The Ways COVID Changed Teaching at CUNY for the Better
From confronting the “archaic way we test our students” to using digital archives, Graduate Center students and faculty share how the pandemic spurred new ways of teaching.
By Bonnie Eissner
It has been two years since the COVID-19 shutdown in New York City. While some aspects of life and work are resuming their previous rhythms, others have taken on new dimensions. In the spring of 2020, when CUNY switched to remote learning, faculty had to pivot to new ways of teaching. Some found that the new methods were highly effective. Several Graduate Center faculty members and Ph.D. students spoke to us about how they’ve changed their courses for the better because of COVID.
Teaching through the pandemic has left me marveling at the strength and resilience of our students even as it has made me more conscious of the challenges they face on a daily basis. Our students arrive in our classrooms caring for loved ones, working exhausting jobs, and finding social ties frayed. As a faculty member, I've always sought to create community in the classroom, but especially now, with so much pain all around, it's vital work but also sensitive work — students want and need to connect to each other and to our readings, but there is much that they can’t or won’t share. I've been trying to be as flexible as possible on deadlines and to give students the time and space they need to complete their work. I'm trying to help them keep academic life in perspective and to keep them moving forward towards their degrees.
During spring 2020, as the pandemic first hit, my Knowledge Infrastructures class and I decided to devote the remainder of our semester to a project we called the CUNY Distance Learning Archive, which sought to document CUNY student experiences during the early days of the virus. We collaborated with the CUNY Digital History Archive to publish three exhibits on the crisis: “The Shutdown: CUNY Responds to the Covid-19 Pandemic,” “Teaching and Learning During the Time of Covid-19,” and “#CutCOVIDNotCUNY.” I encourage readers to check them out.
While COVID-19 has presented many challenges for teaching, there are also opportunities. For my course on America’s World's Fairs, we turned to digital archives so my students could continue to work closely with primary source materials. Working with Mina Rees Library Archive Librarian Donna Davey, students were able to identify online resources for their research papers. It is extraordinary how many historical photographs, souvenirs, posters, and primary source documents, such as the official guides or the official histories of the fairs, have been digitized. Thus, even in a time when libraries have been closed or access has been more limited, the digital collections have enabled my students to continue to do original and innovative research.
This is my 28th year in education and I am really enjoying finding new and different ways to engage with my students, many of whom are current and aspiring school leaders. I received a Doctoral Curriculum Enhancement Grant for my hybrid course, Creating Racially Just Schools, and we open each class with a song. The tunes span the genres from jazz to R&B to rap. Each song is a vehicle for instruction as it captures the socio-political consciousness of a particular moment in our nation’s history. Moreover, the course syllabus is a living document that reflects student interest. Based on weekly feedback and in conjunction with the Center for the Humanities, we created a speaker series that is open to the public and brings together leading Black women scholars and educational leaders.
Teaching online compelled me to confront the archaic way we test our students: giving them a limited time to answer a rigid set of questions with known solutions while forbidding them from using the myriad resources available to most people with the swipe of a finger. Of course, many students couldn’t resist the temptation to commit academic dishonesty. My colleagues recorded vast numbers of exam solutions purchased by students in real time from online subscription services. More importantly, what were we assessing anyway? Certainly not anything that’d make students more capable than a search engine.
I wound up giving open-internet exams. Students could use any resources as long as they cited them, but they could not interact with any other person about the exam during the test period. They wrote and signed an honor statement agreeing to follow the letter and the spirit of the rules governing the exam. Then came questions that required them to think, to synthesize, and to assess problems in real time. Here’s an example:
“Add 10 to the last two digits of your phone number. Write a two-part question appropriate for this exam regarding the orbital motion and material properties of a newly discovered solar system object at a distance of that many astronomical units away from the Sun. Then answer both parts of the question. You will be evaluated on both the appropriateness of the question and the correctness of the answer.”
The exams were only slightly more time consuming to grade than traditional exams, and the results were far more satisfying. The variety of ideas expressed, the different ways students approached each question, the thought-out answers — right or wrong —helped me see much more clearly what each student knew and understood about the course material. The responses also reminded me of why we’re academics and students in the first place. We ask questions and solve puzzles with all the resources and skills at our disposal because we’re curious and it’s fun. The open-internet exams convinced me that we can indeed assess our students’ learning effectively and fairly, even when we’re in separate spaces. More importantly, students can get more out of taking exams if we professors write them right.
I’ve always been a fairly flexible teacher. I expect students to determine the investment they are willing and able to make in our course and am prepared to meet and support them wherever they are. Since the pandemic hit, I’ve done more individual and collective checking-in to make sure students have what they need to find their way through our work together. I’ve tried to reassure them that I understand how difficult it is to be a graduate student right now, that I’m invested in their success and in working with them to figure out what that looks like.
I’ve also become better at embracing silence in classroom discussions. It’s not always easy to let a question just sit there in the air for 10, 30, 60 seconds or more. I’ve come to trust that when I or someone else in the class asks a question and nobody speaks up right away, it’s because people are thinking. Eventually, someone says something. Students appreciate having time and quiet to gather and share their thoughts.
Olivia Wood, English Ph.D. candidate and Graduate Center Teaching Award winner (2021)
The biggest way my teaching has changed since the pandemic is that I give my students a lot more choice and flexibility in how they want to engage with our class. The only assignments for which there’s a penalty for lateness are first or second drafts and peer reviews, since those are cases when timeliness impacts other people beyond the student and myself. I also ask students to choose between two different grading plans for themselves, based on their needs. I presented on this at the Bronx EdTech conference last year, and it’s been going very well. My students report that they feel more respected, less stressed, and more motivated to take responsibility for their own learning.
Karen Zaino Urban Education Ph.D. candidate and Graduate Center Teaching Award winner (2021)
During the pandemic, I have been inspired to redesign courses with trust as the organizing principle. I’ve learned from disability justice scholars, abolitionist educators, and digital pedagogues how the suspicion of students pervades much of the teaching act through surveillance and punitive evaluation systems. Trusting students requires that I organize class around the assumption that students are always doing the best they can. I set deadlines and provide detailed assignment descriptions because structures work for many students, but I try to be clear that the purpose of these various structures is supportive, rather than punitive: We can collaboratively redesign our work together as needed. This approach is not without tensions. However, in my work with pre-service and in-service teachers, I have found that honest discussions about the benefits and limitations of various pedagogies, including pedagogies of trust, support students in developing their own teaching philosophies.
Melenia Giakoumis, Biology Ph.D. candidate and Graduate Center Teaching Award winner (2021)
Teaching, like most everything, has been quite a different experience during the pandemic. I teach a biology lab course for undergraduates, which was difficult to translate to a remote experience as it usually involves many field trips and four-hour in-person lab activities. To keep the students engaged I implemented many active learning strategies, such as polls and small breakout groups. This was a difficult time for both faculty and students; we were all going through a scary and stressful situation. Many of my students contracted COVID, and several had family members who were very ill or passed away. The most important strategy for me was to be open and empathetic to my students’ concerns and difficulties. All of us knew this was an unprecedented situation, so regularly reminding the students that they should be proud of the work they were doing during that time was a much-needed boost for them. Voicing my own stressors and fears also opened the door for many of them to be honest about their difficulties and allowed me to make accommodations for those who needed them.