Liberal Education

An Interview with Recipients of the 2017 K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award

EDITOR’S NOTE: The K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award recognizes graduate students who show exemplary promise as future leaders of higher education, who demonstrate a commitment to developing academic and civic responsibility in themselves and others, and whose work reflects a strong emphasis on teaching and learning. Suzanne Hyers and L. Lee Knefelkamp, both of whom are actively involved in the administration of the award, interviewed 2017 Cross Award recipients for Liberal Education. The interview was conducted via email in February 2017.

Your experience as a student has clearly been a major identity influence in your life. How would you describe the importance of your education to your own sense of identity?

Peter DelNero: This question touches on a transformative moment in my academic journey. As an engineering student, my undergraduate education was largely a process of professional socialization. In graduate school, I began to deconstruct my assumptions about what it means to be an engineer, and this allowed me to achieve a more integrative and authentic identity as a student. I am no longer a passive recipient of knowledge, but rather an active steward of my intellectual development. I am attentive to the patterns of thought and behavior in my academic communities.

Danica Savonick: My work is motivated by an awareness of how much my own life was transformed, radically improved, by the free and incredibly high-quality education I received at a public state university. Everyone deserves this. And this is what I advocate for in classrooms, in institutions, and in my scholarship.

Heather Woods: As a first-generation college student, I know that higher education is both a privilege and a responsibility. For this reason, I work hard to share it with others. I strive to be worthy of my education. Higher education expanded my worldview. My educational experiences introduced me to ideas, concepts, and people that compelled me to reconsider myself and my surroundings. The ideas and concepts that I learned in college gave me a scholarly vocabulary to articulate my experiences and concerns and to theorize about the future. Those very ideas and concepts continue to compel my research, teaching, and service today. My educational experiences have also taught me the power of working with others, which has empowered me to engage collaboratively in my communities, including my academic communities. I write collaboratively, research collaboratively, serve the university collaboratively, and teach collaboratively. For instance, through engaged and organically assessed learning, I use my classroom to “grow” community leaders. I hope my students leave my classrooms compelled to make their spaces and places more just.

Brian Hendrickson: My identity as a teacher and scholar committed to engaged learning has been shaped as much by what I didn’t experience as a student as by what I did. In high school and throughout my undergraduate education, I lacked the confidence to take advantage of cocurricular learning opportunities. It wasn’t until my master’s program that I began to learn from peers what it looked like to take agency over one’s own learning. Years later, when I returned to school for my PhD, I found the learning experiences that were having the greatest impact on me were those my fellow students and I were co-creating outside the bounds of the traditional classroom. My most meaningful coursework integrated my cocurricular learning experiences. More than my intellectual interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning, this personal experience of coming into my own as an active participant in a community of learners stoked my passion for exploring ways to integrate engaged learning into the undergraduate curriculum—so that students who might not be ready or able to take advantage of cocurricular learning opportunities don’t miss out on a truly transformative experience.

You have spoken about the importance of your intellectual work to your own being, but also the importance of that work to larger issues in our communities. How did you make that connection?

Brian Hendrickson: I hadn’t planned on becoming a teacher. It started out as a job I didn’t mind, and quickly became the only job I’d ever had that I both enjoyed and was really interested in getting better at. I saw the challenges my students faced when arriving in my first-year writing classroom from high school, factory jobs, tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, war-torn and repressive countries, prison. I knew I could do more to ensure my classes increased the likelihood they would succeed and persist. I also knew the challenge was larger than my classes, that it required creating more effective and equitable pathways to and through college. I committed myself to becoming a steward of campus-community literacy and learning ecologies, and a mentor to my students in the process of becoming stewards themselves—as if trying to become a better writing instructor weren’t humbling enough. The truth was, I had to invite my students to transform me. I had to invite the communities in which I worked to transform my work. If we want to serve as stewards of the intellectual life of our students and communities, then we have to invite our students and communities to transform us. In that respect, my intellectual work hasn’t been as important to larger issues in my community as the larger issues in my community have been to my intellectual work, and to that of my students.

Danica Savonick: I came to graduate school to better understand the roles that language, art, and culture play in both sustaining and challenging structures of inequality. Unexpectedly, it has been the classroom—and the experience of coming together in a space where changing our minds and thinking differently is the very goal—that makes me believe social change is possible and is happening all around us. The experience of teaching my own undergraduate classes at Queens College—where the students are working class, immigrants, people of color, and often the first in their families to attend college—firmly grounded my research in the New York City community. In many ways, these students are present in my research on feminist pedagogy: it is for them. They deserve an education that is more responsive to their lived experiences, hopes, and desires. It is a privilege and an absolute joy to think about social justice with these students, and I cherish the creativity I get to practice in developing assignments and activities that will encourage them to become more politically involved, help them discover their talents and passions, and prepare them for success in whatever comes next—whether that’s organizing a campus protest or getting into medical school. Inequality in New York City mirrors that of our society as a whole; it structures our geography, education, housing, and access to resources. In my classrooms, we not only study this inequality, but we work to produce structures of equality, starting with pedagogy. Everyone participates and makes crucial decisions about how our classes will be run, what we will study, and how student work will be evaluated.

Peter DelNero: As a cancer researcher-in-training, I spend a lot of time with cells and microscopes, but I rarely interact with individual cancer patients and survivors. Four years ago, I joined a partnership that fosters dialogue between scientists and members of the cancer community. This partnership has revolutionized my role as a researcher. I discovered that conducting experiments is not the only way to reduce the burden of cancer; scientists can also explain the research process, dispel common misconceptions, and provide personal support to individual members of our communities. Because of this partnership, cancer evolved from an intellectual problem into something much more personal. I became increasingly aware of the larger social issues that I never encountered in the lab.

Heather Woods: The connection between intellectual work and community issues, for me, has always been innate. My work is broadly attuned to questions of politics, power, and (in)equity in its various manifestations. I chose a career in higher education because I understand the academy as one space within which it is possible to identify and challenge inequity. For me, that means working collaboratively, sharing resources, mentoring others, and leveraging my privileged position in higher education toward justice. My teaching and research center on challenging structures of inequality; for that reason, I hope students leave my classroom knowing these structures are durable yet changeable. In my own research, I explore how technologies are political and how they influence people’s everyday lived experiences. But I also hope that my research provides opportunities to intervene, to imagine the future differently. I think that’s what is amazing about education: it gives you the capacities and tools necessary to think differently and to work toward a more just world.

The K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award includes financial support to attend the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Did your attendance at the meeting give you a view of higher education that you have not gotten from your graduate training?

Heather Woods: Yes, I am so grateful for the experience. My graduate training has benefited from many wonderful resources at the University of North Carolina, including the Center for Faculty Excellence Future Faculty Fellowship Program and the Carolina Digital Humanities Initiative, both of which expanded my view of what academic work can and should look like. However, at the AAC&U meeting, I was introduced to so many new resources and programs to which I would not otherwise have had access. My fellow Cross Scholars have been an invaluable intellectual community; they’ve already taught me so much about what higher education can be. Meeting with leaders of higher education and hearing about leadership training opportunities for women made me feel as though I now have more doors open to me than ever before.

Danica Savonick: Without a doubt, the highlight of the conference was getting to know the other Cross Award recipients—graduate students from different schools and disciplines who are transforming education in order to improve society. Their resumes are impressive, to say the very least, but in person they far exceed what a professional bio can capture. Also, the conference helped me see that it is inadequate and inaccurate simply to blame the administration for all the inequities of higher education. From reading K. Patricia Cross’s 1969 speech “Some Correlates of Student Protest” to listening to AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella’s 2017 address to women faculty and administrators, I have come to realize that many administrators want to support activist students and faculty—and actually meet their demands. Here is my favorite line from Cross’s 1969 speech, a response to student protests occurring on college campuses nationwide: “If we ever wanted student involvement in the learning process, we have it now.” My interpretation? Those of you, today, who believe in student empowerment, engagement, and civic responsibility had better be listening to, advocating for, supporting, and working with the activist students on your campuses.

Brian Hendrickson: Attending the annual meeting contributed to my growing understanding of the range of challenges and affordances relative to various institutional contexts in pursuing a mission of inclusive academic excellence. It was invigorating to learn about all the innovative approaches taken at different scopes and levels at different institutions. It was also heartening to hear so many deans, provosts, and presidents espouse progressive values in alignment with a desire to enact the kind of evidence-based pedagogies that inform my own work. At the same time, it was sobering to recognize how pervasively the same impediments crop up across institutional contexts, rendering the implementation of evidence-based curricular reforms both an uphill battle and an imperfect science. I also got the sense that, as an intellectual community, higher education is reeling a bit from what in hindsight has been a steadily rising tide of ideologies that is toxic to a diverse, pluralistic, and deliberative democracy. I think we’re partly hoping that doing what we do best will be antidote enough, but I’m not so sure it will. Like the work of institutional change, responding to this growing threat to democracy is, it seems, something we’re figuring out as we go. This isn’t a criticism, really. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my graduate training, it is the importance of attuning oneself to uncertainty. Attending the annual meeting deepened my appreciation for this particular art, while also broadening my apprehension of how others practice it.

Alexandra Mathwig: Attending the annual meeting reinforced my commitment to advocating for more robust graduate student training in both pedagogy and the larger issues facing higher education. As many of the panelists discussed over the course of the conference, higher education is facing a crisis of confidence, and we must come together as a community to find new ways to reengage both our students and the wider public in order to rebuild trust in the value of a liberal education. Graduate students have valuable contributions to make to this debate about the future of education, but we must be empowered to become active participants in the conversation by our individual programs and institutions. AAC&U is doing just that by inviting the Cross Scholars to participate in the annual meeting and by encouraging graduate students to make connections between our individual research areas and the issues facing our larger communities. 

Peter DelNero: I was surprised by the variety of academic institutions represented at the AAC&U meeting. I found the institutional diversity very refreshing. The meeting was unlike any disciplinary conference that I have attended; the commitment to enhancing the public impact of higher education was very visible. I left with a deeper appreciation for the issues that administrators must grapple with each day.

What is an educational motto you would put on a tee shirt?

Alexandra Mathwig: The motto I would choose to feature is a quote by the painter Robert Motherwell regarding the significance of art, but which I believe is equally applicable to the humanities in general: “Art is much less important than life, but what a poor life without it.” This notion is fundamental to why I choose to teach art history. 

Brian Hendrickson: Someone else’s: “Since growth is the characteristic of life, education is all one with growing; it has no end beyond itself” (John Dewey). My own: “No one knows alone.”

Danica Savonick: Here are two: “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy” (bell hooks). “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (Paulo Freire).

Peter DelNero: “It is only by extracting the full potential of each present moment that we are prepared to do likewise in the future.” The ideal of “maximizing your potential” appeals to me, and I continuously look for ways to remove barriers to student success. This philosophy motivates me to prioritize high-impact teaching practices, rather than high-volume content delivery. Loosely based on something John Dewey wrote, the motto could also be expressed as follows: “Maximize your potential: it is only by taking full advantage of each present opportunity that are we prepared to do likewise in the future.”

Heather Woods: Imagine—and build—the future!

To respond to this article, e-mail, with the authors’ names on the subject line.

Suzanne Hyers is senior director of the annual meeting, and L. Lee Knefelkamp is senior scholar in the Office of Integrative Liberal Learning and the Global Commons, both at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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