Dr. Lori Ungemah, Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies



January 11, 2022 | Academics, Arts in NYC, Faculty, Faculty Feature, Global Guttman, Humanities and Social Sciences, Liberal Arts and Sciences

Lori Ungemah

Dr. Lori Ungemah

If I had to pick one element of Guttman that I am most connected to, it would have to be the Arts in New York City course. I moved to New York in 1999 largely because I love art. I wrote the Arts in New York City original curriculum and started the artist-in-residence program. When teaching the class, I brought in an Inuit tattoo artist Holly Nordlum—and I got a real stick-and-poke tattoo from her after class in room 504. I don’t think anyone else can say they have gotten tattooed inside Guttman!”

Dr. Lori Ungemah spent the early years of her career in arts education and next she taught English in middle school and high school. While Dr. Ungemah completed her doctoral work, she had no intention of entering higher education. “I loved teaching high school and the academic job market was a cut-throat hustle. I felt like it required a lot of academic and intellectual posturing from me—that is not who I am.” Moreover, she had no intention of leaving New York City, which greatly limited academic job prospects. “But then a friend sent me a job listing for the New Community College (this was Guttman’s first name), a community college focused on students, teaching, and graduation.” In her years of teaching high school, Dr. Ungemah had seen many students start at a community college and immediately exit. “These were good students—students who should have soared through community college—and it made me frustrated and sad to see all that wasted potential.” When Dr. Ungemah heard about the New Community College, she quickly applied. “I wanted to be a part of a solution for students like the ones I had taught in high school.”

Indeed, Dr. Ungemah, who joined Guttman in 2011, sees herself as a teacher first. “Teaching is my heart and my publications and research are in the field of the scholarship of teaching and learning.” She describes herself as “an old-school teacher. I like to have a lesson planned for the day. I like to accomplish something each class we have together. I like each class to have structure. But I also love to have fun, to let discussions take crazy peripatetic routes, to listen to students speak and construct ideas and make connections.” Dr. Ungemah’s favorite type of class is one where she herself identifies as a kind of “interdisciplinary MC,” a class where she and her students read, watch film, look at art, and write communally to process content or to learn writing. “I try to walk the line of having students feel both supported and free in my classes. I have deeply missed the classroom these past months. It is truly one of my happiest places and where I feel like my authentic self.”

Dr. Ungemah has been studying and researching culturally relevant curricula and pedagogy and curriculum since her undergraduate work. She maintains that it is a topic that never gets old, always in need of refining, and one that continually shifts with the social and political landscape. Currently, Dr. Ungemah is writing about what happens when students use parents as their research subjects in their Ethnography of Work courses. For this research, Dr. Ungemah is breaking from the bodies of literature with which she is most familiar (culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogy, immigrant student populations). Now, she is looking at indigenous education practices of centering the family for learning; she is also drawing on a concept called “mindful ethnography.” This work is largely influenced by Leigh Patel’s book Decolonizing Educational Research. “In this piece, I am trying to look at research, curricula, the classroom, and students differently than in my previous work,” says Dr. Ungemah. “It’s a good challenge.”

In addition to the research above, Dr. Ungemah is “craving” something new in her writing. “This is my 22nd year in the classroom; I spent the first eleven years in secondary education and the last eleven years at Guttman. I want to find my old sense of creativity that disappeared amid doctoral studies, having kids, and the tenure track.” Dr. Ungemah’s creative

Inuit tattoo artist Holly Nordlum giving Dr. Ungemah a tattoo.

Inuit tattoo artist Holly Nordlum giving Dr. Ungemah a tattoo.

Students with henna tattoos done by Holly Nordlum

Students with henna tattoos done by Holly Nordlum.

ambitions will be published in a collage piece for a new curriculum journal, Curriculum Studies Collaborative Journal. “A collage is a more poetic form of prose, and writing it was difficult because it was different, but I needed that sort of difficulty. In all the talk of re-imagining since Covid, I feel the need to call upon my own creative side to explore new ways of seeing, thinking, acting.”

Dr. Ungemah is a founding faculty member who regards Guttman as her greatest professional project. She wrote early curricula for almost every class she has taught, as well as some that she has never had the chance to teach. “I have sat on almost every committee the college has—and many more committees that are now, thankfully, defunct. I have seen faculty and administrators come and go, but there is a firm family of us who stay to make this college the best it can be.” She is passionate about the students who call Guttman home. “I love the students who come to Guttman; I feel privileged to be their professor and part of their entry into higher education, and I am proud of the work we do together.”

When asked about her most memorable experience with Guttman students, Dr. Ungemah shares two anecdotes, both of which occurred during Global Guttman trips. “The first one was when I took students to Alaska. We were walking along a series of glacial streams below Exit Glacier at Kenai Fjords National Park when one student screamed with pure, absolute joy. I ran over to make sure he was okay, and he told me that the beauty and ‘wildness’ (his word, I still remember it) of the space just came out of him in that scream. His face was beaming—truly radiant—and it is one of the few times I have seen, heard, and experienced the transformative power of nature through another person.” The second experience was when she was in Ecuador with Guttman students on Professor Tesser’s trip. The class was snorkeling off Isla de la Plata after whale watching. “There were humpback whales all around the island, and when you went fully underwater, you could hear them singing to each other. We all floated underwater to listening to whales sing. Amazing. I can’t wait to bring back Global Guttman.”

Whale watching in Ecuador
Whale watching in Ecuador

Snorkeling in Ecuador.
Snorkeling in Ecuador.

Dr. Ungemah teaches multiple courses, including: Composition 1 and 2, Cities in Film and Literature, Topics in Literature, Women in 20th Century Literature, Ethnography of Work 1 and 2, Arts in New York City, Introduction to Social Justice, Liberal Arts Capstone, and Issues in Global Learning. Last semester, in her Octavia Butler and the Racial Imagination class, students began the term by re-imagining a children’s story. “They had to choose specific elements of a narrative they knew well and re-write it for a child of the 21st century. They could change the race of the characters, the setting, the plot, the conflicts. Whatever they wanted because they were the artists and authors.” Dr. Ungemah had never assigned this project before, and she was deeply impressed by the results. “I was blown away by the beauty —as well as some of the bizarre ideas that I read! It has made me realize Guttman needs its own literary magazine. Our students have a lot to say. They are creative and need more outlets for this creativity. Stay tuned. It is coming.”

Dr. Ungemah’s interdisciplinary and dynamic approach in the classroom suits her pedagogical objectives. The trait that she says she would most like to pass on to her students is, well, she cannot limit herself to just one! “An enthusiasm and curiosity about everything in and out of the classroom; a sense that so much of what we study is interconnected; a love for reading, watching films, viewing art, writing; an understanding that they are not and never have been failures—that systems and structures have failed them; the knowledge that I am always in their corner; joy in watching themselves geek out about learning; a sense of their endless brilliance; the feeling that, yes, they can do this. Too much?”

In response to whether there is anything else that she would like the Guttman community to know about her, Dr. Ungemah says, “I feel I am only just getting started.”