This section introduces some of the defining principles, values, and commitments that inform this handbook and, more broadly, the Teaching and Learning Center’s approach to supporting new college teachers. Our work is grounded in a commitment to making college classrooms equitable and inclusive spaces for students and faculty alike. As a document written with students from more than thirty doctoral programs in mind, the principles discussed here are broad and flexible, aimed at solidifying a foundation upon which effective teaching can happen across various contexts.
The TLC’s work is grounded in the histories of pedagogical innovation that have emerged in dialogue with the CUNY experience. Our work is built in explicit alignment with CUNY’s mission to educate the “children of the whole people,” and with liberatory approaches to education more generally.
The Graduate Center was founded in 1961, a decade before the era of open admissions expanded access to CUNY for Black and brown New Yorkers. Around the same time, Paulo Freire published Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which first appeared in English in 1970, and which has become the core text of the critical pedagogy movement. His reflections on consciousness-raising, problem-posing, and liberatory pedagogies inform our vision of the CUNY classroom. Other scholars—several of whom taught at CUNY in the era of open admissions–built upon or expanded Freire’s insights. bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress updates and challenges Freire’s take on critical pedagogy to incorporate lessons from feminist praxis and Black movements for liberation, and helps us envision classrooms where notions of authority are challenged and the whole student is engaged. Like hooks, feminist scholar-poet-activists Toni Cade Bambara, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and June Jordan also taught at CUNY. Their work, along with that of Mina Shaughnessy, help us more fully understand the rich linguistic and cultural contexts of CUNY’s classrooms, and to think about how the support of our students as writers and thinkers is directly related to the liberatory potential of a college education.
Other scholars at CUNY and beyond help us build upon the foundations from critical and feminist pedagogies above by considering the tools, methods, and technologies with which we teach. The work of Peter Elbow, John Bean, and other composition and rhetoric scholars has helped shape Writing Across the Curriculum and Writing in the Disciplines, a multi-generational movement that has infused CUNY’s classrooms with an understanding of writing as a process to facilitate thinking, meaning-making, and purposeful communication. For more than twenty years scholars have been thinking through how new digital technologies shape possibility in the classroom. Randall Bass’s Visible Knowledge Project, which included several CUNY faculty, saw in new technologies the potential to open for inquiry various learning processes, which could hold great promise for pedagogical reflection and refinement. Steve Brier’s work on a range of projects at CUNY has grounded discussions of digital pedagogy in the political economy of the university, with attention to its implications on labor, cultural and political identity, and the public good. And more recently scholars like Safiya Noble, Meredith Broussard, and Audrey Watters have provided powerful frameworks for critical engagement with the algorithmic and enterprise digital technology systems we adopt in our classrooms, raising crucial questions about bias, privacy, and transparency in institutional decision making. These systems and the decision to deploy them have pedagogical implications, a fact that has become clearer as the university’s work became almost entirely digital in the era of COVID-19.
In the past several years, abolitionist and decarceral activism and scholarship have influenced discussions in higher education about curricular change, access and inclusion, power, and the relationships of the university to the communities it serves. Much of this thinking emerges from the political work of students and scholars at the Graduate Center and elsewhere who, like those teaching at CUNY in the era of open admissions, bring a commitment to social justice and liberation to their work in and around CUNY’s classroom. Scholars, educators, and activists working in the Black feminist tradition, such as Mariame Kaba and Bettina Love, have provided language, guidance, and frameworks to help us adopt the critiques and methods from justice-oriented work to college-level teaching. These ideas ask vital, difficult questions about the systems of knowledge and power within which our curricula are designed and deployed.
Since its founding in 2015, staff at the Teaching and Learning Center have distilled these scholarly and activist conversations through the lenses of our own research and the programs we’ve designed to support GC students. This approach thus draws upon the labor and thinking of the hundreds of Graduate Center students and CUNY faculty who have flowed through the programs of the Teaching and Learning Center. We are deeply in the debt of the community we serve, and thank its members for pushing, trusting, and engaging with us.
What follows is our best effort to synthesize a set of principles from which new college teachers from dozens of disciplines can establish practices to make CUNY’s classrooms nourishing and potentially transformative spaces. Below, we introduce Context Aware, Responsive, Intentional, and Liberatory approaches for our teaching, foundational principles upon which the rest of the guidance in this handbook is built.
Effective teaching takes into account the context in which it is happening. At CUNY, faculty should enter the classroom with an understanding of the role the institution has played and continues to play in the life of the city, and within the communities CUNY serves. To understand our context, faculty should consider how students find their way into our classrooms, why they are there, and what they hope to get from the experience. We must understand that classes are located within larger curricula and systems, and also that the experience of the course also happens within the contexts of our students’ complex lives, as well as our own. This awareness of context also includes our disciplines, our relationship to its methods and histories, and our sense of responsibility for facilitating our students’ engagement with that work.
Some of the contexts listed above—about CUNY’s history, the demographic background of students at particular campuses, the role our course or discipline plays within our students’ broader experiences of the university—are knowable, accessible via the work of scholars, institutional research offices, or surveys we might give to our students. Other questions—about our disciplines and values, or the social contexts in which we do our work—are more complex, fluid, and subjective, and the answers to these questions may evolve with experience. No matter the starting point, considering context as part of a reflective pedagogical practice can enrich the experience of teaching at CUNY and beyond.
In addition to thinking about institutional situatedness, it’s useful for teachers to think about their own positionality and to develop habits of critical self-reflection as they embark upon their teaching. This is especially true for those new teachers whose backgrounds may be significantly different from the majority of students who attend CUNY, who hail from minoritized communities that are underrepresented in academia. Just like our students, we bring our own histories, biases, and bodies into our work. Self-reflection can help one better account for and articulate one’s own perspectives, values, decision making, blind spots, and feelings, and can help students better situate themselves within the learning process.
Throughout this handbook, readers will find models for what this awareness of context looks like in practice throughout the lifecycle of a course. For now, it’s important to realize that all teaching and learning experiences are embedded in complex social and cultural systems, and awareness of those systems can enhance the experience of being in a classroom for all.
To accommodate the contexts in which our students experience our courses, our teaching must be responsive. Responsive teaching aims to incorporate student feedback and acknowledge students’ needs while maintaining stability for yourself and the class, and respecting everyone’s time and commitments. This element of teaching can be a challenge, but becomes easier with experience.
To begin, we cannot assume our students’ relationship to the work of our fields is similar to our own. Students have many reasons for why they may enter our classrooms, and responding to rather than ignoring those reasons is more likely to create an environment conducive to learning. This does not mean creating forty sets of expectations for forty students; rather, it means acknowledging that students must be agents in crafting their own experiences if the course is to be meaningful. Collaborating with our students on creating structures of meaning and co-creating knowledge—what is often referred to as “student-centered learning”—can and should be a core component of course design, regardless of discipline.
Our students are whole beings, with hopes, dreams, challenges, constraints, and histories. Recognition of their complex lives can enrich our courses if we take care to be inclusive. We must consider students’ wholeness when we are making decisions. The diversity of our students enriches our classrooms, and challenges us to see difference not as a deficit, but as an asset. It is our responsibility as instructors to ensure that the experience of the course is accessible to all learners, which often requires going beyond mandated accommodations. Responsiveness requires a recognition that there may be dynamics that affect a student’s ability to thrive in a course that are not documented and permanent, but contextual and unanticipated.
Frameworks such as Universal Design for Learning can provide teachers with a starting place for how to imagine and enact responsive and inclusive learning environments. Responsiveness, though, should be encoded into the course’s design and drawn through the whole experience of the course. The contexts and diversity with which we will be working as teachers will be unknown to us until we meet our students, and those dynamics evolve in real time as the course unfolds.
Adapting an approach to pedagogy that is socially conscious helps us enact such responsiveness. This approach subverts many hegemonic educational practices by mobilizing introspection as a vehicle for greater self-awareness. It requires us to unlearn restrictive knowledge constructs, to sharpen our awareness of power relations, and to cultivate an interest in and commitment to their destabilization. Socially conscious pedagogy also requires an awareness of how racism, sexism, ableism and other marginalizing forces impact possibilities in our classrooms, and a commitment to undoing these forces.
Approaching our classrooms with clear intent can make teaching and learning both more effective and easier to manage. At its simplest, when you are asked why you have made a certain choice related to your course—by your students, your colleagues, or a voice inside of your head—having a strong sense of what your intention was when you made the choice will give you a firm basis to respond. Fully thinking through how our decisions impact the students in our courses and our pursuit of our goals together can help us when we have to make difficult decisions along the way.
Most college students have come of age as learners in an educational system that presents its structures as though they were ever thus, that reifies the notion of standards as, if not ordained, at least blessed from some point on high. Many students have been discouraged from questioning the intention behind decisions related to their schooling. Some may even expect to be punished for doing so. We may have this feeling as teachers as well, and it’s important to remember that even mundane choices we may make to go along with or enforce policies that originate outside our classrooms are choices. As teachers, we can express intent by being transparent with our students about our decisions, and inviting them into thinking with us about the implications of the choices we make.
College instructors often have more freedom and flexibility than our colleagues in primary and secondary schools, and we have the opportunity to maximize the impact of this freedom by being clear with students about why we’re doing what we’re doing. Intentionality helps us answer the following questions: What role do grades and grading play within my course? How do I choose which readings and activities to include, and which to leave out? How do I structure classroom discussions, or scaffold assignments or skill-building exercises over time? How do I relay or determine with my students what rules and expectations govern our time together? How do my policies—and my interpretation of the institution’s policies—produce my students’ experience of the class, the discipline, and college itself?
Given the preponderance of models that exist, our own wells of experiences from which we will inevitably draw, and the very real constraints of teaching as contingent faculty members, it’s understandable to feel you do not always have the bandwidth to have a thorough, clearly-defined rationale for every decision that you make. But over time, as you become more experienced and resourceful as a college teacher, the habit of purpose-driven pedagogy becomes more natural.
Being intentional and transparent about your choices in the classroom—say, for instance, explaining the reasoning behind a constraint on an assignment, or telling students why you’ve made the decision to switch in new readings midway through the semester, or explaining with precision how students will be evaluated and why that choice is appropriate for your particular class—can help students more deeply engage with course material, and connect their learning to the goals of class, the work of discipline, and their broader college experience. Your intentionality and transparency signals to students that you respect them, that you value their engagement in the course, and that you seek to empower them as learners by inviting them to reflect upon and respond to how the course comes together. And it can help you as a faculty member to determine what’s most important to you within the experience of the course, which can guide your decision making when you need to refine or shift things.
A clear sense of one’s goals is crucial to establishing intent. This strategy is true at the macro level—when you’re proposing, planning, or refining the course—and extends down to the level of brief interactions with students in office hours, or responses to their questions in class. It is also true of your students, who should be invited to establish their own goals and intent within the context of the work you do together in the class.
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves, why do we teach? What is the relationship of the work we do with our students to their place in the world? There are many answers to these questions. Some are pragmatic—we need money, or our fellowship requires us to teach to move on within our programs. Those are legitimate answers. But they are starting points, and ultimately do not offer enough to sustain meaningful and rewarding careers in the classroom. These answers also treat the experiences and goals of our students as secondary.
As a new or inexperienced college teacher, it’s easy to assume that your teaching is about you, your place in your field, and your capacity as a scholar and a communicator. Your experience and feelings are certainly important and require tending to. Teaching, however, should ultimately center the experiences of students who have placed their trust and time and resources in the hands of an institution that has promised to transform their lives. That is to say: without learning, there is no teaching.
What, then, are our responsibilities as individuals within that compact? At the TLC, we believe that it is to construct classrooms as sites of liberation, where students may become more free to grow from the experiences and knowledge that we construct together. Approaching education as a tool in the pursuit of freedom requires students to be agents in their own learning, imagining that our work will ultimately increase all of our capacities to better shape our lives. It requires a student-centered approach, grounded in critical pedagogy, aspiring to help students and ourselves develop a consciousness that can lead to self-actualization.
As a standard for our decision making, asking if our choices are making our students more or less free can offer profound guidance in our development as teachers. Do our class policies ensure that students have every opportunity, no matter the complexity of their lives, to engage with course materials and their classmates? Are our assessment and evaluation strategies designed to help students grow towards deeper understanding and capacity within our disciplines given where they started and where they wish to go? Do we relay to our students through our language, tone, availability, and presence that we’re invested in their growth?
This standard extends to our choices about our curriculum and pedagogy as well. Do the materials and voices we select help our students see themselves, their lives, and their communities in relation to our fields? Are we structuring our class sessions in ways that invite students to build knowledge in dialogue with us and each other rather than to simply absorb information that we deliver? Are our assignments and activities built with our students and their goals and interests in mind?
These choices mean different things in different disciplines, which each have their own pathways to engage with and impact the world. There are, indeed, many ways to get free. Liberation is not a binary, a switch that can be flipped within one class. Rather, it is a process of assembling, integrating, and building knowledge. Our courses can help students do this, or not. Ultimately, at the Teaching and Learning Center we believe the experience of a college education can help students become more free in their thinking, their dreaming, their engagement, and in their conception of their place in the world.
Liberatory practices build upon the principles laid out above, and require context-aware, responsive, and intentional teaching. These principles resonate through the practical guidance that follows throughout this handbook and, we hope, will help readers strive towards rewarding, impactful experiences in CUNY’s classrooms and beyond.