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If You Can't Change Higher Ed Overnight, Change Your Classroom. Here's How! #FuturesEd

In “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education,” the first Futures Initiative course, co-taught with President Emeritus William Kelly, we focused on pedagogy, on what you can do tomorrow in your classroom to redress the kinds of inequity that persist in society and that are exacerbated by higher education. On the first day of class, Bill and I entered, pointed to giant post-it notes set around the room with dates, and asked our students to work together to organize themselves into four groups of three, decide together what learning they wanted to take charge of, and in other ways design a graduate course. Here's the main point: Bill and I left the room while twelve graduate students in nine radically different fields of study designed a course, its structure and content, who would partner with whom, in what sequence.  Each week they were responsible for assigning us research, coming up with assignments, exercises, and pedagogies that they then all tried in their undergraduate CUNY classes and programs.  This is the most radical version of student-centered pedagogy.  There are many others, of course, but our point was that you cannot just "talk" about reversing hierarchy. You can't just read the theory; you must embody the practice.   

Maybe you cannot change the world but, for most of us teaching in classrooms,  there are ways of making changes in one's own class that can make a difference--to one's students, to one's own role in replicating inequity, and as a model to our institutions seeking to "transform higher education."  

What we are advocating is almost the opposite of "outcomes" thinking; it is structuring empowerment at the input level, designing a syllabus that acknowledges structural inequality by countering it.

Next year, the Futures Initiative will focus more on such things as curricular and institutional change but, in this early experiment, we concentrated on graduate students who are teaching undergraduates.  We structured our class in such a way that the graduate students could immediately implement these methods in their classrooms or in the programs they direct in the twenty-four CUNY colleges and community colleges. 

The two final assignments in the course are the “CUNY Maps of New York” project to which they and their students will contribute and a syllabus for a class they would teach or a program that they would direct that embodies the methodologies we’ve researched, discussed, and implemented this term.  The syllabus can be a “re-do” of the syllabus they used this semester or it can be for a new course.  All twelve of these will be published on the Futures Initiative site and on the HASTAC Futures Initiative Group blog.



In the "sorting and grading" industrial model of education, formal education is designed to separate the "good" from the "bad" students, rewarding the good.   If student success and persistence are the goal for every student,  that changes all the relationships upon which most formal education traditionally are based.   Student-centered learning reverses a complex set of institutional reward systems and hierarchies, that extend logically throughout the system, all the way to the crisis in contingent labor in the profession of academe.

You cannot combat inequity with good will.  We know from behavioral economists such as Dan Ariely that, even the best intentioned people, fall over and over again into the traps of their own blindspots.  Universities in America today not only perpetuate social inequality but exacerbate it (those with college degrees earn more, live longer, have fewer illnesses, longer marriages, and a number of other factors that chart, in our society, as “middle class.”)  If the university is going to be the gateway to a satisfying, productive, responsible future for all our students, regardless of their prior training or social background, than, as responsible scholars and professors, we have to find ways to institutionalize a countering empowerment, ways of giving students tools that allow them to be confident in their ability to learn, even in stressed circumstances; their ability to turn to peers for help and to offer help to peers when needed; their ability to navigate the ambiguous and often contradictory rules and requirements of our universities; and to feel that, in class, they have as much a right to “raise their hand” (to quote the great Samuel Delany) as anyone and everyone else. 


Here’s a sobering new study, using the same methodology we’ve seen so many times of sending the exact same letter of inquiry asking if the prospective graduate student might come to participate in their research but changing the name of the sender, some with names that seem “white,” some male, some female, some non-white.  The rate of response for non-white and females was significantly lower than to white males, and in the field of business, the most discriminatory field, non-whites and females were 2.2 times less likely to receive a response.  This study appears in the current Journal of Applied Psychology and is reported on in the Chronicle of Higher Education for April 17, 2015:

Even with student-centered pedagogy as the focus of this course, it took conversations and lengthy feedback before, in Group 3, we came up, together, with methods for structuring equity in our own classroom such that



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