Blog Post

How To Move from History and Theory of Higher Education to More Equitable Classroom Practices

In Spring 2016, Graduate Center’s President Emeritus Bill Kelly and I will be teaming up again to teach an exciting and innovative course designed for any student of American studies, anyone interested in U.S. higher education, or anyone in any field interested in pursuing a career as a college professor. 

Our aim is unique: we will be studying the founding documents of US higher education, examining how higher education evolved in various institutional forms over the past centuries, reading salient critiques  (from DuBois to Guinier and Coates)--and then asking if there are ways that the critiques can actually be addressed in our own redesigned classroom practices.

This last step (moving beyond critique to actual pedagogical activism)  is unusual in a historically and theoretically based American Studies course.  Yet most of what we do as academics happens within fields.  So this class partly asks what happens when we ground our pedagogical theory and what happens when we ground our activism within actual study within a field?

This works particularly well at the Graduate Center because we assume that many of the students in the course will be teaching in the CUNY system (either next semester or in the near future).  We will be planning pedagogical interventions in our course that can also be implemented in CUNY introductory courses, tested methods that help to ensure student success and that are also extremely satisfying methods for the instructor too.

History::theory::praxis::activism:design::change.  It's thrilling.

Interestingly, when I look for examples, I don't find many people tying the history and theory of the field to the practices and redesign of the field.  I'm finding the work in the field of history by Sam Wineburg (works such as Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts).  In the Psychology Department here, there is an ongoing series on pedagogy specifically for those teaching psychology which is very rich as a model.  In the field of rhetoric, one finds many excellent models and the journal Hybrid Pedagogy is a gold mine of examples.   And there are activist mathematicians working to transform the teaching of so called "remedial" math to teach students "how to be mathematicians" not just "how to do math."  There seem to be surprisingly few other precedents.  

Have any of you done anything like this before?  We would love to hear from you—to see your syllabi, to hear your ideas.




American Writing, American Learning

Professors Davidson and Kelly


This course has three primary intentions. First, we will consider some foundational texts of American educational and cultural history, investigating the strategies of inclusion and exclusion they deploy. Possible topics include: the seventeenth and eighteenth-century establishment of religiously-affiliated institutions designed to educate clergy, schools which in time became bastions of privilege; the yoking of education and republican principle in antebellum America, particularly as that impulse is registered in Thomas Jefferson’s founding of the University of Virginia; the expansion of educational opportunity through  the public school movement, as documented in Horace Mann’s reports to the Massachusetts Board of Education (1837-48); the rise of politically and ideologically-fraught institutions to serve women, African-Americans, and  Native Americans; the expansion of educational franchise marked by the opening in 1847 of CUNY’s forerunner, the Free Academy, and by the passage of the First Morrill Act in 1862; and the emergence and consequence of liberal education theory at the end of the nineteenth-century. Second, we will read  contemporary critiques/accounts of American education. Third, we will experiment with a variety of pedagogical practices that model different relationships between power and knowledge.   The range of texts we might read is very wide indeed; writers under current consideration include: Increase and Cotton Mather, Thomas Shepard, Charles Chauncey, John Witherspoon, Jonathan Edwards, Olaudah Equiano,Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Bronson Alcott, Susanna Rowson, Catherine Beecher, Margaret Fuller, Lucy Larcom, Emma Willard, Horace Mann, Townsend Harris, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Zitkala-Sa, Henry Adams, John Dewey, Ralph Ellison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lani Guinier, Christopher Newfield, and Craig Steven Wilder.


Our method is simple:  we will have a traditional syllabus for the first half of the course.   It will be posted in a public Group on HASTAC.  For the midterm, each student will create a syllabus for the second half of the course--also posted on HASTAC.   Then, during the scheduled midterm class, Bill and I will leave the room, and the students, having read one another's syllabi, will use a Google Doc and create the rest of the course--the syllabus, final project (which will entail some public contribution to knowledge), any other requirements.




 Very important stuff! So glad this course is going to examine privilege, as well as cultural, and religious perspectives embedded in current practices-- hopefully with a dash of feminist theory too.


Once again, this is a phenomenal and timely project. Just knowing that the students will be creating their own course and projects, I am inspired to think of my own. I think if I were joining you, I'd love to build blueprints for an innovative learning environment or create a speaker series for the year to follow. Or do something even more 'maker-oriented' along the lines of Dr. Mark Sample's call to move beyond the written essay to 'build something': I really love that little essay and would suggest you consider adding it to the syllabus.

"The student essay is a twitch in a void. A compressed outpouring of energy (if we’re lucky) that means nothing to no one. My friend and occasional collaborator Randy Bass has said that nowhere but school would we ask somebody to write something that nobody will ever read....With this in mind, I am moving away from asking students to write toward asking them to weave. To build, to fabricate, to design. I don’t want my students to become miniature scholars. I want them to be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials, developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product."

I love that! Good luck to your students! I look forward to following your progress. Build something beautiful!


-Amanda Starling Gould


Thanks so much for this.  For over 25 years now (!!!), I've stopped having conventional term papers and, instead, have ended courses with what I call, a bit portentously, a "public contribution to knowledge."   Not a paper I read but something that makes a difference in the world.   I recently ran into a student who was in the first class I taught at Duke, in 1990, and he reminded me that, in his class, the students read Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition, did archival work on the Wilmington Riots during the Reconstruction Era, went to the city of Wilmington, NC, and picked up all the tourist maps and brochures available from the Chamber of Commerce, and redid them all, this time including accurate archival information about the Willmington Riots--the first Black legislators who were run out of government, where the victims (African Americans) of the white race riots were buried, the Black press that was burned and where it was located, the Black church that was burned.  They did a walking tour of the riots, and on and on.   Several classes worked on this and pretty soon Wilmington made this a feature in the town tours, and there was even a Centennial celebration and several of my students presented and acted as docents. 

This student, not an administrator at a university in Iowa, said, "You won't remember me, but I'll never forget you or that class."  

He was wrong.  I remembered him well.   The whole experience was as unforgettable for me as it was for him and, I hope, the other students too.



Danica Savonick has suggested adding Adrienne Rich's teaching notebooks to this reading list as well as Nick Sousanis' remarkable comic Unflattening.   Those are great suggestion.


Today I also came across this winner of the William and Edwyna Gilbert Award for the best article on teaching history and it definitely looks worth considering as supplementary reading:  Peter Burkholder (Fairleigh Dickinson Univ.), “A Content Means to a Critical Thinking End: Group Quizzing in History Surveys,” The History Teacher 47, no. 4 (August 2014): 551–78

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