Grossmann on HSS Protest: ‘We need a different structure’

By Brian Frost (EE ’19) and George Ho (BSE ’19)

According to Professor of History Atina Grossmann, she and Professor Ninad Pandit, a post-doctoral fellow in social science, “significantly changed” the HSS-3 curriculum to include readings with non-Western perspectives. The changes are ostensibly a reaction to the HSS petition in 2016, but it is unclear how these readings are incorporated into the classroom.

Separately, Professor Sam Keene, chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, emphasized that changing the HSS curricula is entirely up to the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences; the Task Force serves an advisory role only.

After the HSS petition in 2016, Grossmann wrote an open letter to the protesters that was published in The Pioneer. “[The letter] basically says exactly what I’d say now,” said Grossmann, regarding the current situation.

When asked about the diversification of the HSS faculty, she first expressed agreement with the protesters. “The demand for more hiring in HSS that will be able to provide the diversity—both in terms of people and expertise—is super important.”

However, Grossmann added that there are inherent troubles with meeting the demand for more faculty of color. “They obviously exist,” she said. “Recruiting and retaining them is a challenge, because often people who are really good will get much better offers, but students should make that demand and administration and faculty should prioritize that effort”.

According to Grossmann, the most expedient and realistic avenue for diversifying the HSS faculty is through the opening of more postdoctoral positions. “The postdocs are the way we are able to quickly find a more diverse full-time (if time-limited) faculty,” she emphasized

Students have voiced concerns about the diversity and Eurocentricity of the HSS curriculum, specifically with regards to HSS-3. Grossmann conceded that core HSS program is imperfect. When taught in 2018, HSS-3 “needs to be much broader than what it is now.” She also agreed with the expressed sentiment that Cooper education is indeed “incomplete.”

However, affecting such curricular changes is difficult given the current position of the HSS Faculty within the Cooper Union, saying that “in order to do that more completely, we need a different structure.”

Regarding the content of the HSS curriculum, Grossmann highlights that she did work to de-Westernize the curriculum, saying that “Professor Pandit and I actually did work to significantly change the [HSS-3] readings”. The idea, she explained, was to offer “a non-Western perspective” almost every week in the HSS-3 syllabus. “We did that. And people should look at it”, she urges. When pressed on why students currently in the class continue to be dissatisfied, she laments that “we don’t have the structure in a less-than-fifty-minute-lecture (and one weekly section) to really contextualize and delve into those texts”, saying that “we’re going to have to change the way we think about space for HSS” in order to do such works justice. This has to be an ongoing process to which we devote serious time and resources.

The course, HSS-3: The Making of Modern Society, is “a study of the key political, social and intellectual developments of modern Europe in global context,” according to the online course catalog. Grossmann said that “it is aspiring to talk about the making of a modern society; it will always cover these key ruptures we cover in HSS-3 now,” referring to events such as the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolutions, imperialism and decolonization, and the World Wars.

Furthermore, she believed that the HSS faculty in its current state is ill-equipped to cover a more global history. “We need to hire people who actually have expertise in the areas that we want to cover,” said Grossmann.

Aside from the content of the HSS curriculum, Grossmann emphasized that the structure of The Cooper Union, and the place of HSS within it, is equally flawed. “HSS occupies a very peculiar position at Cooper: we have zero say in admissions, we do not grant degrees (which means that there are fewer consequences to protest),” Grossmann said, “we have little say in scheduling classes and above all, we face the structural problem of resistance to changing the curricular and credit structure so that we actually have space and time to offer more courses appropriate to a globalized modern or postmodern society and to hire a more diverse faculty to offer those courses and work to expand and revise the core curriculum.”

On the topic of how the structure of HSS may change to allow for a more diverse education, Grossmann urged students “to pressure their own schools to allow more space and credit in their curriculum for humanities and social sciences classes where race, gender (and other key questions that deal with the historical and cultural context of our current political moment) can be analyzed and interrogated in a rigorous academic way.”

Finally, when asked what the effect diversity in the student body has on the events of the past week, Grossmann said: “I think that a more diverse student body would change, for the better, the climate at Cooper. It would change the way that students feel in the school. I think that’s a big challenge.”

She noted that she sits on the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, which is, in part, devoted to addressing such issues.

We reached out to Sam Keene, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, to comment on what the Task Force does in relation to curricula, and specifically the HSS curriculum.

The Task Force is comprised of several subgroups called “working groups”, one of which focuses on inclusive pedagogy. “Everyone is more or less in agreement that the HSS curriculum could be more inclusive,” said Sam Keene, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. The working group has not “specifically addressed the HSS curriculum, as it is not really in our purview to change curricula. That belongs to the HSS faculty,” Keene explained.

When asked to speak to the Eurocentricity and decolonization of the HSS curricula, Keene again clarified that “it’s not really our job to discuss the specifics of what should change in the HSS curriculum. Our job is more to recognize and recommend ways to find solutions.”

To illustrate, he offered example recommendations: “providing summer stipends for the HSS faculty [so they have time to discuss curriculum changes]; hiring additional post-docs that are people of color, women, etc. so we have more of them in front of our students and they can also contribute to curriculum development.”

However, Keene clarified that the Task Force has not yet finalized its recommendations, and that these examples are merely tentative recommendations under consideration. It is important to note that it is ultimately up to the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences to change their curriculum.

“We are not advising that [the HSS department] change,” Keene added, “We are advising the administration on how to support HSS should they want to make changes.”

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