This semester marked quite a few milestones: our fifth semester of pandemic teaching and learning; our second semester of awkward “hybrid” togetherness; Master’s students graduating from programs experiencing entirely inside a pandemic; political shifts presenting new challenges to higher education and academic freedom; and my last term at The New School, after 18 years of commitment. Amidst the accumulating frustration and despair – and the hunger for hope – “Redesigning the Academy” offered us an opportunity to air our grievances, reflect on our shared purpose, articulate our values, and imagine how things could be otherwise.
We began the semester by situating our learning space and situating ourselves as learners, acknowledging where we learn from. Then, as we familiarized ourselves with our syllabus – the ostensible map or program for our work together – we denaturalized this bureaucratic document by examining the syllabus as a genre, and by interrogating our choices regarding what to include: what makes the list, what and who get cited? We then welcomed Chad Wellmon, Andy Hines, and Rachel Buurma to speak with us about the academy’s deep, global legacies and genealogies; and, the following week, we surveyed higher education’s persistent challenges: from managerialism to technocracy to adjunctification.
After a few weeks of cataloguing challenges, we began to consider strategies for repair or revolution: we talked about complaint and protest, decolonization and abolition. We looked, too, at consultants’ neoliberal proposals for educational reform. Then we welcomed Kameelah Janaan Rasheed, Caroline Woolard, and Eli Meyerhoff to join us to discuss the building of para-institutional schools, under-academies, and intentional learning communities. By mid-semester, as we started to shift our attention toward our final projects, we organized a few thematic lessons: on fields and disciplines, on academic gatherings and intellectual hospitality, on teaching and learning, and on evaluation. We also invited the class to propose a few sessions; they expressed a desire for one that gave us an opportunity to reflect on readings and ideas from throughout the semester that powerfully impacted us, and another that allowed us to explore alternative learning spaces and outdoor pedagogy. For the latter, we visited Little Island and assessed its potential as a platform for interdisciplinary learning.
Then, at the end of our journey, we workshopped and shared our final projects, which I’ll summarize below. A few of our colleagues asked that their work not be shared.
[Amanda is still developing her summer course; I’ll add more later.]
Anya, a learner, teacher, and Liberal Studies student, used our class to support her thesis project, “Lessons at the Kitchen Table,” which “explore[s] the kitchen table as a site of resistance and a portal (one of many) to the Undercommons.” She looks at storytelling practices, music, dance, art, food, and poetry as “language(s) of the Undercommons and modes of resistance in the face of a restrictive Academy.”
Ayo, an anthropologist and design professor, is examining the lack of public discourse and public pedagogy about slavery and its aftermath in Nigeria, focusing in particular on “the presentation and interpretation of the transatlantic slave trade in contemporary Nigerian museums.” Ayo’s about to begin his fieldwork this summer, and he’s exploring the use of VR as both a research repository and a pedagogical tool in schools and museums.
Cheenar, a transdisciplinary designer, surveyed classmates about what they believed was undervalued or discredited in the academy – and her project turned into an investigation of the aesthetics of method: how we design instruments to elicit feedback or assess understanding. She ultimately found that her respondents lament the academy’s undervaluation of collaboration and community-building, sustainability, diversity and inclusion, real-world experience, and alternative – especially outdoor – learning spaces.
Clemente, an anthropologist, explored the historical and cultural associations between the color red and evaluation in educational contexts. He works through evolutionary biology, archaeology, and various art-historical traditions to help us appreciate red’s both innate and learned resonances; examines its deployment in the standardization of education and its associations with error; then explores, through interviews and design experiments, how red could be “freed” to carry other associations and functions – to embellish, to dialogue, to celebrate.
Cori, an anthropologist, reviewed dozens of “how to survive grad school” guides and tips on #AcademicTwitter, conducted a survey (to which 60 people responded!) and interviews, engaged in auto-ethnograpy, and collaborated with several classmates to create a zine that shares some of the “unwritten rules” of grad school and fills in gaps she found in much of the official guidance.
Elizabeth, a glaciologist, is creating a syllabus to introduce participants to climate science through science fiction. We learn about things like the carbon cycle, glaciers, gravity, and weather through various fictions – from literature to architecture – and projects “intended to apply, deepen, or reframe the scientific concepts.” Elizabeth is designing the course – still a work in progress! – as a “virtual garden tour” wherein “pictures of gardens, forests, minecraft creations, and virtual spaces connect subjects cyclically and thematically.”
Gabby, a fashion designer and anthropologist, has been working for years to think more critically about fashion as an anthropological practice. With the goal of infusing more cultural and political sensibility into design education, Gabby has developed an intensive course – “Towards a Politically-Informed Approach to Fashion Practices” – for Parsons fashion faculty. It’ll be offered this summer!
Grace, an anthropologist and former college admissions worker, engaged in auto-ethnographic research, participant observation, and interviews to understand the politics of the admissions process. She created a set of detourned application materials – annotated application forms, admissions websites, and transcripts; critical commentaries on letters of recommendation and school profiles – that showed the systems of privilege and impoverished measures of accomplishment that drive admissions, as well as the work of various advisors and advocates within the system that seek to understand each applicant as a whole, complex person.
Helen, a sociologist, focused on alternative learning communities – specifically, Chinese makerspaces. Her final project, a field statement for her PhD, explored the Maker Movement in China as a social movement “at the edge of the capitalist world system” and aimed to understand how “state intervention and capitalist constraints come into contact with individual aspirations for self-fulfillment and collective resistance against capitalist realism through technological empowerment.” She proposes that, rather than a radical social movement, the Maker Movement is instead a “techno-utopian idea and techno-political imaginary that has emerged [amidst] the malfunctioning of industrial capitalism.”
Marc, an anthropologist, developed a proposal for the College of the Great Imaginary, a school that offers a liberal arts education through performance. Marc not only designed a curriculum wherein students pursue a liberal arts education and professional/technical training through performance-based arts; he also put some of the core principles of the school into action by emphasizing equitable employment and a sustainable business model. His bibliography is quite impressive. Marc invites potential collaborators to reach out!
Meera, an urban designer, used our class to develop her Master’s thesis, which sought to establish connections between arts, health, and community development; she also proposed a model for fiscal sponsorship that would support community development through health-focused art practices. For our class, she focused on mutual education: how artists, health workers, and community developers and activists can understand and support their shared interests.
Miko, a creative publisher and critical journalist (from the CPCJ program), created a syllabus for a middle school class about standards – from systems of classification to gender roles to engineering standards. Yet Miko also ensures that students are critically reflecting on the presence and power of standards – workloads, systems of evaluation, community agreements, expectations for collaboration – in their own learning environment. Miko created an extensive collection of lesson plans and activities, but I’ll share here his expanded pitch deck and lesson plan outline.
Radhika, a transdisciplinary designer, acknoweldged that various cultural, personal, historical, political, and situational factors inform how students can and do “participate” in class – so she wanted to expand our understanding of what counts as participation, which in turn prompts questions about what we’re actually measuring or encouraging when we insist on “participation” in the first place! Radhika’s realm of inquiry is expansive, but she decided this semester to focus on how individual and collective note-taking can foster and evidence engagement and participation.
Ramon, an anthropologist, began constructing the scaffolding for a lager project, “Reparative Worldmaking in the Abolitionist University,” wherein he examines what it means to approach abolition as a constructive project, consider the role of – and potential for – worldmaking within abolitionist anthropology, and build networks with like-minded folks. Thus far, Ramon has built upon the work of many predecessors in cultivating a powerful vision for the Abolitionist University, and he’s begun creating a “speculative syllabus” for “Reparative Worldmaking.”
Sebastián, a transdisciplinary designer, created a toolkit for “liminist,” transdisciplinary thinking. As he describes it: “This curriculum is aimed at offering a combination of theories, methodologies, and frameworks that facilitate this transdisciplinary conversation, or even more, that empower people to navigate the vast waters of knowledge with greater versatility: either to dive to different depth levels within specific issues, or to weave connections between the plurality of perspectives available on the same problem; or to contrast the conditions of opposite poles and levels of scale;… or simply to travel freely and pleasantly between the contents and learnings of one continent and another, between the spectrum of the known and the unknown.” He interviewed four liminist thinkers, who shared their own conceptual maps and methods.
And Shanshan, a transdiscplinary designer, sought to respond to the increasing neoliberalization of higher education by embodying some prevalent critiques in the form of speculative objects – and then selling them in an online shop, the neo/academy. As she writes: “Objects often get created out of people’s unmet desires; they can convey ideologies and tell stories. I chose to transform the critiques as well as desires in higher education into fictional products and services, calling attention to the metaphors behind them.”