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Concluding a Course with a Collaborative Public Project: Keywords for Literary Studies

This blog describes how I organized my Introduction to Multicultural Literature course around a collaborative, public final project. Rather than a traditional final paper, the course concludes with students co-authoring a digital glossary of Keywords for Literary Studies. What follows is a lightly edited version of my remarks for the Digital Pedagogy Roundtable at MLA 2020 in Seattle. 

Introduction to Multicultural Literature is a course with many objectives. It needs to fulfill students’ diversity requirement, introduce them to close reading methods, build on the writing skills of earlier courses, and, of course, get students excited about college literature courses. This can leave little time for discussions of digital literacy, which I believe are crucial for our students.

To help achieve all of these objectives while also preparing students to communicate effectively in the digital age, I conclude every semester not with a final paper, but with a collaborative digital project in which students co-author a glossary of keywords for literary studies. With this assignment, students work in small groups to identify a key term related to course readings and discussions (race, memoir, ghosts, etc.) and co-author an entry for the digital glossary. Each keyword entry includes an analysis of the term’s etymology, a discussion of its importance for literary studies, and a close reading of at least one text we read that semester (often multiple texts) that demonstrates the keyword in action.

Read the full post on HASTAC.

“We was girls together”: Toni Morrison and the Aesthetics of Female Friendship

I first read Toni Morrison in a college literature class on “Experimental Lives.” In this course we traced the will to experiment across novels like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. At that time, many of us college students were living away from our parents for the first time, figuring out what we wanted our lives to look like and how we wanted to be in the world. And the protagonists of these novels gave us models for an unconventional life. Did we want to be artists of the self, traveling cross-country, intoxicated by language and life, in exuberant protest against societal constraints like Dean and Sal, the protagonists of On the Road? Or did we want to retreat from a world ravaged by unfathomable human atrocity and violence, forming intimate communities of care amidst the ruins, like the characters in The English Patient? But then we read Toni Morrison’s Sula, and that changed everything.

Sula traces the paths and possibilities available to four Black women living in Medallion, Ohio in the mid-twentieth century. Gradually, we learn the stories of the women in two families—the Peace family and the Wright family—which crystallize in a friendship between the youngest girls in each: Sula and Nel.

“Hannah, Nel, Eva, Sula were points of a cross,” Morrison writes, “each one a choice for characters bound by gender and race… a merging of responsibility and liberty difficult to reach” (xiv).

In the style characteristic of her writing, Morrison creates a mysterious and enchanted world pulsing with stories and secrets. Always the teacher, Morrison uses the literary techniques of estrangement and defamiliarization to expand the boundaries of our comfort zone, urging us to let go of many of our conventional reading strategies and allow the music of words to wash over us. Gradually, we become okay with not knowing: reveling in, rather than trying to explain away, the mystery.

The novel focuses on the friendship of Nel and Sula, two “solitary little girls,” who first met in dreams. Morrison writes,

“Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had to set about creating something else to be. Their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on. Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers… they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for” (52).

Their grand life experiment, their artform, was friendship: living for each other—for that “rib scraping” laughter (98)—and not for the mothers or the teachers or the men or the townspeople who demanded their attention. Sula protected the two from bullies (54-55) and, upon learning that her mother loved but did not like her, it is Nel who wraps Sula up in her arms.

As scholars like Monique Morris and Saidiya Hartman have shown, we live in a society characterized by the excessive disciplining of Black girls—one that is quick to tell them how to behave, what to want, what to pay attention to, and to punish them when they don’t conform. But Nel and Sula resist these rules by living for each other and according to their whims and fancies. They shared what Morrison calls a sense of

“adventuresomeness… and a mean determination to explore everything that interested them, from one-eyed chickens high-stepping in their penned yards to Mr. Bucklan Reed’s gold teeth, from the sound of sheets lapping in the wind to the labels on Tar Baby’s wine bottles. And they had no priorities” (55).

To live with no priorities—refusing to put religion, or education, or the family, above one’s own desires—is portrayed here not as ruthless self-interest but as a radical political act. Amidst a racist and patriarchal society that systematically devalues the lives of Black girls and pits women against one another in competition for men’s hearts, Nel and Sula refuse this logic altogether, exploring instead the transgressive force of female friendship.

I am hardly the first to take up this theme of female friendship in the novel. Morrison herself describes its central question:

What is friendship between women when unmediated by men?”

Since its publication in 1973, scholars such as Susana Morris, Alisha Coleman, and Elizabeth Abel have analyzed Morrison’s powerful depiction of this girlhood friendship.

Traveling back to my own college classroom, the stories of these women—their experiments, trying to wrench freedom from the societal constraints of racism and sexism—raised new questions. In On the Road, were Sal and Dean’s adventures enabled by the fact that they were white men? Would Black women have been able to drive across the country as carelessly and unthreatened as Kerouac’s protagonists? In every provisional community of moment Dean and Sal established in a Louisiana Bayou, an apartment in the Village, a monastic retreat in Berkeley, why were women always the ones cooking their meals or left behind altogether to take care of the children? Might Black women like Nel, Sula, Eva, and Hannah have wanted to abandon everything—dancing and drinking in ecstatic evenings that melt into mornings—knowing always that they’d be taken care of? Toni Morrison taught me to ask these questions.

If I had more time, I would talk about the friendship between Heed Cosey and Christine that is at the heart of Morrison’s later novel, Love. What I love about this novel is that its premise —the death of charismatic, powerful patriarch Bill Cosey—becomes little more than a plot device that allows the beautiful complexities and vicissitudes of female friendships to come into full relief.

Morrison’s depictions of these female friendship have taught me that patriarchal society fears what women are capable of achieving when they work together in collaboration, rather than competition. Society is so fearful, in fact, that it tries to sell us the idea, over and over again, that marriage (and specifically, heterosexual marriage) is all that matters. As reality T.V. shows like The Bachelor remind us, week after week, women are supposed to compete with each other for the love and affection of men. And even when those dynamics are reversed, say, in The Bachelorette, where multiple men compete for a woman’s heart, it is the romantic, heterosexual relationship between a man and a woman that narratively prevails over the infinite friendships that I’m certain must form when you put thirty people in a house together for six weeks.

Nel and Sula’s friendship is one of stunning singularity that has, almost paradoxically, given me new ways of seeing the female friendships in my own life. Like Sula and Nel, I have seen romantic relationships fray the once-sacred bond between girlhood friends. But I’ve also experienced the unexpected pleasure of making female friends later in life, recognizing how much we have yet to explore together through stories, laughter, teaching, activism, passing books back and forth, giving feedback on each other’s writing. Amidst a society that tries to convince us that only marriage matters, Morrison reminds us that romantic partnerships are one among the many kinds of relationships that constitute a vibrant, joyous, and fulfilling life.

Morrison’s work has also shaped my research. Currently, I’m writing a book, tentatively titled Insurgent Knowledge, that looks at the relationship between writing, teaching, and educational activism in the work of four famous authors: Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, and Adrienne Rich. In 1968, at the height of the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and protests against the Vietnam War, these authors—four of the most important writers of the twentieth century—were teaching down the hall from one another at Harlem’s City College. While these figures are most often studied for their writing, I position them as educators who developed teaching practices organized around social justice and as activists who advocated for free, high quality, public education for all.

While Morrison is not one of the teacher-poets I explicitly analyze, she was in conversation with all four of these writers, especially through her work as an editor, and her ideas about female friendship have shaped my project. Often, when we think of a scholarly book on four authors, we might imagine that its method is comparative: for instance, comparing Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich’s classrooms and perhaps evaluating whose teaching approach was more successful than the others. But Morrison’s ideas about what women are capable of when they work together—when they understand each other as allies, collaborators, and co-conspirators—is at the heart of this book, and the work that I hope it does in the world. Rather than comparing these teacher-poets, I aim to paint a picture of them in conversation, dialogue, and collaboration with each other, and as part of a larger movement in which teaching and writing were understood as crucial for social change.

Nel and Sula. Heed and Christine. I carry these women with me, wherever I go. Their friendships—Morrison’s friendships—remind us always, that the bonds among women are some of the most transgressive, transformative, and electrifying that exist.

Teaching Public Writing in the Graduate Seminar

In Fall 2018, I attended an event at my college organized by my colleague Cori McKenzie on “Innovations in English Language Arts Teaching and Learning.” In this event, McKenzie’s graduate students presented their research projects in progress, on topics ranging from the importance of multimodal composition to teaching diverse books in the K-12 classroom. I was so inspired and impressed by what I saw that night that I took to Facebook to share some photos and highlights. It wasn’t long until the comments section became filled with versions of the question, “how can I learn more about their work?”

While I didn’t have a solid answer at the time, I decided that I would organize my Spring 2019 graduate seminar on Feminist Worldmaking in a way that would help us answer that very question. For this course, instead of writing a traditional final paper that would be read solely by the instructor, I decided that the final project would ask students to share some aspect of their learning or research with a public audience.

As an educator, I have observed how writing for a public audience dramatically improves the quality of students’ writing. I’m also interested in how public writing assignments can leverage the affordances of digital platforms to both help students increase their digital literacy and teach them that their voices and perspectives on contemporary social issues matter. While I have previously written about teaching public writing at the undergraduate level, in this blog, I explain how I incorporated, framed, and scaffolded this public writing assignment for a graduate seminar.

Read the full post on HASTAC.

Teaching with an Index Card: The Benefits of Free, Open-Source Tools

Every semester, thousands of faculty members create course websites on a learning-management system such as Blackboard or Canvas. Colleges purchase these platforms, which allow professors to post readings, send messages, and facilitate discussions among students. And yet these expensive, proprietary systems are rarely used outside of classrooms. Alternatively, teaching with free, open-source software, including the software upon which many of the world’s websites are actually built, creates a tremendous opportunity for students to develop transferable skills, actively shape their learning, and improve their digital literacy.

Read the full post in Chronicle of Higher Ed special issue on “Innovation.”

Collaborative Close Reading

Close reading – observing the stylistic details of a text in order to analyze an author’s use of language – is a skill taught in almost all college literature classes. Often, I describe this to students as collecting the data that we will eventually use as the evidence to support an interpretation of the text. This is slow and messy work that involves reading a poem or passage many, many times. It involves continually checking in with ourselves to ask what feelings these phrases are producing. It involves frequent pauses to look up the etymology of a word, ponder a punctuation mark, or get lost in the depths of a metaphor. And precisely because literary language is so complex and unwieldy, I have found that the more eyes and ears that tune into a passage, the more far-ranging, nuanced, and unpredictable are the observations we collectively generate.

In this blog, I describe one of my favorite in-class activities for teaching literature: collaborative close reading. Collaborative close reading involves breaking the class into small groups and passing short excerpts from a text around the room. Each group annotates the passage, making their marks and weaving a colorful web of observations atop the author’s words. While social annotation platforms like are all the rage, this activity kicks it old school, requiring no more technological savoir faire than managing a photocopy machine (which, admittedly, can be quite temperamental).

Read the full post on HASTAC.

Why I Teach with HASTAC: Platforms as Critical Pedagogy

This post is part of a two-part series that considers digital learning platforms as an issue of critical pedagogy.

HASTAC as Critical Pedagogy

I teach students to write and research with because I’m committed to critical, engaged, student-centered education that prepares students for the world beyond the classroom. For me, this involves both preparing students for a rewarding career and helping them better understand how language is a source of power that can reproduce and challenge conditions of inequality. As I’ve said elsewhere, having students write not just for the professor, but for an audience beyond the classroom teaches them the power of their voices and stories. It helps them understand that they are critical participants in longer, ongoing conversations, and that learning offers an opportunity to contribute to the public and social good. But we also have to be careful in encouraging students to join these conversations: careful because they are capable, but still learning, because public writing always entails the risk of exposure, because students live complicated lives that may require the cover of confidentiality, and because the digital leaves traces everywhere.

This is the work of critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy encourages students to participate in the construction of a shared learning environment, involving those who will be affected by decisions about readings, assignments, and classroom policies in the decision-making process. At its best, students then use this critical approach to think about how they can use their decision-making power in the world beyond the classroom to address social issues.

I am writing these remarks at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where debate and disagreement abound, but all participants seem to agree that software is not neutral, and that teaching students to think critically about digital technologies is a central component of engaged pedagogy. Here, I discuss how can function as an open learning platform that protects student data while helping their writing reach an audience of readers beyond the classroom. As such, HASTAC plays a key role in facilitating student-centered learning.

Read the full post on HASTAC.

The Feminist Art of Writing About Teaching

Danica Savonick, SUNY Cortland
Thursday, August 2
1:00 – 2:15
Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute

Today I was honored to share some of my favorite writings about teaching with a group of passionate educators at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I was so grateful to our participants, and for everything they refused to leave at the door and instead throw on our messy table. As I told them from the get-go: this was an experiment. Together we tested the modest hypothesis that poetry can help us think differently about learning. I had never tried this before, and it was thrilling to see how these activities I’d been imagining (fantasizing about, really) for weeks were experienced by participants. Together, around that oblong table on the secluded fourth floor, we braved an impending tornado to try and unlearn, or at least briefly bracket, the ways we’ve been trained to think about learning through narrative.

In the wake of the workshop, I have come to think of these intrepid participants as the DPL Poets. I hope they won’t mind the moniker. #dplpoem


What would happen if we wrote about the classroom not through narrative, but as a collaboratively-authored poem? How can space—on the page, on the screen—convey the complexities of learning? Is the classroom, in Adrienne Rich’s words, a “prison cell,” a “commune,” or something else entirely, and what do metaphors make possible? These are just some questions participants will be invited to consider in this hour-long workshop, in which we think with and alongside four feminist teacher-poets—Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich—about the art of teaching. While these authors are most often studied for their literature, they were no less bold in their pedagogical creativity; in fact, their literary sensibilities shaped student-centered classrooms organized around social justice across multiple registers and scales. In addition to discussing the aesthetic, literary, and rhetorical strategies these authors use in their essays and poems on teaching, participants will experiment with the techniques we encounter and author short reflections inspired by their writings.

Read the full post on HASTAC.

Dear Fellow Graduate Student

Dear Fellow Graduate Student,

As you well know, this is a rough time to be pursuing an advanced degree. We are underfunded, overworked, exploited, and devalued by a society that (to take just one recent example) attempted to tax our tuition waivers as income, which would have made graduate education untenable for most of us and available only to the wealthiest students. There are gross disparities in funding for M.A and Ph.D. programs. Many of us face a job market that looks nothing like the landscapes our advisors experienced. And yet, the world needs M.A. and Ph.D. recipients now more than ever.

This system is deeply flawed and I earnestly hope that our generation will be the ones to overhaul it. As part of that project, I want to pass on some insights that helped me navigate my institution towards a successful dissertation defense and a job.

One reason I write this is because I was lucky to have wonderful peers, colleagues, and professors who supported me throughout this journey, though I’m continually meeting grad students who haven’t been so fortunate. As Annemarie Pérez’s recent post (“A Radical Idea About Adjuncting”) showed me, being explicit about the ways we’ve been lucky is part of a larger project of building universities that don’t rely so heavily on luck, but rather, are structured for the flourishing of diverse students and faculty, and engaged, urgent knowledge projects that serve the public good.

I also write this somewhat selfishly. I want to live in a world in which everyone has, in Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s words, “everything that they need and 93% of what they want–not by virtue of the fact that you work today, but by virtue of the fact that you are here.” I believe that the hours you spend reading, thinking, writing, teaching, organizing, working to change your classrooms and institutions, learning so that you may improve the lives of others, and taking to the streets to demand change will help bring that world to fruition.

Don’t be afraid to change your mind. This was the single best piece of advice I received going into graduate school. Don’t be afraid to learn new things, to become obsessed, to fall in love with different subjects. You don’t have to leave graduate school pursuing the project that you identified in your application materials. Take courses with the faculty members who students can’t stop talking about, even if you’re completely unfamiliar with the subject area. Kyla Wazana Tompkins put it best: “we aren’t here to learn what we already know.” We are here to do research: to be unfaithful to the known.

Read the full post on HASTAC.

Teaching Through Publishing: Scholarly Journal Article as Collaborative Final Project (a How To Guide)

On August 30, 2017, three students from my Queens College composition course published an article in the scholarly, peer-reviewed journal Hybrid Pedagogy. Their article, “The Ultimate Life Experience: Preparing Students for the World Beyond the Classroom” argues that colleges ought to prepare students for a great future, and offers concrete suggestions for how teachers, administrators, and students can work together to make this happen.

This blog is the practical, step-by-step, how-to guide that describes how I structured our course around a final assignment that challenged students to co-author submissions to the journal. For more about the pedagogical decisions that went into this, see my article “Write Out Loud: Teaching Writing Through Digital Publishing” in Hybrid Pedagogy (forthcoming). You should feel free to reuse, remix, or borrow from anything you read in this post.


One of the most important and challenging lessons to teach in college writing courses is that language is a source of power that makes things happen in the world. Once students recognize the profound implications of our work with language, many of the skills instructors value — argumentation, organization, revision, editing, proofreading – become much easier to teach. In addition, given that many of us work with students for merely one semester, when we want or need at least two, I am much more confident that students will leave my class and continue to work on their writing if I know that they have a deep understanding of how and why language matters in the world.

In fall 2016, I taught a basic writing course at Queens College on “The Purpose of Education.” Instead of writing a traditional final paper that would be read solely by students’ peers and their instructor, this project challenged students to use what they had learned over the course of a semester to collaboratively author submissions to a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal. After spending a semester immersed in debates about active learning, critical pedagogy, the role of technology in education, standardized testing, education funding, and segregated schooling, I guided students in their attempts to enter an ongoing scholarly conversation occurring among the Hybrid Pedagogy community. With this assignment, students further developed their reading, writing, and revising skills; practiced writing for a specific audience; and learned the power of their own voices and stories. Writing with the explicit intent of publication was an effort to help students understand how their words matter in the world beyond the classroom.

Read the full post on HASTAC.

Community Guidelines: Fostering Inclusive Discussions of Difference

In this blog, I describe how my class co-authored a set of community guidelines in order to create a supportive environment for discussing issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

This past semester, I had the deep pleasure of teaching an English course on “The Arts of Dissent” at Queens College, where I shared some of my absolute favorite works of literature — Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Chris Abani’s GraceLand, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen — with twenty-eight incredibly bright students.

Since I began teaching at Queens, I have thought a lot about what it means to be a white teacher who teaches texts primarily by black authors to a diverse class of students. I want to create a classroom environment in which every student feels encouraged to share their reactions to our readings. I also hope to increase students’ awareness of their-subject positioning within intersecting axes of power, just as I am continually seeking to better understand my own positioning in this matrix. There are many times and places where “calling out” is not only appropriate, but necessary; however, as an educator, my primary means of involving students in critical reflections on sexism, racism, homophobia, and class privilege is always through calling in. I have been fortunate to have many students who are already deeply involved in these conversations and struggles for social justice and I do my best to help them understand the historical and institutional nature of these issues. For the rest, I call students into these conversations by assigning powerful readings that convey the urgency of addressing structural inequality.

This past semester, as we completed our discussions of A Raisin in the Sun and were poised to begin Citizen, it felt urgent to deliberately address with my students the ways gender, race, class, and sexuality shape classroom conversations, often in unacknowledged ways. For those who haven’t read it, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, is a gorgeous multimodal assemblage — at once seething and breathtaking — that tracks the pernicious effects of microaggressions across multiple scales. Ranging in breadth from Turner’s painting The Slave Ship (1840) to the Black Lives Matter movement, Citizen should be required reading not only for every student, but for everyone.

As our discussions of the text approached, I was thinking about the ways class conversations can exclude certain voices and elicit a kind of tokenism, in which the perspective of one student, especially from a minority background, is wrongfully understood to represent the perspective of an entire social group. I was worried that our class conversations, especially in terms of who gets to speak the most, would reproduce the very hierarchies that Rankine’s text works to subvert. I was thinking of students whose fears of saying the wrong thing might lead them to disengage from these important conversations entirely (and thinking about the ways disengagement is often a stance only available to the relatively privileged).

Read the full post on HASTAC.

Original artwork by Julie Abbot, a student in “The Arts of Dissent.”