Teach@CUNY, Teaching on the CUNY Academic Commons

Teaching American Politics on the Commons

Photo by Mattia Panciroli: http://bit.ly/2wWQVxz

By Jennifer Corby

Prior to joining the Kingsborough faculty, I worked as an Instructional Technology Fellow with the Macaulay Honors College. This position had two primary duties. The first entailed working with students and faculty to create projects and experiences that helped students connect course material to their own experience of the world. This experience led me to redesign and rethink my own courses, and to develop assignments that better met the needs of my students.  The second was to work with faculty members to create websites for their classes and projects using WordPress. I knew that I wanted to incorporate this aspect into my classes, too, but when I arrived at Kingsborough, I hit a few stumbling blocks that prevented me from making the transition. The first, and the biggest, is that unlike Macaulay, Kingsborough doesn’t have its own WordPress installation (and all the support that comes with it). With a new position and a heavy teaching load, deciphering hosting questions, and beginning from scratch with plugins and themes was all a bit too daunting. That’s why I was so excited to discover the CUNY Academic Commons, and the CAC fellowship.

After a semester, I can say that I’m still excited about the possibilities of WordPress, and committed to the importance of the Academic Commons. I’ve learned a lot about my students and their needs that I otherwise wouldn’t have, and I’m really grateful for the experience. Nonetheless, this learning experience was an occasionally painful one!  There are a few reasons for this, and my hope is that sharing my experience will help shed light on the diverse needs of students and faculty, as CAC continues to expand its mission.

One external factor that played a large role for me is the uniqueness of the community college schedule and workload.  Of course, the senior colleges are greater in number, and have a more standard calendar, so it makes sense to organize CAC meeting and training with this in mind. However, because community colleges start so much later in the spring semester, I found it difficult to complete the course design in step with the group because my schedule was still changing. Ultimately, I had to change the plans I’d initially made in our meetings as my course assignments changed. Of course, this has nothing to do with CAC. But I think it might be a good idea going forward to have the fellowships in the Fall semester, when the colleges have a similar schedule, and the summer affords more flexibility for planning.

One hurdle that I ran into that is more directly related to the Commons is the nature of the install. I was expecting a platform that functioned like Macaulay’s ePortfolio system, and I found the group v. site function inhibiting. I decided to only create a site for my class instead of a group, but found that this prevented some of the key functions I wanted for the class, like posting lecture slides or having them post presentations to the site. I decided to only create a site because I thought that the group would be too confusing for students. I was unable to book time in a computer lab, so I decided to stick with the two-step process of creating an account and joining the site.  However, I encountered technical problems, as 8 out of 25 students were unable to create a commons account with their KCC email, and plug-in glitches made joining the site difficult.  I received amazing fast help from the CAC team, who worked to resolve these issues, but it made the roll out uneven and discouraged some students. Going forward, I will definitely trouble shoot with a student account much earlier, and prioritize booking time in the computer lab to make sure that problems are more immediately identified and to make sure everyone is on the same page. I will also ask for a password to allow students to sign up with a non-CUNY email address ahead of time. In my experience, most KCC students don’t use or even know what their CUNY email address is, and that created problems for some.

After the hiccups of the first couple of weeks and a few other buggy plugins, the class developed a nice rhythm. I primarily used the site as a forum for them to post weekly responses to contemporary op-ed articles relating to the week’s theme (e.g. civil rights or congress), and I think the students enjoyed being able to informally reflect on these topics.  This semester was a particularly difficult one for teaching American Politics, and there was a palpable unease in many of my classes. However, I believe the class site helped to ease this tension for students, as they responded to one another and put faces to names (their first assignment was to upload a picture to their profile, which worked out great).  I was initially worried about keeping track of how many reflections and comments students posted, but the reckoning plugin made it a snap!

The other really successful use of the site was to make extra credit participation more visible. The course material can be very challenging, and so I’ve always offered students opportunities to earn additional points. But in the past, students have only shared this with me.  The website made it possible for students to post their pictures and stories about visiting Federal Hall, finding a specific painting at the MET, or going to a town hall meeting. Not only did this make it easier for me to keep track, but more importantly, students could learn from the experience of others. I also borrowed Laurie’s great idea of setting up a Q&A forum, and offered extra credit to anyone who answered a question about the class before I did. This too was a win/win!

All in all, I think my first attempt at using the commons was a successful one. I wasn’t able to accomplish all of the things I initially wanted, but I can see now that some of that was just being too ambitious. I still hope to utilize the platform for peer editing, for example. Some of the obstacles seem to be technical—I scrapped the idea to have students post their final letters and projects to the site because most of the formats are prohibited.  But this was a great first step. I look forward to continuing to work with CAC, and would welcome any opportunity to learn more from the awesome people at the Commons.

Jennifer Corby is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Kingsborough Community College.

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