How to Be an Antiracist Teacher
Professor Cathy N. Davidson and Graduate Center scholars spur equitable teaching at CUNY through the grant-funded Transformative Learning in the Humanities initiative.
By Bonnie Eissner
For over two decades, Professor Cathy N. Davidson (English, Digital Humanities, Data Analysis and Visualization), author of The New Education, co-founder of HASTAC.org, and founding director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center, has sought to scrap the traditional hierarchical, lecture-style of college-level teaching in favor of more digitally connected, student-centered, and equitable approaches. Recently, she expanded her efforts to implement such changes at CUNY.
Davidson and Baruch College Professor Shelly Eversley are co-directors of Transformative Learning in the Humanities, an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation–supported initiative to advance social and racial justice at CUNY through teaching. Now in its second year, the program invites faculty fellows across all of CUNY’s campuses, including Graduate Center doctoral students, to discuss, study, and practice effective new teaching methods that enhance equity and social mobility at the nation’s largest urban public university.
“Our goal is to look inward at our own pedagogical preconceptions and practices and then to change our classrooms accordingly,” Davidson said. “Our ultimate goal is the idealistic one on which CUNY was founded: dedication to the ‘whole people.’ That’s antiracist pedagogy in a nutshell.”
Davidson spoke to the Graduate Center about why uprooting traditional teaching methods is urgent, how Transformative Learning in the Humanities approaches that goal, and how Graduate Center faculty and students can become program fellows.
The Graduate Center: Promoting antiracist pedagogy is a focus of Transformative Learning in the Humanities. Can you elaborate on that? How is pedagogy racist or anti-racist, and how is the program promoting antiracist approaches to teaching?
Davidson: Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, in the classic and widely-acclaimed Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, analyzes how students of color in a predominantly white classroom and with a white teacher often don’t speak in class. To oversimplify a complex point, nearly everything about higher education “stamps” (to use Ibram X. Kendi’s term) academic success as whiteness. Antiracist pedagogy breaks that cycle in content, in method, and through role models, peer-to-peer mentoring, and advocacy. We use what are called “inventory methods” to ensure everyone in a class participates, every point of view is heard, not just those two or three students who raise their hands in the traditional discussion classroom. We have extensive research on how those academically vocal students tend to most closely mirror the demographics of their professor (race, gender, social class, and educational background) and are also most likely to go to graduate school and become professors. Hierarchical pedagogical methods, along with the implicit bias of professors and a curriculum that privileges white perspectives, tend to perpetuate the racial disparities we see in higher education, where there are more than twice as many students of color as faculty of color.
There’s another aspect of antiracist pedagogy that Dr. Tatum discusses incisively. Given residential and therefore primary and secondary school segregation in America, college is the first place where many students encounter students from other backgrounds first-hand. If we are going to be responsible professors, we have to recognize that, even at CUNY in this highly diverse city, students still may be experiencing their first up-close encounters with students of a different race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, or ability level. In small group work, suddenly they are collaborating — and bringing whatever preconceptions, biases, and assumptions into the complexity of collaboration. Yet their professors were products of the same residential and educational segregation, and of a system of higher education (and especially graduate school) selection that may even increase that segregation.
Few of us have any pedagogy training — and fewer still have any training in antiracist pedagogies that gather and value different ideas rather than echoing one kind and form of idea. Here at the Graduate Center, we are training the next generation of professors. Our graduate students are teaching introductory courses all over CUNY. Our graduate students are more diverse than our faculty, and the undergraduate students that they teach are more diverse than our graduate students. So our Transformative Learning in the Humanities grant specifically offers training in a variety of methods useful in the “majority minority” classroom, for professors who may be from a different background than the students. We also focus on faculty of color and what it means to succeed in majority white institutions.
GC: You hired two Graduate Center alumnae, Christina Katopodis and Jessica Murray, to work with you on this project. How do you see their Graduate Center training influencing the work they’re doing now?
Davidson: Christina Katopodis (Ph.D. ’21, English), associate director and research associate for TLH, is an extremely capable administrator who, in effect, directs all of the operations of our very complex grant extending across all of CUNY’s 25 two-and four-year campuses. Her own time working as an adjunct professor at a number of different kinds of institutions while completing her doctoral degree definitely gave her a leg up when she interviewed for this position. She’d won two teaching awards and had published several essays on equitable pedagogy in addition to her articles and dissertation work on 19th-century American literature and environmental studies. Even before beginning this position, she was far more familiar with different higher education practices and different and diverse kinds of students than a “typical” graduate student earning a Ph.D. from an elite institution, where they might only have encountered elite undergraduates in courses where they had served as TAs.
Jessica Murray (Ph.D. ’20, Psychology), director of digital communications for TLH, has already, only a few years beyond the Ph.D., become a prominent advocate for accessible transportation in the city of New York and brings to TLH her commitment and knowledge about every aspect of access and disability.
I feel very fortunate to be here among such dazzling colleagues and students.
GC: What advice do you have for CUNY faculty and graduate students who are interested in becoming Transformative Learning in the Humanities fellows? (Applications for fall 2022 fellows are due March 11, 2022.)
Davidson: We are looking for those who want to learn more about ensuring the success of every CUNY student, who are willing to engage their present students in this learning project (which is itself active learning that improves outcomes for the student Mellon Scholars). We are looking for those with a true collaborative spirit and a commitment to CUNY’s mission to reach every student. We are also looking for those who can share all their ideas and energy about those commitments far beyond the 100 or so faculty in this program, starting with a commitment to democratic, antiracist pedagogy. Without changing how we see ourselves in the classroom, we inadvertently replicate the biases already cooked into higher education and pervasive in society at large.
GC: What advice do you have for teachers who want to use student-centered, antiracist approaches in the classroom? Do you have any specific examples?
In addition to ensuring that the actual content of a course is representative, diverse, and anti-racist, there are simple “inventory methods” that work to support every student, in any kind of course, in any field. These are low-stakes, sometimes anonymous exercises where everyone contributes at once. For example, at the beginning of class, pass out index cards or notepaper and have everyone take a minute to jot out one thing that impressed, angered, or confused them about the week’s assignment, then go around the room and have everyone just read their response. Change the question each class and make it as open or as challenging as you wish. Whether onsite or on Zoom, it’s a quick yet democratizing exercise that gives everyone a voice and offers multiple perspectives. You can do the same at the end of class. A favorite question (my friend Jonathan Sterne asks this in media lectures at McGill University with several hundred students): “What did we focus on in today’s lecture that will still have you thinking before you fall asleep tonight? If nothing, what should we be focusing on?” Use the answers to spark your next class and you’re telling every student they count. That’s not just antiracist, democratic pedagogy. It’s good pedagogy.
For more about using inventory methods to create equitable classrooms, visit Davidson’s blog An ‘Active Learning’ Kit: Rationale, Methods, Models, Research, Bibliography. Learn more about the goals of Transformative Teaching in the Humanities in this essay by Davidson and Shelly Eversley, “Practicing the Equitable, Transformative Pedagogy We Preach.”
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