Could we flip the fellowship, or Why are we doing this in year 5?

I just started my Writing Across the Curriculum year at City Tech and I love it. I’m getting taught how to teach. Specifically, how I can use writing to promote critical thinking, without the extra grading load. How I can move from a lecture-centered course to an assignment-centered course (Bean, 2011). Thanks to WAC, I’m working towards becoming a “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage” I’ve apparently been (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991).

Although I’m grateful (very grateful), I wonder, why now? I’ve been teaching at CUNY for four years. Until now, I received zero formal pedagogical training. Instead, I was sent two example syllabi and that was it. To infinity and the wolves. No one wants to disappoint, so four years later my “pedagogy” consists of a grassroots hodgepodge involving many conversations with colleagues, self-organized workshops, Teaching and Learning Center support etc. My inner socialist points out now that much of this training went unpaid because it came out of my own initiative and, therefore, my own time but in any case: Can’t we do it differently?

Of course, we can. No one thinks that training teachers how to teach is a bad idea. But, the struggle is in the implementation. Initially, I thought that WAC was a great contender to provide this much needed pedagogical background. All we have to do is move WAC from year 5 to year 1 and – poof – future teachers don’t have to self-scramble pedagogical skills. A central issue with this idea is the variation within WAC program execution. Each campus has defined their own set of goals when filling out the WAC Fellowship. Therefore, although my fellowship has a pedagogical focus, this may not be the case for other positions. This variation is detrimental to the goal: Training teachers to teach and the solution being moving WAC.

So if not WAC what then? There is the Teaching and Learning Center. Apart from individual consultations they offer all kinds of workshops. Although I have personally benefited from the support the TLC offers, relying on them to provide the necessary teaching background is naive. Graduate students would have to add this search for pedagogical self-improvement on top of their other responsibilities. Plus, I expect the occasional workshop won’t do the trick. But, the TLC also offers an entire course on pedagogy to graduate students. This course is also worth zero credits. Nonetheless, had I known about this I might’ve actually considered taking it – thinking back about all the hours I spent just figuring it out – and that’s how this problem persists.

The problem being: Although everyone agrees that providing pedagogy 101 to future teachers is a good idea, it’s not a priority such that implementation of this idea has been successful. The thought of shifting WAC has been expressed before. Most recently, one of my fellow CityTech Fellows mentioned it in our WAC WhatsApp group (specifically: “also, this bean book is great! i wish i had it when i was actually teaching”). More formally, this thought is expressed in a ten-year review of the WAC program at CUNY: “… there is a greater need for professional development of Enhanced CUNY Fellows prior to their fifth year of the fellowship” (Aries, 2010:26). The review was published ten years ago, yet here I am, doing WAC in my fifth year.

Similarly, although the Teaching and Learning Center has been lobbying for a required, credited course on pedagogy (keywords underlined), they didn’t get that far. Some of the push-back is coming from PhD programs themselves, not wanting to give up a program course in exchange for the one on pedagogy. So, although I don’t criticize or invalidate the TLC’s work, they are currently yet another helpful resource graduate students have to go out and locate.

There’s a compelling tragedy in a problem that everyone agrees is important, but nevertheless persists. I don’t have a solution either other than raising it every so often, like in this blog-post. Hopefully, we make some moves by continuing the discussion. I know that there were plans to reevaluate WAC again before COVID hit. Also, the TLC itself is a relative new resource and their Summer Institute and the zero-credit course are all steps in the right direction. No one thinks training teachers is a bad idea, but until we hash this out, we clearly think it’s an acceptable idea to send unprepared teachers into the classroom.

Aries, N. (2010). Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY: A Ten-Year Review. City University of New York.

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (1991). Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4. Washington, D.C.: George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.


2 Replies to “Could we flip the fellowship, or Why are we doing this in year 5?”

  1. I really appreciate Iris taking the time to raise this issue so thoughtfulls. I completely agree that there is something out of joint in the implementation of the CUNY-wide WAC initiative as it is currently structured. Like Iris, I found the exposure to WAC principles and pedagogy incredibly informative and genuinely felt that it gave me a set of concrete tools and strategies to better encourage and foster my students’ growth as writers. I was fortunate enough to have been introduced to John Bean during an optional teaching seminar offered by my department, and then took time on my own, as Iris did, to try and develop some sense of grounding philosophy and practical strategies for how to teach. I spent significant portions of each summer trying to educate myself about WAC principles and critical pedagogy in the absence of any formal training, and when I re-encountered Bean during the fifth year of my fellowship, I felt a similar sense of frustration. Why had we not been given this opportunity earlier? By providing pedagogical training to fellows in such a post hoc fashion, CUNY not only saddles its graduate students with the burden of teaching themselves how to teach; it also undermines the objectives of the WAC program at large, by contributing to a situation in which more classes are taught by people who have no formal instruction about how to integrate writing into their courses.

    On the surface, simply switching years 1 and 5 of the fellowship offers a compelling solution. Doing so would give fellows pedagogical training prior to their placement in the classroom and there doesn’t really seem to be much of a drawback to having fellows work as research assistants in their fifth year instead of their first. Nonetheless, I have a few hesitations about doing so. From a practical standpoint, however, there is probably little appetite at an administrative level for such a large shift and creating an opening for change risks exposing the fellowships to the austerity politics that seem to be rampant within the CUNY administration. It also overlooks another issue within the structure of the WAC program.

    In addition to the temporal backwardness of the fellowship, I have also felt that there is an unfortunate irony in the structure of the Doctoral Fellowship, insofar as we are asked to do the labor of training more senior faculty in pedagogy that we ourselves were never given the opportunity to put into practice. Individual WAC programs within the CUNY system have also recognized this issue and some have adapted accordingly; at Kingsborough, WAC fellows are writing tutors and faculty consultants while the WI certification is carried out by the coordinators, and here at City Tech the coordinators now certify the fellows before asking them to certify faculty. These solutions help alleviate some of the internal tensions in the WAC program itself, but a much better solution would simply be to give fellows an opportunity to learn about and implement writing-to-learn pedagogy in the four years before they are expected to teach it.

    All of Natalia’s suggestions are excellent ideas for how to address the issues raised by Iris, and also would serve to attenuate my concerns about the internal logic of the certification programs. Each of them offers an opportunity to expose graduate students to WAC pedagogy early one, before they are expected to teach students or train faculty. Moreover, they also address the issue of equity, which is crucial since an increasing number of PhD students to not receive the doctoral fellowships and MA students often teach as adjuncts to help cover the costs of their tuition. The primary impediments seem to me to be a lack of political will and the relative organizational decentralization of the CUNY WAC program. While neither of these is insurmountable, Iris’s point that the problem has been identified for over ten years suggests they are sufficiently large obstacles to make any solution that requires institutional transformation unlikely. The development of a required course (that would presumably have to be offered by each department) and the creation of a “WAC pedagogy month” would both entail a substantial revision to the current structure of the program. And given that WAC programs are supposed to serve their respective campuses and the GC is already seen by many campuses as a resource burden, I could envision some difficulties and turf wars.

    In contrast, I think that Natalia’s second suggestion — a mini certification program (or just a series of introductory seminars/workshops) — would be entirely feasible. There is already a structure in place within the WAC program that might serve as a vehicle for implementing trainings to first-year graduate students along the lines of Natalia’s suggestions: the CUNY-wide WAC Professional Development Days. These offer three day-long opportunities for implementing a WAC seminar series aimed at training graduate students in the basics of WAC principles. Funding, an organizing committee, and an institutional inertia already exist. And in my own view, I think the days often don’t live up to their full potential as currently structured. Redirecting them to focus on first year graduate students would not only do a service to CUNY students, but would also benefit the respective WAC programs since the seminars would essentially serve as trainings for future WAC fellows. The first seminar would have to be led by WAC coordinators, since (at least in its first iteration) the fellows would not have the expertise to provide the instruction or facilitate the workshops. But the subsequent professional development days could be opportunities for fellows to develop a structured way to share WAC-inspired teaching strategies and tools for implementing write-to-learn pedagogy.

    The issues raised by Iris in this post are so important and I think the solutions suggested by Natalia merit serious consideration. I firmly believe that the Professional Development Days offer a uniquely feasible opportunity to implement them.

  2. Thank you for this blog post, Iris. I think you raise a really important issue here. WAC pedagogy is a wonderful movement that teaches those who teach how to teach more effectively (i.e., how to use writing as a tool that facilitates students’ learning and in so doing how to transform their classrooms into active learning environment). WAC fellows get such a unique opportunity to work with professors to help them on this endeavor, and in doing so, WAC fellows benefit along the way by learning those same things and applying them to their own courses that they do or did (and likely will again one day) teach. But the WAC fellowship comes so late in the game that we spend the first five years of our PhD program teaching and wondering if what we are doing are really the most effective teaching practices. Not to mention, it’s really only a few lucky grad students that get the unique opportunity to be WAC fellows anyway. So what about the rest? When do they get to learn how to teach effectively, with writing as a big component that encourages active learning in their classrooms?

    As you say, a 10-year review of the WAC program at CUNY, published a decade ago, pointed out the problem that we need the professional development we’re getting as WAC fellows way before the final year of our PhD programs (when many of us aren’t teaching anymore anyway). And as you so wisely pointed out in your last sentence, given that we’ve still done nothing to fix this, “we clearly think it’s an acceptable idea to send unprepared teachers into the classroom.” What a powerful statement and so true. We aren’t doing anything to fix it, so although we may not like the idea, we do indeed think it’s acceptable.

    Thinking about this problem led me to reflect on three potential solutions. Here they are:

    1) What if we inserted a “WAC pedagogy month” somewhere in graduate students’ first or second year, before they start teaching? One way to do this is to add it to one of the early foundational courses that everyone takes. Many programs have a general seminar in the first year for their students. For example, my program in Health Psychology & Clinical Science, has a “Foundations” series that is graded on a pass/fail basis and runs all throughout first year, second, and third, where we discussed general issues in our field and brought in speakers to discuss them as well. As I reflect on your blog, I suddenly wonder: Would such a space be a valuable place to introduce the incredible WAC pedagogy learning we get in our fifth year? What if, in such a space, there was a dedicated monthlong (4 session) period focused on effective teaching practices? Could there be weekly assigned readings of the Bean book, just liked we did in our introductory professional development month as WAC fellows?

    2) Another idea: What if just like we train professors, we were to train graduate students? What if WAC programs had a mini four-week introductory (or even certification) program for graduate students? WAC fellows could be paired with graduate students who are about to teach and who are interested in learning how to teach effectively, and guide them through the WAC pedagogy basics.

    3) A probably less popular idea: What if WAC pedagogy was a required add-on course for graduate students? But what if it was done in such a way that it didn’t actually add much work but rather, it scaffolded the work they’d be doing to prep to teach their first class anyway … so in the semester before their first course, which is perhaps when students are starting to prep to teach their first course, the grad students about to teach watched the videos and did the readings, paired with a WAC fellow and did that for course credit?

    What if? I wonder if it is something to discuss with our WAC coordinators … stay tuned. 🙂 In the meantime, thanks for this valuable blog, Iris.

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