Cigdem V. Sirin, Ph.D., associate professor of political science, is the new director of UTEP’s Center for Faculty Leadership and Development. | Photo courtesy UTEP
Among the many professional development opportunities available at The University of Texas at El Paso, the Center for Faculty Leadership and Development (CFLD) is leading the way in developing and supporting faculty-driven initiatives that will enhance not only faculty, staff and student success but also UTEP’s role as a national leader in 21st century public higher education. Cigdem V. Sirin, Ph.D., associate professor of political science, recently was appointed the new director of the center.
She shared some thoughts about the future of the center and her plans for it.
As the new Director for the CFLD, where do you see the future of the center going?
I see that our center has been gaining a more prominent role in fostering faculty development and leadership, and this will continue to grow in the future. For instance, the recent shift in having Creative Studios now be a part of the CFLD is a reflection of the organizational goals toward the integration of technology solutions in programs and curricula informed by a strong pedagogical grounding. I really appreciate the University bringing the units together under one roof in order to boost our efforts to provide faculty the support they seek.
Amid the challenges we face with the pandemic, I believe the faculty more than ever needs a center that will provide effective and efficient guidance, training and resources on best practices in online teaching and learning, and we strive to do just that. I sometimes feel like I am Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day” because when working remotely, every day may seem like the same day repeating over and over again! But, remember, Murray’s character learned how to play the piano during that cyclical time and at the end, he was a pro! These unprecedented times have pushed us out of our comfort zones and we can turn this challenge into an opportunity to revitalize our professional development and come out of this period as even better instructors who are more proficient across all formats of teaching – not just face to face, but hybrid and online as well.
Also, the social distancing we have had to follow has stressed the need to find creative ways of maintaining and enhancing our network of communities of practice. I see the CFLD as a key player in these efforts to help move the University forward.
What are some of the areas you would like to focus on?
I see my primary areas of focus in this role as two-fold: (1) to support the pedagogical expertise of our faculty in online/remote teaching and (2) to help organize leadership and development activities in the areas of empathy, equity and antiracism.
When the pandemic broke out and UTEP decided to quickly switch to remote teaching during Spring Break in March 2020 for the health and safety of our community, the Provost’s Office asked me to be part of the support team to help faculty and students navigate through a very difficult and unexpected transition. At the time, I was serving as the Provost’s Faculty Fellow. As the support team, we worked tirelessly (via daily meetings and tasks) to provide guidance, assistance and encouragement to our faculty and students. Our team was so happy and inspired to see our faculty and students persevere and successfully finish the semester.
Our efforts to help faculty transition to remote teaching culminated with the development of the Support for Online Learning (Sol) site that offers faculty continuous support through key content, webinars, and workshops designed to address pedagogical and technical best practices for online/remote teaching. Extended University Dean Beth Brunk-Chavez and I coordinate this site with an amazing group of people. We want to ensure that we are responsive to faculty needs and requests.
As the SOL team, we recently launched the Grab-N-Go Series, where we provide quick tips, links to additional resources, and faculty videos on a variety of topics related to effective online teaching. So, the center has stepped up to the plate and assumed a key leadership role to help faculty achieve excellence in online teaching and learning at a time when they most need vital support in this area.
Moreover, in August, the CFLD helped launch the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE) Course on Effective Online Teaching Practices with a cohort of 40 faculty members that we recruited. This is the third ACUE cohort the CFLD is facilitating but the first time we have opted for the online teaching-focused version of the ACUE course rather than the general best teaching practices — a switch I believe was not only practical but necessary since it will help enlarge our network of well-trained educators proficient in the pedagogy of online teaching and learning, and in turn, help enhance the quality of online instruction at our institution.
My second area of focus as the CFLD Director will be on promoting and supporting campuswide efforts and initiatives toward cultivating empathy, equity and antiracism. In fact, my current research as a political scientist centers on outgroup empathy and how it shapes people’s political attitudes and behavior about those very different than themselves. It is actually easy to feel empathy for your close friends and family while empathy for those outside your circle is less common. But, when one has empathy for outgroups, it has powerful implications, especially toward the goals of diversity, equity and antiracism. So I see empathy at the core of all human interactions — it is definitely one of the top qualities for a good leader to possess. As Maya Angelou once said, “I think we all have empathy but we may not have enough courage to display it.” So one key mission of our center is to encourage people to display empathy and a strong anti-racist stance through action-based, outcome-oriented training opportunities, community outreach events, and partnerships. For instance, we are currently collaborating with Student Affairs for a year-long professional development and leadership series on equity and antiracism in higher education.
What are some of the milestones you would like to reach?
My service philosophy revolves around the concept of “servant leadership.” As Robert Greenleaf, who coined this term in his seminal work “The Servant as Leader,” puts it: “The Servant-Leader is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” Following this philosophy, the main mission of my contributions aims for empathetic, impactful and outcome-oriented service.
I assumed the role of the CFLD director in June of 2020 so it has only been a few months, but it feels like much longer given our very intense efforts to assist our UTEP community throughout the ongoing pandemic. Although this was my first summer as the CFLD Director, I sought to hit the ground running via taking part in multiple events, working groups, and planning committees. During this period, the CFLD co-sponsored (with Extended University) the New Instructor Workshop as part of the Welcome Program for new faculty — this was the first time new faculty orientation was done virtually. I would like to see the CFLD continue to play a key role in enhancing our new faculty’s onboarding experiences and in providing the networking and mentorship opportunities that they need and desire.
For the past several years, I have been recruiting and training faculty to adopt the Blackboard Retention Center — an early alert, intervention, and performance tracking system. My active recruitment efforts included conducting various workshops, seminars and departmental presentations, as well as specialized office visits for one-on-one training. This is a user-friendly tool that really makes a difference in student retention and success rates, which I can attest to from empirical data I collected in my own courses. Reaching out to at-risk students via the Retention Center is also an act of empathy, showing our students that we, the professors, care about their success and well-being. Accordingly, it is one of my most-cherished contributions to our university’s mission and I will continue my retention efforts as the CFLD Director. My goal is to recruit and train as many instructors as possible, and in turn, effectively increase the number of faculty who actively use retention strategies on a regular basis.
In line with one of our primary areas of focus — Support for Online Learning (Sol) — we would like to launch an annual international “Sol” conference on online teaching and learning. This would also be a nod to the International Sun Conference on Teaching and Learning that the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETaL) previously organized for more than a decade, and which served as our region’s premier educational conference before it was retired. Bringing together instructors, instructional technology staff, students and practitioners to share their ideas, experiences and lessons learned from online teaching and learning would promote pedagogical innovation, networking and collaboration. To accompany this effort, we would also like to offer awards for scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) to encourage faculty to engage in evidence-based instructional strategies and to integrate teaching and research.
I also would like the CFLD to play a leading role in developing antiracism training specifically tailored to our campus, community and local dynamics. Such training would go beyond simple awareness to further recommend tangible actions with immediate, short-term and long-term goals at the individual, departmental, institutional and disciplinary levels. I consider this as a key step toward a multi-module empathy, equity and antiracism certificate we would like to build moving forward. With these goals in mind, the CFLD recruited Drs. Rebecca Reid and Charlotte Vines, who have begun collaborating on developing key content on antiracism.
What are things you already admire about the center?
When I started out as a freshly-minted assistant professor of political science at UTEP in 2009, the center (then-called the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, or CETaL) was pivotal in my professional development and networking. During my tenure-track years, I attended various teacher training, mentorship and networking events that CETaL offered, first under the directorship of Dr. Harry Meeuwsen and later Dr. Larry Lesser. Such support and opportunities offered by the center helped me to build my portfolio, and thus highly contributed to my selection as a recipient of The University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award in 2013. CETaL then underwent a transition to assume a broader role as reflected by its new name, the Center for Faculty Leadership and Development (CFLD). I had the chance to interact with the former CFLD director, Dr. Marc Cox, when I was serving as the Provost’s Faculty Fellow. He was also greatly helpful and dedicated to serve our faculty. What I particularly admired about the center under their leadership and the hard work of the staff was how much the center was able to achieve and offer to our faculty even with a relatively small number of personnel and resources.
Since Aug. 1, the CFLD now also houses Creative Studios, an incredibly talented unit that provides technology solutions to our faculty and staff, including custom multimedia and graphic design. Just last year, under the leadership of Associate Director Steve Varela, Creative Studios completed over 100 projects varying in scope and size, and has also been part of multiple grants.
How can faculty, students and staffs to get involved in the center?
We work with a diverse group of people – faculty, technology and professional staff, practitioners, pedagogical experts, Edge and Provost Fellows, formal and informal leaders, and others. I consider our center as a key platform for members of our collective to share their ideas, skills, expertise and experiences with other peers, and welcome their contributions to our offerings. They can get involved with the center through various means: leading workshops/trainings/roundtables; showcasing their expertise with short videos on key topics, as we have been doing with Grab-N-Go series; participating in our professional development, leadership and networking activities; collaborating with us on events, programs and grants; or simply offering ideas, suggestions and feedback.
While our on-campus operations are on hold due to the pandemic, we continue our operations remotely and regularly offer events, workshops and activities in virtual settings. As soon as the campus fully opens up again, we hope to see our faculty and staff in person. Our center is located in the Honors House, where we have a retreat-like lounge if they need a change of scenery to work or simply socialize with fellow faculty and staff from across the campus.
Author: Darlene Barajas – UTEP Communications