Conversation and Farewell
Our colleague Priscilla Stadler is retiring from LaGuardia after eighteen years at the Center for Teaching and Learning! Interviewed by CTL Associate Director and Notes editor Michele Piso Manoukian, Priscilla connects to her family’s midwestern roots and the influence of her geneticist grandfather, remembers life before arriving at LaGuardia, describes meaningful collaborations as Center’s Instructional Designer, and offers hints about her post-LaGuardia future.
Michele Piso Manoukian So here we are! As someone who remembers you from your first day, when we were just a few folks and fewer seminars, I thought we should record a bit of your personal history and interests, and, of course, your experiences at LaGuardia.
You’ve contributed so much, especially in the field of Universal Design, and I’ve witnessed your evolution as an artist. But first, let’s get down to the roots! I’m always forgetting that you were born in far-away Oklahoma but mostly raised in the Bronx. Do you feel a connection to the Midwest despite having lived here since you were a young girl?
Priscilla Stadler A strong one. Both my parents are from Missouri, and when I was growing up, we drove there in the summer. At that time, my mom’s brother had a cattle farm and we pretended that we were helping on the farm. I say “pretended” because I don’t think that we were really helping at all, except maybe my brother actually helped later when he was a teenager.
MPM Yet you had the experience of that space, the air.
PS Yes, which I’m really grateful for! Animals, too. It’s like being connected with a different part of life.
MPM I’ve always been curious about the ways place can affect identity. I imagine those experiences tie you to the land, to trees, and nature, themes you’ve expressed in your art. I remember seeing, years ago, these beautiful pieces that you made, stone, I think, wrapped in paper. I loved those pieces.
PS My geneticist grandfather, on the non-farming side of the family, was also working with plants, specifically corn. I’ve been thinking about that recently, too, because in these past few years, through my artwork, I’ve come to appreciate science, especially mycology, in a way that I never had before. In the big picture of my family, I felt very out of it for a long time, since we’ve got a lot of scientists and medical people. My father was a journalist, but all his siblings were either scientists or doctors.
MPM As you said earlier, Missouri is like a different part of the world. How did you end up here in NYC?
PS My father got a job here. He had started out as a newspaper reporter at The Kansas City Star, then he got a job in television news at a station in Oklahoma. When I was in kindergarten, we moved to the Bronx when he got a job as a radio news reporter for WINS in New York, back before WINS was an all-news station.
MPM You know, I’ve never associated you with the Bronx!
PS: I grew up in Riverdale. Some people there are very snobby and elitist, and they do not consider themselves to be part of the Bronx. That has always bothered me. I’m proud of having grown up in the Bronx but I recognize that, yes, I grew up with privilege in a very cushy part of the Bronx.
MPM: Did your father’s career in reporting influence your artistic life, your career, or educational life? What was it that led you to where you are now? You can include all the hippie parts.
PS Ha! Are you sure? Well, there’s a strong appreciation of education and academia in my family. My scientist grandfather, who died before I was born, taught and did his research at the University of Missouri. Later, his wife, my grandmother, was a librarian at Swarthmore College. My grandfather was one of the first geneticists—a pretty new science at that time, in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. He was experimenting with the effects of radiation on corn. He probably poisoned himself with the radiation. He died before I was born.
MPM I appreciate your integration of science and the arts; that perceived boundary between the arts and sciences has by necessity dissolved—or only existed in college or high school: science students over here, artsy types over there. When we were developing In Transit’s STEM issue, The Carnegie Seminar invited Gustavo Morretto to discuss music and, more broadly, the artistic imagination with math and science faculty, and shared more similarities than not. . Gustavo, of course, was wonderful; I remember that they talked about sequence and patterns in music and science.
PS Yes! I love learning from and with scientists. And musicians! The scientists I meet tend to be very interested in working with artists, especially if the artists are engaging with science-related topics. Along with all the scientists in my family, there are artists or artistic, creative people, too. Some are both scientific and artistic.
MPM When did you begin to see yourself as an artist? Were you always interested in the arts?
PS Yes, I did a lot of art work as a child, and I haven’t stopped. As a teenager, I used to take classes at the Art Students League on Saturdays.
MPM: My father went there on the GI Bill after World War II.
PS: Really? I didn’t know your father was an artist.
MPM: He was at the League in New York, and then he went back to Pittsburgh to marry my mother, a beauty from a strict Syrian family, and he painted her, too. We grew up in museums; going was a common place thing, natural; there was always a palette of oil paint around when I was a kid. My father painted huge canvases of workers in the steel mills and women in the housing projects, kind of social realism canvases. And he wrote plays about the working class, too. One was called “A House Full of Flies”!
PS: That’s great! My high school offered art classes, so I took every one I could; I thought I would go to art school. I did a lot of art work, and my family was supportive of me as an artist, which I appreciate so much.
MPM: Tell me about your education after high school: did you go to college immediately?
PS No, I worked for a semester as a Dental Assistant for my friend’s father who was a dentist. Then I went to college for one year at Hampshire College, and that’s how I ended up moving to Massachusetts. Then, in 1975, I dropped out of school.
MPM Hampshire has a prominent place in the history of alternative institutions.
PS I really believed in that independent learning model. I was not a good student. I wanted to follow my interests as a learner, even when I was in high school. I did not do very well on tests. I did really well in what interested me and really awful in other subjects, like required science courses. That’s why I went to Hampshire, because it’s all driven by the learner. But it turned out that I was not driven enough a learner to really succeed at that time in that type of a very independent, self-directed learning environment. I was too distracted by other things that were going on. It was very expensive, and while I was there, my father lost his job. So between all those things, I left. I dropped out. I went traveling in California with two friends who also dropped out of Hampshire.
MPM Those were the years of dropping out. We were all dropping out!
PS A third of the Hampshire student body either dropped out, graduated, or went on academic leave that semester. My friends and I traveled in California, hitchhiking around for a few months. I tried to find a job out there but couldn’t, so I decided to come back east. I moved back up to Western Massachusetts, near Hampshire College, and worked in that area for a year and a half or so, as a Nurse’s Aide in a nursing home. Then I went back to school—this time to art school in Boston.
MPM This is why you’re a good educator, because you have so many experiences that don’t fit into the institutional expectation of what it means to be a learner, and of course your work in UD (Universal Design) for education is part of that. But let’s get back to art school: did you finish?
PS I did. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts. The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where I went, is affiliated with Tufts. So I did some academics as well as studio work to get that degree.
MPM So you found your place.
PS I stayed in Boston and worked in a lot of different parttime jobs. I taught after-school art classes, I worked in a restaurant, I was a telemarketer of legal and accounting publications, and I started a housecleaning business, which was basically just my friend and me, called “Clean Sweep.” I taught ESL (English as a Second Language), too, as it was called at the time. Later I worked as a photo editor and photo researcher.
MPM Oh my gosh, “Clean Sweep” is a great name!
PS Thank you! I was also very active in certain political movements, like those against nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. We got arrested a couple of times protesting at nuclear plants and once at the U.N. I came out as a lesbian and was very involved in lesbian, gay, and bisexual political organizing. For example, we organized a nationwide art project called GALAS, the Great American Lesbian Art Show.
I was also starting to work in the Central America Solidarity Movement, so I started learning more about that part of the world and studying Spanish. I worked with a group of artists called Arts for A New Nicaragua, to support the Centers for Popular Culture in Nicaragua. Part of what we did was organize artists’ brigades that sent U.S artists to do cultural projects there; we also brought Nicaraguan artists to the United States to do projects or performances. This was when there was a blockade by the US government to prevent economic support of Nicaragua.
We got around the blockade by bringing art supplies and doing volunteer projects while we were in Nicaragua—painting murals, doing art workshops, setting up darkrooms for photography, performing concerts, etc. I traveled there to do art projects several times from 1985–88, and ended up staying and living there for a few years, through 1991.
MPM What was that like? I can relate; many of us were living in other countries in those years. I lived in Italy to learn about the compromesso storico, Berlinguer’s strategy of aligning the communist party with the Christian Democrats, which was a bust. And then I lived in Istanbul for five years to learn about Islam but mostly listened to music and went to the movies when not teaching. You are a bit younger than I am, but our histories overlap. I think many of our generations went to the source; we tried to learn outside the systems. But it’s hard to live outside for long. Anyway, tell me more about Nicaragua.
PS I lived there from around 1988 to 1991 and worked at one of the cultural centers. During that time, a Swedish group that was working with our cultural center in Nicaragua sent several of us to study in Sweden. I spent eight months there.
MPM My goodness. From Nicaragua to Sweden: there’s a novel in that trip. I’m wondering: Is life within academia constraining to someone like you who has lived, let’s say, in ways of resistance or difference? Was it difficult to “re-enter” the grid or do you just have to find a way to balance those parts of yourself? How do you find flow?
PS I think it varies. Sometimes you get more flow in one area and less in another. Before I went to graduate school at Teachers College, I had been working with community-based organizations, originally as an art teacher, and then with an oral history project about immigration on the Lower East Side through the New York City Settlement Houses, which is a network of community-based organizations providing services throughout NYC. I had also learned some digital graphic design skills—mostly Photoshop and Illustrator—and later taught myself how to build web sites.
MPM Interesting: around those years, I was working at Solidaridad Humana on Rivington Street; we didn’t run into each other. We were both working with immigrants and adults, right?
PS I mostly worked with Henry Street Settlement, Grand Street, University Settlement and the other settlement houses. They’re still active. I worked primarily with adults at the time, teaching computer skills, and I began teaching ESL again, which I had done in Boston. One place I taught was City College’s Community Education Center, a great program.
MPM So your interest and abilities in instructional design grew—
PS —grew out of that work? Yes.
MPM So you developed all of these interests and skills, and I can see that these experiences form a coherent life-theme. You’d had such a wide, useful, and varied life: Why did you decide to go back to college?
PS Honestly? I needed distraction from a breakup! Also, my work had transformed into supporting educators in the settlement houses’ programs through professional development around teaching with technology. The Settlement Houses’ community centers had computer labs, which provided many with access to technology. They wanted to offer spaces where people could go not just to access a computer, but where they could actually learn skills. My role was to help the teachers think about reflective ways that students could learn, not just to use Microsoft Word, but also build their writing skills, either to get a job, or to learn to write better. My role grew to providing support for educators and programs that offered technology in this network of community-based organizations.
MPM Your interests and experience fit right into the LaGuardia mission. In this way, going to Teachers College was a way to professionalize your life! I love that.
PS Exactly. I thought I should learn something more about assessment. Though we didn’t have to do a lot of assessment in community-based education at that time, it was starting to trickle in. I could tell I needed to start learning about it. And also thought I should learn something about the field of educational technology. I felt like I was actually working in a “field.” I really love learning. And I love teaching in the sense of sharing what I’ve learned and having dialogues about that. I don’t love teaching as a full-time profession. I don’t have that type of stamina. But I admire people who do. I think they should all be paid a million a year!
MPM You’re drawn to inquiry into the processes of teaching and learning rather than…
PS …yes, and I also like being able to support people who do that work.
MPM With instructional design?
PS Well, in part. But it’s also in other ways, too. Sometimes it’s just listening to educators while they think something through.
MPM Our “community” college has been the right place for you—a community-based, social activist-artist. We use an awful language like dropping out or stopping out as if one just disappears, but listening to you is a lesson in self-discovery and creation. Social structures require that we find systems to fit into. And in a world that’s unjust, it’s difficult to find where we can fit. At LaGuardia, from my perspective, we must open possibilities that allow us to find the ways we fit, without deforming or diminishing ourselves. But let’s talk more about you at LaGuardia: How did you find your way here?
PS There was a job listing at my Teachers College master’s program; the focus was supporting educators to integrate technology and pedagogy, which is what the CTL was all about at that time. It was for instructional design, and included a component of graphic design, which was right up my alley. We had a great interview; I thought it was really wonderful to meet and speak with these people and felt very aligned with what they were doing at the Center. But I didn’t hear back! Nothing. Zero, crickets. I was like, what happened? It had been a wonderful conversation about pedagogy and technology, the best interview ever in my entire life, or so I thought! The way I discovered that I didn’t get the job was when Ros [Orgel] contacted me a couple of months later to ask if I wanted to be recommended for a different job at the College! But the following year they listed the job again and this time I got it.
MPM I realize that I should have asked this question years ago: what is instructional design? How is it different from pedagogy?
PS To be brief, pedagogy is broad, it’s an umbrella term for the process of teaching and learning, including the concepts that inform it, and the adoption of a particular approach, such as inquiry-based pedagogy, for example, or constructivist, or Socratic methods. Instructional design is the way that pedagogy is actually implemented.
MPM Thanks for that! So back to the Center back in the day: what was it like here? How did the Center feel to you?
PS I was co-facilitating the Designed for Learning (DFL) Seminar. There were six of us on the leadership team, which seems incredible to me now, and about fifteen to eighteen participants. It was so many hours! A kick-off Institute ran one or two days from nine to five. Then monthly Friday mornings from nine to one, and four day full-day Institutes in the winter term. I was excited to be part of CUNY. I was learning a lot, a constant throughout my time here. And that’s why I so appreciate my time working at the college.
The CTL has changed over time. At first, our focus was supporting faculty around integrating technology into their pedagogy. Originally the CTL was called the CETT (The Center for Excellence in Teaching with Technology), but early on, it was clear we were more than technology: pedagogy was the heart of our work, whether technology-focused or not. That was the impetus for starting the Center.
Because of that initial and ongoing support from LaGuardia’s administration, especially Provost Paul Arcario, LaGuardia still has the most substantial CTL of any CUNY campus.
MPM Can you describe differences between those first years and now? How have we evolved in the last eighteen years?
PS Although we’re still far from where we want to be, our commitment to different types of inclusion and diversity has grown deeper and stronger. The composition of the CTL’s leadership is changing, too, which is great. There are more young people on staff, and most are LaGuardia alumni.
MPM And their backgrounds are so diverse.
PS I think that’s really important, though the college at large is still not where we want it to be.
MPM I think of the stages of college’s evolution as waves, like first, second, and third wave Feminism. There’s the college’s old guard, founders who shaped its post-sixties, post-war, open access, very loose, liberal, and socially informed perspectives. A few of those folks, like Phyllis (van Slyck) are still here. She was a wonderful mentor to me when we co-facilitated the first Carnegie Seminars. She really knew the campus, and she introduced me to academic life at LaGuardia. Not only was she a great mentor, she is a wonderful teacher, roles that complement each other, I think.
The second wave was informed by post-modernist, deconstructivist theory; I remember when Sigmund (Chen) was using Althusser in the classroom, which I thought was super cool. And though individuals in the first and second waves were thoughtful about “pluralism” and non-binaries, internationalism, and diverse sexualities, we needed the current third wave to voice a new educational discourse that approaches the disciplines from perspectives of social justice, critical pedagogy, and the “non-normative.”
For me, this last wave represents a really dynamic change at the college, though of course the waves do overlap. I’ve been at LaGuardia on and off since the mid-eighties; and I’m so grateful to learn from those still in or just completing graduate school. They relate to our students differently; hiring faculty of color has made a difference, DEI has made a difference: there’s been a shift in the ways in which we think about our student body. I like to think that the cultural gap between our students and the professoriate has narrowed a bit. We should do a focus group! I remember folks being very outspoken about students who, they said, “couldn’t write.” Not a few of our own staff, when they were students here, suffered that sort of “can’t write” perception. Of course, many among us had been educated in traditional institutions, so we may have internalized a sort of hierarchized model of ability and deficiency in tension with values of resistance to ways of thinking that reinforce privilege. I sense LaGuardia, with all these waves flowing through us, is creating something new, less vertical, more equitable and just.
PS I think that makes sense. It’s not just about getting in the door. What does it mean to sustain our students and faculty who have been marginalized? What are our equitable supports? Once in, how do we stay? For example, look at the CTL: our new, younger leaders all came out of our mentorship programs: Pablo Avila, Estefany Gonzorga, Julissa Camilo, David Brandt, Mutaz Hamed, Thomas Rospigliosi, Oscar Cortes. They were LaGuardia students who became involved by working with the CTL’s mentoring programs. They’ve gotten really interested in education, even if it wasn’t their major, even if it might have not been what they thought they were coming to college to do. But all have become fascinated by education. And look at them now—they’ve completed or are moving toward degrees in education, psychology, and design. At least one is working on a doctorate, others on their MA’s. They’ve brought the students’ perspective to the CTL because they were all students at LaGuardia. Their experiences are so valuable. I am glad to work with them and to know they’re here, and to know they will continue to strengthen the work of the CTL.
Our Student Technology Mentors (STM) program is such an important model, and the CTL started it very early on: training students to learn tech skills that support both faculty and students. It was innovative, and served as a model for our future student mentoring programs, the ePortfolio consultants, the Student Success Mentors, the Peer Advisors, and the Tech Scholars. Our student mentoring programs have inspired other CUNY campuses to implement similar programs for their students.
MPM Yes, I agree. In the last years, we’ve begun to mix it up more, too. In the past, one sensed a sort of boundary between senior and junior staff, which has largely dissolved. We’re all in it together, and I think one factor is the Coordinators’ Reading Collective. We’re reading Freire, hooks, Davidson, Ishiguro; next fall we’ll begin an exploration of decolonization, about which our group has personal experience. And we don’t only share work; we share music and movies, and so being closer to each other’s work and life have created more of a community or familial feeling.
PS I think it’s exciting—what we’re seeing is an actual change in the power dynamic. So, you know, leaving is a mixed bag for me. I know I’m going to miss LaGuardia. I’m going to miss my colleagues at the CTL and beyond. But I’m also like happy that there’s this crew of talented, amazing people who went to LaGuardia and now contribute to the CTL.
MPM I’m wondering about your own goals: in what ways have they changed over time? Your behaviors?
PS It’s hard to figure out how one has changed, especially when you’re still “in the soup.” I’ve gotten more comfortable with myself as a facilitator and as a leader. I’ve become more comfortable with finding my own way and feeling like I can really collaborate with people that I want to collaborate with, trying to make the learning environment for faculty as creative as possible. I’ve felt quite supported in that work.
MPM For me, an example of productive collaboration is the work that you’ve done with Universal Design.
PS Becoming an ally and advocate for students and colleagues with disabilities has been—and still is—a great learning process and I really appreciate what people from those communities have been willing to share with me and teach me. And that is still happening.
MPM Which is what you were referred to earlier, how one continues to learn.
PS Learning doesn’t stop, it’s ongoing, and that’s great, even when challenging, usually in a good way. Originally my interest in accessibility came from a technical perspective. At in the 1990’s, when I was designing and developing websites, which, as I said, is something that I used to do a lot, I went to a workshop at a conference on building accessible websites and it was really eye-opening. I heard a blind person using a screen reader to navigate a website, and that brought me a new awareness of my work and what it could be and what it should be. It made me ask who could experience these websites and who could not.
Realizing that design could create barriers—or not—was a really key experience for me. At one point after I came to LaGuardia, the OSD—the Office for Students with Disabilities, as it was called at the time—needed a website. This was before the college used branding; at that time, programs and departments designed their own sites. Matthew Joffe, OSD’s Director at the time, said, “We need a website!” During that era, the CTL made a lot of websites—for our work, for faculty projects, and sometimes for programs around the college.
I worked with Matthew on the website, and continued to learn about accessibility from him. And later I got to work with Jhony Nelson and Astrid Niebles of the Office for Accessibility, wonderful colleagues and allies. Access is a social justice issue. That is why I always try to raise awareness of ableism, which is discrimination against people with disabilities. Ableism takes many forms and is so pervasive that it often goes unrecognized. There’s so much work to do in this arena of cultivating awareness of equity, which includes accommodations and goes beyond them. True access needs to be built into the design process.
MPM Do you think it took you a minute to get your voice?
PS Yes. Eric (Hofmann) has been very helpful in supporting my UDL work. I think, too, the climate has changed. There’s more interest from faculty and staff. Even though we have a long way to go, both the CTL and college have been doing much more work related to access and equity in the past few years. And we’ve got to work to make institutional change last. We’ll have a better chance now that our new Middle States Self-Study acknowledges we need to do better with access and Universal Design.
MPM Right; lasting change as opposed to temporary initiatives, like the prison to pipeline ex-carceration program. I have admired the work you and your colleagues have done with Universal Design, and your steady commitment to its values and presence across the campus.
PS Thanks! Doing the Designing for All (D4A) project in 2017–18 was a game-changer for this work. I am still saying “Thank you, Ros!” for her insisting I apply for the CUNY grant. It was the most collaborative project I’ve worked on among students, staff, and faculty. In addition to our five student leaders, it was Dušana Podlucká, from Social Science, Tameka Battle and Justin Brown from Health Science, LaRose Parris from English, and J Polish, who was a CUNY Grad Center student at that time, as well as other faculty, who did a great job of facilitating the student leaders team. J truly built community with the students—and with all of us. Derek Stadler from the Library also got involved. Since that time I’ve worked closely with him. We now call ourselves “The Unrelated Stadlers” since everyone always wants to know if we’re related. Dusana and I have worked together often as well. Dušana, Derek, and I recently facilitated a CUNY-wide event called the “CUNY Cripping the Curriculum Faculty Showcase,” the first event of what will hopefully be many chances for faculty to share their inclusive practices.
And it’s exciting because next year there will be a semester-long CTL seminar led by Derek Stadler (Library), Jeanne Funk (MEC), and Kasey Powers (Social Science and Academic Affairs) called Exploring Universal Design: Concepts and Implementation.
MPM So does this feel like a natural time for you to….
PS To make my exit? Yes. I feel like I’m going towards something, even though I’m not sure exactly what. It involves creative work and it involves nature. I’m excited about that. And I’ll be taking care of some things I’ve been putting off.
MPM In this last little bit of time, what do you want to say about the Center? How do you feel about where we are? I don’t want to get into the question of where education is now; the pandemic has changed everything—or given us an opportunity to change everything. So, to close on a lighter note: what would you say to yourself if you were just starting out at LaGuardia?
PS Try not to get too anxious, even though it’s challenging to figure out how to navigate and negotiate your situation. It will all be okay. Things will work out.
MPM Earlier you spoke about gaining confidence in one’s responsibilities.
PS Not worrying is related to that for sure. You’ll find the people that you feel comfortable with. And you know, mentors are not always people that you’re comfortable with!
I remember feeling anxious about faculty who may have thought about me, “How can this person who doesn’t teach support us?” I did teach a class in Louis Lucca’s program one semester, which definitely informed my work supporting faculty. And as I said, I’ve taught in other settings.
It was challenging because I’m a HEO (Higher Education Officer). We are not permitted to teach during our regularly scheduled work hours, so we teach on our own time. Although I like teaching, and I love spending time with students, I have a commitment to my creative practice as an artist and need to put time into that as well. Even so, I’ve had extensive experience as an educator, and I think I’ve figured out some ways to provide effective support for faculty over these years.
MPM I know some felt that way. I’ve always taught, since Sunday school; it’s been an essential until recently. I was so grateful to have Phyllis and Rosemary Talmadge as mentors, both so knowing and appreciative, women who took me on their wings and made opportunities across the college that weren’t available years ago in the Center. Looking toward the future, we’re going to have a new CTL Director. What do you wish to say to our new person? A note to offer?
PS I would strongly encourage the new Director to enable CTL staff to teach as part of our responsibilities, similar to how the Library faculty are able to teach part-time as part of their jobs. I really think it would benefit everyone. Other than that, try to keep things in perspective. There can be a lot of drama and performative stuff here, but that’s true for any workplace. You need your energy for the more important work.
MPM Maybe the new person should have lunch with us regularly. Critical thinking at Brooks.
PS That’s a good idea. I’ll miss you all.
MPM We’ll miss you, too, Priscilla. I love your laugh; I’ll miss you laughing about our band, “The Accordionites.” We need a comeback gig.
PS Is that our band’s name? Let’s discuss that. We definitely are an all-accordion band. But since we’re an imaginary band that doesn’t rehearse or play instruments—although we do have great outfits—I don’t think we can have a comeback. The truth is, we’ve never left!