By Brian Frost (EE ’19)
On Nov. 1, The Pioneer interviewed Peter Buckley, Acting Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences about the ongoing protest against the department and its curricula.
BLF-L: How is all of this affecting the general atmosphere of the humanities department?
PB: I think that many of the faculty are upset about the poster campaign especially; not so much about the actual nature of the protest, but about how it started. It looked as if we were being called out for particular problems that we didn’t think were representative of what we do
BLF-L: If you could speak to that a little bit more, were there certain specific posters that were really hurtful to certain faculty members?
PB: I think when names were mentioned people were sensitive that there’s a difference between having a general critique and people being identified by name. That seemed to be a line for many people.
BLF-L: With respect to that, at the protest Monday there was a pamphlet passed around which contained a list of complaints from students, a lot of which called out single faculty members. Is that included in this?
PB: I think there were four professors identified by name. Three of them are upset, but not as upset as you might expect them to be. I think they’re taking it better than I would, actually. It all depends on the degree of your personal sensitivity to this, but I think a seasoned teacher is pretty hardened to this stuff. I remember when I was a younger teacher getting my first really bad teaching review from a student and losing sleep over, but over time these things diminish.
BLF-L: To just go back to the beginning of this incident as a whole, when does this start for you? When does this start for the department?
PB: Well you called it an incident – that actually defines the time scale for me answering the question. This incident began with the poster campaign. The issue is a much older one, and it goes back in one way or another over several years. I think one thing that has upset faculty is that it was not generally known by the students that the faculty had already requested a full program review already from the president, which is going to be announced by the president shortly. That will look now as if it is coupled with the campaign, but it had already been agreed to prior to the current round of student protests. It dates back to 2017, when we went to the president to say “look, it’s about time the overall learning objectives of HSS were examined, and we’re willing to do it”.
BLF-L: So I remember my first year at Cooper in Spring of 2016 there was a similar petition.
PB: There was a petition, and indeed it was shortly after that petition – but again really uncoupled from it – that we, as a faculty talked about the necessity of revisiting what we do in HSS-1 through 4. The difficulty with a sequence like that is you can’t really change one without changing all, so it was a question of actually wanting to reexamine the whole rather than tinkering with one course.
BLF-L: Do you think anything measurable came out of that petition in 2016?
PB: Yes, I think it added to the urgency of examining what we do.
BLF-L: And you said the choice to reexamine the curriculum afterward was mostly uncoupled?
PB: Well we have to answer to ourselves, not to a petition. That is, our constituency is not one cohort of students, but ongoing cohorts of students. You have to imagine the ways in which the student body is changing, the way in which the fields are changing, the way notions of general education are changing, the way that technology is changing how we teach. What we’re currently doing for example was conceived at a time where almost all reading took place out of books, and now almost all reading takes place in a digital format. In fact I think you can say that students’ relationship to reading has changed, so what does that mean for the construction of an HSS curriculum? These are big questions that have to be thought through, and in part it’s so difficult because we don’t know what’s going to happen 5 years after the fact.
2016 vs. 2018
PB: To move on to a question you haven’t yet asked, what is the difference between 2016 and 2018? I think this is different, because if you look at what student protestors have written it’s as much about how we teach as what we teach. I’m struck by the idea of a sort of non-hierarchical method of teaching. I think that’s part of what decolonization means; it’s not simply changing the texts, but changing the approach to the texts.
BLF-L: I think that’s an interesting point, because clearly students in the engineering school have been going to classrooms with a hierarchical structure their entire times at Cooper and will continue to, or it doesn’t at least look like that’s changing any time soon.
PB: Correct. When you come up against quadratic equations or whatever, the authority is usually invested towards the front of the room. Whatever happens happens usually between the professor and the expression. I think that for art students, where the critique is a central method of their education, the experience of an organized classroom in HSS does seem to be a qualitatively different way of teaching.
BLF-L: Is that something you are considering addressing as a department? Do you think that the humanities can be taught in a categorically different way any time soon?
PB: That’s the open question. That is the open question. All I can say is that some teachers seem to do that effectively and others don’t. In other words, some teachers seem to be praised for the way they conduct themselves. I was struck yesterday by one student saying that they had a great experience in HSS-1, and that issues of identity were addressed.
BLF-L: What role do you think identity plays in the classroom, and specifically in the humanities classroom?
PB: What a great question. That is the question. Do I have an answer? Not immediately. Do I think it’s an important question to address? Yes I do, and this is a longer-term problem. That’s why I brought this question up yesterday: the value of addressing lived experience in the classroom. That’s a very central question, and it’s a new question actually. That rhetoric was not part of 2016 very much, but is a part of 2018. So that’s what I see as a change.
BLF-L: Do you think we’re going to see any immediate change from HSS on that front? And if we did, what would it look like?
PB: Absolutely! [Laughter] I think what you have to report there is that those two questions are taken seriously by the faculty. Do we address it? And if we address it what would it look like?
BLF-L: I recall yesterday you noted that you take issue with the word “curriculum”?
PB: Well what we have is not a curriculum, because a curriculum requires, usually, about 120 credits, and we’re talking about, well for an engineer, 6 courses required.
BLF-L: What do you think a student’s role in deciding how and what they are taught is?
PB: Well that’s why yesterday I asked, “well then why not just simply have electives?” Then you could say that it would be a devolution of the curriculum towards student choice. Because I was struck by the fact that everyone was saying HSS-1, 2 and 3, and no one was saying anything against HSS-4, which is when choice first appears. So I wondered whether this was an issue of choice, and I believe the student who answered said “No, we don’t want that.”
BLF-L: If I recall, that student said that they didn’t want that because it could sacrifice other aspects of those first three HSS classes which are positive; namely, the fact that it’s an opportunity for students from all three schools to be in the same classroom. What do you think about that point?
PB: I think it’s a lovely point, that one of the best things about HSS is that it’s a shared experience. If only it was moreso. Moreso in the sense that so much of what happens at Cooper Union is not actually about real student choice or real curriculum planning, it’s about the schedule. About what’s available for any student at any time. We try to do our best to make sure that every section of HSS-1 and HSS-2 is available for every school, but it doesn’t happen. So architecture, for example, next semester has only about 5 or 6 of the HSS-2 slots available because of their own schedule. So that means already that there will be 7 or 8 HSS-2 sections without any architects.
BLF-L: And that has nothing to do with the Humanities Department?
PB: Absolutely. Well, it does in that if one of the best things about HSS is the intermingling of students from all three schools, then there is a schedule failure underlying the pedagogical failure. What facetime we have with students is largely determined by the schools.
BLF-L: Do you think there is room to restructure the curriculum significantly?
PB: Critically, not within HSS. You can’t restructure HSS without looking at what the relationship is between HSS and the schools. What the president wants to do, and it’s because we ourselves have signed onto this, is ask “what should be the common educational experiences of all Cooper students?” And already this is broader than HSS, because there could be math requirements, science requirements, who knows what you could dream up. These are institutional-level questions. So anything that’s going to be dramatically new has to be addressed institutionally, not just from HSS.
Going through the Pamphlet:
BLF-L: So I think it would be interesting to go through each of the demands from the pamphlet given out at the protest with you. In a lot of these demands there is mention of your department responding by email by November 9th – a week from tomorrow. Is that happening?
PB: Well I don’t know, it’s not the 9th, is it. And in any case, we haven’t talked as a faculty about the exact ways any of the demands are going to be answered or the time in which they’re going to be answered, nor indeed have we talked about it as deans yet. So that will happen.
I – Transparency
BLF-L: [Reads the first ‘Transparency’ Demand about statistical data releasing out loud]
PB: Well we wouldn’t be able to release that anyway. It would have to come from the administration, not us. We don’t have access to that data. So seriously, that is an administrative issue, we can’t pull up student data by student characteristic. So that has to be addressed by the institution, not by us, how about that as an answer.
BLF-L: Do you think that’s right to do?
PB: Well to do it properly, you’d want to know for what reason each student failed. Because students fail courses for many reasons; attendance, late work, inadequate work; so I think to do such a transparent thing properly, you would need to know, at a finer level of granularity, the reasons for failure.
BLF-L: [Reads ‘transparency’ demand about meetings] ‘… to all members of the Cooper community.’
PB: They are anyway. Well, the meetings have student representatives on each one – on the curriculum committee and the faculty committee. In the case of the curriculum committee, they have student representatives from all three schools, and I believe there’s no other curriculum committee that does! There I would push it back on the students. That is, if the students believe there is inadequate communication about what happens in those meetings, then it’s up to the students to talk to their reps.
BLF-L: So you don’t think there’s any need to open them up any more then?
BLF-L: Are the agendas made public?
PB: They’re publicly available right there [pointing to the main room of the Dean of Humanities office], any of these documents can be read by any member of the Cooper community, but that’s true in all faculties. The faculty minutes and agendas are all open.
II – Hiring
BLF-L: [Reads first demand]
PB: Hiring practices vary between the grades of hiring, so there are indeed differences between how one hires post-docs, how one hires full-timers and how one hires adjuncts. I have no problem talking about the timelines for all of this because obviously post-docs and full-timers can take over a year to hire. Adjuncts, well, part of the issue with adjuncts is that Cooper doesn’t pay its adjuncts very highly. And we have a lot of short-term hiring because of people who drop out at the last minute. For example, this semester I had 4 art history people drop out in the final two weeks because they got full time jobs. In other words we identified great people – so good that they went somewhere else! One thing that I will say about hiring is that we have to hire, at Cooper, in HSS, people who are interested in teaching. And teaching alone, because they’re not coming here to teach majors, are they? And that’s a big difference.
BLF-L: So does that diminish the applicant pool significantly?
PB: Yes, in my opinion it does. We’re going to hire an economist – I think that job will be posted shortly. You’ve got to think about what it would take to hire an economist into Cooper Union – a full-time economist – given whatever job prospects a PhD in economics would have. I’m sure if you ask Professor Stock about hiring into engineering, he’ll have a similar set of concerns, because even if you have an engineering school, this is not Carnegie Mellon.
BLF-L: How does this impact the ability of the Humanities department to find a diverse faculty? Is it simply more challenging than it would be for another school?
PB: Yes. Not that we don’t try, but we have to acknowledge that we will have to advertise in different places – which we are doing – and we have to be much more active in searching for candidates from underrepresented groups in the academy.
BLF-L: So there is a demand here that’s about you. [Reads out loud] Could I ask what your general feelings on that are?
PB: I don’t take that as personally as you might think, because as an acting dean I would be capped at two years anyway. So the assumption is that I’m out at the end of the year anyway, and a replacement will have to be found. So actually I don’t take that as a call for my resignation.
BLF-L: Is there going to be a dean search, or are we going to hire from within the school?
PB: I don’t know, that’s up to the president isn’t it? A dean’s appointment is an appointment by the president, not the faculty.
III – Accountability
BLF-L: [Reads out loud] So I was interested in your thoughts on this point, as there is not much specific about the HSS department. Why do you think it was included in this document?
PB: No idea! I think the student protest is a protest against forms of education that exist outside of HSS as well, and I think that there’s a mixture there between institutional-level issues and HSS-level issues. And that’s because for many students HSS is the other part of the institution for them. So I think we are bearing the freight here of disagreements with the institution.
BLF-L: So do you think this demand is out of place?
PB: Well I think that as the list of demands unfolds, you see that HSS is frequently not the only target of the student protests. Many of the answers to these demands will have to be from the institution, not from us.
IV – Decolonization and Restructuring
BLF-L: Had you heard the term decolonization prior to these protests?
PB: Not specifically, no, but the term was accompanied by an article written against the English department at Cambridge University [laughter]. Which I think is very funny, because of course it needs decolonizing. But if you go back to it, the list of student demands there match some of the demands of the students here. But the English department there has a real curriculum. This thing is a beast. It’s for English majors. It’s as tightly organized as EE. So that’s why I said yesterday “I now have less difficulty understanding what decolonization means than I have thinking about what a curriculum means.” Because you can decolonize an area which is clearly under occupation, but we don’t occupy much!
BLF-L: Do you think this article is still applicable then?
PB: I do, I do think it’s applicable. I appreciate two things about the metaphor of decolonization, and that is what we teach and how we teach. And I think that what we teach is more readily answerable than how we teach. Because a lot of changes have already taken place in the ways in which we present material and choose material.
BLF-L: So that’s one of the points here [Reads ‘Urgently address standing…’] ‘… by next Friday.’ Are you planning on restructuring the curriculum by next Friday?
PB: No because it’s already underway. But what we propose is actually more radical than what the students ask, which is not just redoing HSS-1 through 4, but wondering whether that is the right form. So there’s no point in restructuring, say, HSS-2 without wondering if the whole sequence has to be restructured. We’re not interested in simply inserting more non-Western texts, because that has actually been done pretty effectively. But that’s not the issue; we can always stick some kind of non-Western text anywhere; it’s what you do with the text that is being challenged by this, not the texts themselves.
BLF-L: Something pointed out by other faculty members and some students is that full-time faculty do not have doctoral expertise in non-Western studies.
PB: Yeah but I’m less worried about expertise in fields than I am about understanding new ways of teaching.
BLF-L: So that’s the final point here [Reads].
PB: That is the central new demand. That is the most challenging. I think it is an appropriate demand, but it is the most difficult in my opinion.
BLF-L: Do you think these are ways of learning that engineering students are less familiar with than the other schools?
PB: That’s correct, and I am not sure that it even applies to architecture.
BLF-L: Do you think that is a problem with these demands?
PB: You tell me! We had one student yesterday from ESC saying “no one came to me about this”.
[He is referring to Yingzhi Hao, the Junior Electrical Engineering representative on ESC who stated during Wednesday’s meeting that he emailed each member of his section to gauge their opinion on the HSS protestors list of demands. Most students, he claimed, were apathetic in their responses.]
BLF-L: Do you think it is the right of the students to ask the faculty to embrace a style of pedagogy?
PB: Yes, I think it’s okay to do that, sure! It’s okay for students to ask to embrace a pedagogy, the issue is whether the pedagogy is going to work for all. There’s many questions about this: firstly, is it possible? Is it possible to produce a new kind of pedagogy for HSS? Is it appropriate to do that if one thinks of all of the students that one might have to address. It might be experientially problematic for engineering students to come out of their engineering classes and into a new form of pedagogy in HSS. Who knows! These are issues that need to be thought through. We as faculty know the depth of sentiment but we don’t know the extent of the student sentiment. We don’t! It made one pause when someone from the Engineering Student Council said “well no one came to me about this”. And I know that at least two of the leaders of the protest are engineering students, but my knowledge of their interest in this issue doesn’t give me any knowledge of how far this issue stretched within the school of engineering students.
BLF-L: Before I leave, I was wondering if you had any final statement that you would like to make.
PB: What I would like you to convey is that first of all, all of the faculty take this seriously, and what seems new to us is the fact that this is as much about how we teach as what we teach, and therefore will mean different kinds of responses to the demands than we’ve had in the past.