American Literature, American Learning Syllabus

American Literature, American Learning

Link to editable version of this syllabus:

Link to class constitution


Graduate Center Room 3207

Spring 2016 | Wednesday 6:30-8:30


Prof. Cathy N. Davidson

Office Rm. 3314   Office Hours By Appointment

CUNY Graduate Center


Danica Savonick  

Futures Initiative Fellow, Teaching Assistant

Office Rm. 3316  By Appointment



This course has three primary intentions. First, we will consider some foundational texts of American literature, education, and cultural history, investigating the strategies of inclusion and exclusion they deploy.  Second, we will read classic and contemporary theories and critiques of American education. Third, we will experiment with a variety of student-centered pedagogical practices that model different relationships between power and knowledge.  If our educational system now is based on inequality, what can we do to change that?  How can what we do in our schools lead to better practices in the world beyond (and vice versa)?  

Weekly Reading and Writing: There will be assigned reading for each class and an assigned response to the reading and then a conversation about it.  

One or two students each week will write a blog about the week’s readings and every other student will leave a comment.  These are public.  Of course you are free to write more, but this is a minimal way of keeping dialogue lively and going outside of class time.  

In addition to written responses to the readings, there are also assigned blog responses to the online or onsite activities, as noted in the schedule below.   

Final Blog/Paper: 2500 word public blog paper–with many options, discussed below.

METHOD  (General)

The pedagogical method in this course is student-centered, engaged, activist learning.  The first half of the course will juxtapose historical and contemporary readings with pedagogical experiments orchestrated for equitable, engaged learning where, optimally, everyone has a voice and a role.  Prof Davidson will propose the first sets of readings, juxtaposing founding documents in American educational history with scenes of learning in authors ranging from the 18th century to the 21st.

The second half of the course is a radical experiment in student-centered and collaborative learning design. For the midterm, each student will create a syllabus and post it to a collaborative open source (public) online writing tool, Social Paper.  All students will offer comments on one another’s syllabi.  

In class, on March 2, students will use ideas from all these syllabi to design of the last half of our course.  


Midterm Student-Designed Syllabus Assignment > Collectively-Designed Course

Wednesday, Feb. 24:  Dr. Jade Davis, Associate Director of Digital Learning Projects at LaGuardia Community College, and a specialist in learning and technology design, will lead us in a discussion and in exercises to help us think about pedagogy, syllabi, the shape of higher education, and the architecture of knowledge, learning, and power. She will be assisted by Danica Savonick whose dissertation research focuses on several writers, pedagogical theorists, and activists (Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich) who taught at CUNY during the free and open years, and crafted their classrooms and pedagogical praxis to address issues of racism, sexism, poverty, and inequality.  

Noon, Monday Feb 29 Midterm Syllabus Project:  Post your syllabus to “Social Paper,” an open source collaborative writing tool:  For the midterm, each student will be responsible for designing a hypothetical syllabus for the second half of our course.  You can design any kind of syllabus you wish; it is hoped that you will pursue your own interests, find readings that you would like to discuss with your classmates, design pedagogical experiments that take us in new directions, and otherwise use this unique opportunity to offer challenges to what a traditional seminar offers. Think about all the ways you can design a course that models engaged, activist pedagogy.  Remember you have the course Zotero bibliography as a resource–feel free to consult and contribute to it.

Be realistic, think big: Those are not contradictory. While thinking expansively about the assumptions of a “course,” remember you are students and students have lives (something professors often forget). Think about what is workable and inspiring.  Please make sure to consider how much time we have left in the semester and design a course accordingly, including readings, descriptions, paper and exam requirements (if any), experiences, engagements, outcomes, assessment methods, and other features of an ideal course that you would love to take (you will!)–or teach. You don’t have to be bound by the walls of the GC. Your course materials can be in any media.

Public Contribution to Knowledge: Make sure that the final project/paper in your syllabus makes some kind of contribution to public knowledge.  It can be as simple as a public blog posting on an urgent issue or it can be a true intervention.


Social Paper:  Upload your syllabus to Social Paper (Danica will provide a hand out and will assist with any technical issues) and make the setting “public.”  


Assignment for Wed March 2:  Read each syllabus submitted by your classmates carefully and make at least two annotations on each syllabus.  


Syllabus Jam Session, March 2:  Come to class with laptops if you have them.  We’ll supply giant post-it notes, pads, colored small post-its, colored pens, and other tools. You will have two hours to put together a syllabus for the rest of the course, building from parts of all the syllabi you have all submitted.  

  • Depending on how you count, you will have six or seven class sessions to lead.  
  • Divide into teams and let each team design readings, a pedagogy, or an experience, and other classes might be for the whole group.
  • Leave time to then put it all back together again to see how it all fits together.
  • Consider the “Final” Blog/Paper topic (2500 words, due May 18):  if you wish, you can take on many other topics here–NYTimes Op Ed on why the cutbacks to CUNY hurt NY’s future, policy essay on adjunct labor, essay on income/racial/gender inequality etc etc.  You can think about different topics, team topics, one joint class project with a major policy/activist focus.  
  • Either write up the final syllabus while you are together or delegate the writing–on Social Paper or a Google Doc (NB: It’s fine if you make revisions later!).
  • Post the final syllabus for the course on Social Paper and on the website.  Tweet it out, put it on Facebook, maybe take photos and put them on Instagram:  we want as many people as possible to benefit from your collective work.






Class Dates Class Activity Other Events of Relevance
Wed. Feb. 3 Introduction: Class constitution, inventories, exit tickets
Writing Assignment:  Leave at least one comment on (requires signing in) on the student-led forum:  Ideas in Circulation: Libraries, Presses, Platforms
Feb 5, 1-2 pm: University Worth Fighting for: Ideas in Circulation: Open Scholarship for Social Justice

Room 9205

Wed. Feb. 10 Founding Documents, Educational Inequality, and Issues Students Face Today  #BlackLivesMatter, discussion, TPS, mission statement  (Readings below)

Blogger: Jeff 

Feb 12 GC closed
Wed. Feb. 17 Education as Empowerment, Education as Social Control:   Gender and Colonialism  (Readings below)

Bloggers: Michael & Zeb 
Feb 15, 5-6:30 “The Engaged Scholar”  Online and on Twitter #fight4edu
Wed. Feb. 24 Guest:  Jade Davis, Associate Director Digital Learning Projects, LaGuardia Community College

Readings TBD

Design a syllabus for the last half of American Literature, American Learning.  It should include readings, descriptions, papers, projects, assessments, outcomes, or any other features of an ideal course.  Feel free to make the final paper project be one that you would love to write–but also strive to create a coherent course.

Upload your syllabus to Social Paper (Danica will provide a hand out and will help) and make the setting “public.”  


Reading assignment for March 2:  Read each syllabus submitted by your classmates and make at least two annotations on each syllabus.

Wed. Mar. 2 Special Event: Syllabus Jam Session During this class session, the members of this course will work together to create the syllabus for the last half of “American Literature, American Learning.”  Please observe the various scheduling requirements of the course.   A Google Doc will be set up for a collaborative “idea jam” in which students design the remainder of the course. Wed. Mar. 2 The University Worth Fighting for: Credentials or Learning? Measuring What Counts, 1-2 C197
Wed. Mar. 9 TBD (To Be Designed . . . )
Bloggers: Kelly & Arinn 
Mar. 14 Sarah Schulman: The Cosmopolitans, 6:30 Elebash RSVP Required ( —
Wed. Mar. 16 TBD

Bloggers: Nicky & Lisa 

No class March 23. Classes follow a Friday schedule.

Writing Assignment:  A comment or blog on either the March 2 reading group on or in response to either the March 14 or March 28 event.

Mar. 28 Intellectual Publics presents: Alondra Nelson on The Social Life of DNA, interviewed by Dr. Jacqueline Brown, 6:30pm, William Kelly Skylight Room
Wed. Mar. 30 TBD

Blogger: Iris

Wed. Apr. 6 Special Guest:  Dr. William P. Kelly, Mellon Research Director of the New York Public Library and  President Emeritus
Wed. Apr. 13 TBD

Bloggers: Erica & Josh

Thur. April 14 University Worth Fighting For: Teaching as Social Justice: Equity, Diversity, Race 1-2 C197
Wed. Apr. 20 TBD

Blogger: Cheryl 

Spring recess April 22-30.
Wed. May 4 TBD
Wed. May 11 TBD    Open Co-Working Session (no official class session) HASTAC May 11-15, Arizona State University
Wed. May 18 LAST CLASS

“Final” Due Noon Mon May 16:  approx 2500 words

Blog/Essay (on public setting) addressing the question:  If you had the power to change any one aspect of US higher education, what would it be? Where would you start? Why?  [TBD]
Due by Class time, May 18: Read and write one comment on each Final Blog/Essay.

Thurs. May 19 You are invited!   Thurs. May 19 University Worth Fighting For, C202 – 203  and Reception




Wed. Feb 3  Class Inventory project: Three or four extra-ordinary talents that you can contribute to our collective learning this semester   (Examples:  mind mapping, code writing, web design, improv, stand up, comics, jazz singing, carpentry, tour guide, yoga, meditation, project management, grant writer, multilingual, EMT specialist, disability expertise, etc etc).  

Writing Assignment:  Leave at least one comment on (requires signing in) on the student-led forum, “Ideas in Circulation: Libraries, Presses, Platforms.”


Wed. Feb 10 (Assigned Reading 1): Founding Documents, Educational Inequality, and Issues Students Face Today  #BlackLivesMatter  (Approx 50-70  pages total)

  • “New England’s First Fruits in Respect in the Progress of Learning in the College at Cambridge, in Massachusetts Bay.” September 26, 1642.
  • “Massachusetts’ Old Deluder Satan Law, 1647.” in Fraser, The School in the United States: A Documentary History. (available on CBOX)
  • Jefferson, Thomas. “Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Fix the Site of the University of Virginia.” August 4, 1818.
  • Stommel, Jesse. “Dear Student.” December 16, 2015.
  • Students of Catherine Prendergast. “A Lecture from the Lectured.” Vitae. January 4, 2016.
  • Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015. 24 – 37. (available on CBOX)
  • Slavery
    • Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of American Universities. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 8-36. (available on CBOX)
    • Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845 in Fraser, The School in the United States: A Documentary History. (available on CBOX)
  • Optional (highly recommended): Vianna, Eduardo and Anna Stetsenko, “Research with a Transformative Activist Agenda:  Creating the Future Through Education for Social Change,” National Society for the Study of Education.    Volume 113, Issue 2, ppp. 575-602.   [This superb essay, by two CUNY and FI colleagues, provides an overview of classic engaged, activist pedagogical theory plus a case study of how it can be used in an actual situation. For anyone who has not read pedagogy theory, it offers vocabulary, field-specific issues, bibliography–and real world application.] (available on CBOX)


Wed. Feb 17 (Assigned Reading 2): Education as Empowerment, Education as Social Control: Gender and Colonialism  (Approx 50-70 pages total)

  • Women’s Education
    • Rush, Benjamin. Thoughts Upon Female Education, 1787 in Fraser The School in the United States: A Documentary History. 24-28. (available on CBOX)
    • Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. 26 -33. (available on CBOX)   
  • Hsu, Hua. “The Year of the Imaginary Student.” The New Yorker. December 31, 2015.
  • Mike Wesch, “A Vision of Students Today”
  • Native American Children
    • “Virginia Statues on the Education of Indian Children Held Hostage, from the Virginia Statutes at Large” in Fraser, The School in the United States: A Documentary History, 1656.
    • Zitkala-Sa [Gertrude Bonnin], American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. New York: Penguin, 2003. (available on CBOX)
  • Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. 1-18, 86 – 97. (available on CBOX)
  • Guinier, Lani. The Tyranny of Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America. Boston: Beacon, [pages TBD]. (available on CBOX)
  • Davidson, Cathy. “Why Start with Pedagogy? 4 Good Reasons, 4 Good Solutions.”



Final grades for this course will be based on successful completion of the following:

  • All reading finished before class and participation in class
  • Blog posts when assigned, and comments each week
  • Posts or comments on additional online or onsite activities as noted in the schedule
  • Midterm syllabus uploaded to Social Paper by Noon Feb 29
  • Annotation of syllabi posted by other students on Social Paper
  • Participation in the Syllabus Jam Session March 2 and collaborative participation in designing the second half of the course
  • Group leadership/design of at least one class session
  • Final 2000-2500 word blog post that makes a public contribution to knowledge and an effort to make that post reach its desired public (OR: equivalent contribution to an alternative proposed by the class during the Syllabus Jam Session)
  • One final closing comment on each final post by classmates

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