Blog Post

Getting Started on a Course Using Radical Pedagogy: #MLA18 Pres Plenary Follow Up

Photo of the standing-room-only audience for the MLA Presidential Plenary

So how do you get started with radical pedagogy--activist learning, engaged learning, student-centered learning are alternative terms?   At my paper, on the #MLA18 Presidential Plenary that was convened by Pres Diana Taylor and included Judith Butler, Angela Davis (by stormed-out video), ACLU's Anthony Romero, and Juan Lopez (by storm-required paper read by Diana Taylor), I managed to turn many hundreds of people in the MLA audience into an engaged active learning session.

My main argument:  We are schooled to structural inequality.  You can’t reverse structural inequality with critique or with goodwill. You must make change happen at the structural level.  

These inventory/sampling/Total Participation methods and tactics immediately change the classroom from a place where equality and total participation are rewarded and nourished and "educated" (we learn how to speak, how to have a voice, how to collaborate across differences); in the conventional classroom, inequality is structured (those most like the professor raise their hands, are validated, others are shamed and silenced in numerous ways).

None of this is new--it has historical antecedents in Black struggle movements from abolitionism to Civil rights, in feminist movements, in community organizing (inc Wall Street) and in local citizens action electoral movements like Indivisible. It works so well it's amazing we are so afraid to use it.  And then not amazing: as Audre Lorde says, it is simple and, at the same time, very difficult because it means changing our acknowledgment of and relationship to our own power.

NB:  This is why, in every audience and in every class session, I yield some of my time at the podium, as the keynoter or the professor of record, to the collective, structuring a 100% participation, sampling situation where everyone has a voice.  I practice what I preach.  It always works.

I change the question each time.  I do this whether there are six students or 600 and in our weekly Futures Initiative business meetings, where the group co-creates the agenda on the spot.  It's more efficient as well as more energized, egalitarian, and responsive and responsible.

Notecards, pencil, and copy of The New Education by Cathy Davidson

Think: Everyone had an index card and pencil and, in 90 seconds, wrote down three things they currently do in any situation where they have power (classroom, department meeting, reading group, community organizing, dinner table, etc) to insure what APA calls "Total Participation": a method of actually making sure everyone contributes. 

Pair:  I next gave them 90 seconds to turn to someone they were near (ideally someone they didn't know), introduce themselves and take turns. One person reads only what is on the card, no commentary, no interruption.  Then the second person does.  In what remains of the 90 seconds, they collaborate on what they will "share" with the group as a whole.  It means choosing, editing, revising, compromising, and selecting one thing--all great skills to hone.

Share: In a small group, we go around and each pair reads (together or taking turns) their one idea.  No interruption.  (Optional: We do collaborative note taking on a Google Doc and write all these down.)  In a large group, I might just randomly call on pairs to read.  In a large course with TAs, a friend calls on people to read and has TAs collect the signed cards that then count as attendance and pop quizzes and give the TA's and him substance for the next class, a temperature read on how things are going.

What I modeled was how much "content" there is in any room but that is never tapped when conversation only happens from the podium to the audience, from the teacher to the students.   By using an inventory technique,  every person shared something with everyone else.  It was rousing.

Exit Tickets:  My favorite simple exit ticket:  "What is one thing we talked about in class today that you will still be thinking about before you go to bed tonight?"  90 seconds.  It's a great way of finding out what they thought was the most important or intriguing part of the class.  I also ask, "If there is nothing, that what should we have talked about today?

Entry Tickets: You can get a class started in the same way, with a version of the same question.  Or one student last year suggested we all just write down our favorite line from the reading.  That turns out to be a wonderful way to get a class going (including at 8 am in the morning).  It focuses. 

It shows that we think we all read the same text but all find different things that capture our attention.  Researchers tell us it increases participation and preparation.  Everyone is responsible.  Everyone is on the hook.  We are a community.  Not just 3 smarties and the abject.

The Self-Replication of the Sampling, Selective Q and A: Interestingly, as soon as the convention Q and A "sampling" method was used, the questions immediately started with a white guy in the audience asking an "expertise" question--what would you put on a syllabus this term--of the only white guy on the panel.  In itself that is not a problem.  However, we have decades of research saying that, in fact, the reason our profession has replicated its own racial and gender demographics, despite a generation of "critique" of racism and sexism, is that selective, sampling methods--in lectures and even more in discussions--lead to replication of the person giving the lecture and valorizing of like-mindedness.  It's a self-replicating profession.  That is what "to be schooled" is in non-egalitarian methods. Sampling methods, active and engaged pedagogy, are designed to reverse all these things.)   

My Talk: I will post my paper later as a pdf later, after I've put in the edits.  In the meantime, I've put in the great quote from AfroFuturist Samuel Delany below.  

And here are ways you can restructure not just class discussion but a whole class around Total Participation and radical pedagogy.

An Active Learning Tool Kit:  This is the blog url that was on the back of everyone's card


A Wrap-Up and Tool Kit of an Entire Course: Here’s a wrap up for a course I taught using these methods. Our  RA, the brilliant Danica Savonick, wrote up our methods for the entire semester.  The course was a graduate class co-taught by myself and Michael Gillespie and I  on “Teaching Race and Gender Theory in the Undergraduate Humanities Classroom.” 


A Course Just Getting Started:  Here is how to get started.  This is the beginning of a course I"ll co-teach with Prof Shelly Eversley, "Black Listed:  African American Writers and  Cold War Politics."


Samuel Delany on the inequality of the "sampling" or conventional seminar method:

excerpted from "Schooled" by Cathy N. Davidson, delivered at the MLA Presidential Plenary, "States of Insecurity," January 5, 2018:

"I know no better contemporary advocate for Total Participation and radical pedagogy than the great queer, Afro-futurist science fiction writer, Samuel Delany. A famous autodidact, Delany never went to college. He was shocked when he taught his first college class, at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Humanities. He asked a question on his first day of class and a few of the most educationally successful students shot up their hands, the way they always do.  But while most of us are gratified by those first, eager responders to the questions we lob, Delany was appalled. He was not prepared for the look of dissociation on the faces of the other students—the silent ones.  He saw their shame. He also noted how many of the silent students were Black or other students of color, or were queer, female, disabled, or just shy:

Don’t you realize that every time you don’t answer a question, you’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. That’s not good!... So, from now on, whenever I ask a question, everybody’s got to put their hand up. I don’t care whether you know the answer or not. You have to put your hand up…I’m going to call on you and if you don’t know the answer, I want you to say nice and clear: ‘I don’t know the answer to that, Professor Delany, but I would like to hear what that person has to say. And we’ll pass it on. And so this is what we started doing. And I said, whenever I ask a question, everybody put their hand up. I don’t care whether you know or not…You need to teach people they are important enough to say what they have to say.’   So now I do that, I ask everyone to raise their hand.”  

--An interview with Samuel Delany in "The Polymath," a video by Orlando Echeverri.   (Please Note: Originally this was posted here:  However, this is no longer available except in my talks and in those of Futures Initiative Fellow and Graduate Center Doctoral Fellow Danica Savonick who originally found and blogged about this.  Thanks to Danica for saving this beautiful quote for posterity!)

For an excellent recap of the full "States of Insecurity"  Panel, see Kalle Westerling's "Recap: MLA Presidential Plenary States of Insecurity,", Jan 5, 2018.


Okay, everyone now:  RAISE YOUR HAND! 


Photo credits:
MLA Does Radical Pedagogy (Think/Pair/Share), Christina Katopodis
​MLA Presidential Plenary, Lisa Lowe (Pictured: ACLU's Anthony Romero [partial], Cathy N. Davidson, and Judith Butler]


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