The Extraordinary Educators of the SEEK Program

Insurgent Knowledge: The Poetics and Pedagogy of Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich in the Era of Open Admissions is a wonderful dissertation, soon to be book, written by CUNY grad Danica B. Savonick. This post is based on her work.

In 1965, CUNY established the Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge Program (SEEK) to recruit and prepare “economically and educationally disadvantaged” students to matriculate at City College. SEEK provided students not only with free tuition and free books, but also a stipend that addressed the material conditions of students’ lives beyond the classroom.

By 1968, four extraordinary women were teaching basic writing classes for SEEK down the hall from one another. Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, and Adrienne Rich all taught for SEEK in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These writers/activists/teachers shared a belief in the teaching of writing as a transformative, political, and creative process.

Lorde, Jordan, Bambara, and Rich observed how students who entered the university through SEEK at first distrusted them, and how many had been mistreated by previous educators. All of them saw the oppressive dynamics inherent in traditional classroom set-ups. They shared a fundamental respect for their students, and they understood that many of them had been disempowered in previous classrooms. They listened to students and changed their approaches to teaching based on what they heard. They sought to be allies for their SEEK students, not saviors there to liberate oppressed students.

Together, they experimented with how the classroom might be a space of collective social change. Together, they explored how education can contribute to building a more just and equitable world. They believed in the transformative power of education and saw how their teaching could contribute to the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the movement for Black Power.

Lorde, Jordan, Bambara, and Rich created a collaborative environment for teaching and writing. They exchanged syllabi, lesson plans, and assignments and sat in on each other’s classes. They deliberately researched and invented teaching strategies that would help working class students, first-generation students, and students of color. Their groundbreaking collaborative work at SEEK has had a profound impact on the teaching of writing, and is now considered of great theoretical importance.

“I teach myself in outline,” Notes, Journals, Syllabi, & an Excerpt from Deotha, is a collection of Audre Lorde’s teaching materials from her time at CUNY.

June Jordan: “Life Studies,” 1966-1976 includes texts from her time at SEEK.

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