Student Spotlight: Daniel Sáenz, PhD Student in Latin American and Iberian Cultures

by | Jun 13, 2024

Daniel Sáenz, PhD Student in Latin American and Iberian Cultures
2024 Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching
Co-Facilitator of the Pedagogies of Race and Oppression Learning Community

Daniel Sáenz was awarded Columbia’s 2024 Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching. In this spotlight, Daniel shares what he emphasized about his teaching in the award process, as well as a focus of his teaching and how the CTL helped him pursue that focus. Daniel was a co-facilitator of the Pedagogies of Race and Oppression Learning Community, sponsored by the GSAS Office of Academic Diversity and Inclusion in partnership with the CTL, in which participants collectively engage focused topics in pedagogy and practice as they relate to race and marginalization, with particular emphasis on anti-racist and anti-oppression pedagogy. Daniel discusses his highlights of leading this learning community. Lastly, Daniel shares strategies that he uses in his teaching practice that new graduate student instructors might consider incorporating into their own practice.

What did you emphasize about your teaching in the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching process?

I highlighted my efforts to bring about principles of equity, diversity and inclusion into my classroom and actively respond to recent calls to decolonize curricula and pedagogy, specifically by actively accounting for students from all walks of life, including those who do not fit the traditional mold. I also emphasized the ways in which my teaching practice is rooted in principles drawn from the Universal Design for Learning framework, which I encountered in workshops offered by CTL staff, including Caitlin DeClercq and Ian Althouse. Some of the workshops that helped me think about these perspectives include the “Essentials of Teaching and Learning” series, particularly the modules on Inclusive Learning and Active Learning, as well as “Syllabus Design from Scratch” and the “What is Student Engagement?” learning community. With these tools under my belt and in light of my commitment to creating meaningful learning experiences for students from all walks of life, I requested to teach a GS section of Literature Humanities, which was a truly rewarding experience.

What is an important focus of your teaching? How has the CTL helped you to pursue that focus?

In my teaching, I strive to minimize the feeling of isolation or invisibility that university students might feel. For instance, I offer incentives for initiating contact, such as a one-on-one “mid-semester check-in” as part of the course assessment, which affords me the opportunity to discuss students’ progress in the class in a low-stakes environment, while also engaging them outside of class, learning something about them, and demystifying the figure of the college instructor. In doing so, I have been able to identify students who may need additional instructional or institutional support who may have otherwise not brought their struggles to my attention. Students have noted that this strategy, and others, make them feel seen, appreciated, and cared for. This is important for all students, but especially “non-traditional” ones and those from underrepresented or marginalized groups.

You have been the co-facilitator of the Pedagogies of Race and Oppression Learning Community twice and participated in many other CTL programs and opportunities—can you describe a couple of highlights from those experiences and how they have impacted your work?

The Pedagogies of Race and Oppression Learning Community was a wonderful opportunity to meet fellow instructors from a wide range of backgrounds and interests who were also interested in deploying principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion in their teaching practice. Collaborating with them and with my fellow co-facilitators, Tamara Hache (LAIC) and Dominic T. Walker (Sociology), helped me think about my teaching practice more carefully and to learn from the experiences of instructors in different departments. In these Learning Community meetings, we discussed the concept of “difficult knowledge” and how it may be mediated in the classroom, what it means to teach on unceded land, our agency as instructors when teaching a fixed curriculum, and encouraged participants to think about their dream classroom. We also organized a public workshop by Professor Elena FitzPatrick Sifford, titled “Teaching the Canon Critically: Paths Forward for Anti-Oppressive Classrooms,” which helped us think more carefully about our agency as instructors. The guidance provided by Caitlin DeClercq and Celina Chatman Nelson (OADI) also helped me grow as a pedagogue, and helped me to better understand principles of scaffolding and backwards design, which have become foundational practices in my own teaching.

Additionally, what are 2 or 3 strategies that you use in your own teaching practice that new graduate student instructors might consider incorporating into their own practice?

  1. The “mid-semester check-in” has been a wonderful opportunity to get to know students on a personal level and let them know that I am available for them throughout the semester, not only when they face difficulties or after receiving a “poor” grade on their assignments. I would encourage first-time instructors to find ways of building trust and open channels of communication with their students, either by setting clear expectations and availability in the syllabus, offering incentives for initiating contact, or simply asking “how was your weekend?” during the first class of the week! You might be surprised how these practices can help create a positive environment in the classroom.
  2. Build community with fellow instructors and mentors who can help you improve your teaching and who echo your pedagogical values. Beyond your home department, seek out the services offered by the CTL and the learning communities they facilitate, where you can meet and learn alongside like-minded instructors from across the arts and sciences.
  3. Think of teaching as a process, not an event. Embrace the many opportunities to learn and grow alongside your students and peers. Solicit feedback from your students, as well as mid-course reviews and observations from fellow instructors, faculty members, and the CTL to hone in your skills or work through any aspects of your class that may need some attention.