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Introduction to Teaching in the Disciplines

Introductory Courses

Introductory courses give students a general overview of the field, an introduction to its “language” and terminology, and exposure to its core methods of inquiry. Students might not know what your course title (such as “World Humanities,” “Classical Cultures,” or “Social Communication”) means, and they might not have a working familiarity with the concept of academic disciplines, so it’s a good idea to be as clear and precise as possible in your course description and introductions. For instance, “US History Since 1865” is clearer than “US History II.” If your department dictates that you use a vaguer course title (such as “Composition I”), be sure that your syllabus clearly defines for students the themes and purpose of the course.

As the semester progresses, you will familiarize students with your field’s core/foundational texts, and help them develop an understanding of its basic terminologies and methodologies. Students should be exposed to how scholars in your field frame research questions, how scholarship is developed and applied, and what kinds of evidence and argument are deployed within the field. Should students desire to develop expertise in your discipline, they should have a sense by the end of their first course what kind of work will be necessary for them to develop that level of knowledge or skillset.

Pathways / Common Core

Many introductory courses fall within Pathways, a set of general education requirements that makes it easier for students to transfer credits from one CUNY college to another. Students at all CUNY colleges are required to take 30 Common Core credits (12 in required Common Course courses and 18 in the flexible Common Core). Students in bachelor degree programs have to take another 6 to 12 College Option credits. The individual colleges set the exact guidelines for this last part of the general education curriculum. CUNY has also designated certain courses as Gateway Courses into Majors. While major requirements often vary between the different colleges, students who anticipate majoring in a certain field can transfer the credits for these Gateway courses to another college/ major without problem.

When your course falls within a certain section of the Common Core, your department will usually give you a description of that Common Core area and the learning outcomes associated with it. You should familiarize yourself with these goals and outcomes and incorporate them in your course and syllabus design (some departments require you to copy the learning outcomes and provide a description of how the course fits within the Common Core framework).

Students taking general education classes are usually lower-level (freshman/ sophomore) though you’ll find some upper-level students in your class who still have to meet some general education requirements, especially when they have transferred from another school, came back from a break or have had a not-so linear trajectory for other reasons. You’ll find that students in CUNY classrooms are at widely varying stages of their academic career and this is even more visible in general education courses. Many lower-level students have not yet declared their majors and are exploring options or getting enough credits until they can apply for programs such as engineering or pre-med. This means that not all of your students will continue in the field you’re teaching them in, and are in a way “passing through.” For these students, transferable skills and more “enduring understandings” that they can take away from your course will be more important than discipline-specific knowledge and terminology. This is why many introductory level courses emphasize learning outcomes that can be broadly applicable.

Intermediate Courses

In intermediate courses, which usually (though not always) require the completion of an introductory course as a prerequisite, students learn more about specific disciplinary approaches and subfields while getting more comfortable with the discipline as a whole. Building on their initial exposure to your field’s main terminologies and methodologies in the introductory courses, students in intermediate courses actively learn to speak your field’s “language” and employ its research strategies. One of the main goals of intermediate courses is for your students to become more confident speakers/participants in your discipline. Intermediate courses also introduce students to specific subfields and those fields’ core texts and conventions. Research projects are usually longer and more complex than in introductory courses, and students may be asked to write within the theoretical frameworks of the discipline.

Intermediate level courses usually have certain prerequisites, which means they presuppose that students have certain knowledge and skillsets, but this is not always the case. As we discuss in our New To Teaching Guide, it is always a good idea to bolster and review the information from the courses your students have taken before. Your course might also be cross-listed with another department or concentration, which means that your students are taking your course to fulfill the requirements of another major or certificate program. A course called “Literature of the Harlem Renaissance,” for example, could be cross-listed between African-American Studies, history, and English programs. Knowing where your course fits in the larger curriculum will help you tailor your instruction to your students’ academic backgrounds and help them prepare for upper level courses in their concentration.

Upper Level Courses

In upper level courses, such as capstone or senior thesis classes, students become semi-professionalized as members of the discipline and are expected to demonstrate the ability to put the things they’ve learned in the previous two levels into practice. As confident participants in their discipline, students can now become more conscious of the constructedness of these conventions and possible alternatives. In larger research assignments, such as capstone or thesis projects, they can be expected to intervene, to a certain extent, in a discipline’s dominant methodology, challenge assumptions, or contribute new information.

While there is a difference between students’ trajectories and skill level at the senior colleges versus the community colleges, second year students at CUNY’s community colleges take capstone classes as well, which can be considered upper level courses. Taking into account that community college students often take non-linear trajectories toward such upper level capstone classes, it’s important to find a balance between offering support and guidance on how to do research while asking them to perform a larger projects on their own or in small groups.

Ideally, your students’ work can find relevance or (potential for) publication outside of your classroom, and you can introduce them to ways in which their class work is or can be made relevant elsewhere. You can encourage and assist them in submitting an abstract for a conference or assist them in preparing work for publication. It is important for your students to know how the skills and experience they’ve gained in their major translates to the job market. You want to show your students how their skills are transferable to a variety of professional contexts and that their experience is valuable outside of your classroom. Creating links with the world outside the classroom is very important at any time in your students’ academic careers but especially now that they are getting ready for the job market and/or looking to apply what they’ve learned elsewhere.