American Literature, American Learning Revised Description

American Literature, American Learning


Cathy N. Davidson (Graduate Center, Futures Initiative and English)

ENGL 89010, Spring 2016, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Open to all doctoral and Master’s students. Any field.

Crosslisted as:  Urban Education 75200 and IDS 81620 (The scope and time commitment necessary to complete final research projects will vary depending on the number of credit hours for which students are enrolled.)

Wednesdays 6:30PM-8:30PM. 2, 3, or 4 credits. [CRN 30303]



This course has three primary intentions:


First, we will consider some foundational texts of American educational and cultural history, investigating the strategies of inclusion and exclusion they deploy. Possible topics include: the seventeenth and eighteenth-century establishment of religiously-affiliated institutions designed to educate clergy, schools which in time became bastions of privilege; the yoking of education and republican principle in antebellum America, particularly as that impulse is registered in Thomas Jefferson’s founding of the University of Virginia; the expansion of educational opportunity through the public school movement, as documented in Horace Mann’s reports to the Massachusetts Board of Education (1837-48); the rise of politically and ideologically-fraught institutions to serve women, African-Americans, and Native Americans; the expansion of educational franchise marked by the opening in 1847 of CUNY’s forerunner, the Free Academy, and by the passage of the First Morrill Act in 1862; and the emergence and consequence of liberal education theory at the end of the nineteenth-century.


Second, we will read contemporary critiques/accounts of American education.


Third, throughout the course, we will experiment with a variety of student-centered pedagogical practices that model different relationships between power and knowledge.


The range of texts we might read is very wide indeed; writers under current consideration include: Increase and Cotton Mather, Thomas Shepard, Charles Chauncey, John Witherspoon, Jonathan Edwards, Olaudah Equiano, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Bronson Alcott, Susanna Rowson, Catherine Beecher, Margaret Fuller, Lucy Larcom, Emma Willard, Horace Mann, Townsend Harris, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Zitkala-Sa, Henry Adams, John Dewey, Ralph Ellison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lani Guinier, Christopher Newfield, Craig Steven Wilder, and a variety of educational theorists including Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Carol Dweck, Alfie Kohn, Nick Sousanis, Cathy N. Davidson, David Theo Goldberg, Anna Stetsenko, and Eduardo Vianna.  



The first half of the course will juxtapose historical and contemporary readings with pedagogical experiments orchestrated for student-centered engaged learning.  I will propose the first set of readings, juxtaposing founding documents in American educational history with some scenes of learning in authors ranging from the 18th century to the 21st. We’ll also be doing some pedagogical experiments designed to help us reveal and understand the theoretical and institutional infrastructures underpinning higher education.  


Students will be engaged in collectively designing the first half of the course. As we read deeply in the history and theory of higher education, we will be contrasting our own model of higher learning with the examples we encounter.  We will think about these in reference to the traditional models of higher education available in the US (and abroad) today. In what ways do these different models promote or inhibit social mobility and equality, on the micro level of classroom practices and the macro level of social and economic outcomes?  


For the midterm, each student will be responsible for designing a syllabus for the second half of the course.  These will be posted on HASTAC. Then, during the scheduled midterm class, the students, having read one another’s syllabi, will discuss each one thoroughly, and then using a Google Doc, will design the second half of the course together.  This will include a syllabus of further readings, alternative formative assessment methods, one project (individual or collaborative) that furthers each student’s own student and/or professional objectives, and an additional (or combined) project that entails a public contribution to knowledge.    


We will also be building in some part of each class in the second half of the course for collaborative feedback towards completion of these final writing and public projects and thinking about ways to restructure graduate education for maximum sanity, productivity, and community.  


This collaborative syllabus will also be posted to the public HASTAC website.

For more on how this course will work and why it matters, see Prof. Cathy Davidson’s recent HASTAC post: “How To Move from History and Theory of Higher Education to More Equitable Classroom Practices.”