By Inés Vañó García
For my first post in this series, I would like to talk about my experience using the CUNY Academic Commons, which I did for the first time with my Spanish Heritage Language class at Lehman College this fall. Previously, I had used Blackboard in my courses without considering alternative platforms. Even though the majority of language classes require textbooks, I have always tried to make available to students a dialogic space where they could extend their participation, and continue discussions and debates freely.
I became familiar with CUNY Academic Commons (CAC) through my Interactive Technology and Pedagogy certificate (ITP) courses as a graduate student at The Graduate Center. Since it is a WordPress platform, I immediately felt that it was a more user-friendly site and, above all, easier to navigate. Therefore, as soon as it became available for teaching CUNY undergraduates, I knew I wanted to incorporate it into my classes.
I am aware that full-time faculty from different CUNY campuses—including members of last year’s CAC Faculty Fellows program—have already shared their experiences here, but I want to highlight my own positive and rewarding experiences with the Commons as a graduate student instructor, and offer some practical tips for other graduate students teaching as adjuncts and who are interested in incorporating the Commons into future courses:
- Be transparent and honest with your students. Experimental pedagogical practices go both ways, for the instructor as well as for the students. Communicate with your students and let them know that you are trying something for the first time; together, you are going to be learning how to take full advantage of this platform. In my case, I asked students about their experience using the site on my mid-term evaluation, and received very positive feedback. So, my excitement may have been contagious!
- Don’t make assumptions about what your students can or can’t do. The majority of our students are familiar with social media tools and use Facebook, Instagram, and/or Twitter on a daily basis. However, don’t assume that they are familiar with how to use blogs and other digital tools. For example, 80% of my students blogged for their first time in my course. For this reason, it’s helpful to do a “skills check” early in the semester to assess prior knowledge and experience, and also spend some time in class discussing how to interact digitally. As instructors, we can also emphasize that these students can use these tools for digital scholarship in other coursework and throughout their careers.
- Familiarize yourself with the site and its resources. How is the Commons different from a personal WordPress site? Learn about the digital tools that can be integrated with the platform, or which are already installed and ready to use. It can seem overwhelming at first, but make sure you spend time examining these tools (from event calendars and announcements to Netflix and Pinterest widgets) and ask yourself how they can be useful for your teaching practices. For example, this semester, I have incorporated Hypothes.ys, an annotation tool that has allowed my students to discuss the readings in more depth, has generated discussions from more critical perspectives, and has increased participation.
- It is not going to be easy-peasy: be ready for some failures! With new technology you will definitely encounter complications and difficulties, but do not feel defeated. Know that there are people to there to support you. The Teaching and Learning Center (TLC) has a team of graduate fellows able to assist you and give you advice on a range of topics including the Commons. I consulted the TLC staff at almost every step of the process, from setting up my course, to trouble-shooting problems. With the help of TLC staff, I now feel better equipped to handle and figure out these obstacles myself.
Finally, don’t forget that there are many people behind this project. The Commons team keeps working to revise and enhance the platform—often in response to feedback from its users. I hope that my experience encourages other graduate student instructors to incorporate the Commons into their classrooms, or at least to consider it. Even if your technical and digital knowledge is very basic (like mine was!), don’t be afraid to update your pedagogical practices. The Commons community is waiting for you!
Inés Vañó García is a Ph.D. student in Latin American, Iberian and Latino Cultures at the Graduate Center and a Humanities Alliance Graduate Fellow. This is her first post as a contributing writer to Visible Pedagogy.