From Theory to Practice: Learning How to Teach the Humanities

Combined Photos V2.pngFrom left to right: Emmanuel Nartey, Professor of Philosophy, LaGuardia Community College; Anton Kociolek, Doctoral Student, Cultural Anthropology, The CUNY Graduate Center; Kaysi Holman, Director of Programs and Administration, CUNY Humanities Alliance

The gap between theory and practice is seldom wider than it is in the classroom.

Anton Kociolek, a doctoral student in cultural anthropology at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, will attest to that. Kociolek is one of nine 2017 CUNY Humanities Alliance Fellows. The Alliance, founded in 2016 with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a two-year program designed to help prepare graduate students to teach in community colleges while strengthening interest in the humanities among students. As community colleges make up a greater component of our higher education landscape – they comprise half of all undergraduates in the United States – this program could help shape the next generation of humanities scholars.

At the Graduate Center, Humanities Alliance fellows like Kociolek are assigned faculty mentors at CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College, one of the nation’s leading two-year campuses. They absorb successful methods for teaching humanities courses starting with shadowing mentors in the classroom. Fellows spend invaluable one-on-one time strategizing on class preparation and making adjustments during the semester. Additionally, they attend professional development seminars covering everything from constructing syllabi to setting up student blogs. LaGuardia students benefit directly from the program; In fact, by the spring 2018 semester, nearly 900 will have taken classes where Humanities Alliance fellows teach as adjunct instructors providing additional guidance and sharing insights. 

Kociolek says the experience has honed his teaching ability. He started by shadowing a section of a critical thinking class taught by his mentor, philosophy professor Emmanuel Nartey in the fall of 2016.  During the spring and fall semesters of 2017, Kociolek then worked alongside Nartey to prepare to teach sections of the course, then led two class periods incorporating ‘semiotics’--a topic from his own discipline--to anchor the sessions. He choreographed how the class would spend time examining public signs and symbols, and the underlying messages they impart. Nartey, meanwhile, was there to provide plenty of support behind the scenes from reviewing Kociolek’s syllabus to sharing tips on how to craft a lecture.

Gail Mellow, President of LaGuardia Community College, on the skills and experience the faculty at LaGuardia Community College bring to their students and mentees.

For Kociolek the task at hand required not only keeping 60 students intellectually engaged and willing to share their views. He faced an additional challenge, one that is common to community colleges nationwide: Students came to Nartey’s class from very disparate academic backgrounds, some ready for the rigors of a college-level course, while others struggled throughout the semester to catch up. Kociolek says that called for a balance--between opening up challenging material while providing the right kind of support for students.

Thirty minutes into a stimulating lesson, Kociolek faced a dreaded moment of silence. He had just asked students what possible conclusions could be drawn about a passerby wearing a New York Mets cap and uniform. The students didn’t make a peep. “I had the confidence to conclude on the spot that even if we were minutes from Citi Field, it was clear no one in my class liked baseball,” he recalls. Kociolek pivoted in a blink to basketball instead and suddenly, things were back on track. By putting into practice what he learned through the CUNY Humanities Alliance, he was able to connect meaningfully with his students. 

Other Alliance fellows describe similar moments that eventually molded their own style and personality in the classroom. They frequently say that observing their mentors in action was a process as equally valuable as their own hands-on teaching experience. Kociolek was struck by Nartey’s balance between authority and kindness while addressing students or encouraging their participation in class. Jonathan Kwan, a fellow whose mentor regularly had her students laughing, knew better than to try to match her quip for quip. But he found other qualities he could emulate. “He was struck by how incorporating step-by-step guidance was appreciated by both first-year students and those who had been at LaGuardia before,” recalls Humanities Alliance program director Kaysi Holman. Kwan noticed that his mentor paired academic assignments with guidance on how to approach librarians and find services on campus. The observation made him a sharper and more compassionate educator.

Mentors say the benefits have been symbiotic for faculty, fellows and even students. Nartey, who has been teaching for 10 years, says working with Kociolek opened his eyes to new subject matter he’s eager to try out in the near future such as semiotics and symbolism as well as linguistic nuances like metaphor, analogy and allegory. Joni Schwartz, a professor of speech communications, said working with two fellows gave her the opportunity to reflect on and articulate her class setup and approach to pedagogy. What’s more, the fellows are energizing the classes they help teach with an infectious enthusiasm. Holman says mentors and fellows have inspired classes of first-year students to learn about Cubism at the Museum of Modern Art. Others have invited local authors to visit and share their viewpoints.

In what may be the greatest testament to the success of the CUNY Humanities Alliance thus far, Holman reports that mentors regularly remark on how the Alliance could have made their own career paths easier. “Exposure to other faculty’s syllabi and pedagogy clearly makes a big difference,” she says. “But most striking is how some mentors wish they’d been encouraged to use their scholarly expertise in the classroom or apply their own research to course design earlier in their careers.”

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