Reflections on Ken’s Big Bash

This weekend James Madison College at Michigan State sponsored a celebration of my father’s retirement after 43 years of teaching, research, and service at the university. It was a remarkable event, evidence of a special community and a transcendent academic career. Students who Ken taught in his first few years at Madison in the early 1970, and who had been back to East Lansing no more than a couple of times since, came to thank him for his influence. Wallace Jefferson, the former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, spoke of how my father’s course on public affairs and social policy challenged and refined his understanding of compassion, righteous and actionable anger, and truth, and how he’s carried that understanding forward in a stellar legal career. Adam Wright, a federal prosecutor in the Northern District of California, spoke of how my father influenced his historical imagination and drew him into a community that demanded much of him and propelled him to Harvard Law School and into practice. Dick Zinman, Ron Dorr, and Katie See spoke of building (and saving) a college with my father, of how they synthesized their disciplinary differences into a curriculum that structured student’s engagement with the world in a way that offered them a variety of paths to purposeful work. Sherman Garnett, the current dean of Madison and a former student, spoke of the enormous impact this generation of teacher-scholars had on the life of the college, and with admiration for the research on the Holocaust my father’s done over the past decade. Connie Hunt organized and presided over the weekend with great cheer and a steady watch; our family is deeply appreciative. Former student after student shared stories of Ken Waltzer’s classes, his feedback, his counseling and mentoring, and his impact.

Saturday was structured around three panels featuring former students discussing topics drawn from different areas of my father’s focus during his career at MSU. The first was on “Urban America Today,” and was convened by Dayne Walling, a Madison graduate, currently the mayor of Flint. The panel was first-rate. We heard about gentrification in Detroit, the evolving role of the Catholic church in Michigan’s cities, strategies for urban renewal around education, and the challenges of education reform in the current political and economic climate in the state. The third panel, convened by the political scientist Carrie Booth Walling, explored “History, Memoir, Testimonies, and Human Rights,” and we heard eloquent presentations of the research four students of my father’s have done on the Holocaust. We heard how he cultivated their work, and how he’s inspired a new generation of students to continue to look for and struggle with meaning in the Holocaust.

The presentations across each session were exactly what you hope for when you attend an academic conference: thoughtful, probing, contextualized, mixing reflections on process and product, generous, open to dialogue. There was pontification, but it was purposeful. Questions were answered and raised, and you got the sense of a community around Madison College, Jewish Studies at MSU (now in the able hands of Yael Aronoff), and my father’s work in the university as profoundly serious, committed, and engaged. This is something I always knew to be true, and yet seeing and participating in it congealed that knowledge in ways I’ll be chewing on for some time.

I was lucky to join three former Madison students on the second panel, which offered reflections on teaching and learning in a changing university. Deb Meizlish, the associate director of the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at Michigan, presided over presentations from Cheryl Maranto of Marquette University, Randy Magen of the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and myself, and we shared concerns about declining rhetorical and material support for higher education, technology, strategies to invigorate classroom instruction, and how being in the orbit of Madison College has shaped our particular approaches to these questions. Below are my remarks.

What a great weekend, what a great career, and what a tremendous way for Michigan State and James Madison College to celebrate it.

Remarks on Teaching and Learning in the University

My father’s career at Michigan State and James Madison College in particular have had a significant impact on my sense of the university, its purposes, and the role that an engaged academic can play in shaping how an institution functions.

My work at CUNY involves fostering conversations and experimentation about teaching, learning, and using technology within the university. I think with faculty on my campus at the level of the individual assignment, and I think with administrators about policy, resources, best practices, and emerging trends in higher education at the level of a 26 campus, 500,000 student university. I also spend much time in the spaces in-between, working with faculty and students on conceptualizing and implementing projects, courses, curricula, and strategies that create new opportunities for students to explore ideas or express themselves, and chances for faculty to experiment and evolve their pedagogical practices with and without technology.

One of the most exciting aspects of this work is that I get to do it in dialogue and concert with a cohort of folks who all consider themselves part of a broad “open education” movement, and who are deeply aware and protective of the historic role of CUNY in the life of the city and in the imagination of New York City’s working class. There’s a direct parallel between those folks and the interdisciplinary cohort of scholar teachers who formed the core of Madison, who we’ve been hearing about all weekend.

Open education, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, holds at its core the idea that access to education and educational resources should constantly be broadened, opened up. Among other things, that means pushing back against notions of artificial scarcity in certain realms of academic publishing. It means embracing open source technologies because of the freedoms they allow their users. It means embracing pedagogical practices that open curricula to interdisciplinary and experiential practices. And it means seeking and seizing moments of connection between what students are learning and the worlds around them.

Our work at CUNY and my place within that work is resonant with many of the ideas, values, and goals that have been at the heart of my father’s career at Michigan State. James Madison College in particular has played an outsized and perhaps a bit distorting role in my perception of what university life should be.

  • I grew up thinking faculty members everywhere had deep, sustained ties with their undergraduates, so it’s still a bit jarring to me to encounter faculty members who know little about their students and students who at the end of a semester don’t know the name of the person teaching their class.
  • I grew up taking for granted that everyone wrote a lot in college and took writing seriously, so when I work with faculty members who refuse to assign writing because of fear that they can’t possible read it all, or that students will simply plagiarize, or that “it’s the English department’s job to teach writing, not mine,” I cringe.
  • I grew up thinking that teaching and learning, that a liberal education, happened outside of and around the classroom as much as it did inside the classroom.
  • I grew up thinking faculty offices everywhere were converted dorm rooms.

Growing up in the orbit of James Madison College also gave me a strong sense of how community and a sense of belonging can intensify and contextualize the teaching and learning that happens in a large, public university. Building community at CUNY, where the vast majority of students commute to campus, is something that we constantly struggle with, and which requires ongoing care and attention, and technology is regularly implicated in that work.

  • Blogs@Baruch is an open source publishing platform I launched at Baruch in 2009. Based in WordPress, it’s a flexible space that has been integrated into a range of courses and co-curricular activities and provided a structure for a culture of writing, and dozens of communities of writers, to emerge on our campus.
  • Our largest community on Blogs@Baruch is around Freshman Seminar, where 1200 incoming students are blogging in a networked space in response to three prompts which ask them to reflect critically and creatively on their transitions to college.
  • Learning communities are connected to the Freshman Seminar experience, creating clusters of students who move together through several courses in their first year. Though they are not a replacement for the residential experience, learning communities address some of the disconnection that happens on a commuter campus. They can give student cohorts from which to explore course material, and they foster collaboration between faculty members and across disciplines in potentially exciting ways.
  • Faculty development seminars bring faculty members together into communities that reflect dialogically on pedagogy and classroom praxis. We’ve been working on developing hybrid courses across the discipline for the past year, and our process has been to carve out space for faculty members to articulate the risks and opportunities they see in changing their instructional modes, to construct assignments and assessment plans connected to specific learning goals, and to explore, select, and deploy the technologies they’ll be using in their courses. The communities that are forming in and across these seminars will become resources for the college as it determines how to go forward in the distance and blended learning space.

Another core component of my father’s career that is at the heart of my work at CUNY’s identity as a working-class, immigrant institution. Our mission is to serve the social (though not actual) descendants of the people who my father has spent much of his career studying. CUNY is very much the “people’s university,” one whose structures and values are grounded in the history of working class New York, and whose politics often revolve around how to protect or update that identity given swiftly changing political, economic, and cultural contexts.

Since I started at CUNY in 1999 the university has changed immensely. There have been concerted efforts to recruit accomplished researchers, to unify administrative and business process across the system, to raise the university’s public profile, to align the general education experience of students across the university, to address the implications of reducing state aid, and to sort through what it means that increasing numbers of our courses being taught by contingent faculty who are members of the same union as the tenure faculty members whose work they subsidize.

Each of these questions are huge, important and complicated, just like CUNY, and they each in their own way require reassessment and reassertion of the core values of the institution. We are going through trying times in public higher education. Scott Walker is attempting to eviscerate the Wisconsin system. Governors like Daniel Malloy in Connecticut who just a few years ago pushed significant investment in higher education is now taking some of that back. Next week NY state’s budget will be set, and CUNY is preparing for significant cuts to its base operating budget even though we’re at the end of a five year process of gradual tuition hikes. The ebbs and flows are dizzying, and those of us who support teaching and learning are constantly assessing the impact of these trends on the pedagogical opportunities in our communities.

My father’s involvement in academic administration and the conversations we’ve had over the years remind me that these ebbs and flows are not new. But one of ways this moment is different is in how technology is implicated. Those of us who are working in open education feel a particular burden because our machinery is also the machinery of “the barbarians at the gates”; our language and tools and methods are easily co-optable by forces who do not share our values. For instance, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were first invented as connectivist spaces that sought to harness for the purposes of experiential and experimental pedagogy what was truly empowering about the World Wide Web as a network. When Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller at Stanford got ahold of the idea, they transformed MOOCs into massive information delivery systemz that, for the most part, construct students as vessels into which knowledge can be transmitted. Here’s an idea, the MOOC, that began as a complex, messy, provisional space for experimentation, from which much could be learned. But it was quickly snapped up, its history erased, its coming hegemony proclaimed.

Now, more than ever, those of us who care deeply about our institutions must use history and our values as guides as we assess the rhetoric around the changing university. We must ask how emerging trends and initiatives impact pedagogical spaces, and we must defend those spaces. As I go forward, Ken Waltzer’s career and the ethos of James Madison College will be invaluable guides.

Finally, here are some photos we put together for the toast roast:

Created with flickr slideshow.

My Grandfather Sold a Fake Book to President Truman

My grandfather, who passed well before I was born, owned a music store on 48th Street called Banner Music. One day, two well dressed men walked into the store. I’ll let Murray Sunshine tell the rest of the story. Murray, who sat in on drums at my bar mitzvah party (swinging) and once ragged on my wife for ordering pierogi at the Second Avenue Deli, worked with and loved Grandpa Fintz. As much as any one else, knowing him has connected me to the lovely but lost world they once inhabited. Not least of all, because he can tell a story like this.

This was recorded at my grandmother’s 90th birthday party on January 1, 2012. If you don’t know what a fake book is, read this.

Uncomfortable Truths

The best, most vibrant comedy mines the depth of uncomfortable truths. I first discovered Louis CK’s standup a few years ago, and the bit that got me was about what an asshole his four year-old daughter was.

CK taught me not only that my frustrations with parenting were common, but also that because of the fact that they could be tapped for great art, they were that ambiguous stuff that makes life, you know, life. Any respectable parent feels terrible when negative thoughts cross their mind about their children. But any honest parent will admit having them. That’s why I both cringe and kind of get it when Louis CK quips “I love that kid to pieces. But I wish she was never born.” Of course he doesn’t think that all of the time… but there are moments when thoughts of which we’re not proud creep uncomfortably into our minds. It’s part of the human condition; why not talk about it? Better yet, why not joke about it?

Adam Mansbach’s book “Go the F-ck to Sleep” taps into that same feeling by playfully articulating the redundant, exhausting, and endlessly unproductive processes that parenting requires. Deploying verboten language when discussing something so truly precious as our kids provides necessary release from the quotidian torture all parents endure. Bill Cosby’s bits about parenting, which led to his sitcom in the 1980s, were funny in an observational and performative way. But Cosby’s routines are ultimately less satisfying because they construct family life as chaotic yet still under control, parents as harried but ultimately capable and on top of things even though kids say the darndest things. Now that I’m a seasoned parent, Cosby’s stuff feels less true. Balancing parenting, work, bills, marriage, life, and still maintaining some inner-direction requires persisting and progressing despite constantly not being on top of things. Most of this is because parenting is so demanding. Being able to hold in my head both unconditional love for my children and the honest acceptance that they make my life worse even as they make it better required a maturation process I didn’t realize I’d have to go through when I first held my daughter.

Watching the evolution of CK’s career over the past few years suggests the moment where it’s therapeutic to vulgarly talk about your children is but a stage. As he told Emily Nussbaum of New York Magazine:

The mistake so many parents make, he tells me, is to go into mourning for the life they’ve lost. “All those early bits I did calling my kid an asshole came out of not knowing how to handle it. You distill those feelings in stand-up.” But as his children get older, he says, he’s become more confident about his role—something he wants to incorporate into the show. “They’re amazing now. It’s nice to be with them. It’s delightful. And you know, it also doesn’t last very long.”

I’ve started to see that kind of light in my future with my kids, even though the 2 year-old is a fledgling maniac and the 7 year-old is simply learning to be difficult in new ways. One particularly long trip home from an exhausting birthday party in Brooklyn a couple months ago sticks out. They were both worn down, over-sugared and tired, and either could have lapsed into assholicity quite easily. Our small car could have been turned for 90 minutes into a hurtling torture chamber. But instead the kids were quite pleasant, singing to each other and entertaining us, dozing off sweetly before we got home. The moment was a window into a future where we will be able to spend more time just being people together. We’ll often enjoy each others’ company, and have the ability to occupy ourselves when we don’t.

Of course, when we got home, both kids woke up, and took another hour to get the fuck back to sleep.

What a Difference…

My little girl finished kindergarten today.

Here she was on her first day:

And here she is today:

The difference in her face is striking to me; it’s like a year of school has swapped out her babyness and replaced it with, I don’t know… wisdom? Knowing? I mean, yes, she’s like 15% older than when we took the first picture… but she looks like she’s aged.

I have a mixture of emotions about her experience and her school and the place we’ve chosen to call home. And she can be incredibly difficult for her mother and myself to deal with to such an extent that I quiver when I think about what awaits us in her teenage years. But I’m unequivocally proud of what a good, eager and curious learner she is, and more than anything in my life I love watching that take shape. The other day she said to her mom, “isn’t it kind of sad when you finish a book?”  I can’t think of another phrase I’d more wish my six year-old to say.

The Scariest Story Ever; or, the Tyranny of Taxomony

It was night time. I was in bed. I was awakened by a bump. I got out of bed. I looked under my bed. YIKES! I saw a monster. He growled at me. I growled bake. He got agry. I ran away he did to. I ran in my mom’s and dad’s room. The monster ran to the closet. In the morning my mom and dad asked me why I was in ther bed. I told them it all.

– “The Monster,” written precisely as above by a kindergartner I know


My oldest child is completing her first year of public school.  While I was mostly pleased with her experience, there are certain components of it that, projecting forward, make me uneasy. Primary among them is the administrative impulse within public education to categorize children. Her classmates have all been divided into groups, and the groups will be evenly distributed across the various first grade classes next year. Boys and girls are each a group. Special needs children are a group, as are the “troublemakers.” Then there are the average kids, the “brights,” and the few who have horrifyingly been deemed “gifted and talented.” They’ll all be spread across 10 or so classes, with the “gifted and talenteds” collected in one lucky classroom that gets a visit from an outside teacher once a week. Once you’ve entered into the “gifted and talented” group, thanks to your performance on a secret test and assessment formula, you stay there for the duration of elementary school, like some sandbox mafia to which other children are occasionally extended an invitation. There’s also a special arts program, which pulls students out to work on projects with a district art teacher, who handpicked the kids, herself, based on her interactions with them this year.

I understand the need to assess students, to identify those who need extra help and to ensure that all are challenged. I understand that in order to distribute students across classes and distribute resources effectively within a system, divisions and choices must be made. But what I am seeing first-hand, which should come as no surprise to anyone who pays attention to public education, is a system that creates giant cracks connected by shoddy netting. Forward, forward, forward the students are marched, their teachers sympathetic drill sergeants who can get them a little help and extra attention within certain confines, but not really much more than that. My state, like many others, doubles down by incentivizing a system that reifies taxonomies that I’ve been shocked out of my naivete to find start immediately. I have these misgivings even though we live in a very good school district and even though our daughter has done very well.

I’m familiar with but not expert in theories of elementary education, and there is much I don’t know. What I do know is that I wish we could send our child to a school where she was marched on the path projected forward by the thinking in the story above, not by a system that sorted her by its expectations of what she should be able to do when. There’s a creativity and focus in “The Monster” which I fear will only be tapped and harnessed incidentally given the current trajectory of public schooling, whether she’s in a “gifted and talented” program or not. I want her to get help at school nurturing that ability, mining it and turning it into the base from which she can develop the literacy required to be a well-rounded adult. But the hegemony of quantitative assessment and the taxonomies that it leaves in its wake make me worry that such creativity will be given space to flourish less regularly than it should.

Approaches like what I want exist, to be sure, but we can’t afford to have our kids attend the nearest Montessori, and home schooling isn’t practical given our situation (and sense of what we’re capable of doing). We also care deeply about public education, and would rather contribute to its richness and successes through the unique perspectives we know our children will bring than to remove ourselves from it all together.

Ultimately, we’ll plan to supplement and support our children’s pursuit of their passions, and while we’re confident they’ll come out the other side whole, talented, adjusted young adults, we’re also increasingly resigned to the fact that no matter where we are it will take a certain amount of navigation, and that we’ll see things along they way that don’t sit well with us. In fact, that’s already begun.

Creative Commons License photo credit: minowa*naitoh

8:30 pm

One of my favorite times of day is 8:30 pm. That’s usually when I scoop up my 10 month-old son and we say good night to his didi and mommy and go upstairs to start our little ritual.

First, we read a short book, like Peekaboo Puppy, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Goodnight Gorilla.

Second, we turn off the lights and turn on the Twilight Constellation Night Light.

Then, we put on a song and have a cuddle. We tried the cry it out thing, and after a couple rough nights, it worked ok. But then teething, ear infections, and general lack of parental constitution landed us at this new process, and it’s worked pretty well (at least for our first shot at getting him asleep at night). I know that without a doubt we’ll have a drag it out sleep war in our future, but I’m not much for grand parental theories about getting them to sleep. Both my wife and are I pragmatists, for better or worse. We’ll try to be systematic and think about the consequences of the decisions… but we’re not much for short term sacrifice when we don’t have much faith (no matter what other parents say about sleep training) in the long term returns. Besides, this process is the opposite of onerous.

Usually, my boy’s asleep before the end of a couple songs. Often, he gets real drowsy, and I put him down and rub his back until he falls asleep. The whole time he’s chilled out and adorable, and I absolutely love this time we spend together. Sometimes, when the music turns off, I use a glowing seahorse (that plays Handel’s Messiah) to transition him.

When my 6 year-old daughter was his age, before she developed stronger opinions than Robert Hughes, we were able to choose the music that she listened to, and used it as an opportunity to expose her to sounds we really liked. We’re trying that again with our second. He doesn’t need any particular song, so I’m fortunate to be able to try different tunes out.

Below is a playlist of songs that have recently been in the 8:30 pm rotation at our house. Maybe they’ll bring some smiles and peaceful zzz’s to yours. Hope you enjoy.