Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Groundswell and a Desire for Something More

During the last number of days, the response to the closing of the Department of Education here at Cornell University has been something to behold. A groundswell is taking place, not simply emerging from those within the department, but also from outside of it. There is a growing community of students--both undergraduate and graduate--who recognize the tremendous loss that is occurring with the closure of the department and the loss of the institutional home for education here at Cornell.

Without a unified approach (although we're quickly trying to coalesce our energy), groups and individuals have been reaching out to the administration within CALS asking fundamental questions about what the loss of the Department of Education means for both the college as well as the university. There is, to quote one of the students from outside of the Department of Education, a need to recognize that the response to what's taking place deals with more than simply the department. He writes:
"it became clear that we were not grieving over the loss of the departmental edifice; we rather fear the loss of a forum; a free space in which to question the purpose of our education and coactively develop ourselves into the reflective practitioners we seek to be."
 With individuals and groups coming together, there is desire to try to engage a broader cross-section of the Cornell community as well as those beyond this campus who recognize and want to raise attention to what is taking place. For an institution such as Cornell to close the Department of Education speaks volumes to what is valued and what is expendable. There is no doubt that the precipice we face was brought on by the economic climate which has pushed many higher education institutions to question what they can and cannot support. This has been especially true for public higher education and land grant universities. So where do we go from here?

A number of graduate students who are concerned about the future of a space for educational discourse and questioning have recognized that we must be the ones who do something. We cannot, in good conscience, stand on the sidelines and let this issue simply become a forgotten headline.

A website, Cornell Education Matters, is serving as a hub for information and resources for those concerned with the future study of education here at Cornell. From the website, we also have a Google Group which enables individuals to sign up to receive emails about what's going on. Additionally, we have created a Facebook Page which will allow us to share information with one another as well as to gain broader support for what we are trying to do. We are doing all we can to connect people and share information about what's going on.

We have learned that the Department of Education will be able to meet with Associate Dean Max Pfeffer  on Thursday, November 4th at 5:00pm. Just to make this clear...

On Thursday, November 4th at 5:00pm, there will be a very important meeting with CALS administrators and we need as many people as possible to be there to show support for the study of education at Cornell University. 

The location is yet to be determined, we would want to let everyone know that we're encouraging as many people as possible to come to this meeting to show support for the study of education at Cornell. The physical presence of concerned individuals is a very powerful way to demonstrate the extent to which the Cornell community (as well as those beyond) cares about what's taking place.

President Skorton has called for the hiring of new faculty members humanities. The article in the Cornell Chronicle notes that,
"Far from being irrelevant in the digital age, the arts and humanities not only teach the basic skills of critical and contextual thinking, communication and ethics but also have value as disciplines of research and critical analysis in their own right. And on a fundamental level, they teach us what it means to be human, he said." 
This comment is something I wholeheartedly agree with, and I would argue that much of what takes places within the field of education asks these deeply important questions about what it means to be a person in today's world. I would argue that the college and university administration have failed in understanding what it is that happens within the Department of Education. If they knew, they wouldn't be closing it down. Education is much more than simply teacher preparation (and by no means am I demeaning teacher education). What I mean to say is that education engages questions about what it means to be a citizen in communities, states, or the world. There is serious engagement with some of the most important questions about who we are and how we might live with one another in the future.

Stay tuned and stay in touch. This is a tremendous opportunity for those of us at Cornell and those at other universities and colleges to ask deep, fundamental questions about what higher education means today in our democracy. This is an extraordinarily important question for public higher education. Education is more than the dissemination of information. The support for a forum in which faculty and students might engage in discussion about what education means only highlights the need to further engage one another about what it is that these institutions of higher education are doing and how.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A University's (Narrowing) Mission

Soon to be gone...
The last few days have been very frustrating, saddening, unclear interesting. On Tuesday evening, we received word that the Department of Education at Cornell would be closing. The Cornell Chronicle had a story and the university was so kind as to create talking points for senior administrators to try to explain what they've just done. Departments close, I get that. Yet, this feels different for a variety of reasons. This is my department, my home, my colleagues we're talking about no longer existing.

This is how we, graduate students, received news
about the department closing. Click to enlarge. 

Here are a few thoughts that I have related to this new reality.

First, this department has been, for the last two years, my academic home. When I have questions I know I need to talk to Rose or April. When I want to scan entire sections of books, I head to the copy room. As I'm now thinking about what happens to the physical spaces in which I experience my time here at Cornell, I'm struck by the sense of loss that's occurring, even though nothing has changed yet. It's simply the impending reality that scares me.

Second, I think about the fact that Cornell University will no longer have a department of education. Cornell University, the land grant university of New York, will not be training teachers or preparing professionals for careers in education. This is a serious blow to New York, but it also sends serious reverberations across the country when we're talking about the purpose of public higher education. The work of the department has been eclectic in the best sense of the word, engaging "education" in a very broad sense. While having a small faculty, the productivity of the department has been very high, but it also (and arguably more importantly) has been a space for Cornell students--both undergraduate and graduate--to think about knowledge and information as something more than simply facts that exist without questing the impacts of decisions.

I'm currently in an educational course, EDUC 6820: Community Education and Development, and it's a striking example of what we're losing when Cornell makes the decision that such courses are no longer important to our mission. We're a group of nearly 20 graduate students from a number of academic fields with a shared interest in working with communities to address issues of public concern. It's an amazing group of people coming together because a course like this exists. What happens in the future? I worry that for students who see their own graduate education as an experience and engagement with more than facts and information, there will be a void that further pushes the Cornell experience away from such experiences. As a land grant university, Cornell has a public mission. The interesting and sometimes troubling mix of "land grant" with "Ivy League" muddies the role of the university in our state, nation, and world. 

So what has been articulated by those in positions of authority on the closure of the department? The language used gave a sense of why this is happening. The Talking Points memo states that the closure of the department, "will result in savings, but also allows CALS to better focus its resources in the long run." In the Chronicle piece we see that according to Dean Boor, "CALS has come to the difficult conclusion that we do not have the additional resources that would need to be invested in the program to ensure its pre-eminence as we move into the future." Translated: we don't have the funding nor do we want to explore other ways that we might support education at Cornell University, especially within CALS.

I should take a moment to note the interesting situation the Department of Education has found itself in within CALS. Without a doubt, CALS here at Cornell is one of the preeminent colleges of agriculture in the United States. We've very good at much of what constitutes "work" within colleges of agriculture: we quantitatively measure, we have multi-million dollar buildings in which to do serious scientific research, and major research grants come from NSF and other sources. This is the core mission of CALS without a doubt and the means to supporting that core mission is obviously present. The way in which the mission is articulated by CALS is to, "discover, integrate, disseminate, and apply knowledge." This leaves little room for a course of community organizing, for example where the one-directional relationship between expert and citizens is seriously challenged and problematized. Education, especially adult and extension education, takes very seriously the issues of operating within a paradigm that only allows experts to have knowledge. Courses such as EDUC 6820 challenge the very mission of the college in which is resides.

The Department of Communication could be seen as being equally out of place in a college of agricultura and life science. They make as much sense as Education, but they're sticking around. What gives? Well, for one, they engage in research more so in the quantitative tradition. Nevertheless, many faculty within the Education Department do high level research that fits neatly within the real of quantitative work and measures. The difference in the two departments comes down to, sadly, money. The Communication program is considerably larger, has a robust undergraduate program, and thus is able to support numerous graduate students. At one point Cornell had a School of Education. It was downsized to a department and now will be disappearing. 

Third, we're Cornell University and we're not running on a shoestring budget (although we're definitely feeling the impact of the economic crisis). Today's news was that one of the areas of interest to researchers at Cornell, which is sustainability, just received 80 million dollars to support this work.
At least there are some things to celebrate. Streamers, singers
and the Big Red Marching Band celebrate the single largest
gift to the Ithaca campus from an individual.

It's a tremendous gift to the university in addressing this most important issue, but it makes me pause for a moment and think about how we articulate and frame sustainability. In the Chronicle article released today, David R. Atkinson '60 said this:
"Cornell is the best-positioned university in America, and arguably the world, to develop solutions," Atkinson said; in part due to its place as the most highly ranked American university with a college of agriculture.
"Agriculture has an enormous impact on the environment. In addition, a productive, efficient agricultural sector is a key ingredient for economic development," he said. "Any university addressing sustainability without a college of agricultural is operating at an enormous competitive disadvantage." 
Atkinson said he sees ACSF as "a source of unbiased information; a catalyst bringing knowledge from different disciplines together to address sustainability; and a partner with entrepreneurs, businesses, NGOs and governments to magnify the impact of the knowledge and ingenuity at Cornell in moving society toward a more sustainable future."
The center will also be a focal point for sustainability-related activity on campus, including education, operations, outreach and research. 

What's interesting about all of this is that

  1. The new center is based on the premise that we--universities--have unbiased information.
  2. We then give this information and knowledge to others outside of the university
  3. The article mentions education, but not a single education faculty member has been involved since 2007 when it was started. 
  4. The interdisciplinary work is limited in that it's not engaging citizens at all in the process of this work, but rather only with the appropriate handful of partners.
  5. That the premier college of agriculture which is going to be leading the way in regards to this new center is, right now, closing it's department of education. It makes me question the ways in which "education" is conceptualized and practiced by those involved. 

So back to the main point of this post, the demise of education at Cornell comes down to more than simply not having funding. It seems to me to be an issue of valuing the field rather than purely dollars. Thinking of education as a process that engages citizens and communities, for example, is quite different than a model where experts figure it out and then tell others what they know. It's one-directional rather than collaborative. These are serious and fundamental distinctions when it comes to the question of how knowledge is produced and shared.

Additionally, it is important to note that all faculty and staff within the Department of Education will retain positions, so one is left to ask where the cost savings with this move will come. Faculty will leave seeking out new homes that value their work and foster a sense of worth in this type of research, teaching, and engagement. But while Cornell is repositioning itself to be the unchallenged elite college of agriculture, so much of what it claims to be doing well into the future does make one pause when we acknowledge the closure of its own department of education.

We're at the beginning of the end for education at Cornell. There are many questions remaining unanswered, but there seems to be little to change course. It's a sad state of affairs for a place like Cornell when it sends out the message that a field like education, which isn't purely about numbers, is expendable. Maybe if we brought in more multi-million dollar grants we'd be in a different boat, but the work that is done by some within the department just doen't count to many within the academy. Especially here at Cornell.   

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sippin' Tea

The Tea Party is something completely new in American politics. It's a grassroots political movement that doesn't bend to the wishes of the establishment, regardless of whether we're talking about Democrats or Republicans. It's a movement of citizens committed to the Constitution and a limited role of government in our lives. There's no controlling what these freedom-loving citizens will do. That's the narrative we've been told over and over.

The Tea Party makes as much sense as this scene.
But as I think more about what's going on in America politics and continue to read article after article on all that is Tea Party, I solidify my belief that it's a load. A total load. It just makes no sense to me, not simply in that I disagree with the fundamental beliefs held by those of the political right, but more that I just don't think the Tea Party makes sense. Not much more than the image of the Alice's tea party with talking rabbits and such.

Everywhere I turn, I'm reading something about the Tea Party. Perennial candidates like Christine O'Donnell (who ran in 2006, 2008, and now in 2010) "emerge" as if she hasn't been on the ballot multiple times before. Sharron Angle, another darling of the Tea Party, has held public office for a number of years. She's not quite the new candidate emerging from life outside of politics. Palin, the former VP candidate and half-term governor, wears the mantle of the "government is the problem" position championed by Ronald himself. It's new yet old at the same time. It's an interesting world.

So what gives?

Matt Taibbi, over at Rolling Stone, offers his take on the Tea Party and what's going on behind the rhetoric of the movement that's sweeping America. While maybe lacking a certain degree of sensitivity (but it's Rolling Stone so he gets to write like this so he gets a pass), Taibbi gets to, what I think, is operating below the radar of what gets talked about. Of course it's great fodder for media outlets (I hesitate to use the phrase "news outlets"), but probing just a bit more than the superficial stories of anger folks all over the country reveals a layer of confused and paradoxical dynamics to make one wonder if there's any thought going into what so many are saying and doing these days.

I'd recommend you reading the entire article. It's quite good. You can access the Rolling Stone article here.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Relationships and Time: Necessities of a Movement

The familiar scene of the
oratory powers of MLK. 
The civil rights movement can sometimes --often times-- be truncated and abbreviated. "One day, a nice old lady, Rosa Parks, sat down on a buss and got arrested. The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up, and the Montgomery bus boycott followed. And sometime later, King delivered his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech and segregation was over" (p. xiv).

What we lose when we only look to the familiar characters is the commitment that thousands of individuals made to walking from house to house and talking with people about their rights as citizens of the United States. The organizing tradition within the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century is an important but oft forgotten piece of the long and rich history of the struggle for justice and rights for African-Americans. This aspect of the freedom struggle doesn't make it into textbooks, unless it's a brief mention on the way to highlighting the leaders of the movement. It is difficult to travel in this country without seeing MLK's name. The belief that the movement began in the 1960s misses the struggles and work done by many, taking place years earlier. 

A much less familiar photo of
Septima Clark and the Citizenship Schools.
Mention the "I Have a Dream" speech and we hear about children being judged on their character and not by the color of their skin. We know this story. We can hear King's voice and the crowd in D.C. when these words are uttered. But what happens when we mention SNCC or Citizenship Schools? The movement was composed of many individuals who were committed to the long road that needed to be traveled in order to transform the realities of African-Americans being marginalized, disrespected, and intimidated by Whites, as well as being brutally injured and killed. The struggle for freedom in the South, especially in Mississippi, brought together people who were committed to taking the time to establish relationships with African-Americans with the hopes that they would do their part in registering to vote as well as become members of the movement themselves. 
The difficult work of meeting with
citizens when no one seems to care.

The movement never would have been if it was only boycott and marches. Much of the work was unglamorous and quite dangerous. People walked door-to-door talking with people about how they might help realize the belief that we are all citizens and that we have rights because of that belief in what citizenship constitutes. 

Learning about this other story of the civil rights movement forces us to rethink what it was that took place half a century ago in the United States. Additionally, it forces us to rethink social movements today. It seems to me that if we acknowledge and learn from the freedom struggle as experienced by the many nameless individuals who shaped the movement long before Parks and King, we might address some of the pressing challenges we face today when it comes to discrimination and division in this country and in the world. Change didn't come overnight then and it surely won't now.

Below is a video that captures a sense of the struggle for respect and freedom in the South. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Obama and Othering

The many Obamas.

There is a high level of anger and frustration in the United States these days and many reasons to feel so. Employment still remains a high concern for many citizens and opportunities continue to disappear. The hope of many cities to return to glory days isn't little more that a wishful dream. With the continual departure of jobs to cheaper factories and cheaper labor costs, once jobs disappear it is unlikely they will return. When economic times get tough, the once stable and manageable relationships among citizens become a little bit less so.

One of the "Faces" of the Tea Party.
It almost seems like an afterthought, but there has been tremendous change during the last couple years: the election of Obama as president, a very large domestic policy shift with equally divisive laws enacted, and an undercurrent that things are changing. The ability of someone like Glenn Beck to become an overnight leader highlights the feeling that many Americans have about the changes taking place. The Tea Party Movement has become a force to be reckoned with, both for those on the left and right of politics. What we know about this movement is that it is composed of predominantly white, male, married, over 45, and Republican folks. What has emerged as an "angry" group of citizens wanting to reclaim and take back their  country highlights the sense of normalcy and identity for citizens who long for yesteryear. However, these fond memories are amnesic because we've been growing further and further apart for quite a while. MSNBC has done a really interesting photoblog of some of the faces of the Tea Party.

Some of the most striking examples of this distance and identification of the "other" has been growing considerably just in the last few years, especially as Obama emerged as a candidate and then when he was elected to office. Just today, there are stories about Obama being portrayed a a terrorist, gangster, Mexican bandit, and as a gay man. It has only recently been taken down. It had the title, "Vote DemocRAT." Nice. Billboards, the American way to advertise, have highlighted the feelings across the country by those who see Obama as something quite distinct from themselves. You know, black. 

So I'm left to wonder: what would make everything all right for those who oppose everything going on today with regards to Democratic control, legislation, and the highest office held by none other than Barack Obama? 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

We've been here before

We're always dealing with new issues and new ideas. Aren't we?

Maybe it's because I'm reading many articles, books, pamphlets, and speeches from 70 years ago for my research. Maybe it's because I'm coming across stories about anti-Catholic sentiment in New York in the 18th century. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that very little--if anything--we think and do (aside from the discovery of graphene and those kinds of things) is new and original. I know this may come as a surprise and a blow to your ego, but we're not quite as creative as we might think we are. I guess I've always appreciated reading and learning about history because there is so much that has happened years, decades, and centuries ago that we wrestle with today as if they are totally new issues. I'm not diminishing the importance of contextualization or time and space. What I do want to say is that we've got a great deal to learn from the stories of others, especially those who have come before us.

Historical events and happenings aren't quite as static as we might think. The stories (or more often story) we learn about is limited. It's partial. There is always more. There are many more actors. The United States in the 1770s didn't consist of only a handful of pretty smart guys. That holds true for any other time as well. It's just that we don't learn about all of those folks at the same time. History is done, something simply to be documented. It's alive. This is another reason history is so fascinating to me: it's continually unfolding. Some of the work I'm doing these days is digging deeper into a part of American history that has been uniformly categorized. People, in that time, acted this way. However, I'm finding out something so different that it's almost difficulty to situate it then, in that period. But that's where it belongs. It's part of the larger narrative. But getting to that larger narrative is so vitally important.

Just as we need to recognize the fears that have shaped American society for so long, we must put that knowledge--those stories--into conversation with what's going on in our world today. It's this ongoing, unfolding conversation and engagement with different times and people that we acknowledge our little spot in this amazing thing called human history.