Posted & filed under Blog

Today is my birthday. If I were bored with being an educator, I well could have taken early retirement today. Instead I’m embarking on one of the most challenging and thrilling positions I have held in my career, directing the Futures Initiative at The Graduate Center, for the City University of New York.  There’s been a good bit of press about this, but I’ve not really written about it in my own words.   A birthday is a great time to reflect in an autobiographical sense.


I’ve had an unusually long career.  I held my first job at thirteen, at Doretti’s Drugstore, thirty-five hours a week, right across the street from where I attended middle school. I looked old for my age, it was easier to slip by back then, and I worked it. I taught my first college class at a young age too, when I was twenty-four, right after turning in a hastily-written dissertation that I thought would be my farewell ode to academic life. I did not like graduate school or academic culture very much. There you go. I didn’t know how much I would love teaching and learning. Still, that’s a long time as an educator.  And I came to a decision point in my career.  My time at Duke has been incredible.  It’s a great institution, and I have truly loved my colleagues and students. But I never expected to stay twenty-five years.  A landmark, surely.  A time to reflect.  Our house in Durham was just about paid off.  It had been a good, long life of work.  There is lots in the world I have not yet seen or done, lots I’d still love to do.   And yet I love teaching and (as I’ve been accused in the press a time or two) I happen to love my students, now, more than I ever have. I’m suspicious of generational logics, but not of history. These kids face incredible challenges, their world is complex and so is their information, their new ways of learning and interacting, the new fears they face on the way to an education and on the way to adulthood. Yes, I stand accused: I love working with these young people. So instead of tossing in the towel, I put my hat in the ring.  I let two executive search head-hunting firms know I would consider a presidency or, perhaps, a provost position. To my surprise, eight universities nominated me to be their leader.


It’s humbling when people you have never met stand willing to put their future in your hands.   Once before, when I was Duke University’s (and the nation’s, as it is said) first full-time Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, a new concept to designate a person and a role for integrating learning across all of the colleges and professional schools of a university, I was honored to have several universities, including my own, approach me about being a president. At the time, I felt I wanted to do something different, though.  I was tired of central administration and was eager to return to scholarship and to teaching.  I had ideas about what universities really needed to do to restructure learning for the present.  I had put several of those in place as an administrator but I was eager to really try them out in the classroom, and I wanted to dive deeply, to understand teaching and learning for this world we live in now.  I felt like my experience as Vice Provost and my own abilities and experience put me in a unique position to really get a handle on the cognitive challenges of learning in the early twenty-first century. I have spent most of my academic life as a cultural historian of technological change.  Starting long before that, my deepest intellectual love (unrequited for decades) has been in the field of Artificial Intelligence.   Very dormant, yet still a hobby.   One of my undergraduate majors was in something we then called “quantificational logic” and that now would be, what?  Machine learning, predicate logic, modeling language?  A lot of chicken scratching, as we called it, in my bachelor’s thesis on predication, Peirce’s Thirdness, and implications for the Peirce geodesic papers just discovered in a Harvard basement (don’t ask).  I understand the deep under-structures of code (even though my own programming is terrible) and I understand the under-structures of academic institutions and of learning.  Working to think through and implement Duke’s relationship to new technologies was part of my charge as Vice Provost as was helping to create our program in Cognitive Neuroscience. I felt I had more to offer by immersing myself in the history and future higher education—and finding better modes for the world we live in now—than in presiding over an existing institution.

That was in about 2004 I spent a few years researching Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. In 2012, back from a successful book tour, I decided it really might be time to go the college president route.  I spent a lot of time talking with search committees where we each took the measure of the other.  In 2013, there was a real possibility, a wonderful opportunity to preside at a great, innovative public university.  I was about to have my name released as one of the finalists for the position.  It would have been insulting to go through all the public exercises this particular state required of its finalists without being certain I would accept the presidency if offered. I called my friend Bill Kelly, then President of The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and asked if I could come visit him to talk about his life as the head of a fine public university that he had led with such vision and so much humanity.   I knew he would help me make this life decision.


Bill asked me a candid question, the same one I had asked myself back in 2004: did I really want to be a university president? Because it is an impossibly demanding job, unless it is something you truly want to do, you should not do it. And I am not exactly known for doing any job half way. It was the right question to ask. I told Bill that I thought I would love much of the job of being a president.  Most people think presidential fundraising would be awful but that’s one part of the job I knew I would relish and be good at.   At Duke, I’d worked with a genius head of development (that would be the legendary John Piva of Duke, an extraordinary man); I loved raising money for worthy programs from fortunate people who, as John believed and I came to, actually wanted their money to go to something worthwhile in the world. Still, there were other obligations as president at a residential university (I won’t say what that half includes) that I knew I would do okay but that would be unappealing to me and would drain energy from the part that kept me burning brightly.

Bill asked a second question:  what part that would be?  What part of being a college president did I cherish most?  I answered without hesitation: higher education transformation.   What I would most love would be the opportunity of  working with the smartest, most dedicated faculty and students to think through new models for just about everything: learning, teaching, disciplines, credentials, assessment, leadership, the integration of knowledge and work and the integration of knowledge and life and the integration of work and life, altogether, in a world where all those distinctions blur every time we turn on a mobile device.  Being a college president would be a platform for helping people to see how we need to change the systems of higher education we’ve inherited from the early twentieth century.  We now have a different way of compartmentalizing or decompartmentalizing human life than the Taylorist world for which modern education was designed to train us.  The world of the early twentieth century is not our world no.  It is so important, changing higher education because K-12 cannot change until higher education does.  No good middle-class parent will tamper with their child’s chance at success and success still means, by and large, higher education.  We are the gate keepers.  We have a lot of work to do.

I confessed to Bill that I thought being a university president would be an excellent platform for presenting these ideas but what I love most about being an educator is implementing them and it is a bad president who has her hands in the guts of the beast. You have to let others work out the intricacies for their particular situation and, as a president, the one thing you can never actually understand is the “particular situation.” Being a great president means, precisely, that you preside; you lead an entire institution; you do not particularize any one situation within it except as it serves the whole.

The conversation then led to another big question: if I could have any job in the world, what would it be?  I said I would love to be in a position to work with real faculty and real students to make real institutional change, on the level of pedagogy first and then working towards implementing and then modeling institutional change. Bill asked at what kind of university I would want to do that: a public institution. Easy question. It’s no secret that I’ve spent the last decade championing re-investment, as a society, in public education and the importance of affordable education to any possibility of social justice. It was at that point in our conversation, I believe, that I first used the term “crush school.”   I said something like, “The Graduate Center at CUNY has been my crush school ever since Eve (my dear late friend Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick) came here.” Bill, of course, recruited her. He was Chair of the English Department then.   It’s when I first became one of his legions of admirers.

“Why don’t you come here, then, and let’s see if we can make it happen.”

It was that simple. And of course not simple at all.  I know enough about the wishes of any administrator, even a college president, to know that just saying something doesn’t make it so.  There is a very long way through all the systems of faculty governance and beyond to make such an idea into a reality.  Still, I withdrew from the presidential search at the large state university that day, from my mobile phone standing outside The Graduate Center.  Soon after, I notified the executive search firms that I didn’t want to be considered for further positions.

That is a lot of faith to put in one quick conversation. But, hey! The Graduate Center is my crush school.  Somehow I  believed that the full unfolding, deliberative, faculty and administrative process would work for the best, one way or the other, and the very prospect of such a position put into relief for me the ways I really was not suited to the full task of being a college president.  I have worked with and for great college presidents and I respect what they do far too much to take the responsibility lightly.   I let myself be considered for a faculty position at The Graduate Center instead.  And the long process began.  I gave my first formal job talk in twenty-five years to the Department of English.  I met with many, many people.   During that year, Bill went on to be Interim Chancellor of the entire CUNY system. The Provost, Chase Robinson, became Interim President of the Graduate Center.  Louise Lennihan became Interim Provost.  That’s a lot of uncertainty. I had doubts.  Bill, Chase, and Louise worked to reassure me that The Graduate Center would support me, no matter what happened during the course of the year.  Louise was amazing, reassuring, tireless at hammering out various bureaucratic details and arrangements (the MacArthur grants, the NSF grant, etc).  Equally, as I talked to many people, I came to realize just how unique The Graduate Center is, what a remarkable institution it is beyond the individuals I already knew. The English Department voted to make me a colleague. I was nominated to be a Distinguished Professor. The Board of Trustees will confer that title next week.


And I’ll start July 1 as Director of the Futures Initiative, dedicated to training the next generation of college professors.  It is a voluntary program–and, to me, that is essential.   I want to work with those graduate students, with faculty and administrative colleagues, who are eager to think, together, about the best new ways to teach and learn in the world we live in now.  The Futures Initiative is rooted in a simple and yet huge premise: that certain tools change human capacities so profoundly that we need to be retrained for the responsibilities and challenges they give us.  I believe that was the case in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, when mass printing and machine-made paper and ink provided abundant new ways of communicating and receiving ideas that did not depend on the preacher, teacher, or magistrate as an interpreter of the Bible or the psalm book that, in an earlier generation, your family might own. Compulsory public education was largely justified as a way of retraining working and middle-class people for a world that seemed both potentially unruly (all that unbridled print!) and that, because of Industrialization, depended upon the re-regulation of humanity to the demands, rhythms, and clock-time compartmentalizations of the machine. The role of literacy and education in both slavery and “wage slavery” were one side of that; in other ways, and in different arguments, so was the role of literacy and education in the rise of the middle class, corporatism, female suffrage, and democracy. Etc.


I believe that on April 22, 1993, when the Mosaic 1.0 browser was released to the general public, we suddenly gained one of those remarkable and challenging new human capacities: suddenly we could think an idea and communicate that idea to anyone else in the world who happened to have access to an Internet connection, instantaneously and without an editor. It was the most rapid and far-reaching technological change in human history. By one plausible estimate, Internet usage increased 250,000 percent between April 22 and December 31 of 1993.  The far-reaching challenges, possibilities, and dangers of that tool (including, in incredibly complex ways, the way it facilitated neo-liberalism’s cruel economic redistributions of wealth and disruption of a sense of shared civic responsibility) seem, to me, to require a profound readjustment in the systems of higher education designed mostly between about 1865 and 1925 for the challenges of the previous Industrial, information age. In the US (and also internationally), the post-Humboldtian research university and the liberal arts are all reshaped by an apparatus in higher education every bit as rigid as Taylor’s scientific labor management. And, as it turns out, Taylor was there as the first professor hired by Tuck, at Dartmouth, the first school to offer a master’s degree in business, to make the connection overt.


A lot of water has passed under the higher education bridge in a hundred years but very little of the compartmentalization, standardization, credentialing, disciplinary division, and so forth that we’ve inherited and institutionalized with almost maniacal bureaucratic regulatory compulsion works very well for a world where (at present) anyone with an Internet connection can communicate to anyone else with an Internet connection instantaneously and without an editor. And of course in uploading all that data, we are all vulnerable in new ways–to be spied upon, commercialized, penalized, and held responsible for that communication, day or night, home or leisure, at work or at play:  what do any of those divisions even mean anymore? 


Someone at our local gym was amazed to discover that worms at the little fisherman’s stand in Mebane, North Carolina, were raised in China. Last night, our friend Peter Limbrick told me  how his brother in New Zealand is part of company that raises flowers to be shipped overnight to florists in LA or in Kyoto for traditional ikebana, naturally out of season.  A, B, C, D or none of the above is a poor proxy for learning how to negotiate and thrive in and champion the innovations or challenge the injustices in this world of global worms and flowers.


So on to the Futures Initiative.  I’m thrilled, I’m honored, I’m excited.  It couldn’t have happened without Bill Kelly, without Louise Lennihan, and Chase Robinson, without all those people who voted for me in the departments and committees. Thank you, dear colleagues. And, lucky me, Bill has even let me talk him into team-teaching with me next Spring, the first course in the Futures Initiative, “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education.”  We don’t have a game plan. Except, of course, to listen and learn together.   That’s what we have been doing now for over a decade at HASTAC–a free, open community, no dues, no abuse of anyone’s data, anyone who joins can become a leader, simply by sharing and participating.  Who would have guessed that, one day, we would have over 15,000 network members dedicated to “learning the future together.”  That’s the syllabus.  Learning together.   I’ll write a bit about  some ideas  for great ways to listen and learn together.  The prospect is breathtaking. I could not be more excited.


And none of this could not have happened without Ken. What a two weeks we have had, making a halting, jumbled entrance to NY (interrupted by six days on business representing the humanities, social science, education, and diversity among some really exciting supercomputing scientists and then with family in Colorado).   Ken is beginning a daunting new life as Editorial Director of Duke University Press based in New York. He’s sharing management duties with his wonderful colleague Courtney Berger at Duke UP but is mostly based out of beautiful new offices in the Graduate Center but away from his respected and beloved colleagues in Durham.   He’ll be directing a program, Intellectual Publics, at the GC too.   For the last week, we’ve gone to our respective offices every day, unpacking boxes, figuring out new systems, getting enrolled in this or that program, all the daunting bureaucracies and technologies of beginning. Meanwhile, my wonderful colleagues at HASTAC and the Duke part of the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition, who are also staying at Duke, have been leading our latest launch of a DML Competition (“The Trust Challenge”: talk about timely) and we’ve been communicating by Skype and Jabber and Google Docs and conference calls.    We still laugh a lot on the phone. It’s not the same.  We’re all adjusting.


It will be exciting soon.   Once we get past the tedium and exhaustion of start-up and, oh, yes, preparing the interminable forms and files for a mortgage and the Coop Board.  If all goes well, at the end of July we’ll move into a one bedroom apartment.  That’s the opposite of a stretch.  It’s a shrink, from a Durham bungalow to a lovely but very small apartment in Gramercy Park. We got rid of so much.   It wasn’t nearly enough. We know that.


Fitting all that robust jumble of a past into this new life is the problem and the prospect.   Daunting and thrilling, thrilling and daunting.


It’s a lot. I’m glad it is the longest day of the year. We’ll need every minute. It’s a good way to celebrate a birthday.  Very good.  To the Futures!

Leave a Reply

(will not be published)
Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

Follow Cathy