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).
Reminiscent of classic pedagogical texts like Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do (2004), Davidson and Katopodis’s work draws on “extensive research in pedagogy, learning science, cognitive neuroscience, management coaching, and conflict negotiation theory bolstered by interviews and observations with dozens of instructors at every kind of institution and in all disciplines.”3 This marshaling of research in service of arguments for active learning might be the book’s greatest strength. The authors articulate their goal as “explain[ing] to colleagues and administrators why active, participatory learning techniques work and where and how they work best. Even college students need to be convinced.”
Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to steer my career into arenas where my colleagues already believe in active and student-centered learning. But I have found college students, particularly those who have had the worst experiences in secondary and postsecondary schools, skeptical of active learning and its perceived woo-woo vibes. I can’t wait to assign readings from this text as part of my orientation weeks to onboard students and get their buy-in for future student-centered learning.
This book isn’t Paulo Freire’s urgent analysis of learning for freedom or bell hooks’s call for liberatory models of teaching and learning. The authors say as much: “Active, participatory learning is not a pedagogy of the ‘oppressed’ but a pedagogy of lifelong success for everyone … It not only teaches to ‘transgress’ but teaches to transform.” The refusal of polemic for a “practical” approach puts me in mind of Eli Meyerhoff’s discussion of the “consumer guide” approach to writing about the impasse of contemporary US higher education. This approach recognizes the failures and crises of higher education but “aims to help individuals succeed within the status quo” rather than demanding or creating alternatives.
Then again … What does the form of a handbook assume? And how do you read it?
You read a “teaching-in-no-time” practical guide by yourself (not in community with colleagues—that would defeat the purpose of “grab and go”). You read it when you’ve got 10 minutes between research and service tasks to dedicate to class prep because everything else is more important. You read it the way I read a “healthy dinner in 20 minutes” recipe. For a utilitarian meal that meets my daily nutritional requirements but does not ask much of me in time and effort. It does not ask me to think about ingredients, about textures, smells, colors. It does not ask me to think about the process of cooking at all. It lets me focus on completing a necessary but tedious task. I do not have to understand the chemistry that goes into making food taste good, or the historical foodways that led these particular ingredients to collide with one another. I can focus on the end product. And that works for my recipes, because understanding cooking as a craft is just not a priority for me. I do not want to experiment with, or even become fluent in, the grammars of the endeavor. I want efficiency and a dash of innovation to keep things interesting.
But understanding teaching, understanding the political economy of higher education, understanding what goes into constructing equitable classrooms, understanding the conditions of possibility for relationships of solidarity with my students—these things matter deeply to me. I care about my job, and I want to do it well. I am not just concerned with the end product (what am I, administration?).
Cathy Davidson has written elsewhere about innovative programs and schools rethinking the entire purpose and form of higher education, and has previously led the Futures Initiative at CUNY, which has led graduate education in doing the same. So I was deeply excited that this book spoke of “the overworked, overprepared, constantly lecturing, always-knowing-the-answer professor[, which] is a[n extractive and exhausting] model of pedagogy.”
As a recent PhD and a contingent worker myself, I was hoping the book would speak to the political economy that has created the “overworked, overprepared, constantly lecturing, always-knowing-the-answer professor.” Which is why I was thrilled when the authors drew connections between higher education and the gig economy to explain the realities our students face; that “today, around 40 percent of US workers live gig to gig.”
Yet, despite the authors’ own experiences adjuncting, the book is unable to draw the connection between students’ lived experiences of precarity and their instructors’. Instead, we learn that “some 80 percent of all faculty at all US colleges were trained at the most elite 25 percent of universities” and that a recent study of “political science departments revealed that more than half of all tenure-track vacancies were filled by applicants from only eleven graduate political science departments.” These examples drive home the authors’ point that “most professors who have been hired and have achieved tenure do not share the lived experiences of the majority of our students today.”
This is certainly true of tenured professors, but tenured—or even tenure-track professors—aren’t the people teaching the vast majority of college classes. The three-week strike at the New School in New York City recently brought national attention to the fact that “part-time faculty make up 87% of The New School’s overall teaching staff” and that these workers earn “as little s $4,300 per class … or $21,500 for those who teach five classes a year, a not-uncommon load” and frequently “hold an additional two to three jobs to make ends meet” (Aponte).
Most instructors in the classroom are contingent teachers, which is precisely why they need a “teaching-in-no-time” approach. In addition to teaching and whatever else they do to make ends meet, many are also doing the “hope labor” of building the publication history and service portfolios that will help them land their “real” forever (i.e., tenure-track) jobs. Others have too many students—the standard teaching load for tenure-track academics averages around five classes per year, while adjuncts teach twice as many classes. UW graduate student Levin Kim and UCLA contingent faculty member Mia McIver wrote for the Sacramento Bee that “adjusted for inflation, wages for many higher education employees have remained flat or decreased.” They argue that “American higher education today relies on precarious employment and high turnover as a business model, keeping wages low and workers insecure.”
When we extract academic labor—under the guise of pedagogy—from its material conditions, we do not have to reckon with how we got here in the first place.
College teaching has thus been a part of the gig economy since before the pandemic. Still, as in many industries, the pandemic seems to have cast higher education’s perennial crises in a new light. The UCSC4COLA (University of California, Santa Cruz, for a Cost of Living Adjustment) Twitter account pointed out how the “long pandemic” and its exhibition of the cracking infrastructure of US higher education has meant a revolution for industrial relations in higher education (USCS4COLA). Graduate workers at MIT, Clark University, Boston University, and the University of Chicago launched new union recognition drives during this time. In the UK, 70,000 workers at more than 150 higher education institutions walked out in late November 2022, demanding pay rises, job security, and the reduction of excessive workloads and unpaid work. In California, in the same month, 48,000 graduate workers and postdocs participated in a massive strike that lasted nearly six weeks to protest low salaries, high rents, and insufficient childcare and health coverage.
Obviously, these low salaries and benefits have the highest impact on the students who are farthest from justice, pushing out valuable perspectives and life experiences that could enrich academia in the present and everyone in the future. The UC unions have pointed out that the financial burdens of current graduate worker salaries, which average around $24,000, translate to a “failure to support a diverse workforce,” which in turn “undermines the quality of research and education.”
Perhaps most gallingly, the precipitous collapse of the academic job market and the student debt crisis have been accompanied by steep increases in the salaries for administrative roles, mirroring the steep divide between workers and CEOs as “university chancellors receive competitive compensation and free housing (including a $6.5 million mansion recently purchased with state money) while the average grad-student worker makes $23,247 per year.”4 At the same time, given the much-hyped enrollment decline of the “demographic cliff,” public and private colleges are competing to expand their market share by contracting with private companies to “provide marketing, recruitment, and technology services for university-branded online programs.”5 The public Purdue University’s purchase of for-profit Kaplan University and the University of Arizona’s purchase of the for-profit Ashford University rub salt in the wounds of the precariat struggling to make ends meet.6 Graduate workers and other teachers simply cannot believe that there isn’t enough to go around to fairly compensate their work.
In this context it is imperative that we think about pedagogy as a question of labor. When we extract academic labor—under the guise of pedagogy—from its material conditions, we do not have to reckon with how we got here in the first place. In a consummately neoliberal move, the onus for “changing society” is put on changing our classrooms and even changing ourselves. When talking about pedagogy, it is too easy to depoliticize and dehistoricize the institutions we talk about reforming. We end up with “reformist reforms”: top-down changes that focus on small tweaks to existing systems without interrogating their root causes.
Thus, we learn from The New College Classroom that all instructors can use “grab-and-go” techniques instead of questioning why teachers are “overworked and overprepared” (because we have too many classes and too many insecurities about not having enough classes to pay our bills, respectively). The kind of change maker that this book invokes reminds me of the antiracist teacher conjured by the antiracist reading lists that went viral in the summer of 2020. It becomes “something of a vanity project, where the goal is no longer to learn more about race, power, and capital, but to spring closer to the enlightened order” of the radical pedagogue.7
Even the most earnest professors (like the one writing this) can too easily turn a conversation about pedagogy into a conversation about “tips and tricks for classroom management”; strategies and tactics that hold the line and incorporate supposedly innovative techniques that will impress our administrators during our end-of-year performance evaluations.
None of this is unique to our field of work. Precarious workers and middle managers across the landscape of capitalism compete for scarce resources by performing innovation, efficiency, and resource management (the unspoken values underpinning the format of the pedagogy handbook). And these are what The New College Classroom offers us. Tips and tricks for performing a mastery of pedagogy, as the antiracist reading list prepares the ally to perform antiracism. Our pedagogy is coproduced with the material conditions of our labor. And reformist reforms that make instructors better equipped to perform under grueling labor conditions are not the answer. Better labor conditions are.
If think-pair-share improves students’ learning, imagine what their instructor’s job stability would do for them. What our courage to immerse ourselves in scholarship and experiment with pedagogy would do for them.
- I did have a reaction to seeing a book by two white women begin with not one but two epigraphs by Black authors. I did calm down later though, when I saw that the authors engaged a specific example of Audre Lorde’s pedagogical practice (midsemester student evaluations for course corrections) and one from Samuel Delany’s repertoire (“everybody’s got to put their hand up”). Without these two paragraphs though, the authors are dangerously close to treating Lorde, Delany, and other Black feminists mentioned in passing as antiracist fetishes or talismans. A treatment of the rise of “abolitionist” and anticarceral pedagogical practices, particularly in the K–12 realm, would provide an easy corrective to this interested misengagement with Black radical traditions of pedagogy. ↩
- I do wish these students’ voices were more present in the pages of this book, in the way I’ve seen done in the podcasts I picked up to fill the void of intellectual community during the pandemic (see for example, Nothing Never Happens, a radical pedagogy podcast; Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning from the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning; and Human Restoration Project’s podcast on radical pedagogy in a K–12 setting). ↩
- This “extensive research” is not, however, tediously front-loaded. Written more like a trade press book than a university press book, The New College Classroom keeps its heavy research safely ensconced in its endnotes, not disrupting the flow and format of the how-to guide. ↩
- Alissa Walker, “The University of California Strike Has Been 50 Years in the Making,” Curbed, Nov 18, 2022. ↩
- Kevin Carey, “Proposed Merger Blurs the Line Between For-Profit Colleges and Public Universities,” New York Times, August 11, 2020. ↩
- Tobias Schulze-Cleven, “Universities and the Future of Work: The Promise of Labor Studies,” Center for Studies in Higher Education, Research and Occasional Paper Series, June 2021. ↩
- Lauren Michele Jackson, “What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?” Vulture, June 4, 2020. ↩