Let Them Eat Pedagogy

From Public Books:

If you, like me, have participated in the #AcademicTwitter rite of passage that is bemoaning the lack of pedagogical training in graduate education, The New College Classroom is just the book for you. Authors Cathy Davidson and Christina Katopodis aim to fill this yawning gap with “a practical book dedicated to a lofty mission, a step-by-step ‘how to’ for transformation.” Even the most well-intentioned professors, they explain, who believe in “discussion” and equity can get things wrong.

This should be my favorite book of 2022! Not just because it’s about pedagogy and equity; because it’s coauthored by two practitioners, both (white1) women, one a senior scholar held in high regard across US higher ed studies, the other an early career scholar who adjuncted in graduate school, recently completed her doctorate, and took a tenure-track position. The authors are more than qualified through their research and teaching experience to write this text. Moreover, the book is incredibly readable and easy to digest. Every chapter is broken into manageable chunks, with neat subheadings like “What to Do When Nobody Does the Homework” and “How Do I Address Racial and Other Forms of Discrimination?” It also feels timely, having been written remotely during COVID-19, when the always-ongoing crises of teaching exploded in ways that made all academic laborers’ challenges more obviously similar than different. And in a practice that seems to put communitarian principles into action, Davidson and Katopodis “wrote every word together,” meeting online twice a week to discuss ideas, practice the strategies they would recommend, and get “students’ feedback on what was most effective for their learning.”2

This is the book that pedagogy Twitter has been crying out for. So why does it give me the ick?

Because The New College Classroom is not concerned with the material conditions that produce the crisis academics have to navigate today. Despite its romantic visions of “transformation” it is, ultimately, a guide for coping with the status quo. It offers no help for demanding something better, nor for creating alternatives ourselves.

Changing myself and my classroom might help me renew my one-year contract with the university, but it cannot prepare me to demand an alternative to the contract as the basis of my employment. Instead of mystifying “pedagogy” as some pure way of thinking and being in the world, instead of lamenting that we weren’t trained in this special field of study, perhaps we should recognize that to speak of pedagogy is to speak of labor. And that academic labor is not exceptional.

Certainly, the authors made a heroic effort to ground their pedagogical practices in research. Their introduction cites “an exhaustive study of twelve thousand classrooms” that showed that even instructors who believe they are “conducting a seminar or discussion class” fill 89 percent of class time with lecturing. The book illustrates what truly equitable participation can look like and advocates for active and participatory work that puts students in charge of their learning.

The first part of the book, “Changing Ourselves,” analyzes the classroom practices we have inherited and makes the argument for turning away from these modes of study to center “active learning,” which makes the student both “the agent and the source of the learning” rather than a passive recipient of facts from an authority figure. The second part of the book, “Changing Our Classrooms,” offers “practical, easy-to-follow methods for every part of teaching a class.” The authors explain the principles of active learning and distill them into “grab-and-go activities” that an instructor can pick up and implement immediately in any class (think: think-pair-share or entry and exit tickets). Together, these sections are “an invitation to change—ourselves, our classrooms, our society.”

There isn’t a third part on “Changing Our Society,” but the conclusion is titled “Changing the World” and ends with the provocation that “we are the people we’ve been waiting for,” a slogan otherwise popularized by climate justice activists. It might sound ostentatious to speak of higher education in the same way that we speak of the climate crisis, but within higher education circles, it is commonly held that academic labor is facing an existential quagmire (the apocalypse du jour is generative artificial intelligence. A whole field of critical university studies has grown around this crisis. And of course, so have books helping faculty navigate their lot in this crisis (including texts offering “hacks” for the academic job market; ones identifying the challenges faced by minoritized faculty members; ones Putting the Humanities PhD to Work; even practical guides for leaving academia).

Link to the rest at Public Books

There’s nothing like flattering your intended audience with “we are the people we’ve been waiting for.” Self-satisfaction should be one of the seven deadly sins.

4 thoughts on “Let Them Eat Pedagogy”

  1. I’m not saying that I would approve if, under some new political dispensation, such people ended up mining uranium north of the Arctic Circle, but I would understand.

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