculty are taking on the work of colleagues that are facing the challenges of full-time quarantine childcare. Father McShane’s thoughtful prayers, that he sends out via email, provide comfort to us all, regardless of faith. Professors who struggled to turn on their classroom projectors are now Zooming regularly with their students.

Every single member of the Fordham community has been thrust outside of his/her comfort zone. And every single member of the Fordham community is compassionately working across all boundaries of department, office, and position to ease these transitions on us all for the greater good.

If we can maintain that openness and solidarity and direct it towards the ideas that are forming in the ReIMAGINE Higher Education groups, there is truly no limit to what we can accomplish. Interdisciplinary programs that are funded, nimble, and fully supported by the departments? Easy. Food and housing security for all of our students? A no brainer. Courses that integrate the work of our fabulous Student Services teams? Of course! All of it is possible if we continue to work together in the way that we have during this crisis.

That’s a tall order.
It’s a little lofty.
It’s a little beyond the call of a school or a workplace.
It verges on preachy.
But that’s exactly what I’ve always loved about Fordham. It has always challenged its community to go further. It has never been enough to just be a good student or a good employee. Fordham expects you to be a good person, a man or woman for others. 

2020 is a new world that will require a new education, and I’m looking forward to watching how the Fordham community takes on that challenge together.

The Power of Design Thinking

By: Edward Dunar
Incubator Participant
Graduate Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Student

The past several weeks have been a blur. When Fordham announced its switch to online learning in response to the COVID-19 crisis, I had a plan ready, but implementing it in my (now virtual) classroom has offered an ongoing series of reminders that there is still much that I need to learn. Throughout, I’ve been impressed by the flexibility, nimbleness, and creativity of my students and colleagues. We’re all making lots of mistakes, but we’re rising to the occasion.

As we work as quickly as we can to adjust, many of us feel the weight of systems ripe for reform. The disruption in the middle of the semester and the subsequent decision of many universities to switch to alternative modes of grading raises questions about the effectiveness and equity of our methods of evaluation in “normal times.” In navigating how to send students back home as safely as possible, we encounter the challenges faced by students who don’t have a place to go. As we switch to online instruction, we notice the often-reductive assumptions and philosophies of learning baked into many of the platforms and technologies to which we now must turn.

As I try to hold together short-term urgency with long-term hope, I’ve found inspiration in the design thinking that we employ in our Reimagining Higher Education Incubator. The beauty of this approach to me is that the emphasis is on ongoing perception, experimentation, and adjustment rather than controlling all aspects of how our work will unfold. Design thinking shifts us away from asking, “How can I make sure everything goes according to plan?”, and instead leads us to focus on the needs of the people and communities to which we are responsible, look for opportunities for adjustment, and build on what works. It serves as a middle ground between acting reactively and feeling bound to overly-specific plans. It calls for an ethic of observation, adaptation, and accountability in our practice of the craft of teaching.

I find this approach clarifying and freeing as I move forward in my own work in the face of new demands. Our main responsibility now is the safety of our communities. We adjust as needed according to our values in response to new circumstances. Some of the experiments we try now might scale up after the crisis is over. Some of our experiences now might give us insight into persisting problems that need long-term solutions. Other experiments won’t work or will turn out to be temporary measures only. We will learn from triumphs and missteps alike. The key will be to center ourselves in practices of attentiveness and iteration that will keep us committed to what is most important—the well-being and growth of our students.

Emergent Strategy and the Incubator Process

By: Gregory Jost
Incubator Participant
Adjunct Professor, Sociology

In much of my work, both in the neighborhoods of the Bronx and in the classroom with my students, I strive to be a facilitator of connection, critical thinking, shared learning, and participatory design. I consider context, built through an understanding of historic arcs that have shaped the world our ancestors and we inhabit, critical to the process, on equal footing with who is in the room to engage in the conversations at hand.

I was attracted to the Reimagining Higher Education Incubator first because the invitation came from two of my two colleagues from Fordham’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, giving me assurance of the larger context in which we operate. They also asked that we come in without agendas or specific goals, and be open to an intentional process of relatedness and creation. The organizers invited faculty, administrators, students and community partners to be part of the teams, so I knew we would have a great mix of people in the room. Finally, as an adjunct professor and freelancing part-time single dad, it was also critical that they were offering us financial compensation for our time and energy.

As we moved from a phase of identifying big “wicked” problems down to the small, tangible yet meaningful ways we could take these on from our perches in and out of the University, I came across a passage from Adrienne Maree Brown that spoke to the moment we found ourselves. At the close of the previous session, one of our crew shared how she was feeling frustrated and upset about how things were leaving off, moving too fast, and perhaps feeling rushed. To begin our next session, I shared an excerpt from Brown’s Emergent Strategy that I felt would acknowledge the difficulty of our task, and ground us to move forward in our newly formed small groups.

Inspired by Octavia Butler’s writings, especially her explorations of change, adaptation, iteration and intention in the Earthseed communities in Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Brown focuses on the concept of biomimicry to guide our thinking and actions in movement work. By looking to ancient inhabitants of our planet, such as mycelium, ants, ferns, wavicles, starlings and dandelions, we see how what happens at the very small scale allows for us to take on massive problems. Mycelium, for example, is the part of the fungus that grows underground that breaks down plant matter and toxins. As the largest organism on Earth and fully out of our sights, it shows the hidden power of interconnection and detoxification. Biomimicry in this case is about looking to nature and ecosystems like mycelium for inspiration to tackle huge design challenges. How might initiatives that foster underlying connectivity and detoxification grow larger than our wildest imaginations?

My group is looking at the value of a liberal arts education given the changing 21st century workplace, while others are looking at issues such as educational equity and climate change. The process of emergent strategy frees us up to tackle the huge issues of our time in ways that start small and connect to one another. We recognize who we are, our inheritance on this planet we share, and build together, embodying the change we wish to see.

Here is a short excerpt from Emergent Strategy (pages 41-42):  
Small is good, small is all. (The large is a reflection of the small).
Change is constant. (Be like water).
There is always enough time for the right work.
There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
Never a failure, always a lesson.
Trust the People. (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy.)
Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass—build the resilience by building the relationships.
Less prep, more presence.
What you pay attention to grows.

Tradition, Progress, and Passion

By: David Swinarski, Ph.D.
Associate Dean, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

I joined the Fordham faculty nine years ago, and I am continually reminded of how fortunate I am to be a part of this team of passionate educators.

There is a cliché that professors only care about their research and do not care about their teaching. That cliché is definitely not true at Fordham. Here, I work alongside colleagues who genuinely care about their students. I am proud of the amazing work they do, and it energizes me to give my all, too.

Tradition plays a large role in both the guiding philosophy of universities and our day-to-day operations. It would be easy to view an initiative like Reimagining Higher Education as a threat to tradition. But I think it’s helpful if we can avoid dwelling on the conflict between tradition and progress. When you care about students as much as we do, it is natural to want them to get the best education possible, and therefore to continually ask what is working, and what is not. On the one hand, who is flourishing at our university as we currently operate, and what traditions support their success and should be cherished? While on the other hand, who is struggling, whom have we excluded altogether, and in what ways do our traditions create unintentional barriers to our students’ success? 

I believe that we have something amazingly valuable to offer students. I would not be a faculty member if I did not feel this way. Yet, I also want that gift to be available to all, and the crisis of affordability and the persistent issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education challenge me to question many assumptions that I previously took for granted. I find comfort in an odd way in Cathy Davidson’s book, The New Education, which convincingly argues that many of the problems U.S. contemporary universities face, arise because our universities were designed with other issues in mind. This gives me hope that when we bring all of these issues into view, we can redesign our practices in a way that both continues the very best of what we have to offer, while addressing these very real needs.

Reflecting on Cathy N. Davidson

By: Christopher Gu
Reading Group Participant
Director of Academic and Financial Operations

In the first part of the ReImagine HigherEd Speaker Series, we were lucky enough to have Dr. Cathy N. Davidson, author of The New Education, speak to a packed house in Bepler Commons last Tuesday. Davidson, the Founding Director of The Futures Initiative at the CUNY Graduate Center, spoke about how crucial it is to revolutionize the current higher education model, which is simply not sustainable with rapid technological and generational shifts. This is the focal point of the work that both the ReImagine HigherEd Reading Group and the Incubator Group are doing this semester.

Davidson divided her presentation into three parts: Inheritance, Disruption, and Restructuring. The current model of higher education still bears many of the ideas that Charles Eliot, Harvard’s longest serving president in the late 19th Century, outlined in his own manifesto, the original The New Education. This rise of higher education coincided with the shift from an agricultural to an industrial society. Many of the ideas, such as the A-F grading system, majors and minors, credit hours, and multiple-choice examinations were all born out of this era. We have essentially inherited these rituals, without making much advancement over a century later.

With the rising cost of college, the heavy burden of student debt, and increasing technological advances, it is imperative to disrupt the traditional model of higher education in order to make college more accessible and relevant. We have talked in the ReImagine HigherEd Reading Group about how a college education needs to prepare students for careers that may not even exist yet!

Davidson talks about how equality must be at the core of the new structures that we design. She challenges us to think about restructuring the academic reward system. What if research, teaching, and service were all weighted equally? For students, how can we structure the curriculum for more active learning and participation? Davidson, who has spearheaded interdisciplinary programs at both Duke University and CUNY, believes that the STEM subjects and the liberal arts can go hand-in-hand in the classroom. Learning does not have to be limited to the singular subject matter; in real life, problems cut across multiple disciplines and students need to be able to think critically and holistically.

Having just finished reading Cathy N. Davidson’s book and after seeing her presentation, I could not agree more with the urgency of which this work of reimagining and restructuring needs to be done. In The New Education, Davidson spotlights the work that specific colleges are doing to advance higher education and I look forward to the work that our own ReImagine groups will be producing in the coming months to share with the rest of the Fordham community.

The Brainstorming Phase

By: Anne Fernald, Ph.D.
Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Special Advisor to the Provost for Faculty Development

The Incubator Group of the ReImagining Higher Education Grant meets every week. We are 25 people–undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, and community members: a very diverse group, united in our enthusiasm for making change. 

For our first few weeks, we have been getting to know each other through a series of brainstorming exercises. Every week, we begin with a reading: taking turns, participants bring in a short text that inspires their thinking and we listen and doodle in our composition notebooks. This helps us leave our day behind and enter the space ready to think creatively together.

At our first brainstorming session, following an activity that the Provost led with the Deans earlier this year, we divided into four groups and brainstormed daunting problems likely to be facing higher education, New York City, our county, and our world in the coming decade. We talked about climate change, college accessibility, and the role of the liberal arts in a changing workplace among many other issues. These were daunting problems indeed! 

But they became the fodder for the following week’s activity where we played a kind of grant proposal SNAP!–where we randomly matched daunting problems with modes for solving them. The top twenty daunting problems on one deck of cards and twenty different modes universities have for addressing problems on the other (for example, research project, conference, performance, or podcast). Some combinations were ridiculous–others surprisingly apt. After a few rounds at random, each group came up with four promising approaches to solving four daunting problems. That led us to a list of twenty-one (21!–one group is made up of overachievers!). 

Then, we took the top ten of these the following week and dove a bit more deeply into the process of beginning to develop a project, dividing into groups and taking ten minutes to develop an approach and then traveling around, listening, learning, and refining our approaches.

Amidst all this collective work, we have also been mindful to take time each week to reflect and discuss what our individual goals are: why are we each here? What do we hope to learn and contribute? As we head into our next phase, where we will divide into five teams and work together on five new grant proposals for transformative change in higher education, we hope that this groundwork of goal-setting, team-building, and brainstorming will have been good preparation.

Dissecting the Daunting Issues

By: Melanie Knuts
Incubator Participant
Adjunct Professor, Graduate School of Social Service

During our first Incubator meeting, I remember we were asked to “forget what we think we know.” Learning that the Incubator’s most daunting issues are Climate Control and Health, well, for me, this was a moment of “forgetting what I think I know.” I loved it!

Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City (first published in 2013) is a tour de force in neuroscience, psychology, economics, sociology, urban planning and architecture. In certain ways, this book defies description. And after my first reading of it, I felt (and continue to feel) it deserves to be a “bible” of sorts.

Searching for a passage that might be read at the beginning of our meeting, I rediscovered that while an easy read in many ways, Happy City is richly dense in a far-reaching range of knowledge, wisdom, analysis and specific current global solutions to our Incubator’s two “daunting issues.” Over the course of ten years and traversing back and forth between a dozen or so cities, Charles Montgomery methodically uncovers layers of what gives people their finest satisfactions in health and well-being—and the cities, with their specific designs, that foster these human experiences.

As an introduction to this work, I refer you to his examples in Bogota (pp. 230-239) where Montgomery makes this point: “These bollards show that the pedestrians are as important as people with cars. We are creating equality; we are creating respect for human dignity. We’re telling people, ‘You are important–not because you’re rich, but because you are human.’ If people are treated as special, as sacred, they behave that way. This creates a different kind of society. So every detail in a city must reflect that human beings are sacred. Every detail!” (pp. 236)

Tying it back to the Incubator, I understand that our “directive” is to uncover and understand the “daunting issues” that we face collectively—both in Higher Education and the wider global community. Once uncovered, our “mission” is to percolate and propose innovations that creatively address these issues within the Fordham community. Books like Happy City, and an assortment of resources and experiences that we can share together, offer ingenious existing solutions that can provide us with guideposts along the way of our adventure.

“Daunting issues” are just that, daunting because they may initially feel overwhelming, inspire fear and anticipatory discouragement. There is comfort, though, in knowing that we are together in a common endeavor. There is comfort in knowing that “two heads are better than one.” And, for me, there is great comfort in knowing that other wonderful people, compassionate thinkers who include their hearts in the choices they discern and the solutions they create-are traveling this path ahead of and alongside of us. I offer Happy City as one introduction to such people.

An Invitation Into A Community

By: Kendra Dunbar
Assistant Director for Equity and Inclusion
Office of the Chief Diversity Officer

How was this institution built? Who did the building? Who does it serve?  What is its purpose? What are the goals? Who else might it serve if values were re-centered in all of its praxis or policies? What is our praxis? What could our praxis be? How would that change who we are, how we function, or what impact we could have?  

For over 20 years I have been walking alongside communities, institutions, organizations, and government and NGO leadership inviting them to reconsider what is and engage what could be. In whatever form the context or country I am working requires human rights, social justice, reconciliation, equity, and/or participatory processes have been at the center of my work. Imagination, creativity, and the messiness of idea construction across sectors, job functions, departments, interests, and personal identities are primary resources and tools in that creation of another way.  

I was drawn to this project because it is an invitation into a community – a community of thinkers and builders that want to ask the questions, exchange ideas, iterate concepts, policy, and praxis, and take the risk to propose new ways of being as a university community. Many of the ideas, proposals, and suggestions that surface in our time together will not lead directly to a change in policy or praxis; however opening ourselves to the creative engagement of all of the ideas, questions, proposals, and suggestions are needed in effective and equitable institutional growth. And that prospect excites me.

Inspired and Driven

By: Roxana Callejo Garcia
Associate VP, Strategic Planning and Innovation
Fordham IT

Why I’ve chosen to give my time and energy to this exciting experiment named “Reimage Higher Ed at Fordham.”

First and foremost, it’s because of the people leading the effort, Eva Badowska and Anne Fernald; two women I have come to hold in very high esteem. They are welcoming, collaborative, honest and open and most importantly, lots of fun to be around! It is my privilege and honor to work beside them. “Who” I work with is as important to me as what I work on.

Virtually all believe that education lifts us up to be our best selves at home and in our communities, yet how education is delivered can stand in the way for many who struggle to learn in traditional settings. Here’s where I want to make a difference. Maria Montessori and St Ignatius of Loyola both understood that the student should be at the center of education. Believing that each student possesses unique talents that simply need to be coaxed into existence by skilled and loving guides. These guides or teachers, facilitate the student’s emergence into an adult who understands themselves and the world around them.  This is where I fell hopelessly in love with education and became passionate about affecting change. I have not had an outlet for this passion, until now. 

Like our Reading and Incubator group participants, I’m thrilled that my deep interests intersect directly with the focus of this initiative. Once again, it is my privilege and honor to work beside so many people who are all driven to understand the challenges in front of us and to begin to hack away at opportunities for real and impactful change!

It’s Okay To Get Messy

By: Anne Fernald, Ph.D.
Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Special Advisor to the Provost for Faculty Development

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a teacher. Nor can I remember a time when I didn’t watch teachers and leaders, wondering why they asked us to do this activity, not that one, why they seated us in a circle rather than rows. Figuring out the reason behind the lesson has assuaged my boredom in many a dull class. It’s also fired me up about talking with teachers about how to make education better.

When I was five, my mom took me down to the little art school at the end of the block for Saturday art classes. I got to wear my Osh Kosh overalls and it was ok to get messy. My teacher, Miss Cook, was beautiful, with a long red ponytail. When there was an exhibition at the end of the semester for all the students—my little school was also a very small art college—the children’s art hung in the front room of the gallery. My dinosaur was on the wall, but it was upside down! Miss Cook just smiled and said, “That’s ok honey. It’s so beautiful, it looks just as good this way.” And even though part of me knew that was a fib, I could feel her kindness down to my soul.

This project combines that fire for making teaching better, messiness, and kindness in ways that portend so much joy, so much promise for the right kind of change, how could I not throw myself into it?