• September 1, 2014

Duke Scholar and Publisher Move to Her ‘Crush School’

Duke Scholar and Publisher Move to Her ‘Crush School’ 1

Kaysi Holman

Cathy Davidson and Ken Wissoker

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close Duke Scholar and Publisher Move to Her ‘Crush School’ 1

Kaysi Holman

Cathy Davidson and Ken Wissoker

The Graduate Center of the City University of New York has attracted one of the country’s academic power couples, Cathy N. Davidson and Ken Wissoker.

Both are among the most desirable hires in their fields. They will take up new positions in July at the center, which offers some 40 doctoral and master’s programs, in such fields as anthropology, chemistry, and urban education.

Ms. Davidson, at Duke University, is a leading interdisciplinary and learning-innovation scholar. Mr. Wissoker, who joined Duke University Press in 1991, has been in charge of its editorial operations since 1997. The press has built its reputation in such fields as cultural studies, postcolonial theory, gay and lesbian studies, and literary criticism.

"This was totally not a spousal hire," said Ms. Davidson by phone last week. Graduate Center officials "never once used the words ‘partner hire’ for either of us. I made a joke at one point that I wasn’t sure that I’d be going, but I knew they’d still be pursuing Ken. He has many admirers there."

Ms. Davidson’s initial academic interest, incubated while "the only girl at math camp," was artificial intelligence. But she studied English literature and began to specialize in literary studies and theory. After receiving her doctorate at SUNY’s Binghamton University, she went to Duke University in 1989 "on the Stanley Fish train, in that notorious moment," when star faculty members were pushing the boundaries of literary and cultural criticism.

She rose to appointments at Duke in both English and interdisciplinary studies, and also served as vice provost for interdisciplinary studies. She and a colleague founded Hastac, the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory, a network of more than 8,000 researchers intent on finding new ways to teach and learn, including through the use of digital technologies. Its administration will move with Ms. Davidson to CUNY’s Graduate Center.

With an appointment in the English department there, Ms. Davidson will also direct the university’s systemwide Futures Initiative, which will foster collaborative approaches to improving higher education. The name, she says, is wordplay on the economic investment that higher education represents.

Ms. Davidson has written, co-written, or edited 20 books, including The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (MIT Press, 2010), and has published hundreds of academic papers. A member of the National Council on the Humanities, she speaks often on such topics as how computer games and other resources are prompting new modes of attention and learning.

When she announced her new appointment on Twitter, she said the Graduate Center had been her "crush school" for years. In part, she says, that is because the faculty there is "just brilliant" and "a brain trust," whose quality sometimes is not fully recognized because of the proximity of prominent institutions like Columbia University and New York University.

Her affection for the institution, she says, began with its support of her friend, the cultural-studies icon Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whom CUNY so fully supported that she was able to continue teaching until near the time of her death, in 2009, from cancer. "I’ve never seen an institution be so humane, and be so scintillatingly, intelligently engaged, from the president on down to her graduate students," Ms. Davidson says.

She has been a harsh critic of declines in financial support for higher education. "Appalling," she calls it. "Part of my coming to the Graduate Center is really being a voice for saying, ‘This is cultural suicide.’  "

She says she wrote her 2011 trade book, Now You See It, in hopes of engaging public interest in the ideas that computer games are teaching students new ways of learning and collaborating, and that massive open online courses, or MOOCs, can serve as catalysts for the formation of "amazing communities."

But her embrace of new technologies is measured. She warns in particular against "the most naïve kind of technophilia that says you’re going to solve with technology all the problems of 50 years of defunding of public higher education."

Ms. Davidson sees her new post as "an incubator of a scale and a public urgency that I could only dream of anyplace else." She has already designed her first course at CUNY: She and 15 graduate students will work with a geographer to perform a "mapping" of the "futures of higher education" in the New York area.

She has been teaching two courses on the history and future of higher education—one a six-week MOOC, the other a face-to-face graduate class whose students facilitate the MOOC, an activity they are describing on a Chronicle blog.

Ms. Davidson says she was nominated at a high level for nine provostships or presidencies during the past year, but opted instead for a position with the potential to multiply the effect of her ideas for academic reform. "There are 4,500 graduate students at the Graduate Center, and they teach 200,000 undergraduates a year," she notes. The Graduate Center (across from the Empire State Building) is "the skyscraper version of the little red schoolhouse."

For her husband as well, the Graduate Center’s location was an attraction. Duke University Press is housed in a converted tobacco warehouse a short distance from the campus. At the Graduate Center, faculty members work in a single building.

There, Mr. Wissoker will become director of Intellectual Publics, a position he designed. He named it to convey a sense of the many groups of people a university can reach when it is in a major city.

He will program events featuring Graduate Center faculty members, the contacts in the New York area he has made in his work with the Duke press, and other people. "There are a lot of events going on in New York all the time," he said by phone, "but considering the academics that are there, there’s a lot of 92nd Street Y-ness."

His aim is to organize events that will engage the region’s many scholars "to create a different ethos" of exploring key issues—"to really try to think, in the same way I do with the press’s list, about what are the ideas that really need some definition" and which scholars from various fields "could work out together."

Although he is moving to New York, Mr. Wissoker will remain editorial director of Duke University Press. "It’ll be great for the press to have me there," he says, with ready access to the kinds of gatherings and other activities that fuel publishing. "That keeps the press front and center in a good way."

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