The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence


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Who Are You? Pitching to Your Students

Tune into any major city’s local sports talk radio, and you will most likely hear a sentence or two about baseball.  The final few weeks of regular season baseball can be some of the most entertaining: who’s going to the post-season, which batter is chasing a title, and what pitcher is chasing a Cy Young award.

Teaching, like baseball, is a long and strategic game.  But if we think of the semester as a nine-inning game, where both sides get to pitch and both take swings at the ball, we see ourselves and our students.  As pitchers, we are offering up our fastballs, curveballs, sliders, our splitters (our knowledge) in order to position our ideas before our hitters, who might bunt, hit a single, double, or triple, or outright hit the ball into the Allegheny River. 

But for  a moment, let me take this one step further and ask you to imagine yourself as one of three pitchers: George Bradley (St. Louis Brown Stockings, 1876), Clayton Kershaw (LA Dodgers, 2008 – Present), or Jon Lester (Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, 2006 – Present).

George Bradley: The Perfect Semester

Since Pittsburgh is a National League city, it’s worth mentioning George Washington Bradley.  Who?  In 1876, at the age of 24, Bradley finally caught a break and was signed by the St. Louis Brown Stockings.  Standing 5’ 10.5” tall George pitched the first complete game in the National League against the Hartford Dark Blues on July 15, 1876.  That year, Bradley would stand out as a most valuable player: he pitched 23 of the 24 perfect games for the Brown Stockings, had 16 shutouts (no hits allowed), and carried a 1.23 earned run average (ERA) for the remainder of the season.  In other words, Bradley was good, but he was only this good for one season.

I often think that this is the type of pressure we put on ourselves as lecturers.  We strive to have that perfect lecture, the perfect offering to our students, only to find that Bradley’s line is impossible to copy (his single season shutout record still stands).

Clayton Kershaw: The Consistent Performer

Six seasons in the league, and Kershaw is being compared to the greats in Dodger history: Drysdale, Koufax, Newcombe, Roe, and several others.  Kershaw alone has pitched the team to 18 victories so far this season, three shy of his 2011 win-count.  In this season, he holds five complete games and two shutouts.  While close to perfect, Kershaw shows his flaws, remains humble, and continues to go and give a great effort every five days.  Kershaw is near perfect and if you are a baseball fan, he is great to watch! 

Hearing Kershaw speak about his performances, one gets the impression that he is a realistic individual; I don’t think Kershaw goes to the mound every day confident that he’s going to meet or exceed Bradley’s outstanding 1876 season, a near impossibility.  What stands out and what we can learn from Kershaw is his consistent preparation, despite the positive and negative games he may have had before.

Jon Lester: The Every Day Balance

Admittedly, I am a die-hard Red Sox fan.  My New England roots gave me no other option; I certainly was not going to be a fan of the Evil Empire (the Yankees!).  That changed, of course, in 2004, 2007, and 2013, where suddenly being a Sox fan no longer elicited sympathy, especially from Pirates fans, but snide remarks eluding to the money spent, the question of steroids in some famous players, and the overall Sox pride we too often wear on our sleeves.

That said, one pitcher comes to mind as a phenom in his own right: Jon Lester.  But Lester is no Kershaw or Bradley (Lester: 114 wins, 66 losses, 3.60 ERA, 11 career complete games, and 4 shutouts over nine years).  What makes Lester a phenom is what has happened to him off the field.  Lester is a cancer survivor.  Between 2006 (his rookie season) and 2007, Lester underwent treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, surrendering about one year of professional baseball for treatment and recovery.  Through the process, Lester believed he would come back stronger, and did he ever, helping the Red Sox win the 2007 World Series.

Lester reminds me of what we all contend with: off-the-field issues.  God-willing, the issue for you is not cancer, but the balancing act of children, family, research and publication, or exams and dissertations for graduate students.  So, when approaching your students, know that you are going to have those days where your teaching may be less than stellar.  Just like the ace pitchers of today’s game, know you’re going to have day to day struggles.  And that’s okay.

So, I conclude with four thoughts:

  1. Approach each day with the goal of showing your students ‘your best stuff,’ but acknowledge there will be those days when your fastball is operating at 70% efficiency.
  2. Be consistent with your day-to-day approach, your preparation, in your feedback to students, and most importantly, be honest when you have those difficult days.
  3. Don’t be afraid to try new things.  Have a new curve-ball you want to try out?  Give it a go!  This is especially true when trying new active learning techniques, incorporating technology, etc.
  4. And lastly, during those days you struggle, note what was difficult and how you might change it the next time you teach the lecture and plan on how you can make the next class better.

Your objective, unlike these ace pitchers: get your students to take the pitch and run with it.  As much as we would hate to see the Pirates get overtaken by the mighty bat of Matt Holliday, our objective as teachers should be just that: let Matt go yard and take our knowledge for a run.

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Adding Variety to Your Instructional Repertoire

Dr. Steven Hansen
Associate Director for Faculty Development at the Center for Teaching Excellence

detectiveprofile  An item that students consistently rank with a low average on teaching evaluations is “the instructor used a variety of instructional strategies.” In all honesty, sometimes I get stuck in a teaching rut where I conduct every class in the same way with the same instructional strategies. I become formulaic in my teaching. My pedagogy becomes liturgically predictable (i.e. – PowerPoint with mini-lectures and think-pair-share activities). It gets old after a few class sessions for the students and the instructor. How do I enliven my teaching routine?

I occasionally teach naked.

Of course, I am not being literal here. The idea comes from Bowen’s Teaching Naked (2012) where he makes a case for using technology outside the class to inform learning and focusing class time on authentic face-to-face interactions between faculty and students. If you regularly teach using PowerPoint, try to occasionally send the information electronically to students ahead of class for review, and spend the class time solving an intriguing problem or discussing issues that the material raises. This approach works particularly well for topics that you have seen students struggle with in previous semesters and allows you to spend more time coaching and allowing students to practice during class time.

I occasionally have the class play a game.

I recently had to teach a nuts and bolts session to graduate students on giving feedback and grading fairly. Wanting to break away from the monotony of PowerPoint, mini-lecture and discussion, I decided to design a game that I entitled “University Clue.” Like the traditional game, students were asked to solve who, where and what of a mystery: “A professor is hurting students with negative feedback. The morale in the professor’s class is at an all-time low. You must put the clues together to discover who the professor is, where the professor teaches, and what weapon the professor is using.” While students worked through a series of worksheets to solve the mystery, they were analyzing types of feedback that an instructor can give and examining how approaches to grading impact learners. Academic games are a great way to add some variety to your teaching repertoire.

I occasionally employ spy tactics.

According to Sun Tzu in The Art of War, an ancient Chinese military treatise, “Be subtle! Be subtle! And use your spies for every kind of business.” Students are great sources of information to enliven your teaching repertoire. From the first day of class, try to learn as much about your students as you can. Discovering their interests, hobbies, majors and talents allows you to think of new ways to relevantly teach your discipline. You can also ask your students to spy on you and give you feedback about how the course is going.   In my experience, students will often tell me what will help their learning and make suggestions about classroom activities they would find useful.

While we do not have to change our instructional strategies every class, occasional changes to our teaching routine reduces the likelihood of receiving low ratings on teaching evaluations, and more importantly, makes learning interesting for students.

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The Active Classroom: Practicing Argumentation and Conflict Resolution

kinesthetic learner

Image from

–by Rachel Luckenbill, Instructional Consultant for TAs at the Center for Teaching Excellence

A few years ago when teaching UCOR 101, “Thinking and Writing Across the Curriculum,” I decided to give my students a break from the daily midsemester routine of reading and discussing sample argumentative essays. My classroom needed more energy, so I created a learning activity designed to help students meet the following goals: craft a clear, feasible, reasonable solution to a problem; understand criteria by which to evaluate an argument; and engage in meaningful dialogue about conflict resolution. It was a smashing success. My students had fun and connected with the principles they had been slow to grasp through reading and discussion only. Here’s a brief summary of the activity that has now become a staple feature in my composition classroom:

At the start of class I introduce the following scenario, one that I’ve designed because of the likelihood that students have encountered something similar to it:

Your local elementary school baseball team has had several years of winning seasons. The whole town is proud, but no one is prouder than the parents of the players. In fact, the parents have been so involved that they are more vocal during games than are the players. They shout instructions from the stands and occasionally address the coaches with concerns after games. This year the team is struggling. They’re winning some games but not all. Their record isn’t the problem, though. After all, little league athletics is all about developing skills and learning how to be a good sport when winning and losing. The parents, however, are the problem. Instead of just yelling encouragement and instructions, they’re berating players loudly from the bleachers. They’re also verbalizing their critiques of the coaching staff and waiting in the parking lot afterwards to confront them about their techniques.   Sometimes they even leave the stands and approach the players with mid-game advice. The level of disturbance has increased dramatically so that the parents are impeding the educational and athletic progress of the team.

As a member of the school board, concerned both for the students’ academic and athletic growth, you want to help solve the problem. What solution can you propose that will allow parents to participate in their children’s athletic endeavors while allowing coaches the room to instruct?

I then appoint two students as judges and divide everyone else, the “school board members,” into groups. I task the two judges with creating a list of criteria by which to evaluate the proposals and then ask each group to craft a clear, feasible, and persuasive solution to the problem. Wanting students to both take the activity seriously and really feel the change in routine, I send each group to deliberate “confidentially” in a nearby empty classroom or hallway, and then I visit each one to answer questions and offer guidance.

Once deliberation is complete, everyone returns to the room where each group has 3 to 5 minutes to present their solution to the rest of the class and answer questions from the judges. Once the judges select and announce a winning team, I debrief the activity with a large group discussion that ties the experience back into the lesson’s goals.

The physicality of moving about, the brain work of crafting a solution that will have a live audience, and the task of cooperating with teammates all contribute to making an activity like this one yield significant learning gains.

I offer this as an example of experiential learning in a composition classroom but such an activity is easily transferable to other disciplines. Imagine nursing students dividing up into teams of caregivers who each have to offer a solution to a complex patient problem or groups of history students explaining to city planners why a historic property should not be demolished. Whatever the content of the exercise, active learning that engages students in “real world” problems and offers a chance to simulate or practice solving those problems can increase engagement and comprehension in the classroom.

See VARK, a guide to learning styles and the article “Not Another Inventory, Rather Catalyst for Reflection” by Fleming and Mills (1992) for detailed discussion of the relationship between learning and “kinesthetic” activities like the one described above.

Now it’s your turn to share. Have you tried similar exercises in your classes? What worked? What didn’t?


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Happy Labor Day!

by Rachel Luckenbill, CTE Instructional Consultant for TAs

To all of our academic friends whose Labor Day looks like this:


Be sure to step away from the lesson planning, grading, or researching to enjoy the holiday. I found this delightful scenery in Oklahoma City this past spring. I was feeling saturated by information while attending a conference and took a break to go for a walk at the nearby botanical gardens. A brief respite from the intellectual rigor of academics was all I needed to finish out the rest of the day feeling brighter and ready to learn. Whether you spend all day picnicking with family and friends or just an hour or two reading a good book and sipping your favorite coffee, may you flourish at work tomorrow because of restful moments you experience today.


Stay tuned for a full-length post tomorrow on creating an active learning experience in the classroom.

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From the Director: Possibility and Promise


By Laurel Willingham-McLain
Director of Faculty Development and Teaching Excellence at Duquesne’s Center for Teaching Excellence

I love this time of year – when we are privileged to welcome dozens of new faculty and TAs to our campus. I take this responsibility very seriously because it’s important to set the right tone from the beginning. So, it takes a lot of work. But in return, I receive joy and energy from the new colleagues I meet.

Every year I think, “wow, this is an amazing group of people.” Marathon runners, kayakers, singers, dancers, quilters, gardeners, chefs, bakers, parents and partners… and teachers and researchers. And that’s just this year! At faculty orientation, I listened for themes. I noticed shared academic interests in adolescents among some faculty, and research on mobility and community in others. How good it was to watch people listen to one another and make connections their first day together – across the disciplines.

At the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), we have come to focus on community building. I learned from my mentor, Dorothy Frayer, to focus on people. To encourage them and congratulate them. To take time for a walk or a cup of tea. And in the last five years or so, we at CTE have intentionally shifted our central focus away from teaching technique to teacher identity. When faculty ask us how to lead better discussions and engage students in active learning, for example, we spend time getting to know them. We ask about their interests and concerns, their successes and obstacles, their teaching contexts and aspirations, and out of that conversation emerge strategies for getting better at teaching.

One thing I’m confident of is that the best teachers are avid learners. That’s an identity we all need to share. In fact, when I consider Duquesne’s teacher-scholar model, the primary pursuit that teachers and researchers have in common is deep learning. Brew and Boud (1995) point out that teaching and research require rather different skills, but they share the importance of learning. At the heart of both endeavors is an exploration of existing knowledge and the desire to go beyond it. Both involve the human act of making meaning, of making sense of phenomena in the world (pp. 267-268).

I see energetic learning – in both teaching and research spheres – occurring within community at Duquesne. At CTE we witness motivation and productivity among informal peer-mentors, creative teaching award teams, research partners, workshop panelists, and even committee members (!) – who inspire one another to learn and make that learning public to their students and peers. Who guide students in engaging deeply in their learning, and in turn, sharing their learning beyond the classroom.

Brew, A., & Boud, D.  (1995).  Teaching and research: Establishing the vital link with learning.  Higher Education, 29 (3), 261-273.

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Tips for the First Day of Class

hello first day

The start of the academic year is rapidly approaching and with it the first day of class full of possibility, first impressions, and nerves. For instructors, day one brings with it opportunities to spread enthusiasm for favorite subjects and to establish a positive and productive tone that influences the remainder of the course. It’s not uncommon for the importance of this first impression and the experience of walking into a room of unfamiliar faces to create some anxiety. If you’re new to the profession, never fear. Even seasoned instructors can feel anxious walking into class on the very first day of the semester. Instead of looking at those nerves as a hindrance, interpret them instead as a sign that you genuinely care about the course material and students you are about to teach.

Whether you’re flying high on the energy of new beginnings, caught up in last-minute syllabus revisions, or feeling the pressure of establishing a good first impression, we at CTE invite you to relax, grab a cup of tea, and check out these tips for making the most of day one in the classroom.

Dos and Don’ts for the First Day

What NOT to Do

What to Do

Prepare ahead of time!

Make just enough copies of the syllabus

Make extra copies of your syllabus

Wait until the day of your first class to make copies

Copy all materials for the first class ahead of time

Wait until the day of your first class to find the classroom

Preview the teaching environment a few days before your first class

Wing it!

Practice your lesson ahead of time

Make a great first impression!

Dress informally

Dress professionally

Arrive late

Arrive early

Let your students get to know you.

Provide students with little to no information about you

Briefly inform students about your educational and professional background

Don’t introduce yourself at all

Tell students what you want them to call you and how to pronounce your name; invite students to get in contact with you and tell them how best to do it

Show little to no enthusiasm for the course

Generate enthusiasm for the course; briefly relate your personal interest in the course content.

Get to know your students.

Show little to no interest in getting to know the students or learning their names

Learn students’ names/nicknames

Consider ice-breakers

  • Social: self-introductions; three-step interviews; self survey
  • Subject matter: specific surveys; course expectations or concerns


Do not collect any personal information on students

Collect student information and/or interests (index cards, survey, etc.)

Teach on the first day.

Distribute a vague, brief, or unclear syllabus

Distribute a comprehensive, well structured syllabus

Simply hand out the syllabus

“Teach” the syllabus, drawing particular attention to the most important items; develop a creative way to go over the material

Overwhelm students with too much information

Introduce the course topic and/or some initial material

Do not engage with the course topic or material in any way

Incorporate an activity that allows students to engage with the course topic

Do not provide students with the opportunity to ask questions

Invite students to ask questions and participate

Set the tone for the entire semester.

Let students leave early

Make productive use of entire class period

Set a negative tone for the semester

Model the expectations and behaviors you want to establish in your classroom for the semester


Find more helpful tips on teaching and learning here.

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Welcome to The Flourishing Academic, the newest online resource produced by Duquesne University’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE). We, the staff of CTE, are entering the blogosphere in order to increase community and conversation surrounding our favorite topic: teaching. The Flourishing Academic is a multi-voice blog devoted to exploring the question, “How can we as teacher-scholars thrive in academia?” and featuring posts on teaching and learning by CTE staff, faculty guest bloggers, and participants in our Certificate of University Teaching. The blog will also highlight outstanding Duquesne teacher-scholars through brief monthly interviews. We hope you visit us often, comment actively, and teach enthusiastically!

Stay tuned as we publish new resource pages and begin posting on a regular basis . . .

Duq D


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