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Here's How a Syllabus Evolves! Intro to Engaged Teaching and Learning

Here's How a Syllabus Evolves! Intro to Engaged Teaching and Learning

Introduction to Engaged Teaching and Transformative Learning in the Humanities and Social Sciences


Professors Cathy N. Davidson (The Graduate Center, English and the Futures Initiative) and Eduardo Vianna (LaGuardia CC, Social Sciences, and The Graduate Center, Psychology)

Assisting Instructor Tatiana Ades (The Graduate Center, MALS)

English 89000; IDS 81670

Crosslistings:  Psychology, MALS, and Women's and Gender Studies

Thursdays, 2-4 PM


NB:  The syllabus below is intended to be suggestive, not definitive, and it is longer than actual requirements will be. We intend to keep reading to 50 pp or less a week and to make all materials available free, where possible.

Class Google Doc and Folder: 

What does it mean to “introduce” a field? This course is intended for any graduate student in the humanities or social sciences who is thinking seriously about the deepest “why” and “how” questions about their discipline and how those apply to their own research and teaching. We begin with theoretical questions about disciplines, fields, foundations, pedagogy, research, aesthetics, and institutional structures alongside issues of equity, diversity, inclusion, social justice, engagement, and transformation. In each class and in final projects, we encourage students to transform critique into engaged practice. Students work collaboratively on analyzing and then designing: 1) a standard anthology or textbook in their field, subfield, or area; (2) key articles or critical texts in their (sub)field; (3) standard syllabi of introductory or “core” courses in their (sub )field; (4) keywords in their (sub) field.

Students will leave this course with a deeper understanding of the assumptions of their field and new methods for transformative learning that support diversity, inclusion, and a more equitable form of higher education. Our aim is to work toward “research with a transformative activist agenda” and teaching and mentoring as a “collaborative learning community project.”

Evolving Syllabus 

This course is designed using active learning methods that will engage students in projects meaningful to them, that they can help shape, and which include students in the development of the course itself. Much research on active learning shows these methods to be invaluable to empowering graduate students (even in the context of graduate studies which is often remarkably infantilizing and hierarchical). For those who are teaching, it offers pedagogical methods to be incorporated into your own classrooms.

The syllabus evolves until the course opens—and continues once the class begins as students are key in shaping the form, methods, content, and projects the class pursues and are co-designers of a unique learning experience that best serves their own careers, as researchers, thinkers, scholars, teachers, institution builders and beyond.

One portion of the course will be public and we will be using the site for public writing. The tool is designed to create an automatic “portfolio” for anyone who registers and blogs on the site. Blogs can be pseudonymous. Or can use your own name. Choose which best serves your career.


Jan 30: Introductions  (Spring 2020 Academic Calendar)

  • Students, faculty, and assisting instructor introduce themselves 

  • Overview of Vygotsky, progressive education, transformative learning, active learning, culturally-relevant pedagogy, student-centered learning (bell hooks, Freire, Munoz, Ahmed, various collective indigenous counter-perspectives)

  • Distribute Samuel Delany Quote on what it means when only three students in a seminar "raise their hands" and how to use "inventory" or "Total Participation" methods so every student has a chance to contribute equally, low stakes and high yield. Queer, Black, a brilliant science fiction writer and autodidact, Delany especially attends to what it means if the classroom replicates the professoriate--the increasing mismatch between students and professors, the lesson in "silence" and "silencing" every time a student slinks in shamed silence.  "How not to ask for a raise . . ."

Accessibility Design: Create Your Own Table Tents with your full name, preferred name, pronouns, program (or interest area).  Red, Yellow, Green dots for participation, access, awareness (available for each class).

Active Learning Method:  Think Pair Share   (What do you--the student--hope to achieve in this course?)

    • “Write the three most important ‘learning outcomes’ for this course.”

Active Learning Method:  Students self-organize into groups and choose general topic, pick a date on the calendar., plan the last half of this course together. 

Feb 6: Focus on progressive pedagogy as social justice

Assigned readings:

  • bell hooks, from Teaching to Transgress, Introduction & “Engaged Pedagogy” Chapter (pp. 1-22)

  • Critical disability/inclusive pedagogy  [TBD]

  • Culturally relevant pedagogy

    • Selection from Sara Ahmed,  Living a Feminist Life... intersectional: queer, person of color, feminist, immigrant

    • Essay from Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick  

    • What Else?  Your turn!

Active Learning Method:  Entry Tickets, Collaborative Resource Building.  "What are the three most meaningful, relevant texts in your life?"  (i.e. Imagine:  the "house of learning is burning . . . what three texts would you grab as you fled the house? what would you fight to preserve, to keep, to sustain you, to pass on?")            

Feb 13: Historical Framing: Industrial/Indigenous Pedagogy Focus on structuring inequality designed into industrial age higher education that we have inherited at the same time that indigenous populations are being systematically exterminated and/or forcibly educated in the Boarding Schools and reservation schools.


  • Except from Charles Eliot’s “The New Education” Atlantic Monthly, 1869;  Charles Eliot chapter (Chapter 1: “Quarter-Life Crisis”), Cathy N. Davidson, The New Education (2017)

  • Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin, b. 1876), Chapters 1-3: “Impressions of an Indian Childhood,” “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” and “An Indian Teacher Among Indians” (Manifold edition)  From the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota  to White's Manual Labor Institute and Earlham College (a Quaker liberal arts college in Indiana), and then teaching at Carlisle Indian Industrial School (PA).

  • Sandy Grande, Red Pedagogy; Illarion (Larry) Merculieff and Libby Roderick, Stop Talking:  Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning and Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education

  • Supplementary text: Marie Battiste, “Indigenous Knowledge and Pedagogy in First Nations Education: A Literature Review with Recommendations"  (pdf)


Active Learning Method:  Collaborative annotation exercise in pairs w/Manifold edition of Zitkala-Sa with Eliot, Taylor, industrial capitalism in mind.

Feb 20: Theoretical Framing: “Vygotskian and Post-Vygotskian approaches- theoretical concepts as efficient (higher-order) cultural tools”

Required Readings: 

  1. Engeström, Y. (1991). Non scolae sed vitae discimus: Toward overcoming the encapsulation of school learning. Learning and instruction1(3), 243-259.

  2. Stetsenko, A., & Arievitch, I. (2002). Teaching, learning, and development: A post-Vygotskian perspective. Learning for life in the 21st century: Sociocultural perspectives on the future of education, 84-96.

  3. Arievitch, I. M., & Haenen, J. P. (2005). Connecting sociocultural theory and educational practice: Galperin's approach. Educational psychologist40(3), 155-165.

  4. Stetsenko (2010). Teaching-Learning and Development as activists projects of historical becoming: Expanding Vygotsky's approach to pedagogy. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 5, 6-16.

  5. Lave, Jean (1996). "Teaching, as Learning, In Practice," Mind, Culture, and Activity, 3, no 3, 149-164.

Suggested Readings:

  1. Gal'perin, P. I. (1969). Study of the Intellectual Development of the child. Soviet Psychology, 2, 26-44.

  2. Arievitch, I. M. (2003). A potential for an integrated view of development and learning: Galperin's contribution to sociocultural psychology. Mind, Culture, and Activity10(4), 278-288.

Feb 27: TAS-based critical-theoretical pedagogy

Required Readings: 

  1. Vianna, E. & Stetsenko, A. (2019). Turning Resistance into Passion for Knowledge with the Tools of Agency: Teaching-Learning about Theories of Evolution for social justice among foster youth. Perspectiva, 37 (3).

  2. Vianna, E. & Stetsenko, A. (2017). Expanding Student Agency in the Introductory Psychology Course: Transformative Activist Stance and Critical-Theoretical Pedagogy. In Obeid, R., Schwartz, A., Shane Simpson, C. & Brooks, P. (Eds.), How We Teach Now: The GSTA Guide to Student-Centered Teaching.

  3. Vianna, E. & Stetsenko, S. (2011) Connecting learning and identity: application in adolescent development in a child welfare program. Human Development, 54, 313–338.

Suggested Readings: 

  1. Vianna, E., Hougaard, N. & Stetsenko, A. (2014). The Dialectics of Collective and Individual Transformation: Transformative Activist Research in a Collaborative Learning Community Project. In A. Blunden Ed.), Project collaboration: An interdisciplinary study. Boston, MA: Brill Academic Publishers.

  2. Vianna, E. (2009). Collaborative transformations in foster care: Teaching-learning as a developmental tool in a residential program. Saarbrucken, Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Muller. Chapter 5 pp. XX

Mar 5: Discussion leader Tatiana Ades: “The people in our classrooms who are students” 

What are the lived realities of the lives of students today? 


Student-led Syllabus Starts Here:  Students work together to choose a topic, readings, and active learning method of presentation to the class. We encourage students to transform critique into engaged practice. Students work collaboratively on analyzing and then designing: (1) a standard anthology or textbook in their field, subfield, or area; (2) key articles or critical texts in their (sub)field; (3) standard syllabi of introductory or “core” courses in their (sub )field; (4) keywords in their (sub) field. 

    Each member of the group will be required to give meaningful  (and guided) formative feedback to the members of their group about their individual contribution to the success of the group presentation.  Collectively, the group is required to write a “recap” of the classes you lead in our Group on, including photos, illustrations, “how to’s” that others can learn from. 

Mar 12: Group 1 Summary and Recap: Decolonial Self in Academic Life

And the full, in-class exercise:

Required Reading:

Suggested Reading:


Mar 26: Group 2: Summary and Recap: Creative Learning Environments: Other Ways of Knowing

Asynchronous Prompt:  Write out a recipe that is meaningful to you--family recipe, your own, and describe the food and then share its story.

Suggested Reading:

Apr 2:  Open class. "Learning Outcomes in a Time of COVID":

Apr 8-16: Spring Recess 

Apr 23: Dr. Alex Polish, "Accessible Design"  Guest Presentation. 

Apr 30:   Discussion of "Graduate Education for the Public Good" 

CANCELLED:  Preparation for Class Workshop at  National Conference (starts tonight)


May 7: Group 3  Data Literacy and Algorithmic Bias

Assigned Reading:

Recommended Reading / Viewing:

Prompt: When we use the term “default” to mean the norm, a “glitch” is an interruption of the norm. What parallels can you draw between Benjamin’s discussion of “the default” and “glitches” and the current state of higher education in the midst of the pandemic?


May 14: Wrap up 

2-3 Asynchronous:“Meta reflection” and  “exit tickets”)  See two Prompts below.

3-4 Synchronous Class Meeting on Webex

3-3:10  Schedule, check in, requirements for rest of term

3:10-4:00 Final discussion questions.    

PROMPT #1: “Exit Ticket” and “Meta Reflection”:

Jot out two or three things from  being a student/teacher in “Introduction to Transformative Learning and Teaching” (before and during the COVID pandemic) that will have an impact on your future teaching-learning (obuchenie). 


What one thing would you most like to talk about in class today, in our last day of all being “together” as a class?

    Topics (generated from Prompt #2):  

    --How to survive in institutions that reward the status quo?

    --How to organize in a classroom?

    --How to cultivate an “exit strategy”?

    --How to encourage participation in a “completely asynchronous” class? 

    --How to manage student expectations? Obsession with the A.



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