Liberal Education

Incorporating Campus-Based Cultural Resources into Humanities Courses

Often referred to as democracy’s colleges, community colleges educate almost 50 percent of American undergraduates.1 At a moment when sociopolitical tensions are threatening our collective ability to forge understanding across differences, these colleges bring together students of diverse backgrounds and experiences to explore the big-picture questions that define liberal education, many of which are global in scope. Exploration of these questions is frequently enriched by engagement with the humanities, including through cultural resources that enliven community college campuses.

The Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Center (KHC) is one such cultural resource at Queensborough Community College (QCC) of the City University of New York (CUNY), a minority-serving institution in one of the most diverse counties in the United States. In 2010, the KHC received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to create a national demonstration model for effectively incorporating campus-based cultural resources into humanities curricula. With matching support, in 2012, the KHC began endowing an annual yearlong faculty-coordinated colloquia series on the Holocaust, genocide, and mass violence. Since the inception of the series, faculty across the humanities have incorporated colloquia events into the syllabi of their courses.

To date, five colloquia series have run successfully; a sixth series, focused on “Collaboration and Complicity,” will run throughout the 2017–18 academic year. Each year, a committee of experts from outside of QCC selects a series coordinator based on responses to a request for proposals, which is open to faculty of all ranks and disciplines at the college. At the time of this writing, faculty members representing six different disciplines—history, English, academic literacy, sociology, music, and psychology—have coordinated different years of the colloquia, and their content has reflected that disciplinary diversity.

Gender, mass violence, and genocide

The first author, a sociologist, coordinated the 2015–16 series, titled “Gender, Mass Violence, and Genocide.” That year’s series consisted of eight events linked to a newly established field of research within genocide scholarship: gender-sensitive studies of mass violence and genocide. According to Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, a gendered analysis of “genocide as a process”—“its roots, its immediate causes, its shape, its aftermath, and ultimately, its definition”—will lead to both a “better understand[ing of] the crime” and the improvement of “protocols for preventing and responding to it.”2 The colloquia were intended to engage students and community members in such analysis.

The eight colloquia had two foci. The first was how gender structures and mediates experiences of mass violence and genocide, including the nature of pre-genocidal propaganda, the agency and victimization of men and women, and the use and effects of certain genocidal tools (e.g., sexual violence, selective mass killing, and slavery). The second was how attention to gender can aid efforts to predict, prevent, and reconcile experiences and instances of mass violence and genocide. For example, the colloquia events explored gendered precursors to (and early warning signs of) genocide, gendered memories of trauma, and gendered efforts to rebuild and restore justice after genocide.

To address these two foci, the series’ eight colloquia encouraged participants to engage with both comparative perspectives and in-depth reflections on specific historical events. Inspired by the research of Helen Fein and others,3 they addressed elements of gender-specific and gender-neutral genocides, and they examined women and men as perpetrators and victims of mass violence and genocide. The eight events also offered diverse disciplinary perspectives on the topic of gender and genocide, convening fifteen speakers from a range of humanities and humanities-oriented disciplines, including history, psychology, philosophy, women’s and gender studies, foreign languages and literatures, comparative genocide studies, linguistics, political science, English and comparative literature, and jurisprudence. (Videos and resources from each event are available at

Twelve QCC faculty members agreed to link at least one course to an event in the series. These faculty members and their courses reflected the disciplinary diversity of the eight events, the range of humanities and humanities-oriented perspectives at QCC, and the gamut of QCC students’ interests and abilities: education, English, sociology, history, speech communication and theater, psychology, art, design, political science, foreign languages and literatures, and academic literacy. Students in each of fourteen participating courses were exposed to a curriculum module aligned with a series event, readings appropriate to the event’s content, and a writing assignment that tied together their course material and insights from the event. At least 335 students interacted with the series through these fourteen courses.

Exploratory research protocol

The twelve participating faculty members agreed to contribute to an exploratory research protocol that ran alongside the colloquia series. These faculty members shared their students’ aligned, deidentified, and anonymized papers with the first author and other researchers. To protect students’ privacy and align with institutional review board regulations, the first author visited each of the fourteen participating courses to introduce the series, explain the protocol, and obtain students’ consent. At the conclusion of both the fall 2015 and the spring 2016 semesters, participating faculty provided the first author with consenting students’ papers. For the purposes of the protocol, 191 students consented to share their papers—representing 57 percent of all of the students who were present during the consent-administration class periods. Of these 191 students, 75 percent (144 students) submitted papers for analysis.

These 144 papers became data for a two-phase study. Phase one was faculty driven, involving four QCC faculty members who engaged in rubric-based assessment of the consenting students’ papers. Phase two was student driven, involving an undergraduate CUNY research scholar who systematically analyzed the contents of those same papers. Both phases were informed by the following research questions:

  1. How do American community college students respond to genocide education and prevention curricula across the humanities?
  2. What is discovered through a faculty-driven, rubric-based assessment of students’ responses to genocide education and prevention curricula?
  3. What is discovered through a student-driven content analysis of students’ responses to genocide education and prevention curricula, and how do these discoveries compare to those of the faculty-driven assessment?

These research questions are significant for two reasons. First, while more courses on the Holocaust, genocide, and mass violence are taught at the university level than ever before,4 little is known about how American college students—particularly American community college students—respond to these learning opportunities. This is a void that must be addressed. As Totten points out, “the levels, abilities, and backgrounds of one’s students” must be considered in the design, implementation, and evaluation of Holocaust, genocide, and mass violence curricula, in particular.5

Second, political and economic threats to the humanities and liberal education demand that researchers study—and defend—the value of both. Bradburn and Townsend demonstrate how data can be used to make the “case for the humanities,” pointing in particular to data on the earnings, employment rate, and job satisfaction of humanities graduates, as well as data on the percentage of humanities graduates employed in the helping professions.6 While data on the transformative impacts and societal benefits of a humanities education are certainly of value to this case, questions abound about how to best define, collect, and analyze those data.

Phase one data analysis and findings

Phase one of this study unfolded alongside the series during the 2015–16 academic year. A team of four trained and experienced QCC faculty members systematically assessed the protocol’s 144 papers, using the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) Global Learning VALUE Rubric to measure students’ efforts to “analyze and explore complex global challenges.”7 The team opted to use this rubric because the KHC’s mission aligns with the goal of promoting diversity/global learning, recognized by AAC&U and others as a high-impact educational practice.8

Team members met early in the fall 2015 semester to discuss the suitability of the rubric and to settle on the interpretation of its six dimensions (global self-awareness, perspective taking, cultural diversity, personal and social responsibility, understanding global systems, and applying knowledge to contemporary global contexts) and four levels of demonstrated learning (spanning from benchmark through two milestones to capstone). They also determined how to score content missing from the papers, as well as when to record examples that demonstrated achievement at each of the four levels. At the end of the fall 2015 and spring 2016 semesters, two team members read and assessed each submitted paper, with remarkably little variability across their respective scores. For each paper and each dimension, the first author averaged the reviewers’ two scores to produce a single score; at the end of the semester, she then calculated an average for each dimension across all papers.

Data from phase one indicate that students’ learning clustered around the global self-awareness dimension of the AAC&U Global Learning VALUE Rubric, revealing that the series’ events and assignments most profoundly affected students’ development of a “mature, integrated identity with a systematic understanding of the interrelationships among the self, local, and global communities.” Student learning proved weakest on the knowledge application dimension of the rubric, indicating that the series’ events and assignments could have done more to encourage students’ “ability to apply knowledge and skills gained through higher learning to real-life problem-solving.”9

Assessment team members’ reflections on these results and on the scoring process provide additional insight. For example, members noted how the assignment design—including structure, relative length, and whether the assignment was completed in class or at home—mediated students’ achievement along the rubric’s dimensions. They also described how student success, as measured by the AAC&U Global Learning VALUE Rubric, often correlated with course level and disciplinary skill set. Members cited evidence of student learning that, while consistent across the papers, was not captured by the rubric: specifically, students’ overwhelming expressions of compassion and/or revulsion, as well as their ability to synthesize multiple types of content gleaned from the event, from assigned readings, and from course lectures. Finally, assessment team members reflected on the use of the AAC&U VALUE rubrics in the community college context, questioning whether to interpret the capstone measure of associate-level learning as equivalent to, or a step on the way toward, the capstone measure of baccalaureate-level learning. (AAC&U has since clarified that students who have nearly completed their associate’s degrees may produce work corresponding with milestone-level achievement, a step on the way toward capstone-level baccalaureate learning.10)

Phase two data analysis and findings

Phase two of the study concluded in spring 2017. Led by the second author, then a CUNY research scholar and fourth-semester undergraduate at QCC, this phase consisted of the systematic content analysis of the 144 papers. The second author identified emergent themes and commonalities by developing codes for analysis that were sufficiently broad and inclusive to allow for multiple associations within and across the papers.

After the second author had analyzed student papers from two courses, the two authors met to discuss, define, and differentiate the four codes that emerged: (1) global awareness, (2) emotional reaction, (3) planned action/response, and (4) personal connection. After the two authors had agreed on the codes, their meaning, and the nature of appropriate evidence, the second author analyzed student papers from two additional courses. The authors then met to discuss the possible creation of a fifth code—course content—to capture students’ learning of discipline-specific course facts, theories, and concepts. After the second author used these five codes to analyze student papers from an additional two courses, the authors opted to abandon the fifth code due to the protocol’s focus on cross-disciplinary learning.

While data from phase two were consistent with the findings of phase one, second-phase data indicated that content analysis of students’ papers can yield additional insights into their learning. For example, while phase two confirmed that students’ learning clustered around global awareness, it added nuance to phase one findings by exposing differences in how students conceived of self in relationship to global communities. More specifically, the second author’s content analysis revealed that students’ developing global awareness was generally of two types: cognitive or affective. Those students who reflected a cognitive global awareness expressed a new, informed approach to the world marked by a shift in attention from events in the United States to occurrences around the globe. In contrast, those students who reflected a more affective global awareness expressed an evolving emotional understanding of human interconnectedness across and despite the bounds of the nation-state.

Another pattern that emerged in phase two relates to the weak knowledge-application finding of phase one as well as the second author’s status as a student researcher. When read closely by a peer in phase two, more student papers suggested evidence of the “ability to apply knowledge and skills gained through higher learning to real-life problem-solving” than when read by faculty evaluators in phase one. This is because the second author recognized that students conceptualized learning itself as a “real-life” solution to the “problem” of their prior lack of knowledge. In fact, the second author’s careful content analysis uncovered moments in which students framed their acquisition of knowledge, and their efforts to build on and share that newly acquired knowledge, as a distinct form of action. For example, when reflecting on all that she had learned at a colloquia event, one student wrote, “On my end I have to do even more research.” Another student described how such learning had affected her interactions with her family: “The colloquia series prompted me to have a conversation about the Holocaust with my mother, who never knew it happened since it was not taught in her school in Ecuador.” Synthesizing both points, still another student captured her learning and communicating as mutually constituting acts of engagement with the world: “The more we share, the more we are aware.”


In this article, we reviewed one effort to deepen students’ connections to the humanities through the use of campus-based cultural resources on a community college campus. Focusing specifically on the 2015–16 colloquia series “Gender, Mass Violence, and Genocide,” organized by the first author through the KHC and with NEH matching support, we outlined and compared the findings of a two-phase exploratory research protocol designed to assess students’ aligned learning. While phase one measured that learning against the dimensions of the AAC&U Global Learning VALUE Rubric, phase two used content analysis to parse the meaning and evidence of each dimension from a student’s perspective.

Taken together, the protocol’s findings go beyond expressing the educative impacts of a single year of Holocaust and genocide colloquia events; they also point to three important takeaways for those committed to humanities education. First, campus-based cultural resources can serve as effective, enlivening partners in students’ exploration of the significant questions that define liberal education in the first two years of college. Community colleges should explore similar opportunities for public-private partnerships and campus-wide collaboration. Second, existing resources like the AAC&U VALUE rubrics can help humanities educators practice assessment in a way that makes a case for the humanities while improving student learning and faculty instruction. Third, and finally, students are invaluable partners and resources in the aforementioned exploration and assessment. Whether tapped as formal researchers or heeded as agents in the classroom, students must—given the very nature of a humanities education—make sense of their own experiences and learning.


1. American Association of Community Colleges, 2016 Fact Sheet, February 2016.

2. Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, “Gender and the Future of Genocide Studies and Prevention,” Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal 7, no. 1 (2012): 90–91.

3. Helen Fein, “Genocide and Gender: The Uses of Women and Group Destiny,” Journal of Genocide Research 1, no. 1 (1999): 43–64.

4. Samuel Totten, “Introduction,” in Teaching about Genocide: Issues, Approaches, and Resources, ed. Samuel Totten (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2004), vii–xi.

5. Samuel Totten, “Teaching about Genocide,” in Teaching about Genocide: Issues, Approaches, and Resources, ed. Samuel Totten (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2004), 15.

6. Norman M. Bradburn and Robert B. Townsend, “Use Data to Make a Strong Case for the Humanities,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 27, 2016,

7. Association of American Colleges and Universities, “Global Learning VALUE Rubric,” The rubric was created as part of the association’s Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education initiative.

8. See

9. Association of American Colleges and Universities, “Global Learning VALUE Rubric.”

10. Association of American Colleges and Universities, On Solid Ground: VALUE Report 2017 (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2017), 35.

To respond to this article, email with the authors’ names on the subject line.

AMY E. TRAVER is associate professor of sociology at Queensborough Community College, City University of New York. ROLECIA NEDD is an undergraduate student at York College, City University of New York.

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