Building Equity and Innovation Into a Syllabus: Or, We May Not Be Able to Change the Word But We Can Change Our Classrooms

In “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education,” the first Futures Initiative course, co-taught with President Emeritus William Kelly, we focused on pedagogy, on what you can do tomorrow in your classroom to redress the kinds of inequity that persist in society and that are exacerbated by higher education. On the first day of class, Bill and I entered, pointed to giant post-it notes set around the room with dates, and asked twelve graduate students to work together to organize into four groups of three, decide together what learning you wanted to take charge of, and in other ways design a graduate course. Here’s the main point: Bill and I left the room while twelve graduate students in nine radically different fields of study designed a course, its structure and content, who would partner with whom, in what sequence.  Each week you were responsible for assigning the rest of us research to read, coming up with assignments, exercises, and pedagogies that you then all tried in undergraduate CUNY classes and programs.  This is the most radical version of student-centered pedagogy.  There are many others, of course, but our point was that you cannot just “talk” about reversing hierarchy. You can’t just read the theory; you must embody the practice.


Next year, the Futures Initiative will focus more on such things as curricular and institutional change but, in this early experiment, we concentrated on graduate students who are teaching undergraduates.  We structured our class in such a way that the graduate students could immediately implement these methods in their classrooms or in the programs they direct in the twenty-four CUNY colleges and community colleges.  The two final assignments in the course are the “CUNY Maps of New York” project to which they and their students will contribute and a syllabus for a class they would teach or a program that they would direct that embodies the methodologies we’ve researched, discussed, and implemented this term.  The syllabus can be a “re-do” of the syllabus they used this semester or it can be for a new course.  All twelve of these will be published on the Futures Initiative site and on the HASTAC Futures Initiative Group blog.

Here are some of the major areas each syllabus will address in a specific, content-based course across an array of disciplines, from pre-chemistry to classics.   These are extracted from the group presentations and assignments this semester.



Here’s the big takeaway from this class: helping our students to  “learn how to learn” requires us, as professors and scholars, to structure certain forms of attention, preparation, equity, and innovation into the courses we design.   These do not happen by accident.  We are working against twelve years of primary and secondary education and all the prejudices of graduate education structured into the university’s reward and recognition system.  We start with a radically unequal playing field–and then pretend that, in school, merit carries the day–as if there is no connection between what one does inside of school and the life one leads outside it.  The most important rationale for student-centered pedagogy, going back to Dewey and Friere and all other progressivist educators, is that the “container” model of learning (the expert pouring information into the brain of the learner) is based on models of hierarchy and inequality which stall learning.   Student-centered learning grants the students their own abilities, skills, interests, and methods for learning and builds on the students’ own ability, charting a pathway from that ability to mastery.  It is not about the teacher.  It is about the student.  In the “sorting and grading” industrial model of education, formal education is designed to separate the “good” from the “bad” students, rewarding the good, overtly or covertly punishing those who “fail.”

If student success and persistence are the goal for every student,  that changes all the relationships upon which most formal education traditionally are based.   Student-centered learning reverses a complex set of institutional hierarchies, that extend logically all the way from pre-K to the crisis in contingent labor in the profession of academe today.

You cannot combat inequity with good will.  We know from behavioral economists such as Dan Ariely that, even the best intentioned people, fall over and over again into the traps of their own blindspots.  Universities in America today not only perpetuate social inequality but exacerbate it (those with college degrees earn more, live longer, have fewer illnesses, longer marriages, and a number of other factors that chart, in our society, as “middle class.”)  If the university is going to be the gateway to a satisfying, productive, responsible future for all our students, regardless of their prior training or social background, than, as responsible scholars and professors, we have to find ways to institutionalize a countering empowerment, ways of giving students tools that allow them to be confident in their ability to learn, even in stressed circumstances; their ability to turn to peers for help and to offer help to peers when needed; their ability to navigate the ambiguous and often contradictory rules and requirements of our universities; and to feel that, in class, they have as much a right to “raise their hand” (to quote the great Samuel Delany) as anyone and everyone else.  Student-centered learning is literally about exemplifying and consciously and conscientiously structuring the learning experience so every student understands the power of their own learning.  Again, this does not happen by accident.



(Here’s a sobering new study, using the same methodology we’ve seen so many times of sending the exact same letter of inquiry asking if the prospective graduate student might come to participate in their research but changing the name of the sender, some with names that seem “white,” some male, some female, some non-white.  The rate of response for non-white and females was significantly lower than to white males, and in the field of business, the most discriminatory field, non-whites and females were 2.2 times less likely to receive a response.  This study appears in the current Journal of Applied Psychology and is reported on in the Chronicle of Higher Education for April 17, 2015:

Even with student-centered pedagogy as the focus of this course, it took conversations and lengthy feedback before, in Group 3, we came up, together, with methods for structuring equity in our own classroom such that everyone participated equally.  Research on seminars shows that professors tend to think “everyone” contributes when as few as twenty percent of the participants are actually speaking in class.  Research also shows that who speaks in class often replicates the social, racial, gender, and economic disparities preserved (and even exacerbated) within higher education’s “tyranny of meritocracy” (to use Lani Guinier’s telling phrase.  Think of that as a metaphor and a heuristic for all the aspects of equity and innovation you design into the syllabus for a  course.



Here’s the final syllabus assignment for our class.  The syllabus should address all four of the areas that our class groups designed for us this term.  It should include

***Designing an assessment method that allows formative, continual feedback and improvement and that maximizes student success and persistence in the course you teach
***Developing a syllabus where the techniques, methods, tactics, and elements of student-centered pedagogy are intrinsic to the  structure of the course. What about your first day will prepare students for their greater responsibility for their own learning?  NB:   Bill and I did the most radical version of this:  despite our expertise in the fields of educational transformation and institutional leadership, we literally left the room on the first day and left you to choose the areas of academic focus, arrange yourselves in working groups, set the calendar, and assign the qualitative and quantitative research and choose the methods.  We are not advocating such a radical approach in each and every class but keep in mind that students know far more than they—or you—think they know.  (One of the class members is having students research their grammatical mistakes and teach others what those are and how to improve them. Brava!)
***Ensuring that your syllabus tacitly acknowledges the “life barriers” faced by your students and in some way addresses those needs. This requires you doing some demographic research on the background, preparedness, and other aspects of your students student careers before they come into your class, but even the best students from the most college-preparatory backgrounds may not be prepared, in the introductory courses most of you teach, to address the complexities of college, the complications of multiple syllabi and deadlines and multiple content and methodological approaches, and their life combination of voluntarism (no one requires them to stay in college) and necessity (the requirement to be a full-time student to maintain TAP grants). Reflect on the interview/conversation with Dean John Mogulescu.  What can you do to help your students structure their lives?
(One of our group presentations mentioned the tactic of dedicating one class period to having students bring in all their syllabi from all their classes for the semester and working in pairs or small groups to make a semester-long calendar in which all the requirements—reading, writing, exams, final projects—of all the classes were put onto a calendar that might also include “life deadlines.”  This is  a brilliant way of helping your students succeed not only in your course but in staying in college.  It also seems to me the best possible way to spend one class—it gives students a sense of control over their lives, it helps them work together to see and plan around the trouble spots, it shows your investment in their learning and success (we have the research:  this is one of the single most important contributors to persistence), and it helps introduce students to the methodology of peer-learning and student-centered learning, not in the abstract but by doing.
***Finding some way (this Group hasn’t happened yet so I’m anticipating) of incorporating non-text based work in the class—movement, multimedia, mindfulness, voice.  This can be a class or a sequence of exercises across the semester or  part of the weekly class practice.
***Incorporating digital literacy and online collaborative resources into your class and highlighting for your students that the technology is not just an online version of a journal or a term paper but a way of connecting to other students outside of class and using one another as resources, while also understanding some basic elements of digital proficiency, opportunities, and challenges (such as access, learning on a mobile device, and so forth).
***Ensuring that there is some way that the subject matter of your course links to students’ lives and to their community or society more generally or to future careers.  Building a pathway from your course to the life beyond academe is another key feature in persistence and there are ways that, as rhetoric and practice, polemic and experience, you can underscore their participation in your course as a contribution they are making to their own success, lifelong, and  not just in time for a final exam and a grade.
***Adding some other aspects of student-centered pedagogy that we have not covered this semester.  The bullet points above are basically a recap of all the central, core principles that you introduced to the class in your four groups.  A different class might come up with four other areas to research, discuss, and implement.  What things haven’t we discussed and researched and tried out in our classrooms that you might want to incorporate into a syllabus?