Learning to Teach

CUNY program trains grad students to teach at 2-year colleges -- where the job market favors those who understand the mission.
September 7, 2006


It’s the way of the world in graduate school: Doctoral students might be teaching assistants, but they typically receive little instruction on how to teach. When they do, the training is often institution-specific, which can do Ph.D. candidates at research universities little good since they are picking up experience at places where they might never teach again. 

“We train to replace ourselves and do little to talk to the students about all the [teaching] options," said William P. Kelly, president of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the doctorate granting institution of CUNY.

Many students at top-tier universities have designs on returning to teach where they taught as a graduate student. But, as Kelly noted, the jobs for fresh Ph.D.'s are more often found these days at community colleges than at research institutions.

In an effort to provide its graduate students with training that isn't normally part of the graduate curriculum, the Graduate Center is working this fall with another college in the system, Queensborough Community College, on a pilot program where five graduate students learn about community college pedagogy at the college.

Kelly said the program is intended to give the cohort a look at the challenges facing new instructors. Eduardo J. Marti, president of Queensborough Community College, said he would like to see an increasingly well-credentialed pool of teachers. “If we create strong faculty to go to community colleges, people will see value added,” said Marti, who is in the midst of a plan to revisit the role of two-year colleges within academe. (An audio interview with Marti can be heard by clicking the above link.)

Kelly said community colleges don't just want the moonlighting high school teacher or the Ph.D. who is hoping for a four-year job -- they are coming to expect more candidates to hold higher degrees and be prepared for the academic environment. While most community colleges require a master's degree and some teaching experience, CUNY only hires those who have a Ph.D. or an equivalent degree, or who are working toward one within five years.

Students at the Graduate Center regularly teach classes at CUNY colleges, Kelly said. The new program, called “Interdisciplinary Graduate Teaching Practicum: Thinking Through Practice: Community College Pedagogy in the 21st Century," is a more formal arrangement. The first five students this semester -- in the psychology, history, art history, English and math disciplines  -- will receive academic credit from the two-semester course, taught by two Queensborough Community College associate professors of English.

“Our goal is to institutionalize pedagogy, so that when a student leaves, he will be able to say he is an expert in [a particular discipline] and in what it means to be a scholar in the classroom," said instructor Peter M. Gray, co-director of Queensborough's The Writing in the Disciplines/Writing Across the Curriculum Program

Both Gray and co-instructor Belle Gironda, director of the college's Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning, said they are interested in providing students with an understanding and appreciation of teaching at community colleges -- even if the students do not become faculty members at two-year institutions.

Kelly, the Graduate Center president, said the program is intended for students who are serious about community college teaching. “We’re not looking to attract students who see this as a stepping stone,” he said. “We’re not making them sign an oath in blood, either.”

In the first semester of the course, participants study and research pedagogical theory, and discuss community college classroom management. Sessions include “Identity of the Community College” and “Language Diversity in the Classroom.” Students develop syllabi, and discuss issues such as how to teach in a classroom where numerous languages are spoken. The group will create a research project addressing the ways that English as a Second Language students work through their education after they have tested out of ESL classes and are in general education classes.

“The demographics of this campus are where many other [two-year colleges] are going in the next few years,” said Mark McColloch, Queensborough's vice president for academic affairs. About 50 percent of students there speak a language other than English in their homes, he added.

During the second semester, cohort students will teach a course at Queensborough in a field that is close to their graduate discipline. Practicum instructors plan to periodically sit in on the classes, and the students will be able to watch each other teaching. Throughout the year, students are asked to update blogs that speak to their experiences in the program and in the classroom.

Mary Taylor Huber, a senior scholar at  the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said staging this pilot program at CUNY makes sense, because the system has the full spectrum of institution types in one geographic area.

“To the extent that students in graduate schools are unfamiliar with community colleges, it becomes harder for them to make a choice to teach there,” Huber said. “There might be misinformation about the kind of teaching they would be doing, the quality of students there and the quality of their colleagues. Helping new Ph.D.'s gain experience with community college students, and helping them get to know faculty at those institutions seems to me the most important aspects of the program.”

Huber said the CUNY program is helping to address a concern that is also targeted in the Preparing Future Faculty program, which allows primarily doctoral students to observe faculty life at many of the places where they are likely to start their careers.   

Julia Wrigley, associate provost at the Graduate Center, will be meeting regularly with students and monitoring the program, which is budgeted for three years. CUNY is putting more than $100,000 per year into the project. Students receive a $16,000 stipend, and a travel and research account, Wrigley said.

Kelly and Queensborough Community College are also collaborating this fall on a conference at Queensborough for the college's faculty to learn more about the type of pedagogical research happening on campus. Kelly is the keynote speaker. 


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