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A Birthday (Re)Blog and Semi-Autobiography: Introducing the Futures Initiative

A Birthday (Re)Blog and Semi-Autobiography: Introducing the Futures Initiative

AUTHOR'S NOTE:  By way of introduction to anyone who does not know me, here is an autobiographical blog I posted yesterday, on my birthday,  on my trade author blog .  It begins to explain some of the history and the principles that have led to my moving to The Graduate Center CUNY to direct  the Futures Initiative.   

I hope this personal essay might inspire others in our Futures Initiative Group to introduce themselves, too.


June 21, 2014:   Today is my birthday. If I were bored with being an educator, I well could have taken early retirement today. I held my first job at thirteen, at Doretti’s Drugstore, thirty-five hours a week, right across the street from where I attended my 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 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.   It was a decision point.  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 I had ideas about what universities really needed to do to restructure learning for the present.  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 and my deepest intellectual love (unrequited for decades) is 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 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 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 stepped down as Vice Provost at Duke in 2006 and spent the next few years reading and writing Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Penguin, 2011), and then embarked on a book tour that took me to about 100+ stops.  I learned so  much!  And in 2012, back from the successful book tour, I decided to go the college president route, which I had eschewed before.  I spent an intense year talking with several executive search committees, spending days and weeks and months checking one another out to see if we thought there was the right fit.  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.  I felt it be 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.


That was when I called my friend Bill Kelly, then President of The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.   Before I made the decision to be publicly announced as a finalist, I wanted an insiders perspective.  I 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 the question I had asked myself back in 2004: did I really want to be a university president? That is the right question. Because it is an impossibly demanding job, you really shouldn't take it on unless you love it so much you are practically doing every waking hour and even in your sleep (not that there is much of that as a college president). And I am not exactly known for doing any job half way.

I told Bill that I thought I would love about half of the job of being a president.  Most people think presidential fundraising would be awful but that’s a 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 people who, as John believed and I came to, actually wanted their money to go to something worthwhile. On the other hand, I anticipated some parts of the president’s job at a residential university (I won’t say what that half includes) that I knew I might be able to do okay but that would be unappealing to me and would drain energy from the part that kept me burning brightly. 

Bill asked what part that would be, what part of being a college president did I cherish most?  I answered quickly, maybe too quickly:  working with  faculty and students to think through higher education reform, I said without hesitation.  What I would 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 great platform from which to explain how much of what we do now in higher education we've inherited from systems devised mostly in the early twentieth century for the Industrial Age of that time.   We now have a different way of compartmentalizing or decompartmentalizing human life than the Taylorist world for which modern education trains us.  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 president means, pretty precisely, that you lead an entire institution, you do not particularize any one situation within it except as it serves the whole.

Bill asked the next big question: if you 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 not simple at all.  I have enough experience in higher ed to know the vision of a central administrator, even the college president, has to go through a lot of permutations to be realized--and many such visions never are.    Still, the idea was so immediately appealing that  I withdrew from the presidential search at the large state university that day,  from my mobile phone outside The Graduate Center.  I soon notified the executive search firms that I wanted to concentrate all my energies on this tantalizing possibility and did not wish to be considered for further top executive 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 another, and thus was worth taking the chance. 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. They worked to make this happen. I had doubts. That’s a lot of uncertainty. Louise was amazing, reassuring, tireless.  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, working with those graduate students, with faculty and administrative colleagues, to think through the best new ways to teach and learn in the world we live in now.   It has 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 we now have. 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 thriled, 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.” I’ll write a bit about ideas for that later. 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 and then with family in Colorado).   He 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!


Author photo:  In my new office, with some empty shelves to fill!



Wow, I am excited for you! I'm excited for the future of education! What a thrilling time for you to be able to pour all of your energy and enthusiasm toward a movement that means so much to you and to others. I personally, am very excited to watch you progress! I have had the same dreams of educational reform that you presented in your MOOC class. The time for change is long overdue. Thank you for your passion and your drive to bring about that change. Oh, and happy birthday!


Congratulations from tomorrow, where the future has already happened. I can report that it is a sunny day, and that a thousand global flowers are blooming and beautiful. 

Thank you again for the FutureEd MOOC, and for the community that I found there and am still in contact with. I hope that you and your work will continue to be visible from here and from all other corners of the world.


Congratulations from tomorrow, where the future has already happened. I can report that it is a sunny day, and that a thousand global flowers are blooming and beautiful. 

Thank you again for the FutureEd MOOC, and for the community that I found there and am still in contact with. I hope that you and your work will continue to be visible from here and from all other corners of the world.


I'm thrilled.   It is such a formidable job that I feel I cannot fail----winning, really, is listening, listening, listening.  Winning is finding others, such as both of you, who have similar dreams and learning from one another.  Winning is providing models that others, voluntarily, can learn from, and maybe making a movement of the willing, the eager, the excited, the energized, and those optimistic enough to think change is possible and realistic enough to realize you have to take every victory and celebrate it . . .    because there's lots not to celebrate!    So thank you for being part of that process already and, of course, back at you!