Transitions and Transactions: An Interview with BMCC Conference Organizers, Prof. Margaret Barrow and Prof. Manya Steinkoler

Jan M. Stahl, English

The first community college conference devoted to literature pedagogy was held at BMCC on April 20-April 21, 2012.  Transitions and Transactions: Literature Pedagogy in Community Colleges was organized by English Department faculty Margaret Barrow and Manya Steinkoler. The conference hosted more than 200 participants. Prof. Barrow and Prof. Steinkoler sat down with Faculty Focus recently to talk about their experiences.    

FACULTY FOCUS: What made you decide to organize a conference at BMCC on literature pedagogy?


Margaret Barrow: Manya [Steinkoler] and I had been discussing our teaching with each other for about a year. We discussed many of the challenges and rewards of teaching literature at the community college. By sharing our ideas, we both felt that our teaching improved, and we felt invigorated after our conversations. I think we inspired each other to work at becoming better teachers. We wanted to create an environment where our colleagues across community colleges could also share similar experiences. Thus the conference idea was born.

Manya Steinkoler: Margaret [Barrow] and I wanted to find a way to highlight the integrity and dignity of the work we do and that our colleagues do.


FACULTY FOCUS: How did the way you regard your community college students affect your decision to do this?

Manya Steinkoler: This was one of the most exciting and moving aspects of the conference, hearing what the psychoanalyst calls "the act," the willingness to stand by one's work, actions, one's speech to students. There is a deep respect for otherness on the part of community college teachers for their students, of the diverse worlds they come from, of the difficulty of entering into a different way of speaking, of the encounters with such difference. Uniting teachers of literature allowed us to learn from one another and to admire the way each one of us broaches the "otherness of language" in our classrooms, making relationships possible between students and texts.


FACULTY FOCUS: How did this conference answer some of the specific needs of community college faculty?

Manya Steinkoler: While we see our classes, our students, our deadlines, we are not often allowed the opportunity to reflect on the bigger picture and to share those reflections with others. The conference reminded many of us why we do what we do, and of the love that was the basis of our choice of profession. It allowed us to think about the encounters that made us teachers in the first place, about how we are the products of those encounters, about how they continue to produce us and how we transmit them, allowing others those "ah ha!" moments of discovery.


FACULTY FOCUS: What suggestions would you give to colleagues from other departments who are interested in hosting a conference at BMCC?

Margaret Barrow: It is important to put together a conference organizational committee of committed and dedicated colleagues. Consult Provost and Senior Vice President, Dr. Sadie Bragg. Her support was enormous. Work closely with Ms. Anita Samuels, Events Planner, as she will tell you that you organize a year in advance, as we did. As lead organizer, I also met with her many times and listened to her advice. If you want the physical space to look great, working with Ms. Samuels is your best bet.


FACULTY FOCUS: Were any students involved?

Margaret Barrow: Yes! Our student volunteers were reliable and absolutely fantastic.


FACULTY FOCUS: Tell me about involvement from some of our college offices.

Margaret Barrow: I suggest working closely with Ms. Debbie Parker, Director of Women’s Studies. She is skilled in the art of organizing the logistics of a conference. She is a natural at managing students and ensuring that all details are taken care of.

Setting up the conference funds with Dean John Montanez, Office of Grants and Research Administration, is critical as this can alleviate a lot of trouble with collecting registration fees and outside funding.


FACULTY FOCUS: How did you handle feeding the crowd?

Margaret Barrow: Delicious food and food presentation is critical to a successful conference, so I would work closely with Mr. Richard Halem in MBJ and the rest of his terrific staff. The food at our conference was delicious and the presentation very classy.

What I’m saying is that you must take the time to honor and respect the expertise of the staff at BMCC if you want to host a successful conference.


FACULTY FOCUS: Did Departments other than English participate? 

Margaret Barrow: We had participants from Developmental Skills, BMCC/CLIP, and the History Department at Reading Area Community College. Doctoral students from the English Education Department at Teachers College, Columbia University participated. Panel presenters represented a variety of colleges and disciplines including Critical Cultural Studies, Education, and Creative Writing. The Associate Director of CETL, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Queensborough Community College presented a paper. A social worker from the CUNY graduate center presented as well as a psychoanalyst from Résidence Ecole et Soin Psychosocial.

Editor’s Note: Presenters at the conference came from a variety of colleges including Bergen Community College, Berkshire Community College, Bucks County Community College, Community College of Philadelphia, Dutchess Community College, Essex County College, Holyoke Community College, Hostos Community College, Howard Community College, Kingsborough Community College, LaGuardia Community College, Massachusetts Bay Community College,Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Nassau Community College, North Hennepin Community College, Pasadena City College, Queensborough Community College, Raritan Valley Community College, Reading Area Community College, River Valley Community College, Roxbury Community College, and Westchester Community College.