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Teaching in These Times: The TLC’s Guiding Principles for the Academic Year

Cover art for Thelonious Monk, Underground

Cover art for Thelonious Monk's 1968 album Underground

By Luke Waltzer

We’re now a month into the Fall 2020 semester, and those of us teaching at CUNY have developed a clearer understanding of the challenges we face. If there is a consensus, it’s that teaching during the pandemic is difficult and exhausting, yet the work remains vital and necessary. Traumas compound on top of one another, in our daily lives and interactions, in the news and politics, in the various ways those who hold power in New York City fail to meet the needs of its inhabitants, or inflict violence upon them. The coming election is a fulcrum in our national story, and for those whose work is about making a world that’s more just, equitable, and free, how that work unfolds in the immediate future is very much on the ballot. We continue to live in a country where too many reject the simplest of truths: that Black Lives Matter, and that masks save lives.

This context is shaping the new and different ways in which we work. Effective teaching centers are successful not only because of the expertise they house, but also because of their capacity to initiate and sustain communities of practice, to raise and keep alive questions about educational praxis, and to reflect and challenge institutional cultures. As a team at the TLC we’ve been balancing uncertainty and restraint about capacity to engage — both our own and that of the faculty and students that we serve — with deep commitment to the work. In these first few weeks of the semester we’ve focused on finding new workflows, building community and collaboration within our group, and articulating goals for the academic year, given what we do and do not yet know.

We’ve answered a lot of questions from Graduate Center students and faculty about maximizing what one can do with Zoom, about building out teaching spaces on the CUNY Academic Commons, about structuring online meetings, and managing workload and expectations. We’ve heard from those who only teach synchronously, those who’ve designed asynchronous classes, and everything in between. We’ve also heard the desire for spaces for connection and reflection, the need for practical guidance to make our classrooms more functional, and the hope for guidance in making sense of our moment. We’ve had conversations about the ways in which white supremacy pervades our institutions and disciplines, and what the Black Lives Matter movement means for those teaching the Black and Brown working class New Yorkers who have long been at the core of CUNY’s mission.

These principles have helped shape the themes upon which we’ll focus this academic year.

Abolitionist Pedagogy
Many educators have been inspired by the organizing and activism that intensified early in the summer in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others. While conversations about abolitionist pedagogy have been happening for quite some time, they have taken on additional acuity over the past few months. In the past the TLC has hosted programs on socially conscious and culturally responsive pedagogies, educator positionality, and decolonial approaches in the classroom. With the leadership of TLC Fellows Talisa Feliciano, Chy Sprauve, Atasi Das, Sakina Laksimi-Morrow and TLC Coordinator Cristine Khan, we will continue and deepen that work, looking specifically at questions of carcerality in the college classroom, restorative approaches to evaluation, the transferability of activist and liberationist pedagogies to CUNY classrooms, and the relationship of abolitionist principles to STEM education.

Care and Social and Emotional Wellness
The vast majority of educators are not therapists or clinicians, though at the same time care work plays a significant role in many pedagogical approaches. Much of the guidance the TLC has offered since the pandemic hit New York City in March has originated from a place of care and compassion for what CUNY students are going through. At its simplest, this work urges faculty to take extra care to avoid decisions that might increase student anxiety or that might be punitive. We’ve believed that our primary goal as CUNY faculty these past months has been to keep our students engaged and cared for.

What do these principles mean now as our context evolves, and as the communities we serve face not only an ongoing pandemic and emboldened acts of state violence, but also increased surveillance? Much work has been done in the area of trauma-informed pedagogy and social emotional learning in both k-12 and university settings, and this work has new relevance in our moment. TLC Fellow Miranda Fedock will be working to distill some of this scholarship for engagement by GC educators in a series of dialogic programs that collect experiences and reflection among those at CUNY thinking about these questions. Chy Sprauve’s work on ritual and community in the college classroom and Sakina Laksimi-Morrow’s exploration of the meaning of “access” will also move our understanding about what care looks like at CUNY forward.

Connection and Sense Making
The complete shift at CUNY to distance education has impacted not only how we work, teach, and learn, but also how we connect. Before March social connections were woven into the fabric of our day, ranging in formality from greetings in the hallway to meetings and working sessions that took all sorts of shapes. Now, much of it happens intentionally, scheduled through Zoom, and often with set structure. We’re all working in new or changed spaces, in different (if more comfortable) clothes, and with different sounds.

Teaching and learning is built upon social foundations, and if the underlying material reality of those foundations have shifted, it follows that the nature of the teaching and learning is impacted. TLC Fellow Fernanda Blanco Vidal and a number of collaborators on the team are developing a series of projects and events to help us document, reflect upon, and better understand how the rapid shift in working conditions has impacted our orientations, our mentality, and our sense of connection to our work and to one another.

Student-Centered and Active Learning
While some GC educators have the autonomy to reshape the structure of their fully-online courses, others are required by department, program, or circumstance to teach in a specific mode, sometimes with large class enrollments. Each of these decisions, along with several other factors, impacts educators’ capacity to enact student-centered and active learning strategies with their students. TLC Fellow Inés Vañó García will lead a series of programs that will help us better understand how students are experiencing online learning this semester, and to surface guidance and strategies for GC educators who want to experiment or refine their practices along the way, or in the subsequent semesters.

Ethical Educational Technology
In the spring, much of the rapid transition to online learning was done by any means necessary. Even then, significant questions arose around CUNY’s rapid adoption of educational technology tools, specifically the remote proctoring software some faculty desire using to manage online tests as well as the privacy implications of a massive shift to Zoom as the video conferencing software of choice. These questions persist into the new academic year, as faculty and the university work to ensure and refine access for all learners across a range of platforms and tools. As evidenced by a petition in defense of student privacy that garnered more than 27,000 signatures at CUNY, students are attuned to these questions as never before. What do the overlapping layers of surveillance made easier by the technologies we use to do our most basic work mean for the political commitments of scholars and students working in a city designated as anarchistic by the federal government? How can we, as educators, help each other and our students navigate these questions in an informed and empowered way? TLC Open Educational Technologist Laurie Hurson, with Atasi Das and Talisa Feliciano, will help us think about the ways in which we continue to refine how digital tools are used in our teaching at CUNY while heightening our awareness of the privacy and data use policies of our decisions.

Common across these programs is the desire for space to reflect upon what we’re experiencing as committed educators, scholars, and citizens. These projects will interrogate how power structures what is possible in our institutions, and aim to increase GC educators’ capacity to realize liberatory practices in our classrooms.

We assume that the spring semester will be mostly if not entirely taught online, and also that significant budget cuts and structural changes will soon hit the university. We expect additional trauma. The TLC is committed, in this troubling context, to advocating for and protecting spaces for GC educators to find guidance and community to reflect upon and refine their teaching. We will continue to offer practical advice via our Twitter account and Visible Pedagogy, and through other programming to come, and we will keep helping new GC student instructors prepare for and adapt to teaching in these times. Please be in touch, and join us in this work.

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