As part of a new initiative to foster more inclusive learning environments at Columbia, the Center for Teaching and Learning has created positions for undergraduate students to serve as paid learning consultants, a role that will allow six sophomores and juniors across Columbia College, the School of General Studies, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science to directly participate in discussions with faculty about inclusive teaching and students’ learning experiences in the classroom.
Founded in 2015, the CTL provides voluntary workshops, orientations, and teaching consultations for faculty and graduate students with the aim of giving Columbia’s teaching community the tools necessary to create better learning environments. CTL also offers programs like “Workshops to Go,” which provides faculty with customized sessions relevant to student understanding and engagement, as well as teaching observation fellowships, which create graduate student cohorts to assess and reflect on classroom teaching. In 2017, the CTL also released its “Guide for Inclusive Teaching,” a report that outlines five principles for faculty to incorporate more inclusive teaching practices in their classrooms. Columbia was the last university in the Ivy league to establish such a center.
Through the initiative titled Students as Pedagogical Partners, students will be responsible for sharing personal perspectives about the experience of being a Columbia student, consulting with faculty on syllabi and planned activities, contributing to online resources featured on the CTL website, and helping to create teaching workshops for faculty that will be offered in spring 2020. The dates for these workshops will be decided once applicants are chosen, according to Amanda Irvin, director of Faculty Programs and Services at CTL.
“This initiative is, in many ways, a new direction for us because in the ways that we support faculty directly, we don’t service students directly. This is partnering with students to transform the teaching and learning culture at Columbia,” Irvin said.
According to Irvin and Suzanna Klaf, the associate director of faculty programs and services who helped spearhead the program, the consultant position was created in line with opportunities at other schools that allow students direct input on faculty teaching styles.
CTL has offered initiatives that involved student voices in the past, such as in the initiative “How Do You Learn Best?”, where the center collected student responses to share with faculty, and Thank-A-Prof, where students send thank you notes to their professors and teaching assistants. Neither initiative involved coordinated, continued communication between students and faculty.
“With this initiative, we’re gauging the needs of learners in the classroom and the faculty who are teaching these students. A lot of it is creating space for these two systems to talk to each other, so we’ll start there,” Irvin said.
For students, the ability to provide input and communicate with faculty about effective teaching practices can significantly impact their engagement with classroom material.
“Feedback is super necessary from students because whether or not a teacher is going to be more or less ignorant has a direct impact on a student’s life. If a teacher is completely unaware and behaves defensively towards someone’s culture or background this directly impacts them,” Sophie Craig, CC ’23, said.
Angelica Dzodzomenyo, CC ’23, also emphasized that through student perspectives, faculty can understand how much cultural awareness is in a classroom environment affects students coming from various backgrounds.
“I think it’s important because you never really know a professor’s personal background or if they’re used to dealing with people of color or the multitude of different students we have here,” Dzodzomenyo said.
Students have expressed concern over the lack of opportunity to engage with senior faculty regarding inclusive teaching practices, particularly when they feel uncomfortable if insensitive comments are made in the classroom. Though the CTL offers programming on inclusivity for faculty, none of the opportunities are mandatory, and historically see low rates of participation by senior faculty—many of whom occupy roles as department chairs and are more heavily involved with decisions about curriculum.
In response to a question regarding how the new program will attract the participation of more senior faculty, Irvin said that plans are under development as the program is still in its pilot phase. The initiative also does not currently have official partnerships with faculty or departments, though there has been faculty interest, according to Irvin.
She also noted that faculty participation has increased overall in the past year: The 2018-19 annual report released by the CTL shows that a total of 1,660 faculty members were served by the office, a notable increase compared to the 1,096 served last year. Conversely, 1,162 graduate students reported engaging with the office this year as opposed to 1,220 last year.
This year, in conjunction with the provost’s office, the CTL announced the inaugural class of senior faculty teaching scholars, who will work with the CTL in building community among faculty through outreach planning and workshops, in addition to proposing a project that has a broad and sustainable impact on teaching and learning at Columbia that goes beyond a single course or curriculum.
According to astronomy professor David Helfand, who also sits on the provost’s faculty committee on educational innovation, senior faculty remain a hard demographic to reach for these programs, as they focus predominantly on their research responsibilities. Additionally, he added that unlike junior faculty, who are given teaching feedback through course evaluations that are used in tenure evaluations, senior faculty often exempt themselves from workshops because they feel they have the necessary experience.
“There are some senior faculty who are very engaged and active in their departments. So I’m not saying that there are no senior faculty involved. But there appears to be a general sentiment that you can’t tell them what to do. So you can ask them, coax them, but you can’t tell them what to do,” Helfand said.
Instead, Helfand noted that one way to engage more senior faculty members was for departments to request CTL workshops, thereby bringing those initiatives to faculty as opposed to having faculty seek them out individually. The CTL reported 78 workshops requested by different schools and departments in their last annual report.
Applications for the paid learning consultant position close on Nov. 6.
Karen Xia, Clay Anderson, and Katriel Tolin contributed reporting to this article.