Tell us about how your career in higher education began. What struck you as particularly rewarding? What strikes you as some of the most challenging aspects, looking back?
I first began working in higher education as a masters student in English Literature at Brooklyn College. I had entered the program with the intention of becoming a high school English teacher. My father was a history teacher and my mother was a school social worker, so it seemed natural for me to continue in the family business. But then I began working at the Brooklyn College Learning Center and teaching English and composition courses, and I fell in love with college teaching. I enjoyed, in particular, working with CUNY students who bring such a wealth of experience to the classroom.
As a new teacher, I faced a lot of challenges. There were huge differences in my students’ prior educational experiences and preparation. Some were NYC kids, while others had recently immigrated to the United States. I quickly figured out that I needed to learn about the range of students’ prior educational experiences. My students were great teachers on this subject, and it was fascinating to learn about the differences in how writing is taught at different types of schools, such as public schools, yeshivas and parochial schools, as well as in different countries. I was also lucky to share an office with 30-40 other adjunct instructors. We constantly traded advice, success stories and commiserated on our mis-steps.
My experience at Brooklyn College led me to pursue my EdD at Teachers College, where I studied teaching and learning in higher education. I came to see how much of my experience as an adjunct, and that of my students, is missing from the research on teaching and learning in higher education. Right now what happens in college classrooms is largely a black box. We know that faculty have a variety of preparation, and that the majority are now adjuncts, but we know very little about what faculty actually do as teachers, or their understandings of their students as learners. To build understandings of teaching and learning in college today requires, at least in part, entering the classroom as researchers. Only then will we gain insights into the actual practices of teaching, and how to improve them to better serve our students.
Your research covers three main areas: professional learning and development; classroom teaching; and inclusive learning environments. Can you tell us about each?
I see the three areas of my research—professional learning, classroom teaching, and inclusive learning environments—as three parts of addressing a larger question of how to support students learning and development in college.
In studying professional learning, I seek to understand how faculty, leaders and administrators in higher education learn within their work. I have found, just like in other professional fields, this learning can include technical skills, larger conceptual understandings or new understandings of concepts first encountered in school or outside the work place. And, just like in other fields, such learning is strongly tied to the particular place they are working—the institution, the department, the division, etc.—as well as their particular role in that context.
Faculty’s classroom teaching is one such context that I believe warrants particular attention. In studying this subject, I aim to develop understandings of how college teachers learn to teach, and what they learn about teaching, their subject matter and their students within their work. While this is well researched question in K-12 education, there is comparatively little research on this subject in higher education. The question then becomes, how can we then take insights from K-12 research and adapt them for college classrooms?
One key element of such adaptation is bringing the idea of inclusive learning environments to higher education. A key insight from the learning sciences is that all learning is built on prior knowledge; we can only learn new material by building on or challenging, what we already know or believe. Today’s college students bring a wealth of prior knowledge to the classroom. They are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age and prior schooling. The opportunity and challenge for faculty is to identify their students’ knowledge and build bridges between that knowledge and the subject matters of their courses. College faculty, who are experts in their disciplines, are uniquely capable of discovering such connections if there is time and space in their classrooms for such inquiry.
Within my research, all three of these areas often converge. For example, for my dissertation study, I examined how adjunct faculty learn to teach, and what they learn about teaching through teaching general education courses at institutions that serve a diverse student population. Through interviewing adjuncts and observing their teaching, I learned that absent the kinds of support that full-time faculty members can receive, adjuncts may support their own growth as teachers in three ways: (1) by reflecting on their own experiences as students; (2) by learning from their students about their students’ identities, the subject matter they are teaching and their students’ socio-cultural understandings of that subject matter; and (3) by talking with and listening to their faculty colleagues. I chose to focus on adjunct faculty because they are such a significant population of teachers today. In expanding this work, I am bringing similar questions to the work of tenure-track faculty, whose work has been strongly shaped by the increased reliance on adjuncts.