CHSS Teaching Academy cultivates faculty community, engagement and social justice pedagogy

Author: Lisa Owens Viani
July 8, 2020

Participants in the Task Force on Teaching 2019 Summer Retreat (left to right): Associate Dean John Elia, Nicole Corrales (Associate Dean’s Office), Wei Ming Dariotis (Center for Equity and Excellence in Teaching and Learning), Carrie Holschuh (Nursing), Maria Veri (Kinesiology), Valerie Francisco-Menchavez (Sociology/Sexuality Studies) and Sheldon Gen (Public Affairs & Civic Engagement)


One thing many faculty members benefit from is the sense of community and camaraderie they find during chance meetings in the hallways or in face-to-face meetings, in which they hear about others’ experiences and find new inspiration and ideas. With courses at San Francisco State University moved online for the fall semester due to COVID-19, Associate Professor of Kinesiology Maria Veri and many other instructors at the College of Health & Social Sciences (CHSS) are worried about the loss of those valuable in-person interactions.

One solution they are hoping to keep advancing is the CHSS Teaching Academy. The academy was launched in the fall of 2019; it arose out of the CHSS Task Force on Teaching begun by Dean Alvin Alvarez (then associate dean) when the college was reorganized, and it was continued by Associate Dean John Elia.

“It kept coming back to me that we needed not just a task force but an actual long-term plan for how to help faculty at every level — as graduate teaching assistants, lecturers, assistant professors, associate professors, professors,” says Elia. “The goal was to support super-effective teaching on the part of faculty. A lot of college teachers receive no pedagogical or teacher training at all, and the idea was to develop a mini-academy within our college that can serve the faculty well.”

“We wanted to provide a sense of community among everyone teaching in the College, to establish mentoring relationships, help new lecturers, grad students just getting into teaching, even faculty on the tenure track." — Maria Veri

A plan comes to fruition

In the spring of 2019, Veri says, she and other members of the task force, Elia, and a faculty member with the Center for Equity and Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CEETL), held a retreat and began putting those ideas into action, creating a three-year plan.

“We wanted to provide a sense of community among everyone teaching in the College, to establish mentoring relationships, help new lecturers, grad students just getting into teaching, even faculty on the tenure track,” she says. One of the main goals for the academy is to foster a culture of inclusive teaching practices and a social justice pedagogy, Veri explains. “We also want to cultivate faculty engagement and retention and a sense of belonging and to develop a repository of resources, as well as to foster teachers as lifelong learners.”

The Teaching Academy launched with three one-and-a-half-hour workshops, facilitated by faculty experts throughout the University. Topics included developing a self-reflective teaching practice (pictured), designing a social justice syllabus and developing a presence in the classroom. The classroom presence workshop, led by Amy Kilgard, professor and department chair of Communications Studies, gave people exercises to help their presentation style, including posture and practicing tongue twisters and modulating pitch and speed of speech.

Remote teaching brings unforeseen challenges

With courses moved online, Veri says, faculty members need even more support. “Not only are they having to teach in a way that could be partly new to them, but they’re doing so in a time of anxiety and possibly trauma. The same is true for students, and we need help being more compassionate with them too.”

Associate Professor of Sociology Valerie Francisco-Menchavez, a member of the teaching task force who serves as the college-level facilitator for the Faculty Learning Community (FLC) for tenure-track faculty, agrees that the Teaching Academy can be more helpful now than ever, as new challenges have cropped up with online teaching. “One day you might have had a really ‘off’ class where you ran into someone in the hallway and explained that you really bombed it and compared notes. You could think through the everyday challenges we have in the classroom together. But what do you do when you lose your students midway through shelter-in-place and then they pop up again in the last week, for example?”

Teaching can be a very isolated experience, Francisco-Menchavez points out, but the academy can help keep them connected. “You go to your own office, plan your course, and go and teach it again,” she says. “You carry the burden of designing the course and helping students meet learning objectives. The idea of the academy is that teaching has to be collective, that many educators are better than one.”

Francisco-Menchavez says she “re-mixes” ideas from other teachers, not only college teachers, sometimes even from K-12 teachers. “You can have Ph.D.s, but that doesn’t make you a better teacher, it doesn’t give you a community to make you a better teacher.” The academy crosses all ranks, she says. “Sometimes lecturers in our department are some of the best teachers. Even though they’re often in a precarious position they are not saddled with the commitments tenure-track professors are. They may be precarious in the eyes of the institution, but to us, they are our peers, and our students are inspired by them in the classroom.” She hopes the academy will also draw out long term professors that haven’t redesigned a course in over ten years. “You don’t have to change everything, but maybe you can change one thing,” she says. “We want to support all of those folks.”

Veri hopes the academy workshops will give people specific techniques to use in their teaching practice, and tangible goals to work toward. “How can I redesign a syllabus so that it’s more equitable; how can I use language that creates a stronger sense of belonging for students?” she asks.

Looking towards the future

Veri says that although continued funding for the academy could be a challenge during the uncertain times ahead, she plans to move it forward as much as she can. She wants to set up a website with teaching and pedagogical resources, as well as materials from the workshops, and will link it with CEETL’s website. She also hopes to conduct a series of interviews, probably via Zoom, with instructors in the college about their online teaching experiences this past spring. “Questions I plan to ask include what was hardest, what went really well, what do you miss about the semester, what are you planning for the fall with online teaching? Do you have a new digital strategy? How do you establish a sense of community for students online?” she asks.

Carrie Holschuh, assistant professor in the School of Nursing, and another member of the teaching task force who helps advise the Teaching Academy, says one perpetual challenge for faculty — whether courses are held online or in the classroom — is to find the time, with everything else on their plates, to focus on personal growth and development. Holschuh attended last year’s workshops and found them worth her time. She thinks the focus on developing social justice curricula is timely as well. “We have so many amazing teachers and educators in CHSS. My hope — and I’m really excited about this — is that we can support the community more broadly in the College that supports our shared goal of social justice — it’s paramount.”