On the week of March 9, 2020, the City University of New York announced that it would transition to distance learning, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City. Already, individual classes were beginning to make the switch from physical classroom meetings to online video conferences. (Official online instruction by CUNY was slated to begin on March 19th.)
In that same week, the first group presentation for the Intro to Engaged Teaching and Transformative Learning in the Humanities and Social Sciences course (The Graduate Center) was scheduled to speak about decoloniality and accessibility in academics. The coinciding events brought this topic into even greater relevancy.
With concerns over those who are immunocompromised or wary of becoming carriers of the coronavirus and wanting to take any precautions necessary, group members and course instructors convened by virtual means to quickly formulate a plan to hold the presentation through Webex and Google Doc.
The Student-Curated Syllabus
Students of the Pedagogy class were encouraged to add any resources that they believed to be relevant for the course, relating to transformative ways of teaching, learning, and engaging in the classroom. Each group could assign readings or materials, which would then go on the official class syllabus, for their group’s leading day.
Group 1 had many discussions about accessibility in terms of assignments: essentially, heavy reading loads are inherently inaccessible to people with disabilities, people with families, single parents, people working full or part-time, people who are also caretakers for family members, etc. Our goal was to acknowledge that students are people first and have lives and responsibilities outside of the classroom which are, in fact, non-negotiable. In addition to that, rigorous assignment loads are thought to contribute to a serious scholarly setting and encourage mastery of a subject - but the idea of mastery is sheer conceit, and if mastery was possible, you wouldn’t get there by skim-reading 100 pages of complex theoretical texts (and that’s only for one class!). We believe that serious engagement comes from sustained grappling with complex problems until a handhold of understanding is reached; a thread to pull which can help unravel the text - an ethos of quality over quantity, as it were. Learning, rather than productivity. Additionally, our goal was to decolonize our syllabus. Decolonizing a syllabus is a complicated process, but one place to start is who and what you’re assigning. We assigned readings solely from people of color and from differing perspectives within those margins. We also did not assign solely theoretical or academic texts.
Group 1 Reading Assignments:
Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality, Nelson Maldonado-Torres. Each person in the class was assigned 1 thesis to focus on and really grasp, but still encouraged to read as much as they could.
Practicing Pinayist Pedagogy, Dr. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales & Jocyl Sacramento
Tongues of Their Mothers, Makhosazana Xaba
Pedagogy of the Decolonizing, a TEDx talk given by Quetzala Carson
The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Fred Moten & Steve Harney
One of the goals of the Transformative Pedagogy class was interrogating the erroneous pedagogical methods that are most prevalent in academia, most notably the “banking system” and the one-way transmission of knowledge. One way to do this is via activities that help the learners acquire deftness with the topics. Our activities had to be readjusted to accommodate the virtual space, while also keeping in mind how to make them engaging for critical thinking and discussion despite the distance.
List of class activities for the presentation, with virtual modifications explained in (parentheses):
Poster responses: Each person provides one response (word, phrase, quotation, thoughts, etc.) per assigned material. We encourage talking to each other about your responses throughout this exercise. (Intended to be written on actual posters taped to the walls of the classroom where sessions are usually held. Instead, responses were posted on a shared Google Doc, in corresponding charts regarding the assigned readings.)
2-minute summaries for each of the required readings. (This was modified to be a 5-minute summarization of the texts. People were encouraged to use language that they felt most comfortable speaking/writing in, instead of utilizing “academic speak”, as this relates to the idea of decolonizing academic writing.)
Discussion of the materials & responses to the activities. Ideally we can start thinking about ways to disrupt the normative/conventional flow of the classroom for each person and come up with strategies to interrogate our own teaching practices. (This portion could have been held in our typical classroom space. But this was adjusted to accommodate into an audio/video conference; more on this outcome will be explained in the next section.)
Quilting activity: Each person writes, draws, or responds in some way (on paper) to the readings, activities, and assignments. The responses will then be taped to the wall in a quilt-like pattern, meant to encapsulate the class’s experience of the material and the concept of decolonization. (This activity was modified to utilize any digital tools available, for each individual participating in this exercise. Contributions were shared on the Google Doc. This was initially meant to be done during class-time, but the other modifications meant we had to do some re-shuffling. Students were given the option to do this activity of the one below as a post-discussion response.)
Multimodal Response: Each person in the class will send one poem, work of art, song, novel, theoretical text, etc., (literally anything), to us, which encapsulates or represents decoloniality to them personally. These will be combined into a decolonial syllabus, which will be shared on HASTAC (along with a picture of the “quilt”).
You can view the shared document from the class for an in-depth look at how this class worked by clicking on this link.
Lucien: Leading this day of class alongside Nik, Anjelica, and Francisco was a somewhat surreal experience. The week before we were slated to present, Nik and I divvied up the snack responsibilities and I left for back-to-back trips to Austin and New Brunswick. When I returned a week later, everything was shutting down rapidly, and our class was the first of mine to move online, though it soon became clear that there would be no in-person classes for the remainder of the semester. When it came time to present, I was nervous as it was my first time teaching and now it was happening online. Additionally, I was in a state of shock and mourning as I realized that this was the end of my senior year as I had expected it to go. However, shock and mourning do not capture how I felt in class. Rather, I felt that our session was one of the most exciting and engaging classes I have ever been part of (a feeling I share about the other student-led online session). As we were all typing away and commenting on the google doc my heart felt full and I felt grateful to be part of this class community. I am generally critical of online education as it exists in US higher colleges and universities, yet I think our class was fantastic due to the resiliency of our classmates in the wake of a pandemic, and the rigorous open creative inquisitive community we have created at the GC and continue to build online over the course of the semester. Was it a perfect class? Absolutely not. I wish that everyone had been able to fully participate, and that nobody had to be living through a crisis. That said, I probably learned more from this class than just about any other, and I think this semester will be one I continue to reflect upon for years to come as I pursue a life in education. Leading this class was a challenging experience, but I am glad it was one I got to partake in with Anjelica, Nik, and Cisco, in a supportive environment created by Cathy, Eduardo, Tati, and all of our classmates.
Cisco: Unfortunately, due to health problems (not Covid19 related) I could not be present during the group presentation. However, I heard wonderful things about it from the professors and other students. The weeks leading up to the presentation were enjoyable and nerve wracking, we spent time brainstorming and coming up with ideas about not only what kind of issues we wanted to cover/address in our presentations but what kind of activities we would facilitate and how to make sure that everyone not only participated in class but got something out of it that they would (hopefully) implement in their practices. It was truly a joy working with Anjelica, Nik, and Lucien-- even if our original ideas didn’t go as planned due to my health and Covid 19. That said, I do think we accomplished something special and I’m glad to have had the privilege to have met/worked with everyone.
Nik: I’ve never taught before but much of my work is in decolonizing pedagogy and accessibility, so I was both dreading and excited for teaching our own class. Anjelica, Lucien, Cisco, and I talked a lot about what our goals were for the class and one of our main goals was to give people real tools to think about and interrogate their teaching practices and the teaching practices they encounter. We wanted to provide resources not just for thinking about decolonization and accessibility, but also to see what it looks like to have those practices in action in a classroom. Overall, I think we did well, given the constraints. Everyone was engaged and interested and, I think, felt welcome to contribute their opinions, experiences, and thoughts. I think the part that worked really well was the google doc – having everyone “talk” there first made the video call discussion more lively because we were all already participating in several discussions and thought processes about the topics. I was, and remain, so grateful to the intentional community we’ve built in our Engaged Teaching course. Each of us shows up – for ourselves, for each other, for honest engagement with the materials. Having an intentional learning community is a difficult thing to build and maintain, but it truly is transformative. I’ve learned so much in this class, as much from how we built this community together as the materials we’ve studied. I believe so fervently in holding the knowledge of others in reverence and it’s amazing to have built a learning community where that is a value we, as a class, uphold. It’s also clear to me, now more than ever, that this class is an (exceptional) exception. I truly believe that the community we’ve built was in spite of the constraints and barriers instilled by academia, not because of it. My sincerest appreciation and thanks to Anjelica, Lucien, Cisco, our professors, and our class for providing such light and buoyancy while we navigate these rough waters.
Anjelica: The transition to distance learning posed several personal difficulties, especially in terms of the presentation space. I had to confront my own discomforts of using audio/visual technology when presenting ideas or participating in discussions, due to my need for in-person visual and tonal cues from those in conversation with me. Despite this, decolonization is very important to me, more as a practice than as a theory, and to identify one’s feelings about limitations and new situations is part of the process to better understand how we apply that practice in different spaces -- namely, the online space. It was helpful to organize the presentation through online tools like Webex and Google Doc, as we were able to view people engage with the material and the discussion in live-time. Nik and Lucien moderated the presentation through audio/visual, while I managed in “ghost mode” by viewing and writing the comments on the shared document. Even though this was not how we envisioned the presentation, under different circumstances, it helped the stage for the rest of the semester, as we continued this distance learning format for subsequent class sessions. Much gratitude to Nik, Francisco, and Lucien for helping in organizing and facilitating this project from the beginning.
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