The Classroom in Crisis
Education is not inherently liberatory: it has always been an arena for broader struggles over who has access to knowledge and to what ends learning is put.
September 13, 2021
Sep 13, 2021
20 Min read time
Education is not inherently liberatory: it has always been an arena for broader struggles over who has access to knowledge and to what ends learning is put.
The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study
Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan
University of Chicago Press, $30 (paper)
Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching
Jarvis R. Givens
Harvard University Press, $35 (cloth)
On today’s university campuses, the language of “student-centered” learning and “horizontal” pedagogy is all the rage. Unfortunately, what began as a powerful tradition of critical practice—in the work of Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, and others—often gets diluted into the hegemony of teaching evaluations and administrative overreach of our current academic landscape. Such language ignores that there are power asymmetries within classrooms and around them: merely asserting that school is an equitable space does not make it so. Nor does it help us understand what does make for a good teacher, or what role the classroom has played in shaping broader institutional histories. At this moment of ferocious contestation over the meaning of the classroom, we might a closer look at what actually goes on there.
Those who proclaim the humanities to be dead have been looking in all the wrong places.
Two recent books contribute to this effort, taking seriously not only the content but also the form of the varieties of pedagogical encounter. The Teaching Archive, by Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan, proposes a new disciplinary history of English studies through the teaching practices of some of its most storied scholars. Fugitive Pedagogy, by Jarvis R. Givens, takes the case of historian and “father of black history” Carter G. Woodson as a prism to uncover a dissenting tradition of American learning, in the history, theory, and practice of black educators. These books emerge from distinct disciplinary contexts, and their arguments are largely keyed to those audiences: Buurma and Heffernan are in English departments, while Givens is based at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. But in their own way, each of these carefully researched and compellingly argued texts raises urgent questions about the ethics and politics of pedagogy, as they confront the complex entanglements of learning, desire, inequity, and liberation that inform what happens in the classroom.
One implication of this work can be drawn upfront. In making a case for the centrality of teaching to literary and historical study, these studies counter all too familiar doom-and-gloom jeremiads on the death of the humanities, which Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon characterize in their own new book as a discourse of “permanent crisis.” The Teaching Archive and Fugitive Pedagogy shift the focus of this conversation from academic journals, professional conferences, and culture wars op-eds to the actually existing spaces of teaching and learning. Their wager is that new histories of the classroom might not only free scholars from persistent (and persistently unsatisfying) quarrels over critical methods or disciplinary raisons d’être but also from the tired debates that Reitter and Wellmon diagnose. In short, those who proclaim the humanities to be dead have been looking in all the wrong places. These books exhort us to see scholarship and pedagogy as part of a shared endeavor rather than as siloed components with teaching one on side and research on the other. In doing so, they also remind us that the classroom is not an inherently liberatory space; it has always been an arena for broader conflicts and struggles over who has access to knowledge and to what ends learning is put.
• • •
Any attempt to center the classroom in discussions of the history of learning faces a major obstacle from the outset: the relatively tenuous nature of the “teaching archive.” Givens, for example, describes how the scarcity of material on Black teachers and students led him to assemble a “patchwork of sources,” from school records and oral histories to the personal papers of prominent educators. Buurma and Heffernan portray a somewhat different problem among modern Anglo-American scholars: while their published work has often gone through years of careful study and peer review, their teaching records might be described, in contrast, as “the often-embarrassing remnants of a process undertaken almost always under less-than-ideal conditions.” Yet this ephemerality also indexes the extent to which teaching is devalued in scholarly work. As Michel Trouillot and Saidiya Hartman have taught us, the silences of the archive can reveal as much as what has been preserved. The Teaching Archive asks us to imagine a world where we “we collectively valued teaching enough to treat teaching materials—notes, syllabuses, exams—as worth preserving, circulating, sharing, and citing.”
For one thing, such a world might foster a more capacious sense of the history of literary study, long distorted by a myopic focus on the Ivy League and by a received narrative “of clashes and compromises between humanist pedagogues and philologist scholars.” Over seven chapters, The Teaching Archive collects and comments on archival materials of nine influential scholar-teachers: Caroline Spurgeon, T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards and Edith Rickert, J. Saunders Redding, Cleanth Brooks and Edmund Wilson, Josephine Miles, and Simon J. Ortiz. The book shows how their scholarship was rooted in and deeply shaped by classroom experience, proposing “a new way of seeing the outcomes of teaching.” These syllabi, reading lists, lecture notes, and exam copies, Buurma and Heffernan argue, tell us something important about the material basis of literature—giving us “an account of how it was made, and by whom, and under what shaping, but not determinative, conditions.”
Spurgeon, for instance, is remembered in Renaissance studies today as the author of Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us (1935), an exhaustive catalog of the bard’s metaphors and an analysis of what they reveal about his material world, but Buurma and Heffernan reveal how deeply indebted this project was to Spurgeon’s larger pedagogical practice. An extension school instructor and the head of English Literature at a women’s college, Spurgeon designed a course called “The Art of Reading,” which taught research and writing methods to students by asking them to take active notes on slips “in order to secure order + convenience of ref.” As she recorded in her lecture notes, “You can arrange them + shuffle them + sort them as you never can entries on a notebook or on a sheet of paper. Have them all the same size. Card or paper.” Between documenting the author’s perspective, and “tabulating your own views, + working towards various lines of investigation,” students could eventually create their own index to a scholarly work. Some critics would later dismiss Shakespeare’s Imagery as a mere reference dictionary. But beyond generating an essential scholarly resource, the task of cataloguing and indexing allowed even new college students to take part in the production of scholarly knowledge. Along the way, Spurgeon helped them see reading not as passive consumption but as an active process of reflection and curation.
New histories of the classroom might free scholars from persistent (and persistently unsatisfying) quarrels over critical methods.
This attention to collaboration continues in chapters on I. A. Richards, Edith Rickert, and Josephine Miles, all of whom saw the classroom as a kind of laboratory for experiments in reading techniques. For instance, Richards’s “Practical Criticism” lectures—which exposed students’ flailing attempts at poetic interpretation—might better be understood as “experiments in collective reading” that would eventually help readers improve. Rickert’s New Methods for the Study of Literature (1927) paid explicit homage to her students in a contemporary literature course who helped her work out methods on analyzing rhythm and imagery. And as Josephine Miles’s freshman composition course at Berkeley, English 1a, deployed the “grammatical sentence—rather than the poetic line, poetic genres, figures, or images”—as a vehicle to grasp literary change over time, the sentence became the key unit of analysis, too, for Miles’s foundational research in what we now know as the digital humanities. In Spurgeon’s case, such collaborations also led her to gently puncture Shakespeare’s aura of canonicity in her own scholarship, as she encouraged readers to “see the very ordinary origins of the works they often encountered as sacrosanct and mystified.”
Received histories of the “canon wars” of the 1980s and 1990s are another target for Buurma and Heffernan’s revisionist narrative. John Guillory’s influential book Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993) argued that quarrels over the “dead white men” of traditional curricula were misguided: in conflating representativeness on a syllabus with representation in political life, Guillory contended, they ignored the university’s real function of social reproduction and entrenchment of class divisions, no matter which authors were taught in its departments. Buurma and Heffernan do not so much reject Guillory’s account as uncover a longer history of these ideological debates. For instance, T. S. Eliot has a crucial place in Guillory’s disciplinary history: Eliot’s focus on a new “minor canon” of early modern dramatists and poets in works like The Sacred Wood (1920) helped to produce a standard way of reading that focused on literary form and technique alone. But Buurma and Heffernan show how that volume arose from Eliot’s experiences teaching Modern English Literature to extension school students through the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). Eliot modified his syllabus year after year based on the desires and responses from his adult working-class students, especially by moving away from single-author classes to ones structured around a topic like “Socialism in Literature” or “The Celtic Revival.”
Here and elsewhere, then, The Teaching Archive argues that “the canon” has long been subject to contestation, revision, and debate. Other chapters trace how teachers throughout the twentieth century sought pragmatic responses to Guillory’s critique, as they engaged with indigenous students, immigrants, and students of color who expressed alienation from a curriculum clearly not fashioned with them in mind. One such teacher is Acoma Pueblo professor and activist Simon J. Ortiz, whose 1981 essay “Towards a national Indian literature: Cultural authenticity in nationalism” remains a crucial text in Native and indigenous studies. Ortiz taught a Native American literature class at the public community College of Marin as a historical survey course and revised his syllabus multiple times over the course of his career, structuring each week’s readings to juxtapose distinct historical moments and literary genres. Such changes “drew students’ attention to historical discontinuities and identifications across time,” Buurma and Heffernan explain, while allowing Ortiz and his students to think through the relationship between Native American oral traditions and print writing. And it countered a notion of contemporary Native literature as derivative or belated, which could inadvertently result from a chronological survey. Likewise, J. Saunders Redding, the first Black faculty member in the Ivy League, who also taught at historically Black colleges in the Jim Crow South, is shown redesigning his American literature course as a historical survey in reverse. Beginning with contemporary African American writers and moving back in time to the colonial period, Redding’s reading lists and syllabi figured American literature “as a body of writing fundamentally shaped by politics and history.”
In 2012, an earlier version of Buurma and Heffernan’s chapter on Cleanth Brooks and Edmund Wilson was published amid then-vibrant discussions on disciplinary ways of reading, from Rita Felski’s critique of the hermeneutics of suspicion to Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s case for “surface reading.” Echoing Eve Sedgwick’s call for “reparative reading” in place of “paranoid reading,” the 2012 article proposed a “reparative disciplinary history” located in the classroom. Almost a decade later, the revised chapter reads less as an intervention against the new formalisms than as a circumvention of the formalism versus historicism debate as such. Following Brooks’s papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library, the authors trace how the formalist emphasis of mid-twentieth-century New Criticism emerged less from first principles than from the realities of the classroom, where a text might be understood as a self-contained, autonomous whole. In the vagaries of day-to-day discussions, Brooks was less programmatic: in discussing Hart Crane’s The Bridge with students, for instance, he asked “to look at some particular passages with you, talk about them, the texture of them, the quality of them, and postpone a bit the matter of the total meaning of the poem and the way the parts are held together.” Having historicized Brooks’s formalism, the chapter turns to Wilson, the consummate historicist, whose classroom handouts catalogued examples of literary representation—such as how Shelley, Pope, Auden, and Yeats all depicted “objects reflected in water.” Wilson’s attempt to “reconnect canonical literature to the world,” the authors suggest, can be understood as a theory of literature in its own right. Tracing how methodological debates have played out in practice—not as manifestoes but as pragmatic, provisional solutions to the question of how to read, and how to learn—Buurma and Heffernan suggest that such attention might allow scholars, as they put it in the original article, to “evade the deadening impasse of disciplinary autocritique.”
Refreshingly, however, The Teaching Archive also rejects the idea that English professors need only find a new method in order to counter declining enrollments, defunded departments, and the precarity of academic employment. As the adjunct protagonist of Christine Smallwood’s recent novel reflects, “how naïve she had once been to believe there was anything glamorous about the life of the mind.” The teaching loads of contingent faculty, who now account for at least 70 percent of the academic labor force, afford little time to engage in the kind of research that would “count” for tenure—if they could land a rare tenure-track job in the first place. Buurma and Heffernan thus end by suggesting that yoking our understanding of literary history to the history of teaching might lead us to give greater credit—both in our grasp of the history, and concretely, on tenure committees and at administrative checkpoints—for the ways scholarly advances have long taken place.
• • •
While The Teaching Archive historicizes contemporary method wars, Givens offers a more radical rethinking of the space of the classroom, uncovering a cast of characters whose teaching methods and development of historical counternarratives were long seen as a threat to racial oppression. As he put it in a recent essay, “Historical study of Black teaching reveals that antiracist pedagogy and practice is not new.” In this longer history of conflict and resistance, learning might be—because, for many Black teachers and students, it has long been—an authentic “means of escape.”
Such were the words of Black educator, historian, and theorist Carter G. Woodson. Fugitive Pedagogy began its life as a doctoral dissertation on Woodson, most commonly remembered today as the founder of Negro History Week, the precursor of Black History Month. Givens recovers his reputation as an important scholar and teacher in his own right. Alain Locke once said that Woodson’s 1922 The Negro in Our History, which placed black Americans firmly at the center of U.S. history, was among “that select class of books that have brought about a revolution of mind.” As a theorist of education, Woodson’s 1933 The Mis-Education of the Negro proved a foundational text in exposing how the structure and content of the U.S. school curriculum entrenched anti-blackness in generation after generation of students.
Through all his writing, Givens shows, Woodson remained a teacher above all. Educated early on by uncles who had been enslaved, Woodson would go on to study at Berea College, Lincoln University, the University of Chicago, the Sorbonne, and Harvard. At Harvard he completed his history PhD in 1912 at the age of thirty-seven—only the second African American to do so, after W. E. B. Du Bois—in a field still largely working under the assumptions of William A. Dunning’s unabashedly racist version of U.S. history, which, among other things, blamed the failure of Reconstruction on unqualified freedmen. Woodson would later write that it took him “twenty years to recover” from his time at Harvard. Meanwhile, he also taught French, English, and history at various public schools, as well as serving as a principal in West Virginia and Washington, D.C.
While John Dewey stressed horizontal teacher-student relationships, Black educators like Woodson tended to put educational content—a new history of Black life—before pedagogical process.
Fugitive Pedagogy situates Woodson’s life within a larger set of practices and longer tradition: what Givens calls a “counterhistorical narrative and way of knowing.” The chapters move back and forward in history and between Woodson’s biography and broader social contexts. There are sections on Black educational institutions from the era of Reconstruction to the mid-twentieth century; on Woodson’s own variegated experiences as educator; and on the institution of Black studies as a university discipline in the wake of the 1960s. A crucial point of reference for Givens is the too-brief utopian moment of Reconstruction when, as Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction emphasized, the Freedmen’s Bureau not only promoted political and economic causes but also built schools and hired schoolteachers throughout the South. Many formerly enslaved people conceived of literacy as key to their intellectual as well as physical emancipation.
This vision proved tragically fleeting. Variously constrained or actively suppressed, Black education nonetheless continued, its teachers’ and students’ persistence confirming that Black study did indeed threaten the dominant social order. Among Woodson’s most formative experiences was teaching adults amid the coal mines of Fayette County, West Virginia, where he learned to think of literacy as a “social act at the center of black political struggle.” Woodson too ultimately broke away from formal institutions of learning, but his secondary school teaching continued to inform his activism and research agenda. These experiences convinced him, according to Givens, that “addressing the material conditions of black life required upending black people’s condemnation in the symbolic order.”
In a footnote, Buurma and Heffernan acknowledge that their focus on higher education is “only a part of the story,” one that needs supplementing in “the history of the interrelations between primary, secondary, and tertiary education.” Givens offers a more continuous vision of how education has been theorized and practiced from primary to post-secondary levels. As the leader of the Association for the Study of Negro Learning and History (ASNLH), for instance, Woodson grew frustrated at having to appeal to white funders for legitimacy and research funding, while also acquiescing to their parameters for research. Instead he came to stress the importance of black teachers’ associations “as a space for teachers to engage with new ideas, emerging research about black life, and political demands of the day.” The ASNLH supported local scholars in promoting teaching and study in schools and communities on a local level—rather than in universities, where everyday study elevated whiteness through the “debasement of black students and black achievement.”
One of Givens’s revisionist moves is to disentangle Woodson from the context of the (white) progressive education movement in which he has often been placed. While thinkers like John Dewey stressed communal values and horizontal teacher-student relationships, Woodson tended to put educational content before pedagogical process: contextual learning and communal pedagogy might be insufficient, he argued, if Black students came to education shaped by myths of racial inferiority. Instead, Woodson and other educators focused on devising an alternative curriculum, including textbooks, classroom tools, traditions, and celebrations meant to tell a new history of black life: neither one of unending subjugation, nor an inevitable march toward greater progress, but rather a story that centered historical conflicts and struggles in which students might find inspiring models.
What does Givens mean by conceiving of Black education and educational theory as “a fugitive project from its inception”? Like The Teaching Archive, the book unfolds through paradigmatic scenes of reading, beginning with its opening act. In rural Webster Parish, Louisiana, in 1933, a 28-year-old secondary school teacher named Tessie McGee reads aloud passages from The Negro in Our History to her students. She does so furtively, however, with Woodson’s book hidden on her lap and the officially sanctioned Jim Crow-era outline open on her desk, in case administrators should enter un-announced. Fugitive Pedagogy shows how such “covert” practices of literacy and learning equipped both students and teachers with a way of refusing “the narrative condemnation of black life facilitated by Louisiana’s official curriculum.”
In a similar vein, a chapter on the “fugitive slave as a folk hero” places Woodson’s textbooks within a longer genealogy, stemming back to the first textbooks written by black Americans—then fugitive slaves. As departments and disciplines today scramble to decolonize their curriculum, Givens illuminates a longstanding counter-canon in predominantly black schools and colleges, where, for instance, the Haitian revolutionary figures Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines were key protagonists within the curriculum. A particularly enlightening section situates Woodson’s work within a diasporic and anti-imperialist framework, linking his theories to those of (Jamaican) Sylvia Wynter, (Martinican) Aimé Césaire, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. This context embeds Black educators within a broader Black radical tradition, as well as within the history of critical pedagogy.
As Givens shows, these decades of Black pedagogy fed into “what became Black Studies” in the 1960s and afterward. Between its critique of dominant historical narratives, its establishment of a new curriculum and its fostering of intellectual networks, the ASNLH paved the way for the institutionalization of Black Studies in universities. In turn, activists and scholars such as Angela Davis, bell hooks, Hortense Spillers—among many others—traced their intellectual growth to what they learned from their Black teachers. Givens takes care to include the voices of these students as well as their professors. Davis, for instance, recalled her own projects and notes in learning about Negro History Week, which celebrated the “firsts” in Black history: “But I remember that it was always assumed that if there could be a first, then there could be a second, and then there would be a third, and so on , and so on, and so on.”
• • •
Despite their divergences, both of these books stress continuity over change in the course of our educational institutions, taking a page from recent radical critiques from critical university studies. As scholars such as Roderick Ferguson, Craig S. Wilder, and Charisse Burden-Stelly have forcefully argued, universities’ diversity and inclusion efforts have proven quite compatible with neoliberal business as usual: skyrocketing tuition, faculty disempowerment, expanding adjunctification and administrative bloat (and now, with COVID-19, direct threats to health). Greater access for women and students of color, meanwhile, has only hastened the privatization of higher education and the student debt crisis, reinforcing oppressive links among university, state, and capital.
Given this dismal state of affairs, what do we gain from these revisionist histories of teaching and learning? For one thing, both The Teaching Archive and Fugitive Pedagogy challenge us to think more flexibly about where learning has taken place, and where it might: in adult education classes, union halls, reading groups, and prisons, not just in lecture halls, seminar rooms, or on Zoom.
Teaching and learning are social relations that cannot be isolated from the political, historical, and institutional forces that shape them.
Indeed, at some level they invite us to ask whether so many of our formal educational institutions have a right to exist at all. According to Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s influential book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013), the only justifiable relation to the university today is to be “in but not of” it: “one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can.” This use of the term “fugitivity” is in line with a long Black intellectual tradition, theorized in recent years by scholars like Saidiya Hartman, Steven Best, and Christina Sharpe, and understood as a mobile position from which one can know otherwise (without either foregrounding state repression or idealizing the freedom of escape). Givens concludes Fugitive Pedagogy by acknowledging his debt to Moten and Harney, situating their undercommons within a longer tradition of “fugitive planning and black study” that he has unearthed. Buurma and Heffernan, too, briefly appeal to the undercommons, glossing it as “the imagined collective of the contingently employed teachers, teaching assistants, instructors, university staff, and indebted students who have also helped make those major works.”
And yet neither The Teaching Archive nor Fugitive Pedagogy wants to entirely give up on the institution of the university. The protagonists of The Teaching Archive, after all, are hardly exemplars of abolitionist pedagogy; they often rested comfortably in their position in and around compromised, powerful institutions. Like Woodson himself, though, they kept their students in view, using their position to fight for improving the intellectual and material position of those they taught.
It is tempting to pare down pedagogy to the instance of a particular encounter: teachers and students, sharing a particular space, grappling with new ideas and difficult texts. But as these books make clear, the practices of teaching and learning are social relations—the classroom a social space—that cannot be isolated from the political, historical, and institutional forces that shape them. The traditions uncovered by each of these books ask us to do a better job of recognizing such collective practices wherever they have historically appeared—including where we might not think to look. By equipping us with a more diverse vision of our pedagogical pasts, they invite us to do justice to the best of those traditions, and to work toward building (or rebuilding) more just alternatives.
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September 13, 2021
20 Min read time