Initiated in the fall 2016 semester, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) Life Histories Project has sought to conduct oral history interviews with graduate students at Columbia University, as a first step towards cultivating a more actively inclusive Columbia campus environment. The project was significantly inspired by the racially charged conflicts that transpired at the University of Missouri, Yale College, and other American institutions of higher learning in the fall 2015 semester, to which GSAS Dean Carlos Alonso responded in a November 2015 letter to students: “There are members of our community who feel that their rightful sense of belonging to it is not fully recognized or realized. Let us first acknowledge that real experience of disavowal, and then assume the responsibility that we all have to work together to address that circumstance. Only then will we be able to legitimately claim that we are building an enduring community at Columbia.”
Our training as oral historians, in conjunction with our experience as alumni of both Columbia College and GSAS, led us to assume that students’ experiences of disavowal could only be fully understood in the context of their personal biographies. We have therefore taken a life history approach to our interviews. We ask our interviewees to narrate the experiences, relationships, and social contexts that have contributed to the formation of their individual self-identities, from their early life to the present moment. Moving chronologically through the interviewee’s life story, we pay particular attention to the sources of his or her decision to attend Columbia for graduate school, and his or her expectations of academic and social life here before matriculating. Then, we devote much of our time to questions designed to elucidate ways in which Columbia has either met or failed to meet those expectations, how the individual interviewee has in turn responded to those experiences, and reflections and suggestions that could prove useful for future generations of Columbians wrestling with the same dilemmas of alienation and disillusionment on campus.
This project creates a space for students to share their personal history with Columbia in a much more comprehensive, nuanced, productive, intimate, and honest way than they would on a simple survey. It promises to advance the causes of meaningful academic diversity and student wellness at Columbia University, as well as the discourses of oral history methodology and intersectional community-building in American education.
With financial support from Dean Alonso’s office, and administrative support from the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE), our initial collection of interviews (conducting during the fall 2016 semester) is comprised of 33 interview sessions with 18 GSAS students, one interview session with Dean Alonso, one interview session with Dean of Academic Diversity Isabel Geathers, and four interview sessions in which we interviewed each other (two for Mario and two for Benji). Of the total 39 sessions, 35 are video recorded. All together, the interview collection consists of approximately 70 recorded hours.
We recruited GSAS student narrators through an open call that we disseminated through each academic department’s Director of Graduate Studies. We tried to be as explicitly inclusive in our call as possible, writing, "This project is about student diversity in all forms: race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, geographic origin, family history, body type, and yes, academic discipline. We are looking for narrators who are open to sharing their life experiences from both within and without the confines of our university." We did not turn away any students who expressed interest in being interviewed.
Our initial sample of 18 self-selecting graduate students is not fully representative of the GSAS student body. Of the students that we interviewed, 13 are female and 5 are male; 14 are in the humanities/social sciences and 4 are in the natural sciences; 15 identify as students of color; 5 are international students; 1 identifies as LGBTQ. 9 are M.A. students and 9 are doctoral students.
Of those 9 doctoral students we interviewed, 1 was in her first year, 2 were in their second year, and 4 were in their third year. Of the 9 M.A. students, 6 were in their first year. This disproportionate number of relatively new students creates an opportunity to re-interview them later on in their Columbia careers.
The goal of this webpage is to provide a preliminary sense and interpretation of our investigation's major thematic findings. Given the uncommonly rich and multivalent nature of oral history interview content, the narrative we draw below is no more than a rough sketch of our collection's potential to usefully intervene in ongoing debates about student needs and academic diversity in American higher education.
By highlighting some of the most eloquent expressions of the intersections between root causes of Columbia student dissatisfaction and salient dimensions of Columbia student identities, this webpage aims to show the importance of carrying the GSAS Life Histories Project out to its fullest, most ambitious vision, which includes:
A larger, more thorough analysis of the initial collection of 39 interview sessions, which will include formal recommendations to Arts & Sciences administration about ways to foster a greater sense of belonging and support among Columbia's student body.
Collaboration with campus entities such as the Office of University Life and the Task Force on Race, Ethnicity, and Inclusion, to develop our oral history project into a public dialogue project. Our interview content has great potential to produce public programming and pedagogical material that can advance efforts to cultivate a more inclusive and engaging academic environment at Columbia and other institutions.
Many more life history interviews with Columbia graduate students, and eventually with undergraduates, faculty, and staff.
The development of a methodological blueprint and training module—synthesizing the most successful aspects of our collection, analysis, and presentation of life hitstory interviews—for this type of project to be carried out by students and alumni at other institutions of higher learning across the United States; not just Ivy League elites, but also public universities and community colleges.
Major Findings: A Narrative of Themes
Note: At the preliminary stage of presenting our major findings, we chose to anonymize the identities of our narrators, the vast majority of which are still active Columbia students. While the narrators we highlight below have all signed legal consent forms, we continue to err on the side of caution in sharing their intimate testimony at this time.
1. Stress and Isolation
We conducted our first interview in mid-September 2016 with a friend, Kenny. Like both of us, Kenny graduated from Columbia College in 2014. Like Benji, Kenny matriculated into GSAS immediately following his B.A. degree, and was a 3rd-year Ph.D. candidate in the sciences when we interviewed him. Several months before we interviewed him, Kenny confided in us that he was seriously considering the option of dropping out of graduate school. In our interview, we asked him to walk us through the aspects of his first two years in GSAS that led him to that distressing thought process.
Sadly, the themes of disorientation, burnout, and "unproductive narratives" that Kenny elaborated here were all too familiar to both of us. The two of us did have 11 combined years of Columbia experience, after all. J's story confirmed for us the necessity of taking a broad life history approach, rather than a scientific approach narrowly focused on one or two social variables, to our investigation of the root causes of alienation within the Columbia community.
In this light, we found Kenny's commentary most germane to our objective when he elaborated on the chronic absence of his departmental adviser. Only two weeks prior, we had interviewed Dean Alonso, who had spoken eloquently about the deep and consistent engagement that is required of faculty advisers vis-à-vis their students in order for the graduate school to achieve its highest purpose. We have added emphasis to the portions of Dean Alonso's commentary which throw into relief the way that Kenny's graduate school experience fell short of the standard to which GSAS and its departments ostensibly hold themselves.
Alonso: … a large percentage of your work in a research institution, or in a department of a research institution with a doctoral program, goes into the recruitment and the nurturing of graduate students. Having graduate students is an enormous commitment. It begins with recruiting people to come to the program, but it's a commitment that lasts six, seven, eight years, and beyond.
…The fact is that after they graduate, and they're done with the dissertation, you will continue to read their articles, their book manuscripts, their project proposals for funding and so forth. So when you admit a graduate student, you are in fact making a commitment to them that lasts sometimes, fifteen, twenty years. It's something that we take very seriously, and it's something that you do because you like the benefits of having graduate students, which are several. You have graduate students because you derive some pleasure from helping them finding their way intellectually in their field, but also because the kind of dialogue you have with graduate students makes you a better researcher, a better intellectual, a better academic. A lot of people are not interested, necessarily, in that. It's a huge amount of work.
Kenny's story was the first of many narratives of academic disavowal that we encountered in our recorded conversations with GSAS students.
2. Lack of Guidance and Imposter Syndrome
About a month after interviewing Kenny, we interviewed Nora, a first-year M.A. student in the sciences. Nora also spoke about the glaring lack of support she received from her departmental adviser. She explained to us that the seeming lack of care she inferred from her faculty translated into a debilitating self-doubt, which affected her ability to produce the work that was expected of her.
Nora's comments render quite starkly Dean Alonso's identification of the "the real experience of disavowal" within the Columbia student body. What surprised us, however, was that Nora did not attribute her experience of disavowal to either her identity as a woman in the sciences, or her identity as a person of color in the academy (Nora is of Indian ancestry). Instead, her sense of invisibility and her imposter syndrome developed in more general terms, as a function of feeling forgotten by her adviser and unable to discuss the difficulties of hyper-self-reliance with her classmates.
From our own experience, we know this feeling of academic disavowal is widely generalizable to the entire Columbia student population. No particular identity markers render a student immune to this experience. In fact, it was a white male student (Zane, a 7th year humanities Ph.D. candidate), who rendered the experience of academic disavowal most evocatively for us:
Zane: I've just been slipping through the cracks. You're supposed to have a committee, and I never really met with them as a full quorum ever. And it never became a problem. I mean, it’s a problem for me. I wish I'd had that. It was never something that was like, “Now we'll have your committee meeting, now we'll have this.” It's been very casual, very informal. I don't know, I have a lot of regrets about that. I have a lot of regrets about that. I'm in a challenging situation now where I'm trying to finish up my dissertation, and having had very little oversight, very little oversight, I assume I’ll finish it. Because if I don't, I won't. I ought to. I feel some regrets about that. I feel a lot of frustration about that. Part of it, too, is I could have done more to get them involved, to whip everyone into shape. But I also don't really feel like that's my role as a student. Or it oughtn't be. I recognize that maybe it's part of my psychology to want to take guilt onto myself rather than attributing it to others—and maybe I should attribute it to others, I think. It's at least 50% their fault. I’ll at least say that. Yeah. It's too bad. It’s really too bad. I feel like I could have done more and better work if I had been better supported.
Zane offered a straightforward analysis of why his advisory committee lacked the initiative to provide meaningful guidance through his doctoral path: The imperatives of teaching and mentorship are not widely valued in his department's academic culture.
Zane: I do wish it was more acknowledged that teaching is an important part of your education. At least in my department. As I've said, I've had professors say, “You're teaching too much. You spend too much time on teaching.” In those words. They are like, “Why are you so interested in this?” As though I'm some kind of space alien or something. But I don't know, those people got to where they are because they don't want to think about teaching. They're interested in doing their own research and they write books that have a ton of footnotes that are really well regarded and well received and publish in all the right places. And that's why they are where they are. If that's how the institution is structured, those are the people you're going to get who are your teachers—who don't actually care about that. That's the fundamental problem: These gears are not fitting together. The rewards and incentives are not lined up with the way the structure is.
…If I had known then what I know now, about what the professional expectations of doing research are, I would definitely think twice about going and about pursuing that as a career. Frankly, I've tried so hard to make doing research valuable to me or to others, or to feel there's some social good in doing that, and I can't make it happen. I can't make it click without feeling there's some kind of deception going on. Either self-deception or deception of others. I think it's because research in the humanities is fundamentally not about the production of knowledge; it's about the interpretation.
Returning to our interview with Nora, it is worth noting that if any one of her identity markers factored into her experience of academic disavowal at Columbia, it was actually that of "M.A. student." Nora explained that being in the department's master's program made things doubly difficult for her, because it increased the pressure she was under to produce an original research proposal in her first semester at the University, with even less guidance than a typical doctoral student in her department could expect to receive.
Nora: I interact a lot with the Ph.D. students—we're in the same classes—and they seem a lot more at ease. I mean, they're first year Ph.D. students, so they're getting a handle on the field. They're not asking their questions quite yet. Whereas the master's students have to come to the program, get used to the program, find an advisor, figure out a question to ask, plan that question, apply to grants. It's like we're doing a Ph.D. in two years. Not having prepared before that—that's not okay.
3. Bureaucratic Disavowal, Far Away From Home
Nora, a native of Southern California, explained to us that the anxieties she experienced during her first semester at Columbia were the result of not only academic pressures, but also of the more general experience of moving to New York, and feeling far away from "the things that are familiar to me."
This theme of fending for oneself in unfamiliar surroundings appeared in a number of the oral histories that we conducted, and most prominently in those of the international students who volunteered for our project. One international student, Ava, a 3rd-year Ph.D. candidate in the humanities, listed a number of ways in which Columbia's non-academic offices failed to facilitate her transition to the United States from abroad. Like many of our narrators, the dominant theme of Ava's Columbia reminiscences is the impersonality of Columbia's student services. But her particular narrative demonstrates the especially high level of risk and material insecurity that this impersonality forces international students to experience.
Columbia's failure to communicate effectively with Ava before her arrival was compounded when, as she told us later in the interview, she found out upon arrival that her departmental adviser would be on leave for her first semester. Academic disavowal unfortunately dovetailed with bureaucratic disavowal, as Ava continued to have issues with Columbia housing; was forced along with many other international students to dispute a major tax error at the University; and several times had to track down her monthly stipend check when it was not delivered as it should have been. "I went to three different academic offices looking for my missing stipend," Ava recalled. "It's just a little humiliating to have to constantly be doing that…many of us have gone through these minor humiliations."
In unpacking the stakes and significance of these minor humiliations, Ava cut to the heart of our investigation's interest in the shortcomings of Columbia's efforts to foster meaningful academic diversity.
Ava: For someone coming from a different country with limited financial means, who is fully dependent on Columbia, it can be very anxiety-inducing to understand that they’re not really invested in your well-being necessarily, and that they don't really care if the stuff doesn't work out. That's the message that I often got: "Yeah, it's not our problem. It's on you to struggle to make this work and to stay here." I feel like it's more of a mutual understanding. I have decided to come here; they have decided to accept me, and that's also some form of responsibility of making this work. They know from my application who I am and what the limitations are. There’s a little box asking what your “diversity” little marker is. I said, "As an Eastern European I feel a little excluded in [my field] and I'm also not from a wealthy background so I'm a little concerned about that too." It was all there. Admitting people who you want, to add diversity, means you also have to make that diversity work and provide resources to help them be able to succeed here. I don't want to be coddled, but just, you know, I want to feel like I actually am welcome here.
The difficulties that Ava recalls facing at Columbia were not just humiliations that exacted a toll on her psychological sense of belonging at the University. They were also real emergencies that detracted from the time, energy, and logistical security that are required of students in order for them to conduct the work they are brought to Columbia to conduct. As Ava explained:
Ava: If our productivity is not being impacted by all these unnecessary issues, you know, I could have focused more time my first year thinking about, like, how to publish some of my papers for example. If I wasn't panicking over my apartment and whatever else it was; my taxes afterwards. It was just the school work and dealing with all this other stuff. I could've been further ahead in the program I'm in now in some ways. If they eliminate these issues it's for everyone’s good.
4. Race and Silences
Within our initial collection of oral histories, Ava's narrative is particularly important because it delineates the complicated nature of disavowal experiences at Columbia University. Disavowal is both a universal and particularized phenomenon. That is, students at Columbia feel alienated, isolated, anxious, and invisible at the University for reasons both independent of, and in intersection with, the particular sets of experiences and identity markers they bring to campus with them.
We cannot overstate the importance of this finding. Recognizing student vulnerability as both a universal and intersectional problem means recognizing the need for a multi-pronged solution, one that addresses student needs in ways that are both uniform and personalized.
Like so many other narrators, Chloe (a 2nd-year M.A. student in the humanities) recalled her first year at Columbia as an isolating time because of: a) the dearth of engaged advising in her department, and b) the experience of "moving to the city [from Upstate New York], feeling out of place, and not having your group—not having someone [to whom] you can be like, 'I'm right outside of your door, open up.'" After hearing this, we asked Chloe to evaluate the role played by her ethnic and gender identities in her Columbia experience of isolation.
This portion of Chloe's narrative points to a number of key threads that ought to be developed as the GSAS Life Histories Project moves forward. First, we found, the experience of racially charged disavowal at Columbia often results in public silences about issues of race by those who experience these issues most intensely. By their nature, of course, silences go unrecorded and therefore publicly unacknowledged. It is telling that aside from Chloe, only one other black student (G, whom we discuss below) volunteered to be interviewed for our project; the other 13 students of color we interviewed were of either non-Afro Latin American or Asian descent. Given our project's original impulse to flesh out nuanced stories of racially charged disavowal at Columbia, this lack of black narrators was a disappointment. Therefore, we believe that the next interview phase of this project ought to specifically call for students who identify as black to be interviewed, and put questions of racialized experience on the table more explicitly than it was in this initial exploratory phase.
Second, Chloe mentions the importance of having a therapist with whom she can process the sources and feelings of her disavowal experience at the University. Elsewhere in the interview, she mentions that her therapist works at Columbia's Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS). Recall that the student Nora also mentioned seeking out a therapist at CPS; in follow-up conversation several months after our interview, Nora told us that the therapist had played a significant role in easing her transition to Columbia. We therefore believe that one way Columbia could address the experience of disavowal as a universal problem within the student body is to treat the transition to GSAS and New York City—replete with academic pressures, social isolation, and logistical difficulties—as a source of mental health concerns that require personalized attention to effectively address.
Third, Chloe points to what we now realize is something of an abiding riddle for Columbia University: how to foster a meaningfully integrated campus community, when the institution is conscientiously global and embedded in one of the world's most hyperactive metropolises? As Chloe points out, Columbia's situation in New York can help students from underrepresented groups feel more at ease: "I think the city makes the school appear more diverse than it actually is, and that's helpful." However, this global situation puts a strain on the students' willingness and ability to participate in the locality of the campus: "Because I'm here I feel like I need to venture outside of Columbia a lot more. Otherwise I don't think I would be happy." Thus, we find, there is untapped potential for Columbia to preemptively address some new students' experience of unbelonging and disavowal by capitalizing on the institution's global identity and situation in New York. However, doing so will require a nuanced approach to balancing students' ultimately opposed desires to spend time on campus and in the city. It will also require a robust effort to ensure that the University's truly global students, such as Ava, are provided with the resources to make them feel valued and secure on campus.
5. Confronting Stereotypes
A meaningful activation of Columbia's multicultural potential will require a difficult confrontation of the disconnect between the University's cosmopolitan principles and the all too human practices of community members that are steeped in stereotypical representations of their peers. This student, K (a 2nd-year humanities Ph.D. student), offered a candid example of the problem.
[This audio clip is temporarily unavailable]
As K explains, the first step towards a less prejudiced campus will be a difficult admission on the part of Columbians that their positions at our liberal institution do not make them immune to prejudice-driven thoughts and actions on campus. Testimony such as K's gives the GSAS Life Histories Project tremendous potential to continue developing not only as an oral history project, but also as a public dialogue project. K's narrative is one of many in our collection that could be used by Columbia's Office of University Life and Columbia's Task Force on Race, Ethnicity, and Inclusion to produce pedagogical materials intended to help students initiate and navigate personally fraught conversations about racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice on campus.
6. Remaining Intersectional
One of our favorite questions to ask narrators towards the end of an interview is: "What led you to volunteer yourself for this oral history project?" Here we share Mason's noteworthy response to that question. Mason is a 1st-year humanities M.A. student, and the only black man we interviewed.
Mason's answer to this question struck us because instead of his race, it was his age (mid-30s) and his path to GSAS (which included a lot of work experience, community college, and a transfer to a public university for his B.A.) that produced the uncommon perspective he sought to share with our project's investigation of academic diversity. As our project moves into its next phase, wherein we hope to be more explicit about our interest in gathering accounts of racially charged disavowal experiences at Columbia, Mason's narrative serves a crucial reminder of the need for the GSAS Life Histories Project to remain committed to an intersectional view of student identities, narratives, and needs—one that does not privilege any individual student as more "representative of the Columbia experience" than others. Even as we target certain identities and narratives on campus, we must continue avoiding the pitfalls of designating these targets in overdeterministic terms. To forget this would put us at risk of overlooking other prisms through which students at Columbia experience unbelonging and disavowal on campus. For instance, age and socioeconomic situation.
Following the initial collection, transcription, and preliminary analysis of interviews for the GSAS Life Histories Project, we propose a way forward for the work in three dimensions: deeper analysis, further collection, and exploratory presentation.
The Narrative of Themes articulated on this webpage is a small sampling of the practical conclusions and suggestions for improvement that are latent in the 39 interviews that constitute our first phase of interviewing. In order to realize this collection's full potential, we hope to employ one or two current OHMA students as interns to index these interviews, and to begin a provisional list of trends and themes that cut across groupings of interviews. This indexing work would serve as a springboard for us to produce a much fuller interpretive report on the testimonies we collected, which would include better elaborated recommendations for Columbia administrators seeking to resolve dilemmas of academic diversity and disavowal experiences.
In order to continue aiming towards a representative sample of Columbia's graduate student body, the GSAS Life Histories Project will require many more successive phases of interviews. We envision this work being carried out at the beginning of each fall semester by a pair of interviewers who will have recently finished the Columbia Oral History M.A. Program. As it was for the two of us, the GSAS Life Histories Project will serve as an employment pipeline—and a yearlong applied apprenticeship in oral history project management and interview technique—for talented OHMA/GSAS alumni. As the number of people who have had a hand in the design, execution, analysis, and presentation of the GSAS Life Histories Project grows, so too will the working group of individuals that we hope to convene twice yearly. This working group would aim to produce a more comprehensive, recurring analysis of our growing collection of GSAS oral histories, as well as a methodological blueprint and training module that would help members of academic communities outside of Columbia initiate their own life-history based investigation of student experiences.
We envision this pipeline being enacted at the beginning of the fall 2018 semester, and the working group convening for the first time several months before that. The specific objectives of this Phase 2 of interviewing would be determined through the dialogues that emerge from that working group. In the meantime, during the soon-to-begin fall 2017 semester, we would like to carry out a transitional phase of interviews designed to supplement our initial phase's preliminary findings.
Chief among these findings is our conclusion that the first year of a student's tenure at Columbia is the time when s/he is most vulnerable to the experience and consequences of isolation and disavowal. At once, this is true no matter what identity markers the student embodies, and in part because of the identity markers that the student embodies. As a result, we believe it is important to gather deeper narratives of students' first years in GSAS, so that GSAS and its departments can better facilitate that transition for future students. We hope to conduct several interviews that probe GSAS students' first years at Columbia in the context of their life histories, both in retrospect and in real time. These would include:
Follow-up interviews with students who we interviewed during the fall 2016 semester, when they were in their first semester at Columbia. For example, the student Nora. The goal would be to probe the evolving meaning of that first semester a year after it occurred.
Follow-up interviews with students who we interviewed during the fall 2016 semester, who clearly articulated the pivotal role of their first year in the difficulties they faced over the course of their multi-year Columbia career. For example, the students Ava and Zane. The goal would be to expand their rendering and commentary on the effect of the first year on the rest of their GSAS trajectory.
First-time interviews with a small group of black students, some of whom are in their first semester at GSAS, and some of whom have been at GSAS for at least two years. The goal would be to plant the seed for a more intentional evaluation of racially charged disavowal experiences at the University.
Over the next academic year, in conjunction with the work of our indexing interns, we envision ourselves beginning to work more closely with Columbia's Office of University Life, and the other offices and administrators that attended the May 2017 convening of the Task Force on Race, Ethnicity, and Inclusion, to present our video, audio, and textual materials in ways that can advance the work of those at Columbia who are already committed to resolving dilemmas of academic diversity and disavowal experiences in the student body.
We also plan to capitalize on the work of our indexing interns to finish the process of archiving our initial collection of interviews, transcripts, and related materials with the Columbia Center for Oral History Archives. We plan to have preliminary conversations with relevant parties towards the development of a more robust and digital presentation platform for the GSAS Life Histories Project.
Finally, we plan to continue publicizing the methodological process and preliminary findings of our project in relevant conference settings. We have found that this model of publicly presenting our project as a work-in-progress, and inviting conversation and feedback from our audience, has been crucial to each stage of our project’s development. In April 2016, before conducting any interviews, we outlined our initial project design at the Northeast Public Humanities (NEPH) Consortium annual meeting. In December 2016, as the first round of interviews drew to a close, Benji presented an initial synthesis of major themes from the collection at the annual fellows conference of Columbia’s Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability (AHDA). In April 2017, we kicked off Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region (OHMAR)’s annual conference by moderating the opening plenary panel with four community-based oral historians, using our work as a framing device for the weekend’s exploration of different methods and interpretations of doing oral history in diverse urban contexts. Our next presentation will take place at the Oral History Association's annual meeting in October 2017, for which the conference organizers awarded both of us competitive presenter travel scholarships. This will be our most comprehensive and prominent presentation to date, a "listening session" in which we will be given 90 minutes to play a curated selection of clips from our collection, and facilitate a conversation among the professional and academic oral historians in the room about "Oral History, Intersectionality, and the Future of Higher Education."