This section offers information and tips on preparing for your first semester teaching. We begin with places and networks where you might want to seek support, offer suggestions about different preparation strategies, and how to imagine different aspects of your course before it begins. The section concludes with guidance for thinking about both accessibility and the use of educational technology in your course.
As you prepare for your class, it’s helpful to identify early what kinds of support you’ll have outside of the classroom. You can expect a range of support from the department and campus where you are teaching, and you can also tap into both formal and informal support networks. Many departments will provide you with answers to the questions below, though you will often need to take the initiative of seeking out this information yourself. The department secretary and department chair are usually the best places to start.
Departmental and Campus-Based Support
Desk space for adjuncts varies greatly across and even within CUNY campuses, so be sure to ask your departmental contact if you will have an office with space to store materials, hold office hours, and/or meet privately with students; you should also check to see if you’ll have access to a computer, photocopier, and printer. Another good question: Will you have a mailbox in the department? Will that mailbox always be accessible to students?
In some departments, printers and photocopiers are stocked with paper; at others, you’ll need to ask the department administrator for paper before trying to print or make copies. It’s also possible your department may request large print jobs (or any print jobs) be sent to a print shop. Your department may be able to supply you with some very basic materials, such as whiteboard markers, erasers, chalk, pens, and notepads, but it’s not guaranteed. Be sure to check before your first day, or bring your own supply.
Your department may have other resources that can assist you in preparing to teach your course. You might ask about sample syllabi and exams, instructional materials, proctoring support and free blue books for exams, or anything else you might imagine might help you in your planning.
Academic Support Services
All CUNY campuses offer a range of support for instructors and students. These services may include librarians who can work with your students to shape research projects, instructional designers who can support your use of educational technology, writing center staff who can help refine your assignments and work with your students on their papers, tutorial services focused within specific disciplines, offices that support students and faculty with disabilities, and other administrative units. Like most offices at CUNY, however, these units are often overextended and under-resourced, and the earlier you can integrate them into your planning for your semester, the better. For a list of such services by campus, see https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/navigating-cuny-2/
At minimum, you should be aware of what services your campus offers so that you can pass such information to your students via either your syllabus or other means.
Tip: If you have a disability be sure to reach out to the department in which you will be teaching and inquire about the services the institution might be able to provide. They may be able to offer support and resources for your classroom to accommodate you or your students.
In addition to the resources and services outlined above, another important source of support are your fellow educators: colleagues in the department where you are teaching, in your program at the Graduate Center, and across CUNY who can offer camaraderie, inspiration, and opportunities for collaboration. Consider sharing materials, assignments, and projects with other instructors teaching sections of the same course, or people teaching courses in other departments or even at other schools. Make it a habit to talk with your peers about their experiences in the classroom, and with faculty and staff at both the Graduate Center and the campus where you teach. Teaching can feel like a lonely enterprise, and it’s useful to remind yourself that you are part of a community of educators pursuing a shared set of goals.
The Teaching and Learning Center
The TLC is here to support you. We hold office hours and phone consultations, offer workshops and focused inquiry groups, sponsor experimental teaching through a grants program, and foster the development of the scholarship of teaching and learning within the CUNY context. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us to discuss any issue that is impacting your teaching; you can find all our contact information on our web site: http://cuny.is/teaching.
It’s always advisable to start planning for your courses early. That said, it’s not always possible to devote as much time as we might like to planning. Sometimes you might even be asked to teach a class a few days before the semester, or even after the semester has begun. Whatever your timeline, it’s helpful to keep what’s below in mind as you prepare your course.
Modes of Instruction
First, it’s important to understand what kind of course you’ve been assigned. CUNY offers various types of courses, and uses the following codes to designate how much online time you can allocate in a class. You may be told by your department that you’re teaching an “online” or a “hybrid” course, but students will see the codes below in CUNYFirst when they register for classes. Be sure that your understanding of the structure of the course matches the information that students are given when they register.
P = In-Person. No course assignments and no required activities delivered online. (Note: this designation does not mean that digital tools won’t be deployed in the course. You may still integrate educational technology into your face-to-face class)
This is the default mode of instruction when no other information is given to CUNYFirst about the course.
W = Web-Enhanced. No scheduled class meetings are replaced, but some of the course content and assignments, as well as required or optional activities, are online.
In practice, most courses probably fall under this category, but this needs to be clarified by your department and the registrar so that it can be listed properly in CUNYFirst.
PO = Partially online. Up to 32% of scheduled class meetings are replaced with online activities or virtual meetings. Between twenty minutes to fifteen hours of required online work per semester could replace time spent in the classroom.
H = Hybrid. Between 33% and 80% of scheduled class meetings are replaced with online activities or virtual meetings. Between twelve to thirty-seven hours of required online work per semester will replace time spent in the classroom.
O = Online. More than 80% but less than 100% of scheduled class meetings are replaced with online activities or virtual meetings. Between twenty-eight to forty-six hours per semester will replace time spent in the classroom.
FO = Fully online. 100% of scheduled class meetings are replaced with online activities or virtual meetings. All of the class work, including exams, is online.
Note that a major difference between O and FO is that in an Online class, the final exam can be given in person, but in a Fully Online class, the exam must be given online.
Most campuses offer additional support for faculty teaching in modes other than face-to-face. If your department tells you your course is being offered in one of these modes, ask them about resources for faculty in your position. Most importantly, keep the instructional mode in mind when you’re designing your course.
Creating, Adapting, or Receiving Your Course
The amount of freedom you have to craft your course will depend on the department and campus at which you are teaching. Figuring out whether you will be creating a new course, adapting an existing one, or receiving a course that’s been fully planned (perhaps as a teaching assistant) should be one of your first steps, as it will help determine how you might manage the balance between your work as a doctoral student and your teaching. Even if you are told you have complete autonomy in designing your course, it’s a good idea to ask if there are particular learning outcomes for your course and if it’s expected they’ll be included on your syllabus.
Creating a Course
When designing a course from scratch, you’ll need to budget time to consider how you will organize readings and assignments to satisfy the required learning outcomes. It can be helpful to consult fellow instructors and/or refer to previous syllabi used for this course or similar ones, as reviewing other people’s approaches can help you clarify your own. Planning a course from scratch is time consuming, but also an experience that every instructor should have.
Adapting a Course
You may be assigned a course that has certain required units, but that also allows you space to teach topics of your choosing. This should be made clear to you by your departmental contact. If this is not clear, then ask for clarification about what kinds of flexibility you have in the course.
If you are adapting the course from one previously taught in your department, then it’s a good idea to get a copy of the existing syllabus and reach out to any colleagues who taught it in its previous iteration. What worked and what didn’t? If they could change something, what would they change?
Receiving a Course
Some departments will require you to teach a syllabus that’s already set in stone, or that allows very little space for modifications. There are always reasons for situations like this, but many times those reasons are not made clear to part-time instructors. You should feel comfortable asking the department why the course is organized the way it is, and when the syllabus was last revised. You should read through the assigned readings and see if the logic aligns with your understanding of the discipline, or whether your approach to the topic is in tension with the one currently represented by the course.
If you are receiving the structure of your course rather than constructing it yourself, it’s important that you understand the implicit argument the course is making. If you disagree with the argument, you might raise your concerns with a trusted colleague at the Graduate Center or on the campus where you’re teaching, or on a visit to the Teaching and Learning Center’s office hours.
If you have been appointed as a teaching assistant for a course, you may have little say in determining the structure or contents of the course, but you can (and should) engage in dialogue with the instructor about the pedagogical rationale behind the course. Developing a strong, collegial relationship with this faculty member is important, and will allow you to ask questions that can improve both your teaching and your experience in the course.
CUNY’s classrooms are famously diverse. In the same classroom you’ll have students just out of high school and students who spent the day taking care of their grandchildren. You may have a classroom with as many first languages as students. Some in your class will be well-prepared for academic work, and others won’t.
This range of experiences and identities makes CUNY’s classrooms vibrant and interesting places, but it also can make engaging all students equally a challenge. Even the most seasoned and committed faculty struggle to make sure their courses are appropriately responsive to the needs of individual students while also serving the broader curriculum. It’s important that beginning faculty members acknowledge and accept this challenge, and commit to making their classrooms the most inclusive spaces that they can be.
The number of students in your class matters. Check your classes’ course caps (the number of spots allotted to a particular course or, usually, the number of chairs that can fit in a particular room). You can find course cap information on CUNYFirst (CUNYFirst is the university’s integrated resources and services tool, and facilitates course registration, grading, and many other functions at CUNY. If you need training on CUNYFirst ask your departmental administrative assistant).
Within CUNYFirst, you should also see the following information:
- a list of the classes you’re teaching, with the number of enrolled students/cap for each class
- your assigned classroom
- a roster of enrolled students. If you click on the roster (an icon next to the title of the course), you will find some preliminary information about your students, including their major, if declared, and level
This information is helpful when thinking about who your audience is for the class. Are you teaching a large lecture course or a small seminar? Are they mostly first-year students, or juniors and seniors? What you can do and what you want to do in class is often shaped by how many people are in the course.
Consider how the following numbers might impact your approach:
- the type of activities and assignments you’re including. (For instance, assigning group projects might make more sense in a larger class than in a seminar, while including opportunities for peer review and individual conferences could work well in a smaller class.)
- the ways you use educational technology. (So, if it’s a large group, using an online platform to might provide students hesitant to speak in class another chance to participate in the conversation.)
- the kinds of classroom management strategies that you can implement
Who’s Taking Your Class?
Speak with others at your campus to learn what you can about the student population and student life. Talk to colleagues who have taught there and ask them what they encountered in terms of their students’ level of preparation.
Consider whether your course is in a distributed general education curriculum or part of a sequence in the major. What knowledge and skills does the course assume students will have? Many courses are built upon prerequisites and it can be helpful to acquire some knowledge about what your students should have already taken before enrolling in your course. But while a course may presuppose that students will have a certain skill-set, it’s not always the case. For this reason, it’s a good idea to consider prerequisites as you plan, but also to anticipate how you’ll support less-prepared students.
You should also consider how your department is situated within the school, as it will help you develop a sense of what students may expect to get from their time in your course. Does the department where you are teaching offer a major, and if so, how many students are in the major? Or is it one that’s often referred to as a “service department,” which offers introductory or skills-based courses to students who will then major in other disciplines? Will the majority of students in your course pursue a career in a different field?
Textbook procurement can be difficult for both you and students. If a textbook is required by the department, ask if there are desk copies on hand for you to use as you prepare. If not, contact the publisher (or get the name of the rep that works with your school and department) and ask for a desk copy. Note that it may take weeks to receive desk copies, so allow time; often, publishers require that books be sent to a departmental address, in which case you may want to alert the department administrator that you’re expecting a delivery.
Think, too, about the students. If the department requires a particular textbook, what options do the students have for accessing it? Can they rent it? Are copies placed on reserve at the library? How much is the book, and are there cheaper alternatives? For instance, are used copies widely available for purchase online, or could students use a previous edition instead of the most recent one?
If you are designing the reading list from scratch, think about the range of text options available to you. Do you want to use a textbook, or assemble your own course pack? Is it better to post open-access course material to an online platform, such as your class blog?
Many schools require that you upload your textbook information to CUNYFirst and/or request that you order your textbook directly through the campus bookstore. The date to order books is very early—often it has passed before you’ve been assigned a course! The bookstore can rush the books for you, if necessary, but you’ll need to follow-up (in email or by phone) to confirm that the correct titles and quantities have been ordered. Frequently bookstores order fewer copies than students enrolled in the course, and they generally return excess copies after the first few weeks of the semester. Is the title something students might have easy access to outside the campus bookstore? Make sure to include the ISBN numbers for all assigned texts on your course syllabus so that students who choose to order the book from an outside source have the correct edition information.
Tip: Sometimes it takes students some time to get their hands on the book(s). You might think about making the first couple of readings available through other avenues. If you are using an online platform like Blackboard or the Commons, you should upload the materials you want the students to access there.
Knowing details about your classroom in advance can help you make decisions about how you’ll conduct your class: from seemingly small decisions like how much text you can put on a powerpoint slide (some of those TVs are small!) to what types of group work or are possible. If the classroom to which you’ve been assigned doesn’t fit the needs of your class, you may be able to request a room change. These requests should be made as early as possible and, sometimes, take a bit of negotiating. Depending on the school and department, these questions will be handled through the department or require you to contact the Registrar directly. Always start with the department’s program assistant. Just like at the Graduate Center, folks in these roles are best positioned to get things done.
Time permitting, travel to your classroom in advance of the start of the semester. CUNY campuses vary drastically in their set-up, and just because you know how to get to the campus does not mean you’ll be easily able to find your classroom. Depending on the school’s security measures, you may need a key to access your room and potentially, a campus ID, and you’ll want to be familiar with those requirements in advance.
Doing a trial run of getting to your classroom might also reveal possible safety concerns, especially if your class is scheduled early in the morning or late at night. If you do have concerns about safety, you might try to coordinate getting to and from campus with a colleague, or to make sure you are in a position to walk out with your students at the end of class.
All faculty must be mindful of and vigilant about making their courses accessible. While you will be constrained in the types and levels of accessibility you may be able to offer, it is crucial to keep in mind that students may have a variety of needs that require accommodations and that there are a number of ways you can work to support those needs. Consider how you will organize your course (and your classroom space), the tasks you will ask students to undertake, the materials you will offer them, and your overall instructional approach to ensure that your classroom is as inclusive as possible.
Your campus may have an accessibility statement that you can integrate into your syllabus, but chances are it does not fully capture the scope and range of support needed by students and faculty alike. Frequently, access to online course materials is a primary concern of university accessibility offices, and usually there are services available through a disability office that provide students with additional software or hardware to assist visually impaired students. However, accessibility is a broader concern than this. Students may have mobility impairments, hearing and/or visual impairments, cognitive and/or learning disabilities, emotional and/or psychological disorders, and speech and language disorders that impact their ability to engage in your class and with your assignments between classes. Even students who do not identify or are categorized as having a disability may have other conditions such as chronic illness. Being mindful of the diverse array of needs students may have will enable you to critically think about how you deliver your course.
Creating accessible courses should start when the course is being conceived and be integrated throughout the course development process. Universal Design for Learning (http://udlforteachers.com/) principles argue that educators should design courses and assignments with accessibility in mind at every step of the way, avoiding one-size-fits-all approaches and allowing for options and flexibility. Beginning your course planning with accessibility in mind can save you time during the semester and, most importantly, help ensure that all of your students have the support they need to achieve the goals of your course. The remainder of this handbook will offer suggestions on how you can integrate mindfulness to accessibility into your planning at various points in the semester.
The opportunities to integrate digital tools are quite vast for a college instructor, and can be overwhelming for someone who’s just beginning to explore these approaches to teaching. Whether and how you do choose and combine tools depends entirely on the intersection between your course goals, your comfort with technology, the digital access available to your students and on your campus, and the level of uncertainty you’re willing to tolerate in an assignment or a class.
As a faculty member, you’ll be able to decide if and how you would like to integrate educational technology into your teaching. Before you start planning your course you should think about the ways you’ll want to communicate with your students, and how you might like to deploy digital tools to connect meetings, foster community, or facilitate specific kinds of writing and multimedia work.
Here are some questions that may help you better understand both your comfort level and goals. Ask yourself:
How comfortable am I with…
- new tools?
- fielding technical questions from my students?
- organizing digital spaces?
Do I want to use technology to…
- push information out to my students?
- facilitate conversations beyond the classroom?
- create a record of what’s happened in the course?
- integrate the open web into my teaching?
Using Digital Tools in the Classroom
There is no “correct” answer to the question of how much digital technology you should use in your classes. Classes with few digital tools can of course be effective, as can those that integrate many tools, and this holds true across the disciplines. The key is to integrate digital tools into your teaching intentionally and purposefully. In order to do this, you need to develop a clear sense of what role you want the tools to play in your course. You then need to match that sense to an understanding of the affordances of different technologies.
Let’s consider an introductory history or philosophy course. You’ll likely be asking your students to (a) do a significant amount of reading and perhaps some limited research, (b) write short informal papers and longer, higher stakes papers, (c) participate in class discussions, (d) attend lectures, and (e) take assessments such as quizzes or exams. It’s possible to integrate digital technology in each of these instructional moments in ways that can enhance the experience of your course for both you and your students.
Digital tools can help you easily distribute reading materials and other artifacts to your students, while facilitating the storing and organizing of those materials for revisitation and reuse during or across semesters, or across classes. Delivering materials via the web can also facilitate the easy integration of both open access and primary source materials into the reading your students do.
Also, asking students to write in a networked, digital space (such as a blog) can encourage them to imagine a range of audiences. As such, using a digital space for writing promotes multi- and mixed-media compositional strategies, and can build an archive of your class’s reflections that proves useful as students are reviewing for exams or constructing longer pieces of writing. It is also a great opportunity to assess what’s worked and what hasn’t over the course of a semester.
To learn more about how to integrate digital tools into your course, see the TLC’s guide on Educational Technology: https://tlc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/educational-technology/.
Tip: Networked digital spaces provide students who are reluctant to participate in class discussions a potentially more controlled environment for engaging with their classmates, course materials, and you. Such reticence in the moment can result from a number of cultural, emotional, intellectual, social, and psychological factors. Digital spaces for informal participation can thus foster a more inclusive learning environment.
Whether you have a ton of time to prepare your course, or you have received your assignment within a couple of weeks of the start of the semester, preparation is essential. Thinking through elements like textbook procurement, classroom technology and class size can help you with the practical elements of preparation. As you go forward, though, be sure to make use of both formal and informal support structures as early as possible. Remember that your Graduate Center colleagues can be a helpful source of information, whether you’re chatting over coffee, or exchanging syllabi and assignment ideas. And the Teaching and Learning Center is always available to help, no matter where you are in your course preparation process!