2023 Collaborative Book Review: Interview with Cathy N. Davidson and Christina Katopodis, authors of ‘The New College Classroom’ (2022)

This year, HASTAC Scholars Nanditha KrishnaBritt MunroSidney A. TurnerWaleska Solorzano, and Matthew Taitano interviewed HASTAC Co-Founder Cathy Davidson and Christina Katopodis of the CUNY Graduate Center, authors of The New College Classroom.

Britt Munro: I love the down-to-earth way you approach the realities of college teaching, and in particular your approach to ‘failure’- when things don’t go as planned- as potentially generative in the classroom. What are some of your own experiences with generative failure (if we can call it that?) in the classroom, and what did you learn from them? 

Even the term “generative failure” has a compensatory tone to it. At the same time, yes! We have all had experiences that started out one way and ended up going in a more surprising way.  In The New College Classroom Cathy tells of a group exercise where one group simply refused to come up with a timeline or a game plan or any structuring device and, instead, assured her that they would do fine with a freewheeling, freeform approach.  Well, it turns out they were right. They knew themselves and one another well and managed an excellent group project without any of the scaffolding that most groups need to work effectively. Christina has a story about a time when — after the class had formed their desks into circles so everyone would be eye-level for discussion — the class fell silent instead of engaging in democratic dialogue. Later, a student emailed her to say that while most profs assume this is the best way to organize desks in a room to avoid a hierarchical arrangement, it’s actually an introvert’s worst nightmare. Instead of wanting to talk more, as Christina had hoped they would, they didn’t like that everyone was looking at them when they spoke, so they refused to speak. Cultivating an environment where students can contribute to sustainable solutions allows the learning community to grow and adapt to every learner together.  

Britt Munro: You wrote this book together over Zoom during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in New York City. How did your respective experiences of the pandemic, and its impact on education, influence your thinking in this book, and how do you read the effects of the pandemic on college teaching more generally? 

We both had different personal experiences of the pandemic but what we each saw through our own biweekly writing sessions as well as with the students we taught is that online teaching and learning can be extremely effective, and even a lifesaver in many situations. The depth, seriousness, and connection we saw in synchronous interactions online, both in our online writing and in our teaching, really helped us get through the pandemic. We’re hearing similar responses from many different sources and, nationally, more and more educators are starting to see that synchronous online teaching can be an effective supplement to onsite, classroom, face-to-face pedagogies. We’re making a case specifically for synchronous online instruction but we know that asynchronous instruction can be really beneficial and meet students’ needs as well. In addition, online teaching can be transformative for students from non-traditional backgrounds, such as those with families, or who have complex work lives, or who are commuter students with long distances to travel. Conversely, we’ve each sat in lectures where the prof drones on and on as if they are on a computer screen talking to computer screens—no humanity evident at all. So another factor from the pandemic is realizing there are effective and ineffective pedagogical methods online and off.  

Britt Munro: Your appreciation for and belief in your students is so viscerally present in this book! You have both spent a lot of time teaching in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, one of the most diverse public serving, majority first-generation institutions in the country. You have also decided to donate proceeds from this book to fund scholarships for CUNY students. How did your experiences teaching at CUNY in particular prepare you to write this book? 

CUNY is truly a unique institution. We’ve each taught elsewhere at other kinds of institutions—rural community colleges, liberal arts colleges, elite private universities, and the Ivy League. What one cannot help but appreciate at a public, urban university like CUNY is how hard students work for their education—many work against tremendous odds to be able to pay for tuition or books or even transportation to and from class. It’s both humbling and inspiring seeing students fight for their education against enormous odds, how smart and motivated they are, learning from them and their meaningful contributions to their communities and to society beyond the walls of the academy.

Britt Munro: I love your emphasis in the book on putting pedagogical theory into practice, and as a new(ish) instructor it has given me a huge range of activities, strategies and ideas to try out in my own classroom. One of my favorites has been ‘think pair share‘- what you call the ‘Swiss army knife of the participatory teaching toolkit’ (112). I wonder if you both had a personal favorite among all the activities you include here for encouraging active participation, and why?

We both use ‘think pair share’ all the time. Recently, we had a farcical experience of a closed highway—literally, a total shutdown—that meant we arrived 20 minutes late to a packed auditorium awaiting our arrival. We ran to the podium only to find that the slides we’d sent ahead weren’t connected and we had to set up a laptop, remember passwords and employ two-factor verification in front of this very large audience. To top it off, one of us had an allergic response to something in the room and couldn’t find her allergy meds. “Let’s do ‘think pair share’!” we suggested amid this chaos—and it worked. From an excruciatingly embarrassing event, we suddenly had engaged faculty talking to one another, sharing beneficial ideas, and teeming with excitement at this stalled session. We still laugh about that several months later.  We also love several other participatory techniques—having students write the learning outcomes for a course or write a letter at the end of the course summing up what they learned and then passing that letter on to the next group of students to enroll. Participation and contribution are the common denominator of all of these activities.

Britt Munro: You acknowledge in the book that active learning principles often need to be argued for, not only with administrators and colleagues but sometimes even with students themselves. Could you tell us a bit more about the kind of resistance you have encountered to your approach, and how you have navigated it? 

Especially in the age of “No Child Left Behind” outcomes-based, test-score driven K-12 learning, it can be difficult trying to convince students that they are actually learning when engaged in the creative, interactive forms of learning that we advocate. Yet, as Carl Wieman, the 2011 Nobel Prize winner in Physics and author of Improving How Universities Teach Science  insists, we have had something on the order of a thousand students of active learning and there is no question that learning by doing, learning by applying what we know, learning by exploring one’s own thinking to understand how we come up with our answers are all more effective ways to learn than listening to a lecture. There’s not only the famous “meta study” of over 225 studies of active learning showing its efficacy (Freeman et al, PNAS, 2014).  (The authors of that study insist that if these were pharmaceutical studies, traditional learning would be taken off the market.) There’s a follow up study, conducted at MIT, specifically with students who were sure they were learning less in their flipped classroom version of active learning. However, when they saw the data on their own accomplishments and read the serious scientific studies, they began to appreciate how much they had learned. Un-learning our own assumptions is part of the practice of active, radical pedagogy. (Deslauriers, PNAS, 2019).

Nanditha Krishna: What suggestions would you offer to students (with no prior experience with research) starting out with their newly-ideated research projects, so as to make the research process fun and creative for them ? (Based on chapter 9 : research that inspires creativity). [Especially in the context of a fast-paced, extremely demanding semester when creative and fun seems only visionary and not practical?]

Well, let’s be honest here. When you are stressed at the end of an “extremely demanding semester” you are not in the optimum situation for writing an exhilarating, delightful, inspiring, creative research paper. On the other hand, when stressed out is the best time to try to think about what would be the most enjoyable research you could come up with given all of your constraints: “I’d rather be researching ________.” The single most important research questions to ask yourself in a high stress situation include: is this project doable in the time I have available? If not, how can I make this exciting but exhaustive project more manageable?  Perhaps that means writing only a portion of the larger research project or limiting one’s focus, data samples, case studies, or archive. The one thing we know, for a fact, that is not great: choosing an unwieldy and unrealistic topic that you don’t care about. If you can help it, please try to avoid that!  

Matthew Taitano: How important is cover design to the both of you, and were you involved in the cover design of The New College Classroom? How would you describe the cover design’s role in portraying the arguments you both make throughout the book? 

We knew we wanted the cover to be colorful and inviting, to resemble the future we want in some exciting way. There was a version of the current cover where the chairs were smaller and it was difficult to tell that they were chairs, so the artwork team made changes, made them bigger and brighter, so it was easier to see them whether the book was in your hands or you were looking at a small icon of the cover. Accessibility was important to us for numerous reasons and we dream of an accessible academy, one where everyone belongs and no one has to strain to envision the future they want. 

Sidney Turner: The question “How do we teach for every student–not only those who most resemble us, their instructors?” guided the unfolding chapters of The New College Classroom. When thinking about the anxieties and responsibilities that many new teachers take on, particularly Graduate Teaching Assistants who navigate a liminal space that demands that they juggle a range of roles and responsibilities, what advice would you share to realistically begin addressing the needs of every student? And additionally, could you clarify what is meant when you say “every student”?”

Ask students. Any time you have a question, turn to your students and ask them. “Would you rather read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi or The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara and why?” “Would you rather have graded (A, B, C, D, F) homework or ungraded (pass-fail) homework and why?” “How would you like to make up for absences? What can one do outside of class with the equivalent effort of a class period?” The only way to develop a class that caters to every student is to ask students questions and learn, from their multifaceted identities and perspectives, how to build real flexibility into a course. Every student means every student.  

Waleska Solórzano: As you mention in your book, many of us “who become college teachers have not received much training as teachers. Most of us teach the way we were taught because we were not exposed to other methods” (15). This speaks to so many of us who are attempting to learn while doing, which calls for an education training needing to move rapidly. Numerous of the activities delineated in The New College Classroom were grab-and-go and easily implementable  into lesson plans. I am curious to know what the process was like for you in creating the quick, curated lesson plans while everyone else in the world was trying to slow down due to lockdown regulations and the pandemic?

In the pandemic, many of us were overworked to the point of sitting on Zoom all day without a bathroom break. We were overwhelmed and wanted to slow down but our work lives demanded even more from us than before: faculty were not only teaching but also providing tech support and emotional support to students; trying to adapt to online instruction, then hybrid instruction, then masked in-person instruction, and responding to unpredictable changes or campus lockdowns on a dime. We were interested in ways to help busy, overwhelmed, and burnt out faculty. We wanted to help them connect and engage with their students during a traumatic time. Slowing down is part of that: we advocate for regular health and wellness check-ins at the beginning of class, to do a more engaging and personally meaningful roll-call, for example. That is an easily implementable activity that reminds us of something important: that we are people in the world first and foremost. Putting that humanity forward is essential to building a connected learning community, one founded on trust, not judgment, so that real learning can happen. 

Waleska Solórzano: On a more personal note, how do you navigate those who doubt your lofty mission and the step-by-step pedagogical transformation outlined in the book?

In cases where we find disagreement or doubt, we think it’s a matter of understanding where the reader is coming from, what motivates them and what they want to change about their own specific practices in their specific departments and disciplines. We see a lot of commonalities and one of the most common disagreements is about ungrading. Some people hear that rather frightening term and think we are advocating that they just break their institution’s rules and not do any grading. No, that’s not what we mean. We talk about different forms of “formative feedback,” not just grading but making the whole process of evaluation more transparent and insightful for students. Faculty often come around when we make that clear because very few profs really enjoy grading. “I want to spend less time grading.” “I hate it when a student comes to me to complain about the difference between ‘passing’ and ‘passing with distinction.’” So we say, why not ask the students—at the beginning of term—to define the criteria in their own words, as a whole learning community, for themselves (and, of course, in conversation with you, their professor)? That way there are no surprises. They know exactly what defines the difference between a ‘B’ or ‘B+’ or ‘A’. Instead of digging in on one side, we ask questions to learn more and then we can respond better with ideas and suggestions. And we find that we learn as much from them and their particular situations as they do from us. 

Waleska Solórzano: How might one read The New College Classroom as a new way to form habits and consistent patterns in the classroom? 

A reader can find in The New College Classroom multiple different ways to use what we call “the Swiss army knife” of active learning: Think-Pair-Share. It’s a good practice to keep in your back pocket for anything: a class that goes silent or a department meeting that goes sideways. Making that your go-to, the trick you can use in any context, makes active learning and communal learning a consistent habit, leading to better results through collaboration in every facet of your life, in the classroom and beyond. By using this technique (or entry and exit tickets, for example), we are changing the old habit of attending only to what happens in one direction, from the professor at the podium back to the student. We are cultivating the new habit of expecting contribution: our own, that of our fellow students, and of everyone thinking, working, and learning together as the best possible outcome of a course.

One response to “2023 Collaborative Book Review: Interview with Cathy N. Davidson and Christina Katopodis, authors of ‘The New College Classroom’ (2022)”

  1. Thank you for posting this interview—and thank you all, HASTAC Scholars, for this productive, smart discussion of The New College Classroom, radical pedagogy, and these excellent questions