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Cathy Davidson, Aug 2, 2017.  Photo: Ken Wissoker


Structuring Equality:  A New Series on Active Learning by Cathy N. Davidson


This is a new column, “Structuring Equality,”  that will feature active learning, institutional change, and ways of rethinking higher education for equality, not only for competition, selectivity, and (frankly) inequality. 

 What we know from literally every study of group participation is that, if you do not change the terms by which people contribute, even small groups (including collaborative teams in corporations like Google) replicate the power dynamics of our culture.  Women, people of color, the disabled, and shy people may have great things to contribute but they all do with significantly less frequency.  We’re losing talent.  And we’re making many people feel as if they have nothing to contribute, which means they fell they have nothing to learn. 

Here’s the adage:  You cannot counter structural inequality with good will.  You have to create a structure that supports equality.   That’s what this column is about. 

NB:  Photo credit, Ken Wissoker,  August 1, 2017, at the legendary 30 Rock, Rockefeller Center, before heading in to a hip hop concert there.  I gotta get out more!




The other evening, Professor Constance Penley did me the honor of telling me all the ways she has adopted student-centered, active learning methods in her undergraduate and graduate classes and how much they have transformed those classes and her students.  She also returned the favor by telling me about an assignment that she has developed that I hope to use in my classes this year.  It’s brilliant.

I’m sure I don’t have all the details exactly right but below is what I relayed to my co-teacher, Professor Shelly Eversley, with whom I’ll be teaching this year.   You can adopt and adapt this in many ways.  Check it out!  It’s really perfect.


The only thing you need is some kind of online tool where students can post. Most people have access to Blackboard or another course management system.   If not, you can choose to use HASTAC.  Prof Eversley and I will be creating a “Group” for our class on (it’s free; anyone can do this–hundreds of classes do).  On HASTAC, for every post, you must click a setting to say whether you want your post public or available only to your group.  HASTAC is free and we never, ever misuse our data or sell it to commercial interests.

Assignment (my adaptation):

1- Kick off the assignment by including a basic bibliography of the major works on the topic of your course.  This might be list of the 15 or 20 most important critical, theoretical, or historical scholarly articles, books, etc. on your course topic. NB: You could do this with anything else, from novels to Hip Hop artists to sociological studies, ethnogrpahic accounts, data studies, pretty much anything.

2. Put this list into an editable google doc and  invite students to add other entries, in correct alphabetic and bibliographic form

3.  Assignment: each student chooses a book or article.

4. The student reads the book/article and other reviews of the book /responses to work she can find, on line or anywhere.

5. Student then writes and publishes on the class blog a review of the book with the purpose of distilling something important, interesting, unique, unusual, unforgettable (etc) about the book for the other students in the class.

(a) Book review includes: abstract of the book and its argument; summary of other responses to the book; the students’ responses (positive and negative) to the book; and then the

(b) above part:  i.e. whether I like this book or not, I don’t want you to have wasted your time reading my review so here are three really interesting/important/funny etc insights you can take away from having read my review.

(c ) Whole thing:  1000 words or less.

6. Every student reads and makes a comment on every other students’ review.

What this means:  No one has time to read every book but everyone, collectively, learns from this assignment about a whole constellation of books in the field and reads and grapples with one in an important way.  And because everyone reads and comments on everyone else’s review, everyone has exposure to however many books/students there are in the class plus at least three new, important, interesting insights per book.

Connie said she has never read better papers in her whole career.

I can’t wait to try this out.


Pioneered by and Adopted from Constance Penley, Professor of Film & Media Studie Founding Director and Co-Director Emeritus of the Carsey-Wolf Cent

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Cathy N. Davidson

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