Two Deans and a Playlist: Lessons for Coping in Higher Ed During a Pandemic
This is the story of two Deans and a playlist.
Written by: Nicola Blake and Dr. Niesha Ziehmke
Relationship building and collaboration are key ingredients in any job. As the only two Deans in Academic Affairs at Guttman Community College of the City University of New York, our collaboration is nearly constant. We have always needed to balance our intertwined workflows with some moments of levity – cups of coffee, walks through Bryant Park, a cocktail now and again. But when the nation and our campus screeched to a halt last spring as Coronavirus reared its spikey head, we didn’t exactly know how we were going to face the quagmire of difficulties we were facing professionally or personally.
For the first hours, days, and weeks, we were in a kind of free fall. It’s how we imagine it felt for Dorothy tumbling through that tornado. We tried to duck from the debris and still contort ourselves at just the right moments to see where the ground might be. As we fell, we opened our eyes long enough to make some sane and necessary decisions to support our students. After the first few weeks of quick decisions, we hit the ground, survived the jolt of what might lay ahead, and began to find new ways of navigating this relationship of leadership in crisis.
In those early weeks of the pandemic, we suffered from all the anxiety of keeping our families safe while supporting the work of the college. It was always after the list of to-dos would subside that we would realize how thankful we were for the human connection between us. We felt lucky to experience this struggle with an aligned level of commitment and urgency. This is when we moved away from our ordinary professional banter to messages of a more musical sort. We would share a song that had pulled us through a difficult moment or a late night of work to offer as a sort of mental shift. This is how it all started. How two Deans built a playlist to cope through a global pandemic.
The songs on our playlist map our journey through this year of transformational work and survival. First, we needed to find ways to heal and keep moving through the reality we were experiencing with our students and the campus community living in the eye of the pandemic storm in New York City. Here we leaned on Dominique Fils-Aime’s The Healing Song with the soothing refrain, “Heal with me/ everything will be ok/feel with me/everything will be fine.” We were lulled by India Arie’s A Beautiful Day reminding us to, “Lay down your regrets/‘Cause all we have is now.” And then, there was the healing power of Andra Day’s Rise Up like an injection of strength into our veins.
There were the times one or the other of us just needed to reclaim our inner ‘badass woman leader’ just to stay upright and keep walking forward. This part of our playlist included Lizzo singing, “Woo, child, tired of the bullshit/ Go on, dust your shoulders off, keep it moving” in Good as Hell. We leaned in hard to this feeling with Hall of Fame by The Script, “you can be the greatest/ you can be the best/you can be the King Kong banging on your chest,” and Bo$$ by Fifth Harmony reminding us, “working for the money ‘cause that’s what my momma taught me/ so [you] better show me some respect.”
Then, in the midst of the public health crisis, there came a layer of collective trauma caused by the brutal killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, among others at the hands of police. These challenges added to the effects of the Pandemic and directly affected us, though very differently since one of us is Black and one of us is white. We are not going to lie. There was static between us during this time as we each proceeded through this layered crisis that changed all parts of our day-to-day lives and work. We reflected on our Deanship and how much race dynamics shaped our respective experiences. Even though we were one door away, working on the same team, we recognized marked differences in accountability, respect, and treatment. Stop signs were raised and white liberal nonsense was questioned as we grappled with the daily work of operationalizing the college while also actively seeking grant funding for student success initiatives. As we reflected on our work, we began to build a greater allyship and started to work towards naming the implicit biases around us. Perhaps the backdrop to that naming was Peter Tosh’s lyric, “I am that I am that I am.”
For a song that landed here in our journey, we can thank Barack Obama’s playlist for Billy Porter’s, For What It’s Worth, reminding us from a song that was originally released in 1966, “There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear/ There’s a man with a gun over there/ Telling me I got to beware/ – I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound/ Everybody look what’s going down.” And then Tracy Chapman’s, Talkin’ Bout a Revolution, ‘ “Cause finally the tables are starting to turn/Talkin’ about a revolution.”
In time, there were signs of movement in a more positive direction with the vaccine creation, the sweeping national uprising for racial and social justice, and a fight through a harrowing election cycle. The playlist carried us forward with sweet ballads like Defying Gravity from the cheery cast of GLEE showing us, “Something has changed within me/ Something is not the same…/Too late for second-guessing/Too late to go back to sleep/ It’s time to trust my instincts/Close my eyes and leap. /It’s time to try defying gravity.” Who didn’t need this kind of invitation to both trust ourselves and leap as we waded through such uncharted territory?
The playlist also lifted us up during this time with Brandi Carlile’s Have You Ever cooing in our ears, “Have you ever wandered lonely through the woods?/And everything feels just as it should?/ Your part of the life there, your part of something good.” Carlile soothed us and took us deep within our souls and Master KG through Jerusalema rested within the peace of that song with a celebratory pulse that made us throw our arms in the air, ikhaya lami/Ngilondoloze, Uhambe nami/Zungangishiyi lana — a music so freeing that we knew perhaps our home in our beloved college, and in our beloved City would soon be familiar again – albeit different because of all the lives we lost and how much we all have changed.
Throughout the playlist, whether things were particularly grim or starting to look up, we often just needed some levity. For this, we leaned into Friday night music, those tunes that just speak to you of cocktails in the sunshine and dance floors dazzling with disco lights. In all honesty, we decided not to add some of these “Friday night specials” because it may leave you the reader with raised eyebrows. But for the ones we can mention here, the playlist offered Andy Grammer’s Good to be Alive, Dancing in the Moonlight by Jubel, Lighter by Tarrus Riley, and Express Yourself Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. We dare you to listen to any of those songs and stop your hips from doing a little swivel. This was our Deans Playlist. It built new connective tissue for stronger and clearer collaboration in extraordinary times.
As we stand back now and recognize the healing power of our songs, we found that this power has also been used to help frontline workers heal from the pandemic in the Frontline Songs project. The project works with groups of frontline workers to work through their collective experiences in the pandemic by co-creating a song. Grammy-nominated singer songwriter, Mary Gauthier, was one of the songwriters on this project and she said something that spoke to why our playlist was so healing, “When we’re dealing in trauma, we can feel very remote. Melody is so powerful. I think it comes into our ears and radiates through our heart and soul. I think it’s a matter of feeling seen.” (PBS Newshour: Using music to heal the healers on the frontline of the COVID fight.)
Nicola Blake, Dean of Faculty and Academic Affairs
Guttman Community College, CUNY
In addition to her role as Dean of Faculty Affairs & Academic Affairs, Dr. Nicola Blake is Associate Professor of English at Guttman Community College of the City University of New York, where she has served as Faculty Advisor to the Provost, Special Advisor to the Provost for Faculty Development and Mentoring, Liberal Arts and Sciences Coordinator, Chair of the Faculty Personnel Committee, the College Personnel Committee, and the Curriculum Committee among other senior leadership roles. Prior to joining the founding faculty at Guttman, Dr. Blake taught at Rutgers University, New Brunswick and The City College of New York, CUNY for over 10 years. At CCNY, she was Director of the Samuel Rudin Academic Resource Center and led numerous presidential initiatives on student success. Dr. Blake was awarded the prestigious and highly competitive American Council on Education (ACE) Fellowship for 2016-2017. As an ACE Fellow, she focused on student success initiatives, strategic planning, communication, and community partnerships. Dr. Blake has extensive Leadership training and is an alumna of the Higher Education Leadership Programs for Women (HERS), Harvard Institute for Higher Education, and the AACC Future Presidents Institute.
Niesha Ziehmke, Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Planning
Guttman Community College, CUNY
Dr. Ziehmke earned her Masters in Education from the New School for Social Research and taught Spanish in a NYC public high school. She then completed her Ph.D. in linguistics at the CUNY Graduate Center. Niesha went on to serve as Director for First College Year Programs at Brooklyn College, and Executive Associate for Academic Affairs at LaGuardia Community College where she took on the challenge of improving student success and assessment. In Niesha’s current role as Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Planning at Guttman Community College she oversees the Center for Career Preparation and Partnership and is Co-Director of the Center on Ethnographies of Work. The EOW Center champions career education grounded in the curriculum which explores the meaning of work in human lives and helps students develop a critical lens on the systems at play in the labor market and workplace. Dr. Ziehmke is an alumna of the Higher Education Leadership Programs for Women (HERS),