Shaping the Next Generation of Leaders in Education

CUNY's Futures Initiative helps grad students develop as teachers and learners

It’s practically impossible to stroll through a quadrangle or attend a campus workshop series nowadays without hearing the word “innovation.” Unfortunately, sometimes it’s just another buzzword that’s bandied about without a lot of actual institutional impact, or, all too often, a concept that involves only a privileged few.

Neither problem applies to the City University of New York’s Futures Initiative. Founded in 2014, it is a program that advocates both authentic innovation and equity. According to Cathy Davidson, the Initiative’s founding director and a distinguished professor of English at CUNY’s Graduate Center:  “Normally when we think of innovation in higher education, we think of extremely well-funded programs for typically wealthy students who plan on going into jobs at the very top of the technology world. Not necessarily innovation that serves the good for the most people. Our credo is that unless your innovation has equity built into it, it’s not really innovation.”

“Our credo is that unless your innovation has equity built into it, it's not really innovation.”

Housed at the Graduate Center and reaching across the CUNY community, the Futures Initiative has four core methods, all of which overlap: The first is student-centered pedagogy, which emphasizes peer learning, peer mentorship, and student agency. As Davidson says, “We know the transmission model of learning where the professor stands up and just lectures to students is extremely ineffective as a pedagogical tool for learning after the exam is over, and very, very ineffective for the student to learn in a complex, adaptive way in a changing world. So all of our pedagogies are about basically learning how to learn. How you take methods, how you take ideas, and how you run with them and apply them.”

The second method is closely related: leadership development, which involves equipping graduate students with the tools to connect learning and meaningful research to the wider world in creative ways and to expand their career possibilities. The program aims to support the next generation of college professors — but also to reach undergraduates and show them that they can be leaders as well.

The Initiative’s third method is advocacy. The program is charged with promoting institutional change, social justice, and reinvestment in public education as a public good, a charge it often carries out through the use of the fourth method, technology. All of these approaches involve using network and communications tools to build community, help encourage access, and share work beyond the classroom.

The very first class offered by the Futures Initiative, “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education,” exemplified the core values of the program’s mission. The class had 14 graduate students, who analyzed research on cognition and learning assessment, and effective classroom methodologies. All of the graduate students in the class had to be teaching a class elsewhere at CUNY, and so they would implement what they’d learned in their own classrooms each week. Effectively, this meant that there were more than 300 undergraduate students who were involved in the class, Katina Rogers, the director of administration and programs, recalls, “Students from different colleges could get a glimpse of what was happening in the other classes through the website that we had set up.”

Each class was also challenged to come up with a collaborative project that would "give back" to New York City in some way.

The undergrads, says Davidson, “would give us feedback, on the spot. They were co-developers in new ways of thinking about education as a public good.” Each class was also challenged to come up with a collaborative project that would “give back” to New York City in some way. An art history class at Brooklyn College, a theater course at Hunter College, and a music course at City College of New York each created directories of free, public cultural offerings available that semester in their borough. The students designed handbills in multiple languages and distributed them at bodegas, food trucks and community centers. This kind of project, Davidson says, “tells students what I do matters in the world — it’s not just about getting an ‘A’ in the class. If you make handbills in different languages, and you get results from that, and you see people getting excited, you realize that you’re not just a little tiny cog in an educational machine. You’re an actor in the world. Your learning makes a difference in other people’s lives. I don’t think there’s a better lesson to teach.”

In addition to that class, the Futures Initiative has had multiple accomplishments. In 2015 the Graduate Center submitted a grant to the Mellon Foundation that formed the Humanities Alliance, which created a partnership between the Futures Initiative and LaGuardia Community College for teaching and learning. “Even though graduate students often wind up teaching at community colleges after they finish their PhDs,” says Rogers, “there are very few programs that structurally work to connect graduate education and community college teaching. So this is a new program that tries to do that. It pairs graduate students from the Graduate Center with master faculty at LaGuardia to learn about what is specific about teaching in a community college like LaGuardia, where there are some 120 native languages that students speak in their homes, many students who are first-generation.”

The Initiative also obtained a grant from the Teagle Foundation to support peer mentoring across all the CUNY campuses. Called “Liberal Arts for the New Majority,” this multi-layered peer mentorship program connects liberal arts teaching and learning with the mission of public higher education and the needs of the “new majority” of undergraduate students (these are “non-traditional” college students who currently make up more than half of all students pursuing post-secondary education in the United States today. Many have limited financial resources and often attend part-time classes while working or caring for children or other family members). 

The program also supports graduate students’ development as both teachers and learners. Doctoral students learn to take their research and both use it in and to create foundational, introductory courses for undergraduates. Those students in turn become mentors and leaders who help other students make their way both practically and intellectually through foundational courses (which ordinarily have the highest dropout rates).

The project aims to help graduate students understand their role as teachers of introductory courses and trains successful undergraduates to be peer mentors – allowing all the participants to learn to become leaders. “More advanced students who are doing well mentor beginning students,” says Davidson. “They might say, ‘here’s how I balance my full-time job with school,’ or “here’s how I handle my child-care duties with my studying.’ To have one student say, ‘I’ve made it, and I can help you, too,’ is incredibly invaluable.”

The Futures Initiative also developed a public programming series of events, called “The University Worth Fighting For,” that tie student-centered pedagogical practices to institutional change and social justice. The series focuses on race, gender, diversity, equity, and inequality – and challenges participants to think deeply about change in higher education. The events are live-streamed and accompanied by Twitter chats. A graduate student chooses the topic, finds the speakers, organizes the event, makes sure all the technology is up and running and does everything that’s needed. “We really want our students to take the lead in planning things,” says Davidson.

All of these accomplishments — and its many others — have meant that the Futures Initiative has, in just a short time, exceeded the expectations of those involved in creating, planning, and implementing it. Davidson says the success of the Futures Initiative has been remarkable: “None of us thought it would have this kind of impact this quickly.” Looking ahead, she says that she hopes “I can’t see what’s going forward. I hope it is always this nimble, this spontaneous, that we can continue to run with things. If you’ve got a five-year plan, you’re probably not an innovator.”