Justin  Rogers-Cooper
’03
Justin Rogers-Cooper
English
Current Job:
Associate professor at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York (CUNY)
Current City:
Brooklyn, N.Y.
Internships:
The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum
High School:
Upper Arlington High School, Columbus, Ohio
Post Graduation:
City University of New York Graduate Center (student), CUNY Graduate Center (faculty), Lab9 (CDM agencies)
Activities while at Skidmore:
Honors Forum, Writing Center
Awards:
Edwin Moseley Award (English Department), Thoroughbred Award

Quick Pitch

Academia has allowed me to continue a life of the mind that Skidmore first afforded me. Anyone considering a career in academia is probably already aware of the benefits and pitfalls, so I'll just underscore a routine caution and then offer a perspective for advice.

• I skipped the master's step in my graduate school journey because I was highly confident I wanted a Ph.D in English. I arrived at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2004, one year after my Skidmore graduation, in the middle of the pre-Great Recession financial bubble. Looking back at the period is therefore complicated by what I know now about the escalating cost of degrees, which seemed then to be part of one giant millennial economic boom.

Even though I came from a family that needed scholarship and loans to pay for Skidmore, I wasn't very smart with money. So today I'd simply say that financing graduate school can be tricky, and one's risks are elevated if one already carries undergraduate debt. At the same time, negotiating your own individual comfort level with debt, income, part-time work, and Ph.D studies during the grad school years is key.

Different people will feel comfortable with different levels of risk, time, and, for lack of a better word, "lifestyle." I was already carrying undergraduate debt and faced a choice between the CUNY Graduate Center, a highly ranked institution where I felt most comfortable, and other institutions that offered me more money and support. It was a difficult and delicate decision, but I made the right one for me. It was worth the continuing monthly payments to loan services I make now (theoretically to be helped, indeed, by the loan forgiveness program contingent on public service).

The debt was also worth the lean times of graduate student life, which for me lasted about seven years, and which weren't eased by the high cost of living in New York City. At the same time, studying in New York connected me with the CUNY system, the largest undergraduate system in the country, and that's how I found my job at LaGuardia. Again, one should have choices, and one should make a decision that tries to balance competing, and sometimes contradictory, sets of criteria.

• I'm sorry if the story above isn't practical enough. So let me offer something concrete: Be prepared to adapt. Academia might be often associated with elite Ivy League institutions, particularly in terms of career aspirations. But working and teaching in the CUNY system, and especially here at LaGuardia Community College, has taught me two things I never imagined when I began graduate school: a) there is tremendous growth and opportunity in the community and two-year public college universe; and b) working and teaching with community college students is both deeply rewarding and intellectually collaborative.

At least half or slightly more than half of all American college students attend community college, and fairly high numbers of those students are liberal arts and humanities majors, and not, as stereotypes go, technical students solely looking for vocational employment. Furthermore, within CUNY generally and at LaGuardia especially, I have been able to teach to, learn from, and engage with students from all over the world, from all different kinds of backgrounds, languages, religions, and cultures. This is probably true of most urban public institutions and community colleges, and likely overlaps in many ways with some suburban or rural institutions.

As the academic industry reorganizes and evolves in the face of financial crises past and present, the costs of degrees, technological innovation, and globalizing markets, one shouldn't expect to enter a field of study assuming that they might only have one kind of job, or can only work with certain types of people or problems, or can follow a strict research program post-graduate studies. Luckily, I've had a nice balance of teaching, research, and service at LaGuardia.

I'm quite sure from reading the alumni magazine "Scope" that Skidmore graduates are more than ready for the challenges of graduate study. You guys have incredible talents, ideas, and accomplishments already. I just want to remind you that your gifts can be applied in many directions, and that unexpected reciprocities await you as well.

Biography

There's a lot to potentially say here, but let me say the most important thing.

I spent a lot of time at Skidmore studying and cultivating lasting relationships with faculty in the English department. Socially, I struck to a small group of fellow students (who I'm still in contact with almost daily, in fact). Intellectually, I intuited that Skidmore—the library, the faculty, the sheer time I had available for study—was going to be totally unique in my life. It was.

While it's true when "they" say that your college years are meant to develop a professional network that lasts a lifetime (and they're right), the equation is slightly changed for those of us who knew we wanted to be academics all along. Going to a professor's office hours, attending special events, organizing public forums, and trying to expand my responsibilities as a student were crucial to honing relationships with faculty that have lasted me for years.

The English Department was and remains a special place, with incredible faculty that are as special to me now as then. They were so giving and supportive to me, and they more than tolerated my restless curiosity and sometimes obnoxious ambition. So listen to them when they speak on panels, or bring in speakers.

Go the extra mile on your papers. Do research that isn't required. Work at the Writing Center. Go to their office hours. Write them emails (within reason!). Join their clubs. Seek their advice. Hell, read their books. I did those things and it really pushed my imagination, and drew me closer to them as professionals.

What they taught me stuck with me; the classes I took I remember; the papers I wrote I still have, and sometimes glance at; the frameworks and values they advanced were accurate and productive; their insights were valuable, generous, and life-changing. And their support and later friendship didn't end when I graduated. More than a few later contacted me with projects large and small that have had incredible meaning for me in my current job, and which contributed not a little to my own tenure-track accomplishments: writing and researching articles for an encyclopedia on the New York school poets; reviewing recent books on nineteenth century literature (my own field); co-editing a special issue for a journal on William James (google it!), and more.

It's hard for me to separate my undergraduate study from my graduate study, and I can say that my mentors from Skidmore were certainly equal to my mentors at the Graduate Center (and I say this with great reverence for both; the faculty at the CUNY graduate center are quite incredible too!). While CUNY and Skidmore are different in some obvious ways, there is a common bridge between them at both places: they are seriously inventive, creative professionals with an excellent sense of the written word, and the magic of prose, and they are all really quite exceptional authorities on literary studies. They get it, and they're good.

When I asked a mentor at Skidmore my senior year where I should study next, she said, "The Graduate Center. You'll love it there." She was right, and her authority, both in the field and because she knew me so well (I took multiple classes with her), is why I was comfortable making the decision I did later, with all the risks it entailed.

I really want to impress anyone reading this, then, how crucial it is to spend time with faculty, to listen to them, and to let them stretch your mind. My mind and my writing was stretched constantly there, sometimes to the breaking point (they broke down my writing habits and rebuilt them again, and I was so much the better for it). I learned so much about academia from paying attention to my conversations with faculty in the English department, and even learning more about their own debates about curriculum, pedagogy, culture, and literature.

I suppose I should add that I still remember my classes outside the department, too—by investing so much in the faculty, Skidmore is really investing so much in us—in you and in me.

So if I had to distill a lesson from all this, it'd be: Skidmore is an opportunity as well as an education. Take advantage of it. It stays with you. You can trust what you learn, and the faculty are there to give you the tools you need to thrive afterward. My success as an academic is really based on a debt to the faculty at Skidmore that I cannot ever repay.

http://www.skidmore.edu/ctw/justin_rogers-cooper