Higher education can be a powerful engine of equity and social mobility. Yet many of the structures of colleges and universities—including admissions offices, faculty hiring committees, disciplinary formations, institutional rankings, and even classroom pedagogies and practices of collegiality—rely on tacit values of meritocracy and an economy of prestige. For public universities like CUNY this tension can be especially problematic, as structurally-embedded inequities undermine the institution’s democratizing mission and values. It is no surprise that normative institutional structures correspond with normative formulations of sexuality, class, race, and gender such that sociocultural biases are built into the academy. This correspondence governs what counts as valuable intellectual work, and in doing so, it also overdetermines where and how and to whom resources accrue in the university. In other words, many academic structures actually undermine the values that we associate with possibilities for the most challenging and productive and diverse academic life.
In this course, we examine the purposes and principles of universities, especially public universities; consider whether various structures advance or undermine those goals; and imagine new possibilities for educational systems that weave equity into the fabric of all they do. We frame the tension between progressive academic values and conservative institutional structures in a number of ways: equity vs. elitism, public vs. private education, innovation vs. normative instruction, prestige vs. the public good. Our privileged methodology for considering the inequities and opportunities of university life will be queer of color and feminist materialist analyses, an interdisciplinary set of methods and methodologies that lend themselves to identifying, historicizing, and resisting institutional norms that produce queer-class-race-gender stratification in the university. Crucially, because these intellectual tools are themselves housed within institutional formations, they will be objects of our investigation as well as methods of analysis. We also draw on the relatively new field of Critical University Studies to frame the work of the course. Throughout, we will ask how our own educational experiences inform our work.
Our chief test-object, as well as our worksite, will be the public City University of New York system. CUNY is an ideal site for the production of place-based knowledge and pedagogical innovation using the methods just described, including a queer of color case study approach, for CUNY is a singular site of queer/race/class density within all of higher education. It is also an institution that provides models for structuring academic work according to the values of equity and democratic knowledge production. As final projects for the course, students may choose to use these models as a guide in designing undergraduate courses and innovative academic structures. Alternately, students may choose to write a final research paper. Students can also expect to blog on futuresinitiative.org throughout the semester, co-create part of the class syllabus, and make connections with CUNY colleagues and resources as part of their course work. Several course sessions will be open to the CUNY community and the broader public. We will use open educational resources to the extent possible.
Header photo from CUNY Rising Alliance