Towards a Pedagogy of Equality: An Invitation to Participate #fight4edu

Towards a Pedagogy of Equality: An Invitation to Participate #fight4edu

August 2015 - September 2015 Online Reading Group and Discussion

Topic: Towards a Pedagogy of Equality

How Do I Join the Conversation?: Add comments in the comments section below, and on Twitter using #fight4edu. Log in or register as a new user to leave a comment.

Discussion Group Leader: Danica Savonick, HASTAC Scholar, Futures Initiative Research Fellow, Doctoral Student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, Teaching Fellow at Queens College

Sponsoring Organization: The Futures Initiative at the CUNY Graduate Center

Suggested Readings and Viewings:

Livestreamed Workshop: Friday, August 28, 1-2 pm EST at the CUNY Graduate Center. RSVP here. Watch the live-stream:

You are invited to join this student-led reading group, “Towards a Pedagogy of Equality.”  This is the first of eight conversations as part of The University Worth Fighting For, a year-long project designed to tie student-centered, engaged practices in our classrooms to larger issues of institutional change, equality, race, gender, and all forms of social justice.  Join the discussion by adding your own ideas, suggestions, syllabi, classroom tactics, feedback, and other responses as comments on this post.

HASTAC has invited Futures Initiative Graduate Fellow and HASTAC Scholar Danica Savonick to get us started on our first conversation. Danica is a doctoral student in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY and an educator at Queens College. She has posted several blogs on pedagogy and equality on HASTAC (on collaborative pedagogy and social justiceteaching #BlackLivesMatter, and designing collaborative digital projects). Danica is currently writing a dissertation on pedagogy and social justice.

Join the Conversation

HASTAC is an open, free network. Log in or register as a new user to leave a comment. 

Anyone can join the conversation, any member can post.  We encourage lively debate, respectful of difference. We hope undergraduate and graduate students anywhere will join this conversation, and we hope faculty members might challenge their students to contribute to this public forum by posting in the Comments section.

You can also join us on Twitter for an ongoing dialogue using the hashtag #fight4edu.


“Towards a Pedagogy of Equality”  

Discussion led by Danica Savonick

Join the discussion by adding your own ideas, suggestions, syllabi, classroom tactics, feedback, and other responses as comments on this post.

Classroom as cell—unit—enclosed & enclosing space in which teacher & students are alone together

Can be prison cell                            commune
trap                                                      junction - place of coming-together
torture chamber

                     --Adrienne Rich, ‘What We Are Part Of’ Teaching at CUNY: 1968-1974


In graduate school...the university and the classroom began to feel more like a prison, a place of punishment and confinement, rather than a place of promise and possibility...The feminist classroom was the one space where students could raise critical questions about pedagogical process...That small acceptance of critical interrogation was a crucial challenge inviting us as students to think seriously about pedagogy in relation to the practice of freedom. 

                   --bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress


What would a classroom look like if it were designed not to reproduce traditional hierarchies of privilege and power, but instead to produce justice and equity? Would it begin with a privilege checklist, or with everyone sharing their preferred gender pronouns? Would there be a values statement in the syllabus, or would you ask students to draft a class constitution? Would someone be assigned to take progressive stack to ensure that marginalized and excluded voices get to drive the conversation? What would you ask students to produce in order to demonstrate what they have learned? Would you ask them to produce it alone or together, and why? Who would read, evaluate, and provide feedback on their work?

Recently, I had the opportunity to collaborate in drafting a set of questions to help digital humanists think about designing their teaching and research in ways that might help produce social justice. This got me thinking, what would a similar list look like for pedagogy? What questions can we ask ourselves to work not just towards an equitable classroom, but a more equitable world?

Important practitioners of critical and creative pedagogy, included in the suggested readings and viewings for this conversation and in the resources and references cited below, invite us to think about how our teaching and learning practices relate to conditions of inequality and injustice beyond the classroom. This discussion is intended to take up the challenge.

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968/1970) remains an essential text for those interested in social justice, especially because he succinctly names the problems, promises, and politics of the classroom. Freire argues that education functions an instrument of power that can reproduce hierarchies, or help liberate those most disenfranchised by the social order. He calls the oppressive form of education the “banking” model, “in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits” (72). This banking model, he argues, “stimulates the credulity of students, with the ideological intent (often not perceived by educators) of indoctrinating them to adapt to the world of oppression…[We] cannot use banking educational methods in the pursuit of liberation” (78). For me, the idea that we cannot use banking methods of education to produce justice and equity has always resonated with Audre Lorde’s (1984, 112) notion that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In my own work, I’ve been exploring how justice and equity emerge from dialogue, debate, and collaboration--they cannot simply be lectured into existence. Socially just, equitable, and more pleasurable classrooms that can challenge hegemonic forms of common sense require different ways of circulating, valuing, and producing knowledge. In other words, one cannot teach active, critical, and creative participation in world transformation while denying such participation in the classroom.

Education needs to change to produce a world in which those historically marginalized and dispossessed by the social order can instead thrive and flourish. Despite having spent six terrifying, lonely, and dangerous years living in a concrete cage, in July of 1967, Black Nationalist George Jackson (1970, 76) wrote that his Catholic school education was “the worst thing that ever happened to me.” More recently, in his powerful memoir Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015, 25-26) illustrates how education facilitates the racial injustices of a segregated, white supremacist society: “If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left…. I suffered at the hands of both, but I resent the schools more … To be educated in my Baltimore mostly meant always packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly...I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance.” Note the presence of carceral language here and in both epigraphs, which critics of the school-to-prison pipeline have demonstrated is more literal than figurative (see also these recent podcasts on segregated schooling). The questions that we most urgently want to ask are how the classroom prepares us for our role in society, what ways we can change the classroom, and how that might model new roles and arrangements of power in the social order.  

In this interview, science fiction writer and educator Samuel Delany offers a compelling example of how the classroom can catalyze different social relationships. He argues that every time students don’t raise their hands in class, they’re learning something: “You’re learning how to make do with what you got, and you’re learning how not to ask for a raise…you’re learning how to take it.” Instead, he has every student raise their hands in response to every question—an effort to teach them that what they have to say is important, and that their participation is necessary to produce the scene of teaching and learning.  What other tactics might we use to take a place, to have a position, in the classroom--and in the social life beyond it?

I began this post quoting two powerful, feminist, anti-racist activist-educators who taught at City College (part of the City University of New York, where I currently teach). Both Adrienne Rich and bell hooks illustrate how the classroom can function as “a prison, a place of punishment and confinement” or a space of transformative, communal “promise and possibility” in which we learn how to be “alone together” in more just, equitable, and pleasurable ways. Recently, my research has focused on Adrienne Rich’s pedagogy, and how her understanding of literature--what it is, how and why it should be taught, what it can do to catalyze social change--was transformed by her experiences teaching at City College. In 1968, Rich (who is most often studied as a lesbian, feminist poet) came to City College to teach in the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) program, “which sought to demonstrate that, with the proper supportive services, students who were being excluded from the University because of existing admissions criteria could attain a college degree.” At City College, Rich encountered students who were steeped in political consciousness and eager for social change, yet had been profoundly disenfranchised by the pedagogies of a white supremacist, patriarchal social order. By listening to, and dialoguing with the primarily black and Puerto Rican students in the SEEK program, Rich learned that undoing the modes of learning (and not learning) incentivized through years of unilateral, oppressive, and punitive education would involve helping students “discover a new relationship to learning.”

In a memo to her colleagues, Rich writes,

...although the lecture as art form and social event may still have a place in the university, the first needs of our freshman are for something else—for a kind of classroom in which students find themselves having to learn for themselves, and to teach each other, more than they have ever been asked to do. The value of this is not merely to “increase participation” but to break, once and for all, the modes and patterns which 12 years of public or parochial education have left as their legacy. When he/she can get rid of that legacy, the student can approach the lecture or the textbook or any other medium with an entirely different relationship. He will no longer accept it passively as an agent acting  upon his mind, but as one of many materials on which his mind can act. ([1972] 2013, 34)


With this first conversation about pedagogy and equality, we hope to explore how education can produce “something else,” something other than the status quo. Like everything we do at HASTAC and the Futures Initiative, this series of posts, workshops, forums, and readings is informed by the practice of “collaboration by difference.” I understand this to mean that any task, project, or conversation will be drastically more complex, nuanced, and robust (i.e. better) if we seek, from the very beginning, to include multiple, diverse perspectives, and especially those that are most silenced by the status quo. This means people of color, women, people who identify as queer, transgender, or gender non-conforming, people who may be differently abled, and in the context of classrooms, it can also mean students. “Because nothing is sufficient, we must use everything,” Rebecca Fullan recently remarked, in a discussion about how to disrupt what Donatella Galella (following bell hooks) calls the imperial, capitalist, white supremacist heteropatriarchy. In order to bring about a more just, equitable, and pleasurable world, we also need everyone, from the privileged academic who can contribute her cultural and actual capital, to the first-year community college student, who may also be an activist, community organizer, blogger, etc.

Rich (2013, 25-28) offers a number of questions to get us started: “When you come out of here, who will you be?...Who decides what you are allowed to learn?...What determines the courses you take each semester?...Where is the power that controls your life here?...What does quality education mean? What is a university?...Can a quality education take place under these conditions?...What are your expectations here and what do you have a right to expect?...And who makes the decisions that are even now shaping your future life?”

We want to hear from you. What do you think?

  • If you are a student (graduate or undergraduate): tell us about your own path to the classroom. What would you do differently if you could reinvent higher education from scratch?
  • If you are a professor or a teacher: who are your students? How did they get to the classroom? How did you get to the front of the classroom?
  • How do you understand the relationship between teachers and students?
  • How do you understand the relationship between the classroom and the world beyond its walls?
  • How can your classroom challenge current conditions of injustice and inequality such as racial violence, police brutality, segregated K-12 education, gender discrimination, cuts to public education, etc.?
  • What material conditions help or hurt the possibility for learning (from the classroom furniture, to the cost of students’ tuition, to how much your institution’s staff and administration are paid)?
  • Given the research that demonstrates how race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, language, and ability/disability affect who succeeds in education, what tactics do you use to produce a more egalitarian, non-discriminatory, inclusive, and just classroom?
  • What changes need to occur in the world in order to bring about a more just and equitable future, and how might these begin in the classroom?
  • If you are a student (either an undergraduate or a graduate student), who do you hope you will be when you leave the classroom?  What do you want to take from the classroom?  What skills do you want from your classroom--beyond the obvious one of content mastery?
  • If you are a teacher or a professor, what do you hope your students will take with them when they leave your classroom? What do you hope that they will know? Who do you hope they will be in the world?  What pathway do you help to make from the classroom to that world?  How do you help to make that pathway?
  • If you are a teacher or professor, what modes of assessment do you use and why? What purpose does assessment serve? How does a given mode of assessment distribute power, knowledge, and agency in the classroom?
  • If you are a student, how has your learning been evaluated in the classroom? Have you taken tests, written essays, given presentations, etc.? How have these been assessed? What did you learn from both the assignment and the feedback you received?
  • How are power and authority distributed in the classroom?  How (think about Delany’s video) can they be redistributed?
  • What ways of living, being, and knowing does your classroom incentivize?  
  • How can pedagogy account for the diverse ways in which people learn?
  • What else?  What’s missing?  What can you add to this conversation? How can your voice as a student, a graduate student, a librarian, an administrator, a community organizer, a professor, etc. help to change the practices so often taken for granted in the classroom?


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Cong-Huyen, Anne, and the FemTechNet Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Committee. 2015. “FemTechNet Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Workbook.”

Davidson, Cathy. “How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom”
Participatory Google version here

Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies: A Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Teaching and Learning.

HASTAC. 2015. The Pedagogy Project.

Hybrid Pedagogy. 2015.

Pinkard, Nichole. “An Ecological View of Equity: Reframing Our Understanding of Youth Access to Connected Learning Opportunities.” Digital Media and Learning Plenary 2015.  

The Futures Initiative. “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education.”

Wesch, Mike. “Spotlight on K-State.”



Ahmed, Sarah. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke Univ. Press.        

Chatterjee, Piya, and Sunaina Maira, ed. 2014. The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.    

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2015. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.     

Davidson, Cathy and Danica Savonick. 2015. “Gender Bias in Academe: An Annotated Bibliography.”

Ferguson, Roderick. 2012. The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Minneapolis: Minnesota Univ. Press.

Freire, Paulo. (1968) 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.     

Guinier, Lani. 2015. The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America. Boston: Beacon.

Gutiérrez y Muhs, Gabriella, et al., ed. 2012. Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Logan: Utah Univ. Press.            

hooks, bell. 2003. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Taylor & Francis. 
---. 1994. Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge.

Jackson, George. (1970) 2010. Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson.  RBG Street Scholars Think Tank.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” In Sister Outsider, 110-113. New York: The Crossing Press Feminist Series.

Moten, Fred and Stefano Harney. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions.

Newfield, Christopher. 2008. Unmaking the Public University: The Forty Year Assault on the Middle Class. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.

Ranciere, Jacques. 1991. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press.       

Rich, Adrienne. (1968-1974) 2013. ‘What We Are Part Of’ Teaching at CUNY: 1968-1974. 2 vols., edited by Iemanja Brown et al. New York: The Adrienne Rich Literary Estate.  

Tomás Reed, Conor. “‘Treasures That Prevail’: Adrienne Rich, The SEEK Program, and Social Movements at the City College of New York, 1968-1972.” In Rich 2013, 36-65.

Read Conor Tomás Reed's essay here

Wilder, Craig Steven. 2013. Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. New York: Bloomsbury Press.


There's so much here to think about, Danica.  Thanks for this.  It's inspiring. 

As I was mulling through all the theoretical, political, and practical issues here, I came across Howard Rheingold's very powerful public letter to a twelve-year-old student he is mentoring.  He gave me permission to reprint some of that letter here.   You can find the rest on his blog:



After a lifetime of being a student of my mother‘s — she was a gifted teacher who stoutly defended my right to color outside the lines — and ten years of teaching students at UC Berkeley and Stanford — I was rewarded by being able to recognize an important student when she came along. She is twelve. While she is bright in school, her interests are not those of her schoolmates or teachers. I work closely with her mother on planning some work with her during the summer and after school once a week. We’re starting with “A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe,” because it offers a more compelling and interdisciplinary narrative about the magic of numbers and geometric shapes than her seventh grade math books, and because it takes an active approach — the diligent learner can construct the important geometric figures with compass and straightedge. When she comes for a lesson, I use the passages she has underlined as jumping-off places for conversations. I asked her to reflect on her first four weeks of working on the texts, exercises, and conversations with me. She came back with four succinct summaries of the factual nuggets from the chapter we covered each week. At the end of her last note was “ideas spiral out of minds.” I asked her what she wanted to learn from me. She said “everything.” I said: “That’s fine, but I want you to stop expecting me to deliver it to you. You need to start taking some responsibility by coming up with questions for me.”

I wrote this for her:


About learning to learn – and excelling at school without being warped by it.


I know that much of school seems unfulfilling to you at times and that you also know you need to succeed at it on school’s terms in order to keep your future open for educational opportunities. The seventh and eighth grades are particularly important in terms of getting good grades. So let’s start by acknowledging that whatever else happens, right now the main goal is succeeding in school on school’s terms.


However, I’m sure you know that the universe is larger and less boring than the form they feed it to you at school, and that the popular interests of the majority of students are not necessarily the best example of a fulfilling life for a curious and creative mind.


It’s important for you to continue work on your ability to learn independently in addition to the kind of learning that your school wants you to do.


Your school has to teach many children of varied ability and teachers these days are nervous about how well their students will do on standardized tests. So they require compliance (sit at your desk, raise your hand to speak, move when the bell rings) and passivity (take notes and pass tests) from most students most of the time. And students are given to believe that the job of teachers is to authoritatively deliver bodies of knowledge to students – you can trust that the teacher knows the subject and transfers that knowledge to students who listen, answer, take notes and tests, work exercises. This is a perfectly legitimate form of learning. The important thing for you to know that this is neither the only nor the most important form of learning you need to get better at. And that has to do with you taking your responsibility as a learner – not just as a student.

How do you learn to learn? How did you learn the skills you most value? What did you do on your part to fulfill your curiosity, to come to understand something that you learned because it interested you, not because it was required?


...   Read the rest here:


This week, and this post have me doing lots of thinking about how we frame learning for students and then judge them against that frame. I wrote a post that was too long for a comment on the Myth of the Stupid Student:


Jade, the safe spaces that you were able to foster in your classrooms are something to be really proud of -- as a student it can be easy to fall into habits of not engaging with the class, especially when a student is feeling particularly ignorant compared to others. An emphasis on creating a safe and open-minded classroom is so important to allow everyone to have a voice!


I am not teaching anymore which makes me sad, but one of the things I had to do, as a black woman at the front of the classroom, is let all of my students know that I was not in that position to diminish any suffering, either personal or structural, because I am part of a marginal group. I think a lot of times, when we teaching about inequality, we inadvertently turn the conversation into a haves versus have nots and that doesn't tend to move things forward.  So I came up with a very quick exercise to get everyone on the same page. I called it "The American". I would do this at UNC Chapel Hill.

"The American"* Assignment

*this can be something else, but for my course on popular culture in the US this made the most sense 


To describe who "The American" is.


This was usually done when before we started units on culture and race, gender, sexuality, etc. It takes only 5-10 minutes. Ask the class to give the characteristic of the person they think is the popular idea of an "American". They should be specific as possible. The words are placed on a board or screen at the front of the class as they are called out. If there are things that the person leading the discussion thinks can be more specific, more specificity is requested. For example, if they say "a man", I ask for more details. Can they tell me hair and eye color? texture? How tall is he? Does he have an age? How specific can we get with that? If the American is educated, how far did this person go in school? do we know where they went to school? was it the west coast? the mid-west? East coast? Is the person able bodied? are they athletic? how athletic? if it goes to far is that good or bad? 

At the end we have a very detailed list. This is "The American". I then use it to explain that to understand privilege and Oppression, they should look at the list and see what things they can tick of as "have in common" with this ideal. The more things they can tick of the fewer structural and cultural obstacles they will face. It doesn't mean there are none, just fewer, because we all experience oppression, and, most of us know we cannot live up to the ideals that come from ourselves and from culture. And that is okay to acknowledge and discuss, but it also important to be able to see, even if it is just in a list, there are many people that have many more cultural obstacles, that are structurally reinforced that we should investigating, keeping in mind it in no way diminishes the oppression someone who is more privilege faces. It also helps those students who are marginalized understand that people who seem more privledged still face many of the same feelings because they too have difficulties.

Then we pull it through various types of media and theory to see if we can figure out how the various cultural formulas are reproduced in obvious and not so obvious ways.


I just stumbled upon Critical Ethnic Studies' year-long "Citation Challenge" #citationchallenge. Thinking about the classroom as a site of social (re-)production means we should be careful about the citational politics that we teach our students. Can we, as Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang, and Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández challenge us to, rethink the structures of privilege and power we perpetuate through citation practices, starting in the classroom? Can we stop "erasing Indigenous, Black, brown, trans*, disabled POC, QT*POC, feminist, activist, and disability/crip contributions from our intellectual genealogies"? This semester, I'm going to try and be more deliberate with my students about citing those who are typically erased in favor of white, cisgender, heterosexual men of European descent. Join me? 


Earlier this week, Danica and I both presented at a day of workshops for new teachers in the CUNY English PhD Program. She asked me to post a few quick comments here about how the topic of my workshop, Universal Design and disability, might fit into the discussion about a Pedagogy of Equality. 

For me, the any discussion about Universal Design is ultimately a discussion about failure: why students fail, which kinds of failure we think are ethical to allow. More than anything, I think teachers are afraid to discuss failure, especially those of us who believe in progressive education. It's an aberration. It's the boogey man. 

It's for this reason that I started my workshop by asking the participants to consider three questions: what kinds of baseline abilities do we assume students have when they enter our classrooms? what parts of our curriculum and pedagogy do we believe students will find challenging? what parts of our curriculum or pedagogy do we believe students will find impossible

I like these questions because they push us to think about the narratives we tell ourselves about student success or failure. When a student struggles to understand a lecture, when they grapple with a dense reading, when they cram all week for a life-or-death final exam--these are instances where we tell ourselves that we are setting students a challenge. They can meet it and succeed, or they can fail. This is a mentality that Jay Dolmage has called the "steep steps" metaphor for education. The climb should be hard.

What this mentality allows us to ignore is that the classroom is not a meritocracy, and a pedagogy of "challenge" is not always the most ethical use of course credits. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is about confronting the myth of meritocracy that allows us to believe that students fail because they aren't as capable as the ones who succeed. UDL exposes the fact that the ways we traditionally teach--design assignments, conduct class, transmit information, even relate person to person--fundamentally exclude some people from having a chance to succeed. 

So, in our conversation on Friday, I hope we can spend a few minutes really dealing with the concept of failure. Is there a way to design a class or a system in which no students can fail? Is it possible to develop an ethics of non-success that would allow us to differentiate between the students who fail because our pedagogies are broken and inaccessible, and tell them apart from the students who fail for (it pains me) legitimate reasons? I think the ethics of Universal Design might give us "a way to move" (Dolmage) through this taboo conversation. 

The full text from my workshop is available here: Comments and feedback are welcome!


Thanks so much for your comment, Andrew! Your talk on universal design for learning was inspiring, and resonated with a lot of my own thinking. I can't wait to read the sources your recommend. 

One thing in particular that caught my attention was the term "participatory design," which I prefer to "universal design." I have a negative visceral reaction to the term "universal," I think because of my training in feminism and antiracism. Intersectional feminism teaches us to be so very skeptical of anything that claims to be universal, especially because, historically, wealthy, able-bodied, cisgender, straight, white men have gotten to determine what counts as "universal," in ways that have had detrimental effects on others. (That being said, I totally get that universal design seeks to be inclusive, and to redefine universality.) "Participatory," however, has more political weight, because it implies that students are crucial to producing the scene of teaching and learning--the lesson I take from Samuel Delany's video. It's a great term for undoing the top-down, credential-centered classroom based on traditional power hierarchies. I keep thinking of that subway entrace image you show--such a powerful example.


Andrew, I'm so glad you are introducing the idea of failure into this discussion.  I find I have such totally different mindsets about failure.  On the one hand, over on Facebook, one of the most famous historians of our era has asked the question, "Did anyone ever tell you that you couldn't do something--and then you did!" and there is an insanely long list of all of us being told we were failutres at the thing we all now excel at.  (I wrote, yet again, about being suspended from high school four times:  being an educator was not the path anyone would have expected for me).   So failing or being deemed a failure is not a sign that you ARE a failure.  


On the other hand, we have all the research showing that failure is discrimination on so many levels, including the recent one that pretty much proves if white kids act up they are treated clinically and therapeutically and if Black kids do (in the same way) they are punished and treated correctionally, often penally.  A very sad study released a few weeks ago documents that poor schools with largely Black student populations call the police when students act out when wealthier students with white students call in psychiatrists for the same offenses.  "Zero tolerance" doesn't mean the same thing for rich and poor, white and Black.  (Here's a summary of the findings:  

What is true in the criminalization of school behavior permeates success/failure in our society, including in "three strike" rules in the penal system, in the inequal distribution of punishment, in detention and arrest rates, in sentencing, and in executions.  Failure isn't the same thing for everyone. 

Some people learn from failure.  Others are crushed by it. Forever.


Personally, I would rather tell students to not be afraid to experiment, rather than tell them to not be afraid to fail.  The costs for failure are just too high for some students.   


NB:  For those interested in more on this: I gave a talk on this last year, "The Invention of Failure" and blogged about that talk on HASTAC  ( ).


But I know there are other ways of thinking about this.   Just this week, I had a great email from one of my former students, Erin Parish, a doctoral student in Anthropology at Duke.  She is teaching a  brilliant course this semester on the anthropology of failure.  I've encouraged her to post her syllabus to this thread because we can all learn from it.  It's a rich syllabus of positive and negative theorizations and models of success and failure.

I can't wait for our conversation later today.  I know universial design, and success-based student-centered learning, will be at the core of what we discuss.  I'm quite interested in how the conversation has switched recently from focus on selectivity among elite university to graduation rate among under-funded universities--but punitive in both cases. 

What Lani Guinier calls the "tyranny of meritocracy" applies not just to individuals ("you are among the top 4% selected to be at one of the top 10 most elite, most expensive universities in America therefore you ARE in the tp 4% meritorious Americans who deserve all of the goodies"---that is a very poor, rough paraphrase of her argument) but to institutions ("you only fail to graduate 4% of your students therefore you truly are doing a great job and deserve to be the best university in the country").   In both cases, there is no consdideration of any of the economic contingencies and external factors impinging on the lives of students working their way from the beginning of college to graduation.  Living in a residence, without a job, with 20X (as Steven Pinker has calculate) the dedicated advising staff, and without the pressures of raising your own family and so forth:  that traditional model of education is far removed from the life of a CUNY student, for example, who commutes to school, holds down 1.5 jobs, and on and on.  


Much to discuss!  Thanks for your contribution!



Danica, what a fantastic post!  The Audre Lorde quote really got me thinking about who is the master and what are his/her tools when it comes to teaching.  Are we--the instructors--the masters?  Or is the institution of higher education and the larger system of which it is only a part of and reflection of the master?  I don't know.  But if we, the teachers, are in some way the masters, and we have tools, then I think we can actively dismantle or create in different ways the kinds of houses we want to live in--the classroom, the university, the communities we call home.

So, one of our tools is grading, of course.  I had a bit of an existentail crisis (short-lived, thankfully) in trying to figure out how to grade a class on failure.  I settled on a pretty traditional grading model that is percentage based on a set amount of work, but tried to make the big tasks--an event and a website--spacious enough that the students could make out of it what they chose.  I think there are enough steps along the way in the form of a lot of written journal entries (with the option of using different media if they choose, although always with some written component) that when it comes to the less structured tasks like creating some sort of event or activity about failure, that they'll have ample material to draw upon.  

The syllabus can be found here:

For me, thinking and teaching about failure is a fascinating way of approaching both a serious social justice question as well as more psychological and even spiritual issues around anxiety and mindfullness.  It's been really fun thus far.  I'd love feedback and if anyone wants to participate in International Failure Institute activities, let me know!

Cathy--thanks for calling me out (I agonized for a bit on how best to put the syllabus on-line and wondered if I might fail at this task).  And Jade, I am chanelling your wonderful creativity as a teacher in thinking through my class activities so your presence in the classroom is there, at least in some small way!



Hi Erin,

Thank you for sharing this incredible syllabus. You're teaching some of my favorite people and texs (I think Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure was the first book I read for graduate school...what a way to begin!). My students also did a great job with "Three Miles" last semester. I would love to teach a version of this course some day because I think failure is a particularly useful rubric for exploring both non-normative ways of being and knowing, and the ways that institutions have historically failed so many of us. Please keep us posted on how the class progresses. Really brilliant & provocative readings and assignments. Excited to see what emerges from the International Failure Institute! 


Here's the Google Doc with lots of crowdsourced suggestions for what you can do tomorrow to turn your classroom into a more egalitarian space.   The key is that you cannot counter structural inequality with good will.  You have to think about ways to re-architect the classroom, to structure equality.  It's a deconstructive act, a practice, that requires building in practices of representation.  


Here are the many methods people have come up with.  What is your favorite method?


In yesterday's class with my students in Speech Communication (an introductory public speaking class at Baruch College), all of the students got together and collaboratively created a constitution for the class. I had adapted the exercise (heavily) from Cathy Davidson’s article How a Class Becomes a Community: Theory, Method, Examples. I believe it is important to create a welcoming and student-centered environment in a course on public speaking, as it allows us all in the classroom to feel safer and less anxiety in relation to our speaking, but also to listen more attentively to each other as speakers. All twenty-four students (all of them freshmen) were contributing simultaneously to this Google Doc, which I then edited lightly—I had to remove some not-so-serious content and consolidate similar points—and made available to the public. Feel free to provide feedback as comments in the Google Doc, as I'm sure the students would love to see that their course where they will learn public speaking is truly public.


This constitution is fantastic! Just the other day I was asking around for examples of how this worked in an introductory, undergraduate classroom. Did you hand out a template for them to work off of?

I also love the note on which you end here, the idea of "truly public" speaking. When I was being trained as an undergraduate orientation leader, I was given tons of assignments that asked me to talk to strangers (at one point I had to attend a Taiwanese church service to complete an assignment). I think that getting out of your comfort zone and having to talk to other people, especially people who are different from you, is how we constitute ourselves as a public, with mutual respect for one another. These activities prepared me to work as an orientation leader (really, a version of a peer mentor) and interact with diverse groups of students, helping them work towards common goals. It was probably my best preparation for teaching. Will you be doing any other experiments, like asking students to talk to strangers about something? 


I just love this class constitution---what a great document.  I will have to use it the next time I teach to inspire my students to come up with one.   Really wonderful.  Thanks for posting it, Kalle, and for such a great dialogue, Danica.


Thank you so much to everyone who participated in our first University Worth Fighting For #fight4edu forum.

For additional information, check out the collaborative notes from our "Pedagogy of Equality" workshop, Lisa Tagliaferri's photo essay from the event (& a Storify recap), and a reflection piece by Renee McGarry in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy.

Please join us online and/or in person for our next discussion, "Peer Mentoring and Student-Centered Learning."  The livestreamed workshop will occur at the CUNY Graduate Center on September 24, 1:00 - 2:00 pm EST:


Alumni Visits/Panels. 
Over the past few Bridge HSE semesters, we find at least one each semester time to have a structured alumni panel in each of our classes. This semester was the most successful yet.

The process:
A week or two advance, we sent out a google doc sign-up form, inviting Bridge Alums (students now in college @ LAG who got their HSE w/ us) to sign up for one of four time slots to come share their experiences, wisdom, advice, and answer Qs from new/current Bridge students in classroom.

The new Bridge 'mentees' spent about 15 minutes in the class before the panel preparing questions they would ask the alumni AND advisors gave each table a question we prepared in advance (What would you go back and to yourself now when you were starting Bridge? What are you doing now? How are Bridge and college different? What's the biggest challenge in transitioning to college? etc)

The panels came together wonderfully, both in being a really deep and powerful inspiration to the current Bridge students to persist through failure and difficulty, and in helping our alumni find their leadership voices, build incredible confidence, and practice public speaking. It's really amazing seeing how much confidence students can gain in just a few months through so much success and the finding of an academic identity.  

I am looking forward to bringing this exercise to other Mentor-Mentee groups (FI!) in the near future. As we know, no one's words of experience and inspiration count more than those of people who have been in your shoes, walked your path, felt your doubts and successes.