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CUFA Spotlight: Alexander Cuenca

Q: This year you serve as CUFA Chair.  Please tell us a little about CUFA, and your goals for CUFA this year.

A: The College and University Faculty Assembly (CUFA) is an associated group of the National Council for the Social Studies. CUFA consists of higher education faculty members, graduate students, and P-12 teachers interested in advocating for powerful social education through teaching, research, and/or public service. Established in 1968, CUFA has a rich and vibrant history serving the interests of social studies education. In addition to the everyday impact that our members have on social studies at their respective institutions of learning, our organization has two primary public outlets. The first is Theory and Research in Social Education (TRSE), the premier scholarly journal in social studies education. Established in 1973, TRSE serves to stimulate and communicate systematic research and thinking in social education. The second major public outlet is our annual program and business meeting during the NCSS Annual Conference. The annual CUFA program is the forum for our members to present research and discuss the roles, functions, nature, and consequences of social education.

My goals for this year are two-fold. First, I want to continue to support the long-standing tradition of collaboration between NCSS and CUFA. Over the past several years, CUFA members have been instrumental in developing key policy statements, strengthening K-12 classroom pedagogy, and advancing new knowledge alongside NCSS. Second, I would like to support activities within CUFA that help broaden the impact and influence of domestic and international social education.

Both of these goals are captured in the theme of our 2018 CUFA annual conference: Expanding the Intellectual Contours of Social Studies Education in Troubling Times. Our conference program chair this year, Dr. Chris Busey (@DoctorBusey), Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Florida, cast vision for our community of social studies scholars to advance ideas on how to work together with teachers, community leaders, organizers, and activists to develop a template to help our citizenry re-conceptualize definitions of democracy, democratic education, citizenship, and civic education. I believe that our program in Chicago will serve as an opportunity to foster the exchange of new and critical ideas between all kinds of social educators.


Q: What does CUFA perceive to be the biggest challenge today for social studies educators?

A: Today, social studies educators face a bevy of challenges related to the structural conditions of schooling, negative public attitudes toward education, and a lack of federal, state, and local support for social studies. However, of all of these imperatives, what makes the work of critical and justice oriented social studies most challenging to navigate is the increasingly polarized social and political climate in which our work occurs. As our civil discourse continues to entrench itself into political and positional encampments, social studies educators must not only work within this climate, but must also work against this climate in order to fulfill our mission to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, and democratic society in an interdependent world. This certainly isn’t the first time that social studies educators have worked within a society where speech that denigrates humanity is confused for a political stance. Yet, what we know from these examples is that the most effective challenges come from collectives, and social studies classrooms can be one of those collectives to advance more humane and equitable visions of citizenship.


Q: What are the most important needs for pre-service teachers? How are CUFA members responding to those needs?

A: Given the substantive challenges and opportunities for social studies teachers within our contemporary political and social climate, the preparation of social studies teachers is quite critical. As part of our continued collaboration with NCSS, several CUFA members worked on the National Standards for the Preparation of Social Studies Teachers, which details several key characteristics of quality preparation for ambitious social studies educators. In short, this document calls on social studies teachers education programs to design experiences that help candidates recognize how subject matter, students, and contexts influence each other in the interest of preparing youth to assess and work against barriers and challenges that impede democratic life.

The standard that perhaps captures the spirit of the most pressing disposition necessary for contemporary social studies is the fifth standard, which calls on prospective teachers to not just learn about, but also practice civic leadership and advocacy. To do this, the standard asks teacher education programs to cultivate teacher candidates capable of identifying and advocating against injustices such as poverty, institutional racism, gender discrimination, cultural hegemony, political disenfranchisement, and human rights violations. In order to influence a generation of citizens capable of taking informed action, social studies teachers must be prepared to take informed action themselves.


Q: What are the main research interests within CUFA? And how does CUFA members' research support classroom practice across NCSS and the social studies field?

A: The scholarly interests of CUFA are quite diverse, so it’s difficult to enumerate all of the main research strands within the field. For example, some of the research recently published in TRSE covers a range of topics such as: the impact of Project Soapbox on high school students, how students make sense of evidence, civic online reasoning, and approaches to teaching race in the social studies classroom. We know that in order for our research to make a difference, it is critically important to make this work open, accessible, and operational for social studies educators. In order to expand the reach of our scholarship, CUFA works with the Visions of Education ( podcast, which features short interviews with scholars who have published in TRSE in order to make this work as openly available to as many schools, educators, and policymakers as possible. The most recent episodes discuss issues such as black critical patriotism in elementary schools, teaching for gender equity in social studies, and approaches to teaching race in the social studies classroom.  

CUFA members also use their research expertise to support classroom practices through their participation as public intellectuals. Three brief examples. LaGarrett King (@DrLaGarrettKing), Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of Missouri, served on the Teaching Tolerance advisory board that developed a framework for teaching American slavery, and was cited in an article in The Atlantic on the limited knowledge of slavery that exists in classrooms. Noreen Naseem-Rodriguez (@NaseemRdz), Assistant Professor of Elementary Social Studies, was recently profiled in an article in Huffington Post on her research on Asian American teachers. Maribel Santiago (@ProfaSantiago), Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Michigan State University, wrote an article for Teaching Tolerance that argued for the broader inclusion of Mendez v. Westminster - the Mexican-American precursor to Brown v. Board of Education - in the social studies curriculum and also provided valuable lesson plans and resources with that article.


Q: Please tell us more about you. What was your journey to become a professor? What are your main research interests?

A: I find myself quite lucky to be in the professoriate. I am a product of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and after earning a B.A. in Religious Studies and Economics at the University of Miami, I worked as a social studies teacher at Mater Academy Charter School in Hialeah Gardens, Florida. In order to maintain my teaching credentials, I enrolled in a Master’s program in social studies education at Florida International University (FIU). With the support and encouragement of Dr. Hillary Landorf at FIU, I pursued a Ph.D. in Social Studies Education at the University of Georgia. My first academic position was at Saint Louis University, and I am now in the company of great social studies colleagues at Indiana University. My research focuses on the preparation of social studies teachers, the pedagogy of teacher educators, and the implications of teacher education policy. This work has appeared in periodicals such as Social Education, The New Educator, and Studying Teacher Education.


Alexander Cuenca's Biography

Alexander Cuenca's teaching focuses on preparing social studies teachers to cultivate the civic capacities of youth and adolescents necessary for a just, inclusive, and democratic society. As a result of this focus, his research examines several dimensions that influence the preparation of social studies teachers such as learning to teach for social justice, the implications of teacher education policy, and the pedagogy of teacher education.

Currently, Alexander serves as the Chair of the College and University Faculty Assembly of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), and as the Chair of the task force that developed the NCSS National Standards for the Preparation of Social Studies Teachers ( Alexander has also served on the Association of Teacher Educators Field Experiences Standards Task Force and was appointed by the Missouri Commissioner of Higher Education to serve on Missouri Advisory Board for Educator Preparation. He can be reached at or @alexandercuenca