I Bleed CUNY Blood

Image of Free CUNYWell, this past Friday was a real blast for me on many levels. First, I returned CUNY which was my old stomping ground for over 10 years, a place where I met some amazing people (many of whom are still there and leading the edtech charge), had way too much fun, and faced some of my most difficult years struggling with my relationship to academia. I spent a decade in the English Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center, I struggled to get to “ABD” status and even put two-and-a-half chapters of a dissertation on paper, only to officially leave the program in 2007. I’m still not entirely sure why I left the Ph.D.—and many have pointed out how stupid a choice it was—but I do know the self-doubt and eternal guilt that comes with that process had worn thin on me, not to mention the ironic fact that as a blogger and instructional technologist I was finding I was far more prolific and invested in the work I was doing than I ever had been as a Ph.D. student. It’s funny, but my training at CUNY uniquely prepared me for the work I am now doing as an instructional technologist, nonetheless when I made what was then the difficult decision to leave the Ph.D. I thought it would be one I would live to regret and beat myself up over for the rest of my life.

And I’ve been waiting for almost two years for the self-loathing and reproach to kick-in, but strangely enough it hasn’t yet. Maybe I am in denial, but more likely I think I haven’t regretted my decision for the simple fact that I love what I do as an instructional technologist, and it turns out people think I’m half-way decent at it—which is a first for me. Instructional technology is an amorphous, rapidly changing space that is more appropriate to my sloppy writing and less than precise thinking, both of which are far better suited for this personal blog than a scholarly journal. Moreover, I’ve always been better at getting people excited about what they think and do, than actually framing some intelligent and painstakingly researched theory of the world. My role as an instructional technologist allowed me to build on my teaching experience, create stuff, share my enthusiasm, and engage in a form of praxis that is rare in the academy. In short, I stumbled into a truly fascinating and relatively uncharted field within the academy that has only just begun to be imagined and explored given the remarkable moment we are living through. It’s truly a frontier field that is premised on traditional scholarship, yet divergent from it at the same time in so many simultaneously exciting and frightening ways.

But at this point in the post you might be thinking to yourself, “Hey, Ego-boy, what’s with the biography? How about some CUNY WordCampEd goodness for Christ’s sake?” Well, the two for me are so intimately tangled in my mind because returning to CUNY to talk about WordPress with a group of over 100+ CUNY faculty and technologists—all of whom were chomping at the bit for open source alternatives—was something I couldn’t have imagined three-and-half years ago when I l eft NYC under financial and personal duress (much of which is still with me, guess some things you can’t ever escape 🙂 ) Much less, a year and a half ago when I became a Ph.D. drop-out. Being invited back to CUNY to talk about this stuff and provide a vision—however meager—for the possible future of instructional technology at CUNY might very well be the highlight of my professional career (while at the same time so deeply personal).

My excitement over this talk is not simply for the prodigal son and drop-out makes good narratives that are rolled up in all of this for me, though they are definitely there and I openly admit that. But also, and more importantly, because CUNY is such a remarkable place, and I think that is something you can only know if you have spent a certain amount of time there and labored at one, or several, of their 22 campuses and taught a tiny fraction of the over 150,000+ students from the  largest and most diverse public, urban university system in the US, and possibly the world. CUNY has all the trimmings of the “best kind of dysfunctional family/love relationship” (to quote Luke Waltzer): it’s a huge bureaucracy, it is grossly under-funded, a number of campuses are literally falling-apart, there are unforgivable disparities between those campuses that have and have-not, it’s an adjunct factory, and a starting professor’s salary can barely cover their rent. But, despite all this, CUNY is New York City, it is representative of the most fantastically idealistic mission of education: provide a public system that will accept and educate anyone who has the will to learn.

From community colleges, to four-year campuses, masters degrees, law degrees, and Ph.D.’s, CUNY provides a wide range of amazing programs to the inhabitants of New York City for a fee that is unbelievably affordable when compared to just about any other public institution of higher education in the nation. And for many of the students at CUNY, and a large majority of the professors who work with them, this mission is key to that relationship. It is the very nature of that compelling attraction that makes all the dysfunction and undeniably insane machinations of a system that is far too big somehow deeply intimate, personal and rewarding. What happens at CUNY is not a luxury of wealth made possible by bountiful endowments, but a fundamental belief in the idea that everyone in the world’s greatest city has the right to a college education that is both affordable and meaningful. An education for all classes of the city; a university system premised on the possibilities of any and every one, and one that is willing to forego financial and academic discrimination to attain it. Now such a mission for a campus this large is impossible to understand at the aggregate level, it can only manifest through the relationships between people, and it is precisely there that CUNY is richer than any other university system in the US—which given the nature of New York City’s population is comprised of some of the most fascinating, unique, and truly remarkable stories you could find anywhere.  A truly heterogeneous and polyglot  system that couldn’t be further from the archetypal image of college framed by bucolic, ivy-festooned campuses—CUNY is a bustling, non-stop engine of difference and change, a space where populations and cultures from campus to campus may be as different as they are from country to country.

And that, for me, is the promise of this past Friday’s CUNY WordCampEd, the personal relationships that fuel the best part of this university system brought together on a significantly smaller scale to imagine the possibilities of an open source CUNY, a CUNY that is not only re-investing in people rather than corporations to steer the future of education for this space, but a vision of imagining the technology as a way to make visible and accessible the work happening at the most diverse collection of urban campuses in the nation. A vision of open education that trumps courseware or videos or blog posts, a vision that brings 22 disparate campuses into some real communication with one another fueled by a community that believes in the irrefutable value of open, affordable, and relevant education in the 21st Century.  For all those ready and willing to open up CUNY, I salute you! We all salute you!

Image credit: Sreed99342’s CUNY

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19 Responses to I Bleed CUNY Blood

  1. I still remember hanging out (online) at CUNY back in the late 80’s – IIRC, they had the best Gopher and WAIS servers. Back before we had the shiny WordPress stuff you cool kids seem to be fond of these days…

  2. Reverend says:

    See I can count on you to frame a past I have no access to, amazing to think it was on the leading edge and got so completely sucked into the Microsoft/BlackBoard bermuda triangle of innovation 🙂

  3. Matt says:

    Unbelievable post, Jimmy, one that could only have come from someone deeply in sync with the beautiful promise and the turbulent reality of the CUNY system. This is not just a blog post — it’s an anthem.

    Thank you for inspiring all of us, and please come back soon.

  4. ah. I’d forgotten – SUNY was another huge player back in the day. There must have been something in the New York water supply back then…

  5. Boone says:

    Here’s a thought. At some schools, faculty members’ teaching duties are driven by the money that the university pours into their bank accounts and their research projects. That money doesn’t exist at CUNY. At other schools, faculty members have a lot in common with their students from a cultural or economic point of view. But the extreme range of students at CUNY ensures that this demographic camaraderie isn’t driving faculty. In short, a lot of the things that might normally drive the faculty-student relationship at other institutions don’t exist at CUNY. That makes CUNY a kind of laboratory for figuring out just what lies, or ought to lie, at the core of that relationship. Kant and respect for persons, or some shit like that. Anyway, rock on CUNY!

  6. Mikhail says:

    Wow. What a great, great post, Jim. You really capture what so many of us love about the CUNY system, dysfunctional relations and all. What is happening in CUNY edtech now — the thinking and the doing that you celebrated in your remarkable keynote and that I am so proud to be involved in — makes sense for CUNY on a number of important levels, not the least of which is the celebration of the generative character of openness that has characterized CUNY in so many aspects save for one crucial one: instructional technology. Maybe the technology has finally caught up — maybe the social web is a key to realizing an ideal fundamental to this University that until now seemed out of reach.

  7. Jim, great last chapter for Crime and Punishment! Or is it Crimes and Misdemeanors? Well, I like this tough decision-making, and I respect it very much. It reminds me of a close friend who left an embarrassingly-almost-finished PhD in English-something because he understood his future was in the law. So he became a lawyer.
    And we dream about opening a restaurant one of these days!

  8. This was an amazing post for me to read right now, while I feel deeply in love with my students (I’m reading the finals for my Intro to Sociology class at Baruch, and they rocked so hard), and deeply ambivalent about my whole PhD project. I’m going to be spending the summer thinking through a lot of things related to what you wrote here, and I know I’ll come back to this post to help me think about them.

    I’m really sorry I missed this event on Friday; open source + tech + CUNY covers a lot of my brainspace, plus I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in the ITP program with lots of the fine folks you already know or had a chance to meet on Friday.

    Thanks again for writing this and for everything else edupunkly.

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  10. Kate Moss says:

    Hey Jim!

    I’m convinced there’s nothing out there like CUNY. Anywhere.

    Thanks for your contribution on Friday (and to Matt, Mikhail, Joe and everyone else who made CUNY WordCampEd happen!)

  11. Reverend says:

    I feel your pain, and all I can say is sometimes the tortured questions are the most important to struggle with in grad school. But more than anything, I see that Ph.D. programs often choke as much life out of folks as they do infuse people with an intense amount of focused expertise. And that line is a weird one to walk, and I guess refusing the beat down while getting the degree has it’s real value, though the beat down was too much for me after a while.

    I agree with that, CUNY is unique in so many regards—most of which are good. And I have to see it was great to see you again after more than four or five years, and let’s face it—we are tech fellow alum, and you are as much a part of this explosion as anyone. The year of the 2004 ITFs will go down in history 🙂

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  16. Jim G says:

    Those of us in SUNY have always known how important CUNY was. This post says it all. To all my friends in CUNY keep up the great work.

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