Trickle Up

VineI’ve been busy this month with a variety of activities worth blogging about: the CIRTL Network MOOC on STEM teaching, the De Lange Conference on the future of higher education at Rice University, and this weekend’s THATCamp unconference at Vanderbilt. Perhaps I will blog about these experiences, but for now I’d like to share a few quick thoughts on Cathy Davidson’s new project, the Futures Initiative at the City University of New York (CUNY).

I recently listened to an interview with Davidson on Inside Higher Ed’s This Week podcast, where she described her plans for the first year of the Futures Initiative, which focuses on a graduate-level course taught by Davidson and former CUNY interim chancellor William Kelly. The Spring 2015 class will help 15 graduate students from across CUNY’s colleges and schools adopt innovative teaching practices in the courses they teach at CUNY in the spring. (Apparently, many grad students at CUNY are instructors of record for undergraduate courses. At Vanderbilt, this is true in some departments, mostly in the humanities, but not true across the board.) These 15 graduate students will teach a total of roughly 300 undergraduates, and so, as this Inside Higher Ed piece puts it, “the trickle-down effect of the laboratory environment will be immediate.”

I strongly support the idea of providing graduate students (and postdocs) with professional development opportunities to enhance their teaching skills and to put those skills into practice in the classroom. At the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching, we have almost 60 graduate students and postdocs in our Certificate in College Teaching program and another 15 grad students from the humanities (where, as I noted, they do a lot of teaching) in our new Mellon Certificate in Humanities Education program. Then there are the 1600 or so graduate students and postdocs from around the country participating in the CIRTL Network MOOC on STEM teaching I mentioned above. Because of their participation in these programs, these graduate students will be better prepared to teach effectively both at Vanderbilt and at the institutions that hire them as faculty.

That said, I think Cathy Davidson buried the lede in that Inside Higher Ed podcast interview. After the first offering of this grad course on innovative pedagogy by Davidson and Kelly in the spring, other faculty at CUNY will be invited to teach sections of the same course, each working with another 15 graduate students who are teaching at CUNY. That’s where there’s potential for transformation at CUNY! The limitation of offering teaching development opportunities to graduate students is that most of them leave after a while. The teaching they do while grad students is certainly important, as is the preparation future teaching they’ll do at other institutions. But if you want to change the teaching culture of a university, you have to involve those who will be teaching there for years to come — the faculty.

It’s too early to tell how many faculty will be involved with Davidson’s program or what effect involvement will have on their own teaching or department teaching cultures. But the idea of partnering graduate students with faculty to help faculty experiment with new ideas in teaching has merit. It’s one of the core principles behind our BOLD (Blended and Online Learning Design) Fellows program, funded by the CFT, the CIRTL Network, and Vanderbilt’s Institute for Digital Learning. The program, led by CFT assistant director Cynthia Brame, helps faculty-grad student teams from STEM disciplines develop online instructional modules, typically for “blended” use in on-campus courses at Vanderbilt, grounded in good course design principles and our understanding of how people learn.

The graduate students involved in BOLD learn a lot about course design and develop a project they can talk about when on the job market. The students in the target courses benefit from new, well-designed learning activities. And, most important for enhancing teaching long-term at Vanderbilt, the faculty involved also learn something about course design and have the opportunity to experiment with and assess online teaching practices. Outside of our School of Nursing, which has more than a decade of experience with distance and online education, Vanderbilt has very little history of teaching online. Through the BOLD Fellows program, we have half a dozen STEM faculty (a mix of tenured and non-tenure-track) exploring new practices in blended teaching and learning. The “trickle-up” effect of this program has the potential to improve the student learning experience at Vanderbilt for some time to come.

(Applications for the spring BOLD Fellows cohort at due November 14th. For more on BOLD, see this fantastic video the CFT’s educational technologist, Rhett McDaniel, created. End of advertisement.)

I’m drawn to the idea of institutional change, and I’m glad to be in a position at Vanderbilt where my colleagues and I can contribute to positive changes to the university’s teaching culture and resources. I wish Cathy Davidson all the best in making a system-wide difference at CUNY.

Image: “Vine,” by me, Flickr (CC-BY-NC)

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