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The Activist Roots of Student-Centered Teaching (Review)

In 1968, Toni Cade Bambara made a radical decision. At the time, Bambara—writer, activist, and more—was teaching a remedial writing class at the City University of New York. There, she met students who had been subjected to years of educational racism: underfunded schools, substandard conditions, outdated textbooks, and instructors more interested in disciplining students than nurturing their creativity or intellect. (She called this the “criminality of education”).

These students deserved more. They deserved learning that would teach them to navigate an unjust and unequal society, and to transform it. That semester, in a stuffy classroom equipped with minimal resources, Bambara decided to turn the “content, direction, and goals of the course” over to her students. In doing so, she placed her so-called “remedial” students in charge of determining not only what they would learn, but also how and on what terms they would participate in the course.

This decision was shaped by Bambara’s involvement with the movement for community control, whereby Black and Puerto Rican parents seized control of their local public schools in order to change the schools’ racist, colonial, and paternalistic policies. By transferring decision-making power to students, Bambara was an early practitioner of what Cathy Davidson and Christina Katopodis call “cocreating a syllabus with students.” And what was true in Bambara’s classrooms remains so today: as Davidson and Katopodis write in their new book, The New College Classroom, involving students in this planning process allows them to rethink “the assumptions of the educational system they have inherited.”

As Bambara’s teaching makes clear, the student-centered classroom is anything but new. In fact, many of the practices for which Davidson and Katopodis advocate—such as cocreating courses with students and incorporating group projects—have a much longer history. The collaborative classroom was shaped by struggles for social justice, in which women and people of color take center stage. Its history in this country extends back to the Jim Crow era, but its philosophical roots stretch even further back, to precolonial societies.  It became especially popular amidst the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, when activist educators like Bambara drew on the critiques of power emerging from the era’s social movements to develop creative methods for teaching students to advocate for social change. Understanding this vast, liberatory history is crucial for contemporary educators making difficult decisions not only about what to teach, but also how.

“My sister started teaching her first college class,” read the email I received, “and she has no experience/training.” Understandably, this fledgling instructor was having a hard time. The sender wanted to know if I had any resources to help her navigate this new landscape, especially thorny logistical matters like grading. Had The New College Classroom been available at the time, I would have recommended, without hesitation, that she start there.

Beginning to teach college courses with little to no preparation is hardly an anomaly. In fields like history, only 50 percent of PhD students report receiving any pedagogical training in their graduate programs.1 Anecdotal evidence, informal Twitter surveys, and crowdsourced Google Docs suggest that, in many fields, the number formally prepared to teach is much lower.

Read entire article at Public Books