At the beginning of each semester, I write a maxim on the board for discussion: “all people are equally intelligent.” The underlying claim, in this paraphrased line from radical pedagogue Jacques Rancière, is that any measured difference in “intelligence” has more to do with access than with genuine intellect. After introducing ourselves, the class turns it focus on that claim and we deliberate: what does “equal” mean in this context? How about “intelligent”? Is Rancière right? How does his maxim call upon us to relate to one another?
Before the first hour is up, we’re in a thick of pedagogical inquiry, from which students tend to reach this fragile consensus: there really exists no one-size-fits-all notion of intelligence. The acquisition of knowledge assumed to be its epitome—the “Jeopardy contestant” theory of smarts, as one student called it—is in fact a tragic misconception. Learning, instead, is a collaborative enterprise: it’s dialogic, responsive and revisable according to new information, and applicable to our everyday experiences. If we insist upon equality as a first principle in the classroom, as I do, then, yes, all people are in fact equally intelligent, much more than they are reflections of their high school ranks, GPAs, or entry test scores.
As a teacher, I believe and affirm this principle of equality, and I make that clear with my students from the start. Here I’ll hazard a cliché,—inevitable in discussions of teaching, I guess—my goal, over the course of the semester, is to attenuate the teacher-pupil hierarchy wrongly assumed to be the “natural” state of education. I aspire to be a “teacher-student,” in Paulo Freire’s heroic terms from his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. That’s why all of my classes read and discuss Freire (and bell hooks, usually) in the first week—be they first-time freshman comp students or English seniors already schooled in sophisticated theory. For many students, reading critical pedagogy incites a moment of great awareness and clarity about learning and its institutions,—I know this was true for me—and it’s important that we forge a relationship based not on my requirements and outcomes and expectations, but by considering and embodying a vision of education that’s too often slighted in our test-obsessed, professionalizing culture—this one founded on the idea of liberation. I warn them also that I cling hopelessly to romantic ideals. (I study nineteenth-century literature, after all.)
With a shared language in hand about the values and practices of “radical” pedagogy, we go to work collectively constructing course objectives, values, and ways of assessment. For this reason, I create space in the syllabus to co-develop courses along with students, equipping them along the way with the knowledge and confidence to design their own projects and methods of evaluation. I explain that participation is mandatory, as the whole enterprise finally rests on dialogue and community (as Freire and hooks remind us), but that we get to decide what “participation” looks like and how it is evaluated, a pleasant relief to those folks reticent to speak in class. For what it’s worth, since I’ve adopted this method of co-creating the course architecture with students, I have yet to have a class where all haven’t voluntarily contributed to discussion.
Once we dig into the syllabus, students are quick to notice the ample amount of “blank” space in the class schedule. Over the last three years, I have been progressively reconceptualizing all of my courses to relinquish more and more control of the content over to students. As it stands, the first half of my courses feature a wide range of reading and training in foundational practices—a framework that is, naturally, course-dependent. That looks like many low-stakes reading, writing, and speaking opportunities in Discourse I, whereas it means a deep dive into social theory and poetics in Poetry and Social Justice, and a broad survey of major authors, texts, and period events in Early American Literature. This base of skills and knowledges are built with final projects in mind, for in the second half students are tasked with “taking over the class” and teaching a relevant topic of their own interest and design to their peers. For a substantial portion of in-class time, I make myself available as a resource. Students meet with me to develop their ideas, identify and compile research, and consider ways to facilitate discussion, design engaging activities, and build usable assignments. Their takeovers are peer reviewed and involve a critical self-evaluation at the end. As a whole, this “boss level” assignment has replaced the term papers and final exams that I used to assign in my first years as a teacher, since they incorporate many of the same elements–research, organization, practice—while foregrounding the values of collaboration and access I see as integral to learning.
What does this look like concretely? In my Discourse I sections, we read excerpts from Cathy Davidson’s groundbreaking Now You See It, setting up a shared context to discuss societal understandings of and approaches to learning and education in our so-called “digital age.” Davidson questions the stalwarts of industrial-era education—standardized tests, five-paragraph essays, even the architecture of the classroom—and their efficacy for contemporary notions of active, experiential learning. After crafting personal stories, both written and spoken, in response to these ideas, students set out to “make over” the freshman composition course, deciding collectively on topics for group projects. Last year, students decided to research, write, and speak about each other’s life experiences as students and learners. Seeking out the perspectives of people of different races, regions, social classes, nationalities, and gender and sexual identities on education and learning obliged students to embody the interests of those with markedly different backgrounds. Buttressing these stories with empirical data, students cultivated better research and storytelling skills—techniques essential to their intellectual lives in college and beyond.
In the end, I’ve found that when I trust students to guide their own education—that is, when I recognize each student as a fully autonomous intellectual with ideas and experiences and interests that matter to me, to their peers, and to the course—they almost always respond in kind with care and generosity. With that, I bring the truest version of myself—my experiences, my knowledge, my understanding—into each class, too. Transparency, though time-consuming and sometimes daunting, exposes teaching for what it is: a collection of personal (if careful and researched) choices on the part of the instructor. I never ask students to share a piece of writing, or an opinion, or an experience, unless I am willing to do the same. The prize is that, every morning, I get to wake up and defend the relevance of my job—and I’m not being facetious here. A focus on the liberal arts is nothing if not a wide-ranging study of human curiosity and inquiry, and, again, I cling to this romantic notion. For me, the end of liberal education is intellectual emancipation, and that project has a larger purpose than landing a sweet gig after college. And yes, when you teach writing and literature, every moment spent with students is a de facto argument for the relevance of the liberal arts. When I teach comma usage, I am defending the liberal arts. When I teach Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, I am defending the liberal arts. Citation method, the history of the printing press, Audacity software, Emerson’s essays—all lessons that double as defenses of the liberal arts. If I can’t make them fun, relevant, and usable in students’ lives, I’m a poor defender.