In 2023 we welcomed former Futures Initiative Graduate Fellow, Dr. Christina Katopodis back to FI as our new Senior Researcher and Senior Postdoctoral Research Associate for the Humanities Alliance. Dr. Katopodis, along with FI founder and Faculty Co-Director Dr. Cathy Davidson, received the 2023 Ness Award from AAC&U for their book The New College Classroom (Harvard University Press, 2022). In this FI Spotlight, Dr. Katopodis discusses the initial idea for the book and the influence of her teaching experiences at CUNY, and the collaborative writing process. She also talks about how she got into baking and why it has become one of her favorite things to do.
When did you and FI Faculty Co-Director Cathy Davidson decide to start writing The New College Classroom?
I was working as Cathy’s research assistant while she was on book tour for The New Education, and I was blogging regularly about my teaching and various active learning methods and tools I was testing out in my classroom, from ungrading to co-creation with students. While on book tour, Cathy noticed that what many faculty needed were practical tools for implementing change in their classrooms. By then, we were connected on social media and she was reading my blog posts. After listening to me talk about my experiences teaching as an adjunct, she asked me if I would like to write a book with her. I started by collecting relevant blog posts both she and I had written and pasting them into a Google Doc. We spent hours thinking through different structures for the book, and eventually settled on three parts: Changing Ourselves, Changing Our Classrooms, and Changing the World.
Can you tell us a bit about your collaborative writing process?
At first, we simply read one another’s writing and pieced things together. We drew various mental maps for the book, at one point using big pieces of paper, at another we were setting out piles of printed blogs on her office couch and then rearranging them while we talked. We had a working bibliography of sources, from heady theory and scholarly articles to TikTok videos and tweets from educators. We had working outlines that we rearranged and rearranged again. Eventually, we got comfortable enough to synchronously write together in a Google Doc, read each other’s writing, challenge each other, and convince one another that something was working or something wasn’t. We got to a point of respect and trust that we could write over each other, around each other, and through talking aloud and transcribing one another. In an interview for Teaching in Higher Ed, after the book was written, Bonni Stachowiak pointed out that we even finished one another’s sentences. And it’s true. Sometimes when I read the book I can hear Cathy’s voice or mine, but most of the time, I hear our synchronous “we” voice that evolved through trust and mutual respect and understanding over time. When I started writing something on my own after this collaboration, I struggled with feeling lonely while writing. I missed having Cathy with me, sharing our vulnerability in writing something messy then building it up, our bold optimism, our ideas growing together, our creative flow, and our killed darlings (as Stephen King would call them) when we cut 30,000 words from the book.
How has your research for this book influenced your own teaching at CUNY?
I’m more comfortable with the messiness and chaos of active learning. Giving students agency means allowing a degree of chaos into your semester. I am more confident in the methods I’ve chosen to use. I trust the process and the guardrails I’ve put in place to keep students engaged, driven, and successful even when they meet the challenges of self-directed learning. I believe that what I am doing is part of a larger abolitionist project, and I’m more intentional than ever with the traditional mindsets and structures I’m pushing back on so that I can transform the classroom in meaningful, informed ways.
What are your hopes for what people will take away from reading this work, at CUNY and beyond?
We’ve all had that nightmare about school—you miss your alarm on exam day, you show up to the exam without a pencil—that reflects our anxieties, fears, and traumas from industrialized education, a system that teaches us to struggle alone. We are not alone. I do not have to have all the answers, and I shouldn’t have all of them—that would teach my students to think, “Someone standing at the front of the room somewhere has the answer to climate change, so I don’t have to think about that. Someone smarter than me will fix that.” Nope. We are all responsible for the world’s toughest problems. I regularly ask my students questions I don’t know the answers to: “What’s challenging for you about this class?” “What are your learning goals for this class?” “What do you want to talk about most today?” “What should we read next and why?” My hope is that people who read this book will learn how to ask students wise questions, and that readers come away with some tools to do that effectively, and can adapt their teaching to respond to students’ answers.
In addition to your writing and work at CUNY, and taking care of two young children, you are also an extraordinarily talented baker. When did you start baking?
I started baking as a regular hobby while I was a graduate fellow at the Futures Initiative. After watching the first seasons of The Great British Bakeoff, I tried making macarons in an undersized gas oven without a thermometer in my tiny Manhattan apartment, and as I developed a relationship with that horribly incompetent oven, I became hooked. My husband and I spent our honeymoon in France, where I asked endless questions of the local bakers. Back in New York, I began applying what I learned and played with ways to sweeten baked goods without adding sugar (e.g., roasting bananas and nuts to bring out their natural sweetness; adding cinnamon, which is naturally sweet; letting cookie dough sit in the fridge for three days before baking). In the pandemic, baking became a way to decompress, and then I had a little one to bake for and to bake with. As my eldest grew older, he got more involved in the kitchen with me. Both my boys always offer to help when there are chocolate chips involved because they know they can steal a few for themselves. That’s the best part about baking as a kid! And I love how happy it makes the people around me. Spreading that joy has lifted up my spirit.
Dr. Katopodis is a former Associate Director of Transformative Learning in the Humanities and founder of Engaged & Ready, a project that empowers faculty with antiracist active learning tools to democratize their classrooms. She is the winner of the 2019 Diana Colbert Innovative Teaching Prize and the 2018 Dewey Digital Teaching Award. She has authored or co-authored articles published in Chronicle of Higher Ed, English Language Notes, ESQ, Hybrid Pedagogy, Inside Higher Ed, ISLE, MLA’s Profession, Times Higher Ed, and Zeal: A Journal for the Liberal Arts. Check out her most recent work in The Chronicle on how to beat the post-dissertation blues, and her article in Inside Higher Ed on how to improve student group work!