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Creating Spaces for Conversation: Three Strategies

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In a recent blog post, Cathy N. Davidson wrote:

“There are personal, cultural, learning, and social reasons people don’t speak up in class.  Students of color and women of all races, introverts, the non-conventional thinkers, those from poor previous educational backgrounds, returning or “nontraditional students,” and those from cultures where speaking out is considered rude not participatory are all likely to be silent in a class where collaboration by difference is not structured as a principle of pedagogy and organization and design.   Who loses?  Everyone.  Arguments that are smart and valuable and can change a whole conversation get lost in silence and, sometimes, shame.  When that happens, we don’t really have discussion or collaboration.  We have group think–and that is why we all lose.”

Recently, I have been involved in several efforts to create spaces in which meaningful conversation can happen–spaces that don’t reproduce social hierarchies of privilege and power and instead welcome everyone’s contributions. In this blog, I’ll briefly highlight three examples of techniques for structuring equitable participation, whether in a classroom, meeting, or more informal conversation.

Taking stack

A few weeks ago, I was asked to facilitate the question and answer period for an academic event about supporting female teachers, particularly those who are teaching undergraduate humanities classes. While we often think that question and answer sessions just magically happen, these conversations often reproduce dominant hierarchies of privilege and power, especially in terms of who gets to speak and have their voice heard. Below is an except from my opening remarks on the importance of challenging these dynamics and two strategies, “progressive stack” and “step up, step back,” both of which I learned from the Occupy Wall Street movement and have since helped me in my efforts to create more inclusive environments, including in classrooms.

Taking “stack” just means keeping a list of people who wish to participate—offer a question or comment—during the Q & A. Rather than anxiously waving your hand around and wondering if you’ll be called on, if you would like to participate, signal to me in some way (a gesture, a dance move, a traditional hand-in-the-air, meaningful eye contact, etc.) and I will add you to the list.

However, we’re not just going to take stack, we are going to take progressive stack in an effort to foreground voices that are typically silenced in dominant culture. According to Justine and Zoë, two self-identified transwomen who were active in the movement, progressive stack means that “if you self-identify as trans, queer, a person of color, female, or as a member of any marginalized group you’re given priority on the list of people who want to speak – the stack. The most oppressed get to speak first.” As I take stack, I will also do my best to bump marginalized voices and those who haven’t yet had a chance to participate to the top. As you might already be thinking, taking stack is an imperfect method, especially because it relies on the perception of the person taking stack. For that reason, while I’ll start us off by taking stack, if at any point someone else wants to take over, please feel free to do so.

In addition to taking progressive stack, another way to try and structure equity into conversations is through a shared commitment, among participants, to “stepping up and stepping back.” Simply put, this entails being mindful of how much time we each take up and a collective commitment to making space for as many voices as possible.

Read the full post on HASTAC.

From Critical to Creative Pedagogy: Reimagining Assessment

Where we have cultures of oppression & survival / we need a different way of measuring,” a student noted in a class taught by feminist, antiracist, lesbian, activist, warrior poet and educator Audre Lorde, in 1984. Systems of measurement and assessment are key indicators of what we value. If we want to change the system but continue to evaluate success using the same methods we have always used, we cannot achieve structural transformation.

Rethinking pedagogy for institutional and social change

During the late 20th century as racial minorities and white women increasingly gained access to academic institutions, Lorde and her contemporary interlocutors were involved in the process of queering and decolonizing the educational institutions of a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal society. This included figuring out what could be salvaged from the wreck and what would need to be rebuilt in the service of something new. As minoritarian knowledge practitioners, many of us continue to ask the kinds of questions that were of central importance to Lorde and her co-conspirators: How much of what goes on in schools is a means towards justice, equity, and pleasure? What paradigms, practices, and assumptions still need to be reimagined? In my dissertation research, I focus on the overlooked site of the classroom as a critical space for making these interventions. In particular, I trace how the pedagogies of aesthetic education function as a means of social interruption, rather than reproduction.

While I have written elsewhere about alternative modes of assessment (JITP and HASTAC), here I want to frame this work as part of the process of decolonizing learning institutions. As Cathy Davidson argues in Now You See It, our dominant modes of assessment, including tests and letter grades, emerged from an industrialized society that valued standardization, hierarchization, and disciplining a new labor force, reducing what was once “a qualitative, evaluative, and narrative practice—to a grade” (112). Indeed, grades are a tidy academic rubric for making the messiness of learning legible.

In this blog, I ask, how can assessment catalyze and proliferate learning, rather than punishing or shaming students for not learning enough, or not learning the right things in the allotted (and always inadequate) amount of time? This is admittedly a huge question, one which I take up at greater length in my dissertation. For now, I offer just one example of an unexpected mode of assessment from the “Great Works of Global Literature” class I taught in fall 2015 at Queens College. In particular, I explore what happened when I asked students to illustrate what they had learned by making, rather than just analyzing, literature.

Read more on HASTAC.

Because nothing is sufficient, we must use everything

“Because nothing is sufficient, we must use everything,” Rebecca Fullan recently remarked, which is how I’ve come to understand the relationship between academia and activism. Since beginning my Ph.D. program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, I’ve struggled with the relationship between academic institutions and the grassroots, community-based, activist work that takes place on the streets (and other spaces). Instead of allowing a feminist interpretation of a text to substitute for, rather than inspire, political action, I want to ask how activism and academia can mutually inform one another without collapsing the meaningful differences between the two. How, for instance, is a class on African-American literature different from the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and how might the two work in tandem to take down the capitalist, white supremacist heteropatriarchy? In addition to troubling the activism/academia binary, I also want to emphasize that talking about feminism, antiracism, and material conditions of inequality from within a classroom will never be enough. I honestly hope that when students leave my class they feel uncomfortable and upset about our present, but also eager, desirous, and capable of changing it.

Read the rest of this post on the Critical Ethnic Studies blog.

Towards a Pedagogy of Equality

Recently, I was invited by the Futures Initiative and HASTAC to offer opening remarks for a year-long conversation, The University Worth Fighting For, a year-long project designed to tie student-centered, engaged practices in our classrooms to larger issues of institutional change, equality, race, gender, and all forms of social justice. Here is an excerpt from my remarks:

What would a classroom look like if it were designed not to reproduce traditional hierarchies of privilege and power, but instead to produce justice and equity? Would it begin with a privilege checklist, or with everyone sharing their preferred gender pronouns? Would there be a values statement in the syllabus, or would you ask students to draft a class constitution? Would someone be assigned to take progressive stack to ensure that marginalized and excluded voices get to drive the conversation? What would you ask students to produce in order to demonstrate what they have learned? Would you ask them to produce it alone or together, and why? Who would read, evaluate, and provide feedback on their work?

Recently, I had the opportunity to collaborate in drafting a set of questions to help digital humanists think about designing their teaching and research in ways that might help produce social justice. This got me thinking, what would a similar list look like for pedagogy? What questions can we ask ourselves to work not just towards an equitable classroom, but a more equitable world?

Important practitioners of critical and creative pedagogy, included in the suggested readings and viewings for this conversation and in the resources and references cited below, invite us to think about how our teaching and learning practices relate to conditions of inequality and injustice beyond the classroom. This discussion is intended to take up the challenge.

You can read the full post and contribute to the conversation here.


An Invitation Towards Social Justice in the Digital Humanities

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This past week, members of the “De/Post/Colonial Digital Humanities” seminar at the Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching (HILT) summer institute, under the skillful guidance of Roopika Risam and micha cárdenas, came up with “Creative and Critical Precepts for Digital Humanities Projects,” a list of methodological, epistemological, and ethical questions to consider when designing a digital humanities project. We invite you to join our collaborative effort and contribute to our list of questions and resources. 

On Radical Interdisciplinarity

I spent this past year as a Research Fellow with the Futures Initiative, a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Queens College, a HASTAC Scholar, and a student in Cathy Davidson and Bill Kelly’s “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education” course. I also was, and continue to be, a doctoral student in the English department at The Graduate Center, at the City University of New York.

Much of my year was spent trying to make sense of how all of these different projects fit together. It was a year in which I experienced radical interdisciplinarity: interactions, conversations, and collaborations with academics whose assumptions, histories, methodologies, and objectives are radically distinct from my own. Not only did my work span multiple areas of humanities research and teaching, as well as multiple kinds of learning environments and institutions, it also stretched across disciplines as I worked with colleagues in the sciences. While it’s not uncommon to collaborate within the humanities, very rarely will a doctoral student (or tenured professor) in English join an academic conversation with a doctoral student (or tenured professor) in chemistry as a peer and as a collaborator. In doing so, I was prompted to critically reflect on my own intellectual investments in the study of rhetoric, culture, aesthetics, politics, history, and power. These experiences challenged me to interrogate the very foundations of everything I know—what counts as a meaningful object of analysis, how it can be studied, what can be said about it, and to what effects. English courses have allowed me to explore the many ways in which language, culture, experience, and emotions can matter—i.e., how they relate to social change. However, in the interdisciplinary spaces opened up by the Futures Initiative, I was challenged to argue for the value of what, in many conversations within English departments, we have the pleasure of taking for granted (and truly, it is a pleasure—it feels good). I often struggled to articulate why we should even be discussing rhetoric, culture, aesthetics, politics, and history, in the first place, especially when talking to colleagues whose fields of study yield outcomes that are far easier to measure and quantify.

Read the full post on HASTAC.

Student-Centered Pedagogy Class Recap

On March 10, 2015, I co-lead a public workshop on student-centered pedagogy with Michelle Gabay and Hallie Scott. Read the full recap here.

Mapping the Futures of Higher Education

Session Plan – March 10 – Student-Centered Pedagogy

415-615 pm

Room 9206; Livestreamed at

A workshop for innovative classroom practices focusing on collaboration, crowdsourcing, and experiential learning. What does peer learning look like across disciplines? What are the risks and rewards of a student-centered classroom? Join the Futures Initiative seminar, “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education” and members of the student-centered pedagogy group for a workshop on bringing peer learning techniques into the classroom.


  • Ranciere, Jacques. “An Intellectual Adventure.” The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.
  • Rogers, Carl R. “Questions I would ask myself if I were a teacher.”
  • Davidson, Cathy. “Project Classroom Makeover.” Now You See It. New York: Penguin, 2011.

Optional additional reading
HASTAC – The Pedagogy Project

Discussion questions

  1. What student-centered approaches to learning do you use in the classroom?
  2. What questions and concerns do you have about student-centered pedagogy?

Learning objectives

1) Develop your understanding of student-centered classrooms and decentered teachers
2) Design a student-centered activity for your class
3) Crowdsource best practices

Introductions (5 min.)

Brief CUNY history – Open Admissions and Collaborative Learning (5 min.)

    • 1965-1970 two main factors leading to open admissions
      • Increased government aid for underprepared students
      • Political pressure from community: black and Puerto Rican students shut down South campus of City College to demand that the school reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the New York City Public school system
      • It is estimated that at City College the class size increased from 20,000 in 1969 to 35,000 in 1970
      • Influx of students who may not have gone to college otherwise

Read the full recap here.