Mellon Foundation Planning Grant - Proposal

Renewal and Innovation in the Humanities at The City College of New York
Proposal to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

I.  Introduction: Profile of the City College of New York and the Division of Humanities and the Arts

The City College of New York (CCNY) serves our city and is continuously enriched by its communities. At City College, we envision a faculty-led program that builds on a thriving tradition of humanities education but reimagines the program in ways that more deeply address core principles of citizenship and humanity by embracing history, culture, and creativity. The humanities nurture democratic and just societies, they teach our students to think critically and empathetically, and they connect the individual to society. Our proposed initiative, “Humanities of and for the City,” foresees a faculty-committee and working-group structure that will explore, design, and navigate an expansion of the purposeful presence of the humanities at our college and in New York City at large. We are pleased to present a proposal for this process.

Our Legacy

City College was established in 1847 as the Free Academy by a statewide referendum. Our founder, Townsend Harris, described his goal: “Open the doors to all—let the children of the rich and the poor take their seats together and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct, and intellect.” Dr. Horace Webster, the Academy’s first president, reaffirmed this purpose: “The experiment is to be tried, whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated; and whether an institution of the highest grade, can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.” CCNY thus became one of the United States’ great democratic experiments, respecting diversity and merit rather than caste and class. Today, we proudly use Dr. Webster’s resonant phrase “the whole people” to describe our vast and diverse population - represented, engaged, and included in all their variety and plurality.

For 170 years, CCNY graduates have proven the wisdom of Harris’s vision. They include ten Nobel laureates—an achievement that no other public institution has surpassed—and numerous nationally recognized leaders in diverse academic, cultural, social, political, scientific, and commercial fields. CCNY’s schools and divisions include the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, the Grove School of Engineering, the School of Education, the CUNY School of Medicine, the College of Liberal Arts and Science (comprising the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, the Division of Humanities and the Arts, the Division of Science, and the Division of Interdisciplinary Studies at the Center for Worker Education). Our schools of architecture and engineering are the only public programs of their kind in New York City, and the college is the preeminent science campus in the City University of New York system.


CCNY has an exceptionally diverse student body. In Fall 2016, CCNY enrolled 13,317 undergraduate and 2,631 graduate students, representing over 84% of the world’s countries. The demographic breakdown of the student body is as follows: 35% Hispanic or Latino, 22.5% Asian, 17.5% White, 16.2% Black or African American, 6.9% international, 1.5% two or more races, 0.3% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander; and 0.1% American Indian or Native Alaskan. Approximately 41% of enrolled undergraduate and graduate students are the first in their families to attend college, almost 19% identify themselves as foreign born, and over 41% speak a language other than English at home. Dubbed “the American Dream Machine” by alumnus Andrew Grove, the College remains especially committed to recent immigrants and those who are first-generation Americans. Over 42% of undergraduates receive financial aid from the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), and almost 51% are Pell Grant eligible. This combination of aid and the College’s affordable tuition means that an estimated 66% of full-time undergraduates attend tuition free, and approximately 82% of CCNY’s undergraduate population is debt free upon graduation. CCNY continues to be recognized by The Princeton Review, US News & World Report, Forbes, and Washington Monthly as one of the nation’s “Best Colleges.”

The Division of Humanities and the Arts teaches the largest number of students of any school or division at the City College of New York (CCNY). Because we are responsible for General Education requirements, every City College student, with the exception of those who have passed out of required courses, takes courses in our division. Approximately 60% of our undergraduate student credit hours delivered are for general education requirements, and 40% for major requirements. Thirty-five percent (784) of our students major in traditional humanities disciplines (art history [27], English literature [157], history [149], foreign languages and literatures [120], musicology and music theory [128], philosophy [67]). The remaining 1401 student majors are distributed among a variety of applied and arts programs, the largest number in the Electronic Design and Multimedia Program and the Advertising and Public Relations Program, followed fairly closely by Theatre and by the Music Performance and Sonic Arts program. The total number of majors in the division has been holding relatively steady at 2000-2200 for the past three years.


II. Initiatives in the Humanities: Humanities of and for the City

At commencement each year, City College students participate in a long-standing tradition of reciting the Ephebic Oath, wherein they pledge their “devotion to the City of New York,” that they “will fight for the ideals and sacred things of the city,” and that they “will strive to transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.” We propose to realize this commitment in new and innovative ways, developing programs in the humanities that are both of and for the city.

From the summer of 2019 through the spring of 2020, the faculty will undertake a planning process to reimagine the humanities at City College. As we do so, we seek to embrace more fully our identity as a public urban institution. We will consider both how best to use New York City and the conditions of the modern urban world as the basis for our approach to humanities education, and how we can develop our humanities curriculum in the service of the City, its culture, and its challenges. Building on our traditions, our location, and our constituencies, we will structure that planning around three important themes. First, our approach to the humanities will reflect the full diversity of our community and the breadth of human experience. Second, it will incorporate a sense of place into our work, drawing on the resources of the city and exploring how our humanities program can speak to the needs of the city and those living here. Third, we will examine how the humanities can participate in and reinforce the deepening of human understanding represented in the scientific and technological developments that are foundational to the historic growth of cities and are taking place on our campus.

In each of these ways, we seek to connect the humanities at CCNY more fully to the larger purposes of our campus: social mobility, human security and the effort to elevate and secure “the whole people,” the term coined by our first president that is still used on our campus to capture our mission to provide people of all backgrounds with access to opportunities. We propose to undertake a year-long process of research, thinking, discussion, and planning to set a new course for the humanities at CCNY. We begin by setting the agenda for planning and discussion in the three following areas.

1.  Cultural and Linguistic Diversity.

A distinctive feature of cities, indeed their core nature, is that they jostle together people from different places, with different cultures, languages and backgrounds. Herein lies their dynamism and promise—but also the potential for prejudice, misunderstanding and conflict. The City College of New York benefits from the diversity and energy of those who populate our city, and our approach to the humanities must fully reflect that.

We will build on the complexity of the city by asking a set of questions about how we may more fully represent, acknowledge, and produce a humanities that represents the diversity of “the whole people.” How do we more fully mobilize the diverse experiences of our students not only in classroom work, but also in the scholarship and creative activity that our campus produces? At a time when inter-community understanding across the country and throughout the world seem at a low ebb—when the cost of globalization seems a creeping nativism both at home and abroad—can we elevate the diversity of our community into broader understanding, mutual appreciation, and respect? If so, how can we teach that? How can this purpose be reflected in our scholarship and our public discussions?

Animated by this purpose, we will ask how we might most effectively extend our critical view beyond the immediate community we serve to learn about, archive, and draw from the cultural diversity of the whole city’s immigrant communities. We will explore ways of building on existing CCNY programs in Black Studies, Asian Studies, and Jewish Studies, as well as our internationally renowned Dominican Studies Institute. In this same vein, we will examine and seek to extend ongoing work such as our journalism program’s Harlem Focus project and our Creative Writing Program’s Harlem Archives Project, as well as the expertise of faculty who participated in the recent year-long Rifkind Center for the Humanities faculty seminar on “Migration.” Throughout, we will ask if we are making the most of our diversity resources, educating “the whole people” as effectively as possible and elevating the full range of their experiences and expertise into a broader understanding of the full breadth of human experience.

2.  The Cultural Resources and Institutions of the City.

The city is the animating spirit of CCNY and must be intrinsic to our approach to the humanities. We will ask how to deepen this relationship in two ways. We will seek both more meaningfully to incorporate the vast resources of the city into the study of the humanities at CCNY, and ask how our humanities programs and departments can more completely meet the needs of our city. 

To employ more fully New York City’s unparalleled cultural institutions to support inquiry-based, experiential, and interdisciplinary learning, we will identify and engage in a purposeful exploration of those resources. Faculty members, on their own or in the context of their classes, will be supported as they work with those who manage these resources and as they learn more fully about the range of support they might offer to our students and our departments. Planning discussions will then focus on seeking a deeper understanding of how to integrate those resources into classroom teaching, professional development and career preparation, and our public programming. Established programs in Art History, Art Museum Studies, and Art Museum Education provide foundations for us to expand the use of material collections in our pedagogy and research, but our planning discussions will push past our existing activity to explore what a deepening of these connections could look like.

How can we help our students make sense of cultural institutions while instilling in them an understanding that those institutions are theirs as well—theirs to enjoy and to learn from, but also, in turn, theirs to preserve and to shape for the future? We will strive to integrate the cultural resources of the city into our curricula and pedagogy and, in turn, to graduate students who are prepared to serve as the curators, directors, archivists, educators, designers, and other stewards of New York City’s cultural heritage.

More broadly, our planning and discussion sessions will ask what the city needs from CCNY—from our students and from the faculty and staff working here. Can a particular focus on how the humanities can speak to the needs of the City at this moment in history inspire distinct currents in academic and creative work? Can it underpin a more vigorous and effective public scholarship and discussion? Can it help us prepare CCNY graduates to utilize a humanities education to resolve problems rooted in an incomplete understanding of human culture and achievement? Are there career paths for our students that build on their CCNY experience, and a focused humanities curriculum that can help them build a better way for New York? 

3.  Science and Technology.

As City University’s most research-intensive science and technology campus, as well as the only public engineering program in New York City, we are ideally positioned to develop ways in which the humanities can inform the uses and appreciation of these disciplines, and how technology can help make humanities resources more broadly available to everyone. Broad suspicion and mythology currently undermine the acceptance of some basic scientific tenets on issues like climate change. What role, we must ask, can the humanities play in helping to communicate science and reconcile people’s sense of their own values with a scientific understanding of the world? We live at a time when technological advance provokes questions of how we should use or restrain those technologies, where the ethics and the history of how humans interact with technology grows ever more important. The advancement of science and technology often focuses on what we can do, but the humanities force us to consider what we should do. The departments of Philosophy and History have long discussed developing courses and curricular initiatives that bring the humanities into interdisciplinary dialogue around science, technology, and engineering problems of social importance, and we will use this planning period to determine the best programs to pursue.

Technology also allows us the opportunity to make our institutional resources in the humanities more broadly available—to make sure that the cultural and historical threads that bind us together are available for all to appreciate. Our Digital Humanities Working Group, formed in Spring 2018, brings together over a dozen faculty and staff working on this question, but the planning period will allow us to build on their work. In addition to using computational and visualization methodologies in cultural studies, members of the group are engaged in the creation of digital archives, making campus resources (such as our archives of the correspondence of City College students who fought in the Spanish Civil War, and the George Lois archive of late-20th-century advertising) available to the broader community. We plan to expand into the area of epistemic design: we will ask what students in our non-humanities disciplines need to know in order to be full citizens of the world.  We will explore how can we work with the academic departments in the sciences and engineering to build a broader appreciation of human considerations into their work.

III. Our Planning Process

Organized around our three central themes of (1) cultural and linguistic diversity, (2) cultural institutions and resources of the city, and (3) science, technology, and the humanities, our planning process will be guided by a faculty steering committee with one representative (the department chair or the chair’s designee) from each of our six humanities departments (Art [art history], Classical and Modern Languages and Literatures, English, History, Music [musicology and music theory], and Philosophy). The steering committee will meet bi-weekly over the summer, with its members working individually and through electronic communication between meetings, to prepare an academic-year planning process with broad participation.

We will begin the academic year with an all-division meeting, held off-campus at a cultural institution or organization that the steering committee has identified as a community partner (for example, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture or the Museum of the City of New York). This meeting will provide an opportunity for faculty to discuss the “Humanities of and for the City” initiative, and to provide their input on possible programs to pursue. At this meeting, we will set the agenda for three Working Groups devoted to our three central themes.

Following this meeting, the Steering Committee will issue a call and select as many as 6 participants for each of three Working Groups. The Working Groups will include faculty from other City College schools and divisions with an eye toward fostering interdisciplinary collaboration and planning. Each participant will be charged with committing time and energy to rethink the ways in which we can integrate the Working Group’s theme into a revitalized set of humanities programs and curriculum.

During the early fall 2019 each Working Group, convened by members of the Steering Committee, will meet at least bi-weekly to develop a program of inquiry and planning around the questions posed at the start of this process. Each group will survey curricular and co-curricular innovations in the humanities at other institutions. Each will plan a course of exploration and experimentation that is best suited to its area and that will enable it, ultimately, to recommend programmatic developments. By mid-fall 2019, each group will present a work plan to the Steering Committee. The Working Groups will have budgets available for their activities, which will include some, if not all, of the following:

  • Groups may bring speakers from other institutions to campus. When groups host a speaker, the expert will be asked to make a presentation to the Working Group and will also be asked to make a plenary presentation open to all faculty. The latter will serve as an occasion to keep the college community informed and engaged in “Humanities of and for the City.”
  • Working Groups may engage in site visits to other colleges and universities that they identified in their environmental scans of other institutions as models for new initiatives.
  • Working Groups will certainly visit cultural institutions in New York City.
  • Working Groups will engage with leaders and officers of cultural institutions in order to evaluate the possibility of partnerships, and to establish those partnerships.
  • Working Groups will host lunches or coffees with faculty in other divisions and schools of the college, most notably the Divisions of Science, School of Engineering, and School of Architecture, as well as the Medical School, in order to discuss opportunities for curricular innovations and collaborations.
  • Working Groups may decide to pilot a limited number of courses, internships, and service learning opportunities for students in Spring 2020.

Working Groups will present final reports of their recommendations by mid-spring 2020. These final reports will inform a series of planning sessions among the Steering Committee and Working Group members to identify the best ways to mobilize the ideas generated in our discussions. Finally, we will initiate programmatic and curricular development toward developing the college’s “Humanities of and for the City” program. This will include an all-division meeting to discuss the findings of the workshops.

Last Updated: 01/21/2020 15:28