New UWRF center came just in time for pandemic

Posted December 4, 2020

UW-River Falls opened the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) earlier this year to serve as a resource to faculty, with an emphasis on diversity and sustainability — plus a special focus now on online learning.

CETL was developed as a way to bring resources that improve the faculty teaching experience, and as a result improve student learning. Cyndi Kernahan, a psychology professor who specializes in race, bias and prejudice, was selected as director. Kernahan was also involved in the development of CETL and has taught in higher education for over two decades.

Provost David Travis took part in creating the initial vision for CETL. Travis said he felt there was a need for a formal professional development vision on campus for faculty and staff.

“I thought we needed a physical place and a cohesive program of sorts that they knew they could turn to at any time for help. As opposed to kind of having to find it themselves,” Travis said. “The timing could not have been better with COVID and all the transitions of our online classes happening. Having that support for our instructors has been instrumental.”

Through CETL, Kernahan and others within the center coordinated workshops on specific teaching techniques, programs and a weekly newsletter with informational articles.

“It’s important to keep in mind that the goal of it is ultimately to improve student learning,” Kernahan said. “That’s the whole reason that we exist and that I wanted to create this. It was to make the experience better for students through making the experience better for teachers.”

Kernahan’s position was set to start in the summer, though due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she began working as director in March. The programming this year has focused largely on how to help faculty switch to online instruction.

CETL ran multiple programs over the summer about teaching online. This fall, Kernahan organized a session with Neil Kraus, a political science professor, to talk about how to handle difficult conversations about politics in the classroom.

The other members of CETL are Associate Professor Grace Coggio, who is the sustainability fellow, and Mela Lewandowski, who is the instructional designer. In the future, there will likely also be a diversity fellow.

Lewandowski, as part of CETL, has provided support to faculty through one-on-one sessions, technology issue resolutions, and various teaching programs and training sessions. She said things with CETL have been very busy since its formation.

“I think we still have foundational things that are happening right now because we started this year, we got interrupted with COVID and we’re kind of adjusting to all these new variables that we’re faced with, and we continue to find our way,” Lewandowski said.

Preparation of the physical space for CETL has been put on hold due to the pandemic. The meetings and programming are all currently being held virtually.

Coggio, a communications studies professor, worked within CETL with the goal of infusing concepts of sustainability across the curriculum and across disciplines. She is also a member of the campus Sustainability Faculty Fellows.

“The fellows are the starting point for spawning interest. I’m more of a liaison or a conduit, through CETL, to make people aware and to do more with sustainability on campus than just my interactions with faculty,” said Coggio.

Travis emphasized that the intention of CETL is to facilitate connections between instructors and all types of students.

In the future, Kernahan will incorporate more programming on a variety of topics including anti-racism, and continue to grow CETL.

Though things haven’t gone as planned this year, Kernahan said, “When you get people from across disciplines, there’s so many common teaching issues, problems and concerns, and people are really helpful to each other and that is a really wonderful thing.

“I guess it just reinforced for me the power of community in terms of making teaching and learning better.”