By Félix V. Matos Rodríguez
Like universities across the country, CUNY has worked intensely these past six months to keep our students on track for graduation despite the unprecedented obstacles of the pandemic. It’s the technical challenges of teaching and learning from a distance that get most of the attention, but we are just as focused on helping our faculty become more effective teachers — and our students, better learners — in ways that have nothing to do with laptops, digital platforms or video conference apps.
In the education world, the word for this is pedagogy: How teachers teach, how students learn and what methods and approaches have proven most effective at elevating student achievement and outcomes. It’s a recognition that teaching is an art, a science and a craft. That consideration is one of our key priorities at CUNY — a way to both boost student success and support the invaluable resource that is our faculty. Improving and innovating our teaching strategies was front and center before the coronavirus, and we haven’t let the scramble to put courses online throw us off track.
CUNY students began the fall semester this week, and the vast majority of their nearly 50,000 course sections — 98 percent — are being delivered virtually. They will surely benefit from the work their professors, their campuses and their university have done to adopt instructional practices that put a priority on the needs of online learners. For obvious reasons, much of the professional development training we have offered to faculty in recent months has focused on the improvement of distance learning. But that effort is part of a bigger project at CUNY that will far outlast the pandemic.
Studies have supported the notion that improving pedagogy can make a significant difference in student success. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, but this should: Most college faculty undergo almost no professional development to build these skills, or to improve their teaching methods, while in graduate school. It’s just not something that universities have traditionally emphasized as much as they ought to. I began my career as a history professor and taught for many years, and whatever training I got in pedagogy was not something promoted by the University. That is why I have prioritized a long-term series of initiatives to fill a demonstrated need.
At the top of the list is the CUNY Innovative Teaching Academy, which will serve as a hub for professional development and the vibrant exchange of ideas for new approaches to student engagement and success. Last year, we forged partnerships to launch several pilot projects for the academy aimed at helping faculty master best practices for both online and in-person teaching.
For starters, we are teaming with the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE) and the National Association of System Heads (NASH) on a 25-week program in which 300 faculty from CUNY senior colleges will be trained in practices that improve student achievement and close equity gaps. This fall, another 420 faculty will be trained and credentialed in online teaching methods that focus on areas such as creating an inclusive learning environment, inspiring inquiry and designing learner-centered courses.
More recently, we announced a $10 million gift from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that includes $2 million to train humanities faculty in ways to make their classes more participatory and prepare students for a world that requires collaboration, communication, analytical reading and cross-cultural thinking.
We hope the Innovative Teaching Academy will become a national model.
The pandemic has required us to focus our professional development efforts on training that helps our faculty improve student engagement and foster an inclusive, encouraging instructional atmosphere in the online modality. It’s been an all-hands-on-deck effort this summer to provide programs with noted experts and partnerships with other academic institutions.
Leveraging the expertise of the CUNY School of Professional Studies, a longtime national leader in online degree programs, CUNY created online developmental workshops for more than 2,000 faculty members across the system to improve their online instructional practices. I’m confident that the benefits will be apparent, and that they will be just one part of our long-range commitment to improved teaching.
We’ve been confronted this year by enormous challenges to our broad educational mission, and to our specific efforts to help our students complete their courses, earn enough credits each semester to graduate on time and pursue careers that will allow them to climb the economic and social ladder. But even as health and budgetary circumstances remain uncertain, CUNY’s commitment to improving student outcomes and supporting our faculty is unwavering.
After all they’ve endured in coping with the challenges of the pandemic, our students, faculty and staff deserve nothing less.
Félix V. Matos Rodríguez is the chancellor of the City University of New York, the nation’s largest urban public university, serving over 500,000 students of all ages in seven community colleges, 11 senior colleges and seven graduate or professional institutions. Visit cuny.edu.