Leading Undergraduate Education in a Time of Change

Cynthia Carter Ching

Cynthia Carter Ching on becoming interim Vice Provost and Dean, confronting institutional racism, and remote learning

Cynthia Carter Ching, professor in the school of education, was appointed interim vice provost and dean for Undergraduate Education on July 15, 2020. She was associate dean for academic programs in the School of Education from 2015-2020 and faculty director of the education minor from 2008-2013. She has taught at UC Davis since 2007. She earned her BA in psychology at UC Irvine and her PhD in education at UCLA. For 20+ years, she has done research on technology in teaching and learning. She gave an informal interview on her first day in office.

What attracted you to the role of interim Vice Provost and Dean for Undergraduate Education, particularly in a time of national crises that are impacting higher education? 

The idea of being in a role where the primary job is to advocate for undergraduate students – especially in this office, where it’s our only mission—is compelling. I’m an education scholar and a product of the University of California. Undergraduate education is important.

As Associate Dean in the School of Education I had a lot of existing connections with Undergraduate Education. Education is the largest minor on our campus, so I’ve worked with First Year Seminars, the University Honors Program, the Center for Educational Effectiveness, etc.  I had a strong sense of UE as important and growing and having a wider purview on campus.

I am a creative problem solver, and taking on this role in this intense period is consistent with the way I approach my career.

My term as Associate Dean was just wrapping up when the VPD position became open. I had planned to go on sabbatical, write a book, spend some time deciding what’s next – but I knew this was the right next step. I am a creative problem solver, and taking on this role in this intense period is consistent with the way I approach my career. I like taking on challenges, and my best-laid plans to relax never seem to quite work out. That’s okay.

How is the experience that you bring from the School of Education positioning you to think about our national and institutional reckoning with systemic racism?

Something that School of Education and UE have in common is that we care fundamentally about the educational experience of students. In the School of Education, social justice is a key driving component of who we are and what we do.

And yet sometimes we find—and this is common to a lot of institutions – that our outward mission and the ways we think about students, whether they’re K-12 or university, don’t always translate to how we treat one another as colleagues, to what happens to our everyday interactions, to our thinking about the structures we inhabit and the ways those structures may also be participating in racism--institutional racism in particular.

We can’t assume that because we’re good people and we want good things to happen, that good things are automatically going to happen.

So it’s not enough to have morally worthy goals, missions, and external efforts. We have to be vigilant and active in how we’re conducting ourselves every single day. We can’t assume that because we’re good people and we want good things to happen, that good things are automatically going to happen.

You’ve done a lot of research on digital technology in education. Can you talk about that in the context of the pandemic?

I’ve always been interested in the idea that learning happens in multiple places and spaces, and the ways that technology can be the conduit or connective tissue. One strand of my work that’s particularly relevant today has to do with digital identities: the idea that there’s something about yourself as a student that’s evident in your participation in online classes.

There’s a lot of research in online education that says the more social presence you can have, the better: the more engaged the learners are, the richer the interactions. The issue is that until now, remote learning programs have been largely self-selecting; students opt in and have the necessary technology, and faculty are trained to teach this way. That’s not necessarily the case in the current situation, for either students or faculty.

Now when a professor asks everyone to turn on their video so they can have these rich social interactions, there are bandwidth issues that make video impossible for some people, or it creates an awkward delay. Many of our students have very little control over their physical space. Digital identies in remote learning can’t be curated they way they can on social media. It feels much more raw and sometimes invasive to have this real-time element of “show me your face, your environment, wherever you are.” As faculty we have to recognize the ways this can impact how students show up.

What opportunities might arise from the full-scale transition to remote learning? What might we learn from this massive move to technology that we want to bring with us into the post-Covid times?

One of the things I hope we carry forward is that when we’re all back on campus, when we have everybody together again, we don’t take that togetherness for granted. That we don’t assume our physical presence; that actually being somewhere together and speaking to one another and interacting with one another, without the mediation of the screen, is something that we think of as important and that we prioritize in our learning.

When we’re all back on campus . . .I hope we think about how to maximize our use of campus space, our resources, our faculty, our student time so that when we are together, it matters that we’re together.

There are a lot of assumptions we had before that are being questioned in interesting ways. We’re experimenting with what learning can be accomplished via asynchronous or synchronous activities, and not necessarily in the same space. I don’t know what the answers are; it’s going to vary by discipline, but I think we may end up with more options coming out of this than we had going into it.

I hope we think about how to leverage technology to maximize our use of campus space, our resources, our faculty, and our student time, so that when we are together, it matters that we’re together.

-Sharon Knox - scknox@ucdavis.edu

Tags