Dr. April Burns, Assistant Professor of Psychology



April 30, 2019 | Academics, Faculty, Faculty Feature, First Year Experience, Humanities and Social Sciences, Liberal Arts and Sciences

April Burns“After my experience [as a student] at CUNY, my own working-class background, and my experience as a first-generation graduate, I really saw my place in a community college.”

Further affirming “solidarity” with her students, Dr. April Burns calls her trajectory to becoming Assistant Professor of Psychology at the College in 2016, “a winding path.” Her doctoral research in social psychology, completed at the CUNY Graduate Center under advisor and mentor Dr. Michelle Fine, focused on “the experience of upward mobility through education” and the impact of this experience on “first-generation graduates[,] their beliefs about justice and equity, education, merit, and… their interpersonal and family relationships.” By centering “the perspective of families of origin, specifically parents and siblings,” Dr. Burns has broached several understudied areas: first-generation graduates – “as opposed to students” – and “sibling relationships across attainment levels,” which encompasses both cross-class and sibling interactions. To bolster the widespread “emphasis on the power and the possibility that higher education affords working-class people,” Dr. Burns not only investigates the marked “status change” that first-generation graduates undergo, but also aspires to “broaden our understanding of who [Guttman is] serving to include our students’ families and communities.”

“My interests are interdisciplinary,” Dr. Burns remarks, “at this intersection of the structural and social environment and the individual person.” Hence, “Guttman is an ideal scholarly community for me because it allows me to work in an interdisciplinary context” and teach a variety of courses. She elaborates: “I appreciate… that I get to see the students beyond one semester. I think that’s important for understanding who they are[,] their ambitions[,] their priorities.” Through teaching the two-semester cycle of Ethnographies of Work in the First Year Experience, as well as courses in the Liberal Arts & Sciences Program of Study, Dr. Burns is gratified that “sometimes[,] I can see the growth from [a student’s] very first semester as a college student to their last.” These continuing relationships enhance the strong “sense of community” she feels at Guttman.

As an instructor, Dr. Burns aims for “a balance between choice and self-pacing,” giving students every “opportunity to practice scholarly skills,” though her chosen materials are not always conventional. For instance, when teaching Sex and Gender in Urban Life, “I like to use bits of stand-up and look critically at those [because] if you can just pull apart… why something is funny, we can see where gender, race, and social class come in and color all of our assumptions.” She also favors “crowdsourc[ing] data” to ease the process of collecting it and boost student confidence in its analysis. In the LAS Capstone entitled We Started at the Bottom and Now We’re Here, students read about “social mobility through sociological, psychological, literary, and anthropological perspectives,” and generated research questions. Before they each interviewed a first-generation college student, the class collectively “decide[d] on a set of [interview] questions. Afterward, they would share the responses and draw on this “communal dataset” for their final projects. Ultimately, Dr. Burns’ goal is to “help [students] sit with their ambivalences, their anxiety“ about their abilities and identities as college students; to “normaliz[e] this sense of not knowing the answer,” yet attempting to seek it; and to acknowledge and validate “progress in small steps.”