Karen Miller is Professor of History in the Social Science Department at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, Acting Deputy Executive Officer of the M.A. Program in Liberal Studies (MALS) at the Graduate Center, and a 2016-2017 CUNY Humanities Alliance Faculty Mentor.
Prof. Miller spoke to me on two separate occasions about her path to teaching at LaGuardia, and her experience as a faculty mentor in the Humanities Alliance this year. Our first conversation was over tea in her office at LaGuardia, on May 24, 2017. Our conversation resumed on June 6, 2017, at the Graduate Center. What follows is a transcript of both interviews that has been edited for the sake of continuity and clarity.
What has been your path to becoming a professor at LaGuardia CC?
I completed my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 2003. That year, I moved to New York and worked as a union organizer with the AFT Higher Education Organizing Project and then PSC-CUNY. I also adjuncted at Hunter College and Bronx Community College and applied to academic jobs, not sure that that path would work out. I got my job at LaGuardia Community College that fall and have been teaching here ever since.
How did you become interested in community college teaching? What do you value about teaching at a community college?
When I was on the job market, I cast a very wide net. Very few community college jobs were advertised in the places that I was looking for postings, but I applied to those that were, including jobs at CUNY community colleges.
One of the things I value about teaching at LaGuardia is that I find that the students are very open to the critique of power that I have to offer. For example, many are interested in interrogating meritocracy and examining how elite interests have shaped and extended inequality. They are also interested in studying activism and learning about how ordinary people have worked to challenge seemingly entrenched hierarchies. I believe that these analyses resonate for them because they help explain many students’ lived experiences. They are especially grateful to encounter this approach in a history class, where they expect to learn things about dead white men that seem mostly irrelevant to their lives.
Another thing that I really appreciate about teaching here is the college’s support for innovative and student-centered pedagogy. The focus on teaching—in part, through the creation of spaces like the LaGuardia Center for Teaching and Learning, which worked in partnership with the Futures Initiative and the Teaching & Learning Center at the Graduate Center on this program—lends itself to an openness to different approaches and to experimentation. Among my colleagues, I find that there is a lot of interest in ideas about how to teach. This is something that I definitely value about the institution.
I also have lot of control over my syllabi. This means I get to do what I want, which I really appreciate. For example, I often teach a history survey course which my senior colleagues named “Themes in American History.” I take that title very literally – I’ve moved away from something that is ostensibly “comprehensive,” and toward case studies, which I conceive of as a series of “themes.” I prefer this approach because it allows me to favor depth over breadth. Rather than talking about every single thing that happened during the New Deal, I’ll talk about one case study as an entrée into an interesting set of questions about the time.
The other thing I love about LaGuardia is that because it is in the CUNY system, publishing and research are also supported as part of my work. There’s an assumption here that you’re a scholar as well as an educator.
Why did you join the Humanities Alliance as a faculty mentor?
I joined the Humanities Alliance because I am excited about its mission. I was also honored when I was invited to be a mentor.
Good pedagogy is something I’m always thinking through and trying to interrogate. It’s really nice to be in dialogue with people about these questions. There are not a lot of obvious ways to do that outside of structured spaces like the one that the Humanities Alliance produced. It’s in spaces where people are encouraged to talk about pedagogy that we’re able to have those kinds of conversations.
What has been your experience of mentoring graduate fellows in the program, and having them shadow your classes?
I really enjoyed it. I worked with Emily Brooks, and we had a great time. I assigned one of her articles in the course she observed, and she taught her article, which was a lot of fun.
I also liked having Emily in the classroom. I think I was lucky because I was matched with someone who was receptive to the kinds of strategies for teaching history that I cherish. It was also fun to have someone in the classroom who was an experienced teacher. She contributed to our class discussions in productive ways and was a great resource for everyone.
What is one thing you have learned about your own teaching by serving as a faculty mentor?
A couple of things happened as I taught the course through this program. The first is that, with Emily in the classroom, I could ask her what she thought as we discussed assigned texts. That was nice because it was also an opportunity to model what engagement with historical questions looked like for students.
Over the course of the Fall 2016 semester (the semester I was a faculty mentor to Emily), my formula for how to manage my class shifted a little. When I started that term, I would ask students to read a piece of an assigned text and answer a question I was posing of the whole article or chapter. By the time the term ended, I was breaking down the assigned text into a set of specific arguments that students may or may not have understood while they were reading. I still had them look at specific pieces of the assigned reading, but now, I ask them to link the piece up to the arguments that I had already identified.
I made this shift in response to a reading I had assigned that turned out to be too difficult for my students. I felt that I had to explain to students what the chapter was doing. But, it made the class work better, and I then used that as a model for engaging all of the readings. Academic history writing is challenging in ways that are not always familiar to me (as someone who is practiced at reading it). So it was useful to have assigned something that was clearly way too hard for them for me to realize my outline of a text’s main points could be helpful.
What advice would you give to a future community college teacher?
Don’t underestimate your students. Break everything down to its very basics, and then bring it back up to the level of sophistication that is the level that you engage yourself. Students are capable of that kind of engagement if you offer them the support they need.
Make sure everyone talks in almost every class session. I really believe that student learning happens when students make connections. I always ask them to write down their responses to a piece of text before I call on them. Then, they can read what they’ve written, or use it as a jumping off point for their intervention. That way, you aren’t putting students on the spot, although sometimes it’s important to put them on the spot. Many folks won’t volunteer if they’re not volunteered.
Assign things that you want to read and assign new texts as often as you can. I do this, because I find that I can’t teach a text more than two or three times–it falls apart. It keeps me reading and keeps me thinking new thoughts.
And finally, have fun in the classroom. Make it into a space for experimentation and joy. Even if the subject matter may be depressing or challenging. The process of learning is fun!