Yesterday, I addressed this year’s graduates from the American Culture program (where I did my undergraduate work) at the University of Michigan and their families. My remarks are below.
University of Michigan
American Culture Graduation Luncheon
April 27, 2018
It’s my honor and pleasure to join you today to celebrate this year’s graduates from the American Culture program. I’d like to thank the program for giving me this opportunity to reflect upon my time here and how it has influenced the path I’ve traveled over the past twenty years. This has been a welcome experience, though it has also made me feel decidedly middle-aged.
To the graduates: congratulations on your accomplishments, and welcome to the next phase of your journey! An exhilarating future awaits each of you. I want to acknowledge and celebrate your friends and families for the love and support they’ve provided you during your time in Ann Arbor. The networks of support that have helped you get to this moment will continue to be crucial and sustaining as you move forward in your lives.
Ultimately, though, it’s your own internal momentum, values, and curiosity that will be most responsible for propelling you forward.
I remember getting the question that many of you have probably been fielding for at least a couple of months now:
What can you do with a degree in American Culture?
There’s no single answer to that question. There’s no wrong answer to that question. There’s no easy answer to that question.
Perhaps as much if not more than any other course of study that you may have chosen to pursue here, a degree in American Culture is a reflection of your distinct qualities. It’s a sign that you’re curious. It’s a sign that you seek to engage with rather than shirk from complexity. It’s a sign that you’re attuned to questions of power, and of representation. It’s a sign that you have a politics. And it’s proof that that you are deeply committed to understanding how community and society function in this deeply flawed country.
These qualities — the qualities that drove you to select this major, which is at its core an interdisciplinary one — are the qualities that will carry you forward in your lives and in your careers. This is not a utilitarian major, designed to prepare you for a specific outcome or path. Rather, this major has been designed to ground you in a set of questions and methodologies that can shape how you understand and engage with the world around you.
So, my answer to that question, which is often presented with no small amount of skepticism, is: what can’t you do with an American Culture major?
Of course I didn’t know any of this when I chose to study American Culture, or when I sat in your chairs as a graduate twenty years ago. I landed in the major after wandering intellectually and socially for my first couple of years in Ann Arbor. My freshman year I had attended the Residential College, which I had selected for the sense of community it fostered and its small class sizes. I didn’t connect, however, either with the curriculum — which was built entirely around foreign language study — or with my classmates, and drifted out of the RC.
Over the next two semesters I explored several disciplines. Anthropology. Linguistics. Sociology. Literature. I took introductory courses in each of these fields, but nothing sustained my interest or tapped into my passions. My sophomore year I felt somewhat alienated by the culture on campus. I was bored with frat parties, and not interested in attending football games. I didn’t really have the sense of belonging that I had expected to develop in college.
I spent that time reading and listening to music and watching movies and arguing with friends about ideas. And playing basketball. My sophomore year I joined an intramural basketball team of guys who shared my interests. We called ourselves “Bad Street.” We were more than the sum of our scruffy parts, and were doing well in our lower-tier division in the Intramural Rec League until… until… by a glitch in the scheduling, we somehow got matched up with the football team’s intramural basketball team. It did not go well. I think one of our players is still in the hospital. While we had been spending our time reading and arguing and partying, these guys had been running wind sprints and lifting.
We took our lumps and got through it, and were proud that we had a story. Personally, that team was the most connected to a community I had felt since I had arrived on campus, and I wondered if I might also be able to find that kind of connection intellectually and academically.
I started taking courses in American Culture my sophomore year. I was interested in history, but my experience with history to that point had been through courses that explored the past almost entirely for its own sake, focusing on political history and elites. This history lacked the vibrancy and connectedness to the world that I wanted to better understand and engage with.
I then took Kristen Hass’s American Values course at the same time as a modern US History Survey taught by Andy Achenbaum, and began to see in new ways how history was constructed and contested, the ways in which it was both accessible and unknowable. I wanted to spend more time thinking about these questions, about social and cultural history, about history from the bottom up.
I became an American Culture major though because I had support from two American Culture graduate students, who were program advisors in the program at that time — Ariella Zeller and Chris Bass. They helped me envision what the next two years would look like if I selected the major, how I might synthesize my various interests into a coherent course of study. Most importantly, they made me feel comfortable and supported in ways that I hadn’t felt up until that point.
In my junior year I took June Howard’s methods course, the first time I experienced what a graduate seminar looked like. There were ten of us — including a woman named Paula, who refused to date me, but who later became my beautiful and amazing wife (and who edited these remarks) — and we read and developed research papers together, with June guiding and pushing us with supportive skepticism. I took film and immigration and literature and ethnic studies courses, and found work as a researcher outside of school that made visible to me a potential future exploring creative approaches to the past.
In the winter of my junior year I met Matthew Countryman in a course he taught on the 1960s, and he became a mentor. Under his supervision, I wrote a senior honors thesis on the role of sportswriters in the integration of baseball, and won a research grant to spend a week digging through the archives at the Baseball Hall of Fame. For two years I had been engaging with scholarly ideas through my reading and classes, but not until I was sitting surrounded by boxes in Cooperstown did it dawn upon me just exactly what scholars could get away with, if they played their cards right.
That experience encouraged me to think about a career inside the university, which I’ve made, though I’ve traveled a nontraditional route— we call it “alt-ac,” or an “alternative academic career.” My experience in the American Culture program helped me do this, not by giving me a specific set of skills that I’ve applied, but rather by offering the opportunity to synthesize the things I was deeply interested in with the things I was deeply committed to. This program exposed me to interdisciplinarity. American culture heightened my skepticism of power, and introduced me to the tools necessary to understand and unmask it.
After graduating from Michigan and moving to New York, I worked as a consultant on digital history projects for textbook publishers and documentary film makers. After a couple of years, I entered graduate school at The Graduate Center at the City University of New York— CUNY — pursuing a Ph.D. in History, studying post-World War II American youth culture and policy. I was also drawn to opportunities to think about the ways that new digital tools were changing how we researched, taught, and communicated in the academy.
These opportunities were becoming more plentiful 10-15 years ago, and the digital work supported me as I taught history and wrote a dissertation. I completed my degree in 2008, just as the economy tanked. Faculty positions in history were even harder to find than usual— there were 4 jobs in 20th Century US History the year I graduated.
I had realized in graduate school that, though I loved history, I wasn’t willing or capable of moving my family anywhere for the opportunity to do it. It had become much more important for me to find meaningful work where I could act with a community of educators who shared my values, and where I could help an institution ethically and responsibly engage with the communities that it served.
At CUNY, this work is done in conversations about teaching and learning; about curriculum; about how we teach writing. And it’s also central to how we develop, deploy, and support the technology that we and our students use.
Work I had begun as a graduate student led to a position at Baruch College, also within the CUNY system, first as an educational technologist and then as an administrator. There, I directed two open source software development projects. One was a publishing platform built on WordPress where faculty and students could easily build course and other project sites on the open web. That platform is still going strong, a decade after we launched it, and has served approximately 30,000 students. The other project is media evaluation and assessment platform that allows faculty members to give students detailed feedback on presentation and other media content. Both these tools appealed to faculty who wanted to do their work on the open web, who wanted to control their data and for their students to be able to do the same, and who were skeptical of tools being pushed on universities by large software companies.
Eventually, I helped the college establish the infrastructure and policies to increase the amount of online and blended instruction it offered. Our strategy was built around making sure that faculty and students had the support they needed to pursue their teaching and learning goals as purposefully as they possibly could.
In 2015 I returned to the Graduate Center to found its Teaching and Learning Center, and where I am also on the faculty of the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy and Digital Humanities programs. My Center supports more than 3500 graduate students from more than 30 disciplines who teach 180,000 undergraduate students throughout the CUNY system each year. We think about how our programs can best prepare students for the world that awaits them. We think about how the teaching that our students do as they pursue their degrees prepares them — as it did me — for flexible work opportunities in their careers. We think about how to use digital tools to connect a university that spreads across five boroughs and 25 colleges. And we think about how we, as an institution central to the social, economic, and intellectual life of New York, can best serve the New Yorkers who look to our university as an engine of opportunity.
When looking back upon this path it’s clear to me that the same set of values, concerns, desires, and politics that drew me to major in American Culture at Michigan informed my choices. I continue to explore how power works in institutions, and wonder how that power might be redistributed to those whose lives are most impacted by the way the institutions function. I continue to revel in exploring ideas from multiple disciplinary perspectives, and seeking to integrate what’s most useful for my work about those methodologies. And I continue to think that playing basketball is a terrific conduit to community.
And so, to the class of 2018, I again say: what can’t you do with an American Culture degree? You’ve spent the past few years working with the faculty in this program and other students exploring questions that are fundamental for understanding how our nation works, and where and how it is does not. At this stage in your life you should have a billion questions that you want to answer, and untapped reserves of energy to start doing so. Some of you may have a clear sense of where you’re going, and some of you may need time to figure it out. Two decades from now, though, when you look upon that path you’ve traveled, I’m quite certain that you’ll see that the seeds of who you’ve become did indeed sprout during your time in Ann Arbor, and that this program helped to cultivate them.
Congratulations to you all. Enjoy this weekend, and enjoy your journey.