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How To Transform a Traditional Class Into an Engaged One #fight4edu #engagedScholar

How To Transform a Traditional Class Into an Engaged One #fight4edu #engagedScholar

On Monday December 7, 5:30-7:00 pm (#fight4edu and #engagedscholar),  we hosted our first event on The Engaged Scholar,  this Group on HASTAC.  It was our first interactive session of The Engaged Scholar, a workshop designed to turn a traditional classroom into an engaged, student-centered space. Engaged pedagogy is the opposite of millennial bashing. Instead, it says let's look at the historical situation of the contemporary student, the institutions of higher education they have inherited, and the larger world they have inherited and that they now must shape.  Given all that, how can we design a better classroom, a more engaged way of learning, to prepare them to help create a better society?  That should be the purpose of higher education, not millennial bashing.  It is the purpose of The Engaged Scholar. 

We are using this Engaged Scholar site as a resource for posting syllabi, for working as a group on those syllabi, for preparing exercises, and for offering bibliography and other resources for engaged teaching.

This Group already includes rich resources, many of them contributed by HASTAC Scholars (graduate and undergraduate students), for making any classroom into a vibrant learning experience.  We invite you to join the Group and contribute more!

Here's the main premise of The Engaged Scholar:  You cannot counter structural inequality with good will.  You must design a new structure with equality at its core. 

The banner for our new Group, "The Engaged Scholar," symbolizes our method:  learning together, not top down, not with a pre-designed outcome, engaging all of the participants in the responsibilities, design, and direction of the learning in order that we can all have something better--ideally, a more just society--at the end of the process.  Engaged, activist, student-centered learning reverses the production model of the Industrial Age university where the professor is essentially in the role of middle-management and the student is the passive consumer.  Instead, all participants are actively understanding environment, impediments, desires, outcomes, and designing the best way to achieve those goals together, within the limits that exist, with the resources that exist--and always with an intention to be liberatory beyond prescribed limits and imagined possibilities currently available to the participants.

All of these ideals are embodied by this banner.  It's a podium.  Its design was led by artist-engineering professor-visionary Sara Hendren ( who teaches at Olin College, a liberal arts college for engineers, and it was designed and fabricated by students Morgan Bassford, Adriana Garties, Kate Maschan, and Mary Morse.  And none of it would have happened without the co-design and inspiration, the desires and demands and wishes and ideas of curator and scholar Amanda Cachia.  

The "Alterpodium"--and the people who built it in a visionary new kind of institution of higher education--is a perfect symbol of The Engaged Scholar.


Here's the backstory:  I met Sara Hendren for the first time on December 1, 2015, at a conference on "Digging Deep:  Ecosystems, Institutions, and Processes for Critical Making"  on the materiality of culture, the cultural of materials, designed to take us (theoretically and practically) beyond "digital humanities" to really re-imagine a new pedagogy and a new world where we all were, together, creating better theories and practices.  Professor Patrick Svensson of Umea University, brought us together at the Graduate Center, CUNY, for this excellent event. 

I had the honor of helping to plan and brainstorm Olin College in around 2000 as a new kind of engineering school that is not just about building things but asking, always, the deep questions of why and for whom and for what purpose?  One of Olin's mottos:  "It's not just what students know.  It's what they do with that knowledge."  By its charter, Olin College takes as many female as male engineers.  It emphasizes collaboration and project-based learning at its finest.

Prof Hendren's role is to teach engineers to rethink disability along with differently-abled people, many of whom have extraordinary abilities that far exceed those possessed by the so-called "able bodied."  Her beautiful and smart keynote address at EYEO 2015 makes an excellent introduction to the basic principles of engaged scholarship in any field. The image in our banner symbolizes engagement:  behind this object is a theory of learning, a theory of making, a theory of interdisciplinary collaboration, and a theory of expertise and, just as important, a theory of the kind of informed, critical thinking non-experts need to develop to ensure that expertise is deployed wisely.  Expertise is not sufficient.  The image is one of the objects that Prof Hendren and her students have designed together with its user:  it is a lightweight, portable, foldable podium--of the kind that professors stand behind all the time. 

This one is unique.  It was designed by Olin College students with and for curator and scholar Amanda Cachia who is constantly on the road giving talks and who is constantly confronted with podiums, microphones, and other stage set ups designed for people far taller than her 4' 3" body.  The new "Alterpodium" is made of the same high tech carbon fiber used in racing motorcycles and spacecraft.  Ms. Cachia unfolds her Alterpodium, slides it behind the dysfunctional (for her) existing podium, and ascends to the right place on the stage.

Alterpodium is an apt metaphor for what teaching and learning should be:  it should not be one-size-fits-all.  And certainly it should not be one-size-fits-nobody.  It should be a way of rethinking the conditions and obstacles that prevent us from doing what we need to do and offering us the means and possibilities to accomplish something more, better, higher. 

That is what student-centered, progressive, constructivist, connected learning is.   It only happens when learning is not one-direction but multi-directional, a collaboration of teacher and students, with exploration and learning and assessment of what one needs to know paired with the tools, methods, and partners that can help one to know it. 

Prof Sara Hendren does this every day with her engineering students at Olin College who are rethinking everything about disability and ability--prostheses, handicap devices, handicap ramps (and skateboard ramps and the Venn diagram of the two), and even handicap signage--an activist project to remind us that disability does not mean we are not mobile, active, and interactive. 

She and her students are asking why we start by thinking of "ability" as a norm and standardized and typically make devices that are mechanical substitutes and imitations of those standards?  Why is the goal of the prosthetic some million dollar contraption that mimics the look and the movements of a biological part that may be missing or non-functioning rather than asking what a person really wants or needs to function better in whatever way "better" means for that person?    

These are the questions that every educator, at every level, should be asking in every classroom.  As Judith Butler and disability activist Sunaura Taylor ask in "Examined Life," a very beautiful video about our different abilities: don't we all need assistance of some kind or other?  Aren't we all learners?  Isn't that the fundamental question about life and society?  Do we or do we not live in a world where we assist each other? 

If we decide we do want to live in a world where we assist each other, we must get over the idea that "expertise" is a thing or a condition or an outcome and the prof has it and the student's job is to gain it through a series of trials resulting in a diploma.  We need to realize, instead, that learning is lifelong.  And that in every space--including in the classroom--there are different things about which different people are experts.

Prof Hendren notes that, at some point, as she is prodding her engineering students to ask harder and harder questions and produce more and more useful and sophisticated and innovative devices, they far exceed her knowledge and expertise.  At that point, they have to trust her questions and she has to trust their answers--and their ability as responsible co-learners to, among themselves, apply the highest standards of excellence to their collective project.   That only happens if, as students, they have taken on new responsibilities and have fully absorbed the mission of living in a world where we assist one another. 

Sara Hendren calls this becoming a Public Amateur.  It's something every professor should aspire to.

And it is not easy.  Giving up expertise and the status of the expert is one of the most difficult things for anyone to do--especially for the successful person.  And yet, once you do, you realize whole worlds open. 

If you want to find out some easy ways how--we'll be working on more complicated ones next semester--join us on next week, onsite or online.  The information is below.  We look forward to seeing you! 

Monday, December 7 | 5:30 - 7:00 pm
On Twitter:  #fight4edu and #engagedscholar
Online: HASTAC Engaged Scholar Group
Onsite: The Garage, Franklin Humanities Institute
Room C105, Bay 4, Smith Warehouse Building
114 S Buchanan Blvd, Durham, NC




One of Prof Sara Hendren's most remarkable projects is The Accessibility Project.  A transparent sticker or other form of an altered version of the normally static accessibility logo is given force and movement.  You can put these stickers over the conventional one.  Here's where you can purchase stickers--and donate to this fantastic project:


Hello Cathy and hastac folks!

I just joined hastac yesterday!  I have been reading your work for a couple of years now, but got a boost in motivation because I am teaching a course to grad students on adult learning theory in the digital age (starting yesterday), and this is the meat and potatoes of what we are focusing on.

I have a question.  When you refer to "the classroom"--are you differentiating between live, campus based learning and online learning?  Many of the references in Cathy's step by step guide to building student centered learning appear to be in a campus based course.  I live by the mantra that if I can do it in front of people, I can find a way (and perhaps a better way) to work virtually in an online classroom environment--whether synchronous or asynchronous.

I'd like to know what others think?

WIth curiosity and eagerness to learn, Susan Berg





Hi Susan, Thank you for this.  Our site no longer automatically sends comment responses and I missed this.  My apologies.  I actually think no matter what we are doing, there has to be engagement.  We were able to find ways to turn a MOOC format into an engaged experience as have many others.  I last night heard about an online Museum Studies course that has a two-week face to face capstone where they do an actual working project, in partnership witha  museum.  In this case, a museum that was opening a storefront space a few miles away asked students to come up with a full plan--including communications, branding, budget, tools, all that--for connecting the two museums. 


To me, a course doesn't end until there is some final public contribution to knowledge.  That can be online or onsite but, in either case, you have to find the best ways for students to engage the world.  I delivered this at Duke which is mostly residential but I am now at CUNY which is a  commuter college.  So, both!


Cathy,  Thanks so much for the response.  That's what I thought, but just wondered if there are any discoveries you and others are making about the online world vs. in class.  My work in the organization development world has been focusing on similar approaches in the work setting for many years.  I enjoy the work and research you are sharing about applications in the higher ed world.  Our two worlds are intersecting more and more, and this energy of collaborative learning is what I want to bring to my students.

And thanks for the terrific book (Now You See It).  Thank God, because without it my students would be buried in a boring, classic adult learning text!  Perhaps now that you're closer to my neighborhood (I'm outside of PHilly) I'll get a chance to come to an event in NYC.

Gratefully, and with curiousity, Susan



Delighted you and your students are enjoying Now You See It, Susan (if I may!).  I think the reserach is getting less punitive all the time.  I very much like the new work coming from Storm and Stone:  Published online before print December 9, 2014, doi: 10.1177/0956797614559285 Psychological Science December 9, 2014 0956797614559285  Saving-Enhanced Memory  Benjamin C. Storm and Sean M. Stone