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.

5 thoughts on “Reflections on Ken’s Big Bash”

    1. Good to hear from you, Barry! I remember that day. And, unfortunately, I’m quickly approaching a similar silhouette…

  1. Thank you, Luke, for writing and posting the reflection on Ken’s Big Bash. The weekend events were a tremendous tribute to a man who has touched and mentored so many. It was an honor to be Ken’s student. It was an honor to participate in the weekend. I, like many of his students, will always be grateful for his being a part of my life. Thanks to your mother, brother and yourself for sharing him with all of us.

Comments are closed.