Distinguished Teaching Award Winners Engage and Inspire Students Despite Pandemic

May 27, 2021

Faculty at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) teach and mentor students, conduct research, help lead the college and serve the community.

Each year, the BMCC Distinguished Teaching Award recognizes faculty who incite intellectual curiosity in students, inspire colleagues and demonstrate innovative pedagogy with clear evidence of student learning gains.

The 2021 Distinguished Teaching Award winners are English Professor Elizabeth Albrecht, Computer Information Systems Professor Mohammad Azhar, Modern Languages Professor Sophie Maríñez and English Professor Nettie (Chris) Vinsonhaler.

Although the pandemic presented unprecedented challenges to the entire BMCC community, the college’s faculty rose to the occasion and used the moment to innovate, engage and inspire students. Here are a few thoughts and reflections from BMCC’s four Distinguished Teaching Award winners.

English Professor Elizabeth Albrecht

Elizabeth Albrecht
Elizabeth Albrecht

English Professor Elizabeth Albrecht, who has worked in theater, written plays and fiction and has a special interest in creative writing as well as mythology, says it has been exciting to draw on various cultures’ mythology when teaching World Literature courses.

“The most challenging part of remote teaching has been not meeting in person with the students, and the lack of class discussion — I missed the symposium aspect even a lecture course can foster,” said Albrecht.

“I’ve tried to make up for this lack by having the students write to each other about the readings and films, and by emailing the students individually about their ideas, special interests, and any writers or artists from their own cultures” she said. “And then — Zoom has made in-person conferences at least virtually possible.”

Albrecht, who has been teaching at BMCC since 2002, says the college’s faculty is superb and inspiring.

It’s a huge honor to be awarded a Distinguished Teaching Award in such distinguished company,” said Professor Albrecht.

Computer Information Systems Professor Mohammad Azhar

Mohammad Azhar
Mohammad Azhar

Computer Information Systems Professor Mohammad Azhar said when CUNY colleges shifted to remote learning there was widespread concern about student access, equity and engagement. Some of his own students admitted they had difficulty remaining engaged in a remote learning environment.

“So, I redesigned my honors programming course to empower students in creating solutions for the Computing for Social Good and Innovation (CSGI) challenge which provided them opportunities to reflect on current issues that they find compelling,” said Azhar. “Cumulatively, through the semesters that have been affected by the pandemic, my students have designed solutions to address issues surrounding COVID-19, such as zero hunger, green consumption, clean water, racial justice, quality education, good health and well-being.”

Professor Azhar also established a virtual success and innovation lab which allows students from any level and course to collaborate remotely in a co-curricular experiential learning environment.

“I am truly honored and humbled to be selected for the Distinguished Teaching Award,” said Azhar. “I would like to thank everyone at BMCC for their support. I continue to work towards providing an equitable and accessible learning environment which engages and empowers our students in STEM.”

Modern Languages Professor Sophie Maríñez

Sophie Marinez
Sophie Maríñez

Modern Languages Professor Sophie Maríñez said the pandemic created an extraordinary challenge, not only because of the amount of personal grief the college community went through but also because of the loss of physical contact and being forced to use mediated forms of interaction.

“The number one question for teachers was how to break from the isolation, how to appeal to students and make the course relevant at a time in which nothing — let alone French — seemed relevant anymore,” said Maríñez.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement also gave her inspiration and resources for making courses relevant.

“I already focused on racism and colonialism before 2020, but the extraordinary momentum triggered by BLM allowed me to take a stern look at the textbooks used to teach French, and consider how much they need to be decolonized and de-centered from Europe,” Maríñez says.

A number of Maríñez’s students share backgrounds from countries in Africa and the Caribbean that were formerly colonized by France, so they appreciated refocusing attention to foreground voices in those countries.

The students felt inspired, validated, empowered, and compelled to speak and listen to one another, she said. They could write about their own experience and share knowledge about their culture and modes of resistance against social and racial injustice.

“Once the topic being discussed mattered to them, we could then seamlessly turn our attention to the nitty-gritty details of how to express all that in French, creating structures, sentences and paragraphs in essays that did justice to their brilliant ideas,” said Maríñez.

Maríñez views teaching at BMCC as a privilege. She says she finds profound inspiration in the dedication and ethics of care of her colleagues, both inside and outside her department.

“I feel honored not only by this award but by the extraordinary opportunity of sharing with them countless moments of joys and tribulations, as each day we learn and think about how to make BMCC—and perhaps, this part of the world—a better place for us all,” said Maríñez. “This award is as much theirs as it is mine.”

English Professor Nettie (Chris) Vinsonhaler

Chris Vinsonhaler
Chris Vinsonhaler

In the early days of remote learning, English Professor Chris Vinsonhaler says she initially worried that an online environment would prove hopelessly inadequate, especially given the extreme challenges BMCC students and families were facing.

“Thanks to my colleagues in the English department, however, I eventually adopted the same positive mindset I preach to my students,” said Vinsonhaler. “ Time for risk-taking, indeed! Even so, the conversion was deeply challenging. It was painful to throw out large chunks of live classroom strategies that had worked so beautifully before and I was deeply concerned with how to build a sense of belonging—the crucial ingredient to student performance and retention.”

She found one answer by developing very personal, but highly organized micro-lecture videos which she says conveyed her enthusiasm along with key concepts.

“I also used a Google doc to create a visually inspiring platform, which had the added benefit of giving students quick one-click access,” said Vinsonhaler. “ I then looped the Google doc into Blackboard, where students submitted extensive assignments every week–including notes for all the micro-lectures and readings as well as written responses.”

She says those steps greatly increased accountability and engagement, thus producing far better outcomes. By sharing her cell phone number and requesting student cell phone numbers, it helped strengthen community bonds.

“We also took time during each class for a personal check-in,” said Vinsonhaler. “Last but not least, I lavished my students with frequent expressions of caring, appreciation and positive support. I stayed flexible regarding the inevitable difficulties, and I managed to keep a sense of adventure, good humor, and fun.”

Vinsonhaler says she is profoundly grateful to her colleagues in the English department and beyond.

“Their stellar example inspired me to step up to the challenge with all my heart,” said Vinsonhaler. “Truly, this award belongs as much to the BMCC community as it does to me.”

    • Award winners develop innovative ways of engaging students despite challenges of remote learning
    • Professors tailor pedagogy and make lessons to year’s events

share this story »