The Flourishing Academic

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

Leave a comment

The Serving Leader: A Book Review

By Rachel Luckenbill, Instructional Consultant for TAs at the Center for Teaching Excellence and English PhD Candidate at Duquesne University

I recently read a book called The Serving Leader (2003) by Ken Jennings and John Stahl-Wert. Though as the cover of the book states the authors focus on “actions that will transform your team, your business and your community,” I was struck by how applicable their ideas are to academia. The authors profess a model of leadership that values excellence and competitiveness without sacrificing attention to the needs and value of people. In this post I offer a review of their book and make some suggestions about how college instructors can be serving leaders.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Jennings and Stahl-Wert present the concept of “serving leaders” through the fictionalized story of a young businessman named Mike who is pursuing reconciliation with his father and attempting to engage with his father’s consulting business as the older man’s health fails. His assignment is to learn about serving leadership and begin to implement it himself. After meeting a series of community leaders from sectors as diverse as education, manufacturing, and military, Mike begins to put together a complete picture of what a serving leader does, all the while realizing that the very principles which make an organization healthy can also breathe new life into a personal relationship. The leadership model outlined in the book has a distinct spiritual component; it relies on principles of altruism and community taught in both the Old and New Testament, but the authors demonstrate the model’s applicability in both secular and faith-based organizations.

The writing is clear and straightforward and the story itself is engaging, but the real value of this book lies in the principles that appear to go against the grain of typical cutthroat corporate practices. Here’s a snapshot of them.

Five Actions of a Serving Leader (pages 100-101):

  • Run to great purpose – lead a team by offering a compelling goal and “reason why”
  • Upend the pyramid – place yourself “at the bottom of the pyramid and unleash the energy, excitement, and talents of the team”
  • Raise the bar – set high expectations and be selective in your choice of team leaders
  • Blaze the trail – teach serving leader principles to others while “removing obstacles to performance”
  • Build on strength – assign each person a role that allows him or her to “contribute what he or she is best at”

As I read the book, I couldn’t help but imagine how this model would play out on a University campus. What would it mean if each one of us tried using our position of authority or power to remove obstacles that stand in the way of our colleagues instead of using that same authority to focus on building our own reputations and CVs? Jennings’ and Stahl-Wert’s model is decidedly communal. They recommend that each leader build an “encouragement group” that provides affirmation and “perseverance” in difficult times (55) and they insist that “if you want to do something that really changes someone’s life, the best thing you can do is make the person you’re trying to help a participant in the process” (57).

Imagine with me for a moment what it would look like to perform as a serving teacher in the classroom:

  • Run to great purpose – both on the syllabus and in class, connect the content and skills your students are learning to a greater purpose such as the learning objectives for the course and the careers and life situations your students anticipate facing outside of school
  • Upend the pyramid – try a student-centered approach, de-centering yourself by employing active learning strategies that involve students in their own learning process rather than positioning them as passive listeners while you lecture
  • Raise the bar – research suggests that the expectations you have for your students will affect their ability to perform: the more optimistic your expectations, the more likely the students are to succeed
  • Blaze the trail – remove obstacles your students might face by scheduling practice sessions at a time and place when you are available, by surveying students at the end of each class to find out which concept was perplexing or unclear and revisiting it at the beginning of the next class, or by encouraging students to reflect on their own work habits and helping them construct environments and practices that promote concentration and productivity
  • Build on strength – while it’s certainly important to help students improve skills they have not yet mastered, try pairing these lessons with either written or verbal comments about each student’s strengths: show students the potential their strengths offer and the next steps they can take based on their already positive progress

I myself have seen this model work outside the classroom as well. I’m currently writing my dissertation and am thankful that the way my committee functions resembles the serving leader model. All three of my committee members have helped me see the greater purpose of my work in building cultural sensitivity; they upend the pyramid by encouraging my own initiatives rather than letting their agendas drive my project; they raise the bar by having high expectations and refusing to allow me to settle for less than what I’m capable of even when I’m tired and discouraged; they blaze the trail by removing obstacles in my path, helping me make valuable connections with colleagues in my field and unraveling perplexing ideas in the theory I study; and whenever I get stuck in a cycle of comparing myself to others, the committee members build on strength by helping me focus instead on the methods and content that make my project unique. I can say from experience that this model makes me a more productive and satisfied graduate student than I would be otherwise.

So as you close out the semester and prepare your courses and committees for the summer and fall, think of ways that you can be a serving leader in your classroom, department, and university communities. Jennings and Stahl-Wert suggest that as you practice serving leadership, you pave the way for productivity and fulfillment for others while moving toward a greater sense of wholeness and accomplishment for yourself.  In the comments below, I invite you to share ways you practice any part of the serving leaders model either in your classroom or organization.

Leave a comment

Keeping Work/Life Balance Alive

By Rachel Luckenbill, Instructional Consultant for TAs at the Center for Teaching Excellence and English PhD Candidate, Duquesne University

Like most of you, I’m in the midst of attempting an impressive balancing act. I’m two years into writing my dissertation, working hard to finish within the next year while presenting at conferences and attempting to prepare an article manuscript for review by a scholarly journal. I have a graduate assistantship at the Center for Teaching Excellence. I’m beginning to prepare job materials since I’ll be on the academic market this coming fall. I’m a newlywed, approaching the four month anniversary and appreciating every day with my husband but realizing that balancing two schedules instead of just one is quite a feat. And then there are the “extracurriculars” that help keep life full and interesting: I play piano for my church, spend time with my adorable two-year-old goddaughter, volunteer, read books, exercise, cook, paint, and more.

Time. There is never enough of it to do all the things that I want and need to do.

balance by Stuart Miles

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles

Two weeks ago, I facilitated a faculty/graduate student workshop at Duquesne University called “Keeping Work/Life Balance Alive.” I found the perspective and advice offered by our four panelists to be realistic, encouraging, and useful. So in today’s post I want to share with you highlights from the workshop in the hope that you will feel better equipped to approach your busy over-full days peacefully and mindfully.

I structured the workshop in response to a December 9, 2014 CNN article titled “Work – Life Balance Is Dead” by Ron Friedman. Friedman questions the value of trying to keep work and personal life separate from one another in an age when we have the option of being always connected to technology. He writes, “We can bemoan the blending of our professional and personal lives, or alternatively, we can look for innovative solutions . . . Workplace flexibility has been linked with a host of positive well-being outcomes, including higher job satisfaction, lower stress, and reduced work-family conflict.” Not everyone has workplace flexibility, but academics often do. I asked participants in the workshop to begin by writing in response to the prompt, “In my life, achieving work/life balance means . . .” so that each person would have a chance to articulate for themselves whether balance means separation, integration or some combination of the two. Following the writing exercise, the four panelists spoke. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Dr. Heather Rusiewicz from Speech-Language Pathology embraces the blending of work and personal life. Her energetic young children often provide apt examples of speech development and she’s thankful for students who enjoy babysitting. She has also sought out quiet places where she can focus intently on work, increasing productivity and freeing her mind for time with family. Heather reminded everyone that loving what you have and being grateful is key to finding a sense of balance and peace in the midst of a busy life.
  • Dr. Ira Buckner from Pharmaceutics tries his hardest not to multitask and prefers to keep some sense of separation between work life and personal life. He recommended that faculty and TAs identify their limits for each task they have. What tasks require excellence, and for which ones is “good enough” sufficient? He recognizes that requiring excellence of yourself for every single task often leads to burnout and a lack of balance between work and personal life.
  • Dr. Sarah Wright from English underscored the importance of “dedicated” work time and “dedicated” personal time. She also called our attention to the importance of daydreaming. Some of the workshop participants talked about feeling guilty if they weren’t always working, but Sarah presented research which suggests that daydreaming and sleeping make our minds more productive. It’s not just okay to rest; it’s good to rest.
  • Dr. Benjamin Burkholder represented both a graduate student and parent perspective. He pointed out that the flexibility of an academic schedule can actually facilitate time with family. When writing his dissertation, Ben would wake up two hours earlier than his daughter so that he could put in solid focused work time and then be completely free to be with family without feeling like the two were competing. He also offered the welcome reminder that taking a day off every now and then doesn’t just help a person relax, it can help a scholar be more mentally productive.

I walked away from the workshop with a sense of relief. Whether balance means building a protective barrier between work and personal life or whether it means deliberately integrating the two, it is possible to find a balance that is meaningful for your own experience. But it takes letting go of the myths which so often persist in academia that those who are most productive are always working or that perfectionism always leads to higher-quality work. So join me today in taking some time to daydream, to sip a cup of tea while listening to the birds, and to get that extra hour of sleep instead of staying up to try and write one more page or finish grading one more exam. The work you do tomorrow may very well depend upon the rest you take today.

Leave a comment

Teachers as Learners

By Elizabeth Pask, M.S. Ed. and current doctoral student in Duquesne University’s School of Education

“Your life as a teacher begins the day you realize you are always a learner.”

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

-Robert John Meehan

How can I teach when I’m still a student myself?  How can I train others in a field I am still learning about? These are questions I pondered as I embarked on my first university teaching experiences at Duquesne.  As a current doctoral student in the field of school psychology, I wondered whether or not I had any expertise, any skill, or even any right to take on the responsibility of training and teaching other students in my field.

I am fresh out of classes and currently on my clinically based internship experience, and also very new to both being a practitioner and teaching at the university level.   As I reflected back on my own graduate school experiences, memories of theories, laws, textbook readings, and case studies were some of the strategies from my foundational courses that were useful in helping me learn how the field ideally works.  The most helpful learning experiences, however, were just that: experiences.   A recent writer for The Flourishing Academic, Dr. Susan Hines, wrote that the best teaching and learning for new and experienced teachers alike happens when you create an experience.  This is what I have been living since school got out, and this is what I have capitalized on in order to inform teaching in my courses.

The last year of my training program is all clinical, real-life experience.  I am actually working as a practitioner in my field, which had initially seemed like an eternity away when I was first starting out.  I am finding that those theories which seem old and dusty in their books are real, and are also not as neatly applied in the trenches as they initially seemed.  I have been learning through my clinical experiences that applying what you learn in the classroom is sometimes messy when the nuances of reality come into play.  For example, students do not fit neatly into special education eligibility categories like they sometimes did in the case studies that were presented in class.  In another instance, nobody ever really discussed what to do after you realize too late that a previously undiscovered complex trauma history was interfering with a child’s abilities to perform well or what implications that has on the way you’re assessing or treating that student.

This reflection and new clinical experience was what helped me to shape my teaching approach.  I wanted to dust off those theories, get them out of their books, and practice them with my students.  I realized that I have the perfect opportunity to do so in this training year.  I am able to use actual instances, complex cases, and my own mistakes to create applied, field based experiences to use as a major teaching tool.  I realized that I could use my own learning and growing process and translate it to a practical experience.  I also quickly realized that my students and I were learning together.

As a result of being able to use my clinical experience, my philosophy of teaching has been shaped into an action-oriented one, in which I ensure an understanding of theoretical groundwork for the course, provide structured and supervised practice, and assess using real life applications.  I believe that sufficient knowledge of theory is imperative for foundational understandings of the world of education at any level; however, I have often found that theory is lost without application and action, which includes both knowledge and skills that later foster and cultivate practice in the ‘real world.’

Instead of feeling less able because I’m still “just a student,” I embraced the opportunities I had and translated them into learning tools for all of us.  I was fortunate to make this realization at the outset of my teaching career.  My unique position as a practitioner who teaches will always afford me the opportunity to keep being a student so that I can continue using my practical experience to teach other future leaders in the field.

Now it’s your turn: in the comments below I invite you to share a “real-life” experience that both complicated and deepened the knowledge you teach in the classroom.

Leave a comment

Helping Students Learn from Returned Tests

This teaching and learning tip has been compiled by Dr. Steven Hansen, Associate Dir. of Faculty Development at Duquesne University’s Center for Teaching Excellence

With approximately one month left in the semester it’s not too late to adopt a new practice that could increase your students’ learning gains. In this post, Dr. Hansen uncovers some simple ways to help students see beyond their test scores and examine their own learning process. Visit CTE’s webpage for more teaching and learning tips.


Image courtesy of artur84 at

Exam wrappers, post-test surveys, and error analysis exercises are useful tools to help your students to learn from returned exams and to perform better on future tests.

“All too often when students receive back a graded exam, they focus on a single feature – the score they earned. Although this focus on ‘the grade’ is understandable, it can lead students to miss out on several learning opportunities that such an assessment can provide.” (Ambrose, et al, 2010)

The next time you return a test or exam, consider assigning your students an exercise to help them learn from the test.

What can students learn from an Exam Wrapper, Post-Test Survey or Error Analysis Exercise?

In the Error Analysis Exercise outlined by Du Bois and Staley (1997), students analyze their wrong answers to find three dimensions:

  1. Students “identify the informational source(s) of the questions” that they missed. Did the information come from the text, lecture, other source, or a combination of sources?
  2. Students then “identify the strategies they should have employed to make information more meaningful and memorable.” Did the students have the information marked in their text? Were their notes about the topic sufficient for review?
  3. “Once students identify error patterns on our test, they generate a study plan to repair the deficiencies encountered in the analysis.”

What are some examples of Exam Wrappers or Post-Test Surveys?

Sample Exam Wrapper for a physics course might include the following:

1. Approximately how much time did you spend preparing for this exam? ______2  What percentage of your test-preparation was spent in each of these activities?a. Reading textbook section(s) for the first time ______b. Rereading textbook section(s) ______

c. Reviewing homework ______

d. Solving problems for practice ______

e. Reviewing your own notes ______

f. Reviewing materials from course website ______

g. Other _______

(Please specify) _______________________________

3. Now that you have looked over your graded exam, estimate the percentage of points you lost due to each of the following.

a. Trouble with vectors and vector notation ___________

b. Algebra or arithmetic errors __________

c. Lack of understanding of the concept __________

d. Not knowing how to approach the problem ________

e. Careless mistakes _______

f. Other ________

(Please specify) ___________

4. Based on your responses to the questions above, name at least three things you plan to do differently in preparing for the next exam. For instance, will you spend more time studying, change a specific study habit or try a new one (if so, name it), make math more automatic so it does not get in the way of physics, try to sharpen some other skill (if so, name it), solve more practice problems, or something else?

5. What can we do to help support your learning and your preparation for the next exam?

(From Ambrose, et al, 2010)

A General Post-Test Survey might include the following items:
(This survey is from

Part I — How did you Study for the Exam

1. Which part of the exam was easiest for you? Why?2. Which part of the exam was most difficult? Why?3. Activities completed prior to exam (answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’):a. All required reading assignments

b. Review of lecture notes

c. Make study sheets from reading and lecture notes

d. Self-testing/reciting of material

e. Prediction of possible questions

f. Study with friends

g. Other:____________________________

4. Which of the above did you find most helpful in preparing for this exam?

5. How many hours did you spend preparing for the exam? On how many different days did you study?

6. Did you feel prepared when you walked into the exam? Why or why not?

7. How might you study for the next exam in this course differently than you studied for this exam?


Part II — Identify the Problems You Had with the Exam

1. Write the number of each item you missed in the top row of the chart.
2. Check each sentence that fits the missed question.
3. Total the checks in each row.
4. Look at the sentences with the highest totals and decide what you can do to get a better test score next time.
Question Incorrect          # Totals
Insufficient Information
The information was not in my notes.
I studied the information but could not remember it.
I knew the main ideas but not details.
I knew the information but could not apply it.
I studied the wrong information.
I did not read the text thoroughly.
Test Anxiety
I spent too much time daydreaming.
I was so tired I could not concentrate.
I was so hungry I could not concentrate.
I panicked.
I experienced mental block.
Lack of Test-Wisdom
I did not eliminate grammatically incorrect choices.
I did not make the best choice.
I did not notice limiting words.
I did not notice a double negative.
I carelessly marked a wrong choice.
Test Skills
I misread the directions.
I made poor use of the time provided.
I wrote poorly organized responses.
I wrote incomplete responses.
I changed a correct answer to a wrong one.

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C. & Noman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Du Bois, N. F., & Staley, R. K. (1997): “A Self-Regulated Learning Approach to Teaching Educational Psychology. Educational Psychology Review 9 (2): 171-197.

Leave a comment

The High Call of Being an Educator

By Richard “Lanny” Wilson, Theology Ph.D. Candidate  at Duquesne University Lanny Wilson
Lanny has a lovely wife and three young and energetic children that keep him very busy. 

Satisfaction is the best way I can describe it. When you get that letter, or email, or evaluation where the student says something like, “This class has positively changed how I think.” I had a student write a similar statement in a reflection assignment not too long ago. My first thought was equal parts embarrassment and exhilaration. My next thought was that I hope they weren’t just trying to “butter me up.” Nevertheless, I just took the student at their word. The emotional impact hit me in a one-two punch.

First, elation. Wow, a student thought my class changed their mind!

Second, anxiety. Oh, no! What have I done? Did I change their mind for the better? Don’t get me wrong. I was thankful for being a vessel of change. I was thankful for such a wonderful opportunity. For such a terrifyingly wonderful opportunity.

This moment exposed to me the gravity of what it means to be an educator. As an instructor I really do have an impactful influence over other minds. What an awesome responsibility! What an awesome privilege! As instructors, we have an obligation to give these students our all. They are not peripheral to our mission – they are our mission. We exist to serve them. And we do this by challenging their ways of thinking. We push back against bias and ignorance. We expose poor ideas and present alternative concepts to fill the void. We encourage, exhort, and extol them to do better and to achieve their inherent potential.

As educators we are in a never-ending cycle of preparatory work. We are constantly learning, developing, and sharpening our positions. We make mental notations of what works in lecture and what does not. The next time we cover that subject we try and get it “more right” than we did before. We attend and participate in conferences and workshops ever in search of better, more effective strategies to help our students. We often have long, lonely nights grading or prepping material. Frequently this is done with little-to-no thanks. Perhaps that’s why it is so encouraging when a student seemingly acknowledges all of your hard work – even when it may seem like a throwaway comment at the time.

As educators we understand the importance of shaping the minds of the next generation of students. Our students may not comprehend our sacrifice and dedication; nevertheless, they will base life-altering decisions on what we teach them. They will apply what they learn in our classes. Hence, we need to teach them well. We have the privilege and honor of influencing the next generation of citizens and scholars. Even with the “mid-semester” fatigue setting in and student apathy on the rise, let us continue to be teachers of excellence – guiding students the way we were, or would want to be guided; genuinely caring for them as people of immeasurable worth; shepherding them through the hazardous labyrinth of academia – so that when the time comes they will be able to navigate the rough waters of life.

Ask yourself, what teacher had a profound influence on you? How did their class(es) shape who you became? How different may your life have been had you never crossed their path? Likewise, how do you think you influence your students? What would they say about you if given a dose of “truth serum”? Give them every reason to think of you in the best possible way. I had a professor in seminary that greatly influenced the tenor and path of my own educational journey. He was a brilliant individual who could move effortlessly between hermeneutical theory to metaphysics to philosophical theology and all the while crack jokes to both engage students and illustrate his points. It was really something to behold. And at the end of the day he genuinely cared for his students. He was a striking example of someone who could both effectively communicate profound intellectual notions and nurture students on a more personal level. He not only counseled and encouraged me in pursuing further education, but exemplified the type of teacher – the type of person – I want to be.

For better or worse, teachers wield a tremendous amount of power in the lives of their students. Sure, we want our students not only to grow in knowledge and get better jobs, but we want them to become better people. We want our students to have genuinely fulfilling lives. It is my hope and prayer that we be constantly aware of our motivations. Never forget to put the student’s interest’s first, if for no other reason than this is the high calling of being an educator.

How has a teacher influenced you? What did they do, or how did they act that made such an impact? We would love to see your story in the comments below.

1 Comment

When Questions Are the Answer

By Dr. Danielle A. St. Hilaire, Assistant Professor of English and Interim Director of First-Year Writing at Duquesne Danielle St. HilaireUniversity

In my training of new graduate teaching fellows, a frequent topic of conversation is class discussion: how can we, as teachers, encourage students who seem reluctant to participate to be more involved in classroom conversations. There are no magic bullets here, but I thought I’d share my experience in dealing with this problem and one approach that developed out of that experience—an approach that not only encouraged greater participation, but also, I think, fostered a culture of inquiry in the classroom.

In a previous job, I had two sections of the same class, which I taught back-to-back. The first section was exceptionally quiet: every question I asked was met with a prolonged silence, to the point where it was difficult to advance through the text because no one but me was willing to talk about it. My second section was the opposite—talkative, even boisterous. The disparity was so glaring that, after three weeks of struggling forward with the first section, I decided it was time to have a conversation with those students. Why, I asked, were they so reluctant to respond to my questions in class? The answers I got boiled down to fear: the students in my first section felt so unsure of their comprehension of the texts (which admittedly were not easy), they were afraid to venture answers to my questions—for fear of appearing “stupid” both to me and to their peers.

After talking with them for a while and brainstorming some possible solutions to help them get over their fear of putting their ideas on the table, I decided to try something new: instead of me coming in with discussion questions, I made the students responsible for coming up with the questions, and then we as a class together would try to wrestle with some answers. I started asking students to come in with 5-6 questions they had about the reading each day, then to work in groups: which questions could they help each other solve, and which seemed harder to answer? Then we tackled the harder questions as a class, making a discussion out of grappling with the things that genuinely confused the students.

The class relaxed visibly when I turned to this approach, and conversation improved immediately—again, not in a magic-bullet kind of way, but my students became more wiling to overcome their fear of participation.  This worked, I think, for a couple of reasons. First, if the questions are coming from the students rather than from me, we avoid the problem where students suspect I’m looking for a particular “right” answer. This alleviated a certain amount of fear of being “wrong.” Second, it’s easier to ask a question than to find an answer, because it feels like the stakes are lower. Of course, having students bringing discussion questions to class is a well-known tool in the teacherly toolkit, but making these questions the center of the class—making them drive the entirety of the conversation—meant that the subject of the class shifted from the text and to how to inquire into the text.

As time went on, I realized that this approach needed more structure to be entirely successful. Not all questions are created equal: asking “How old was Milton when he wrote Paradise Lost?” is a very different thing from asking why a poem with an explicitly religious purpose would open by presenting a very sympathetic-seeming Satan. For these lessons to work, we needed to have a conversation about the different kinds of questions a person can ask about texts we were reading. So I asked the students to look at their group questions and to develop a taxonomy. What would it take to answer each question—closer reading of the text, or research outside the text? Which questions seem like they will have single, right answers, and which seem like they could be answered more than one way? Once we’d discussed the different kinds of questions they were asking, I was able to direct them towards the kind that are specific to the discipline of literary study, while at the same time validating the other kinds of questions as legitimate topics of inquiry in other settings. No questions were “bad,” but some were better suited to the task we were engaged in than others. And now the students could start to understand how to frame their inquiry to be most productive in class.

I’ve adapted this approach in subsequent classes, and I like the results I get: in classes where I use this approach, I consistently have more engaged students who seem more excited about the material than I see in my more traditional classes. When I reflect on why this might be, I come to the conclusion that my question-based classes teach inquiry and are thereby much more empowering than my other classes. By focusing on asking questions first and then working in class together to find answers, I am trying to overcome the misperception that not-knowing is a disabling problem or a sign of deficiency. Instead, I want students to see what all of us who engage in scholarly work know: that not-knowing is the first step on the way to greater knowing. Not-knowing means that you have a question: and questions are how we get to answers. We learn through questions. By putting the emphasis on these rather than on answers, we can show students who are afraid to answer that it’s okay to ask, and thereby move forward together.

1 Comment

Engaging Race in the Classroom Part 3: Exploring Race and Pedagogy at our Predominantly White University

By Erin Rentschler, Program Manager at the Center for Teaching Excellence; English PhD Candidate, Duquesne University

I left this workshop, which I facilitated with Emad Mirmotahiri, simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted. The turn-out was amazing; the conversation insightful and committed. But I openly acknowledged that our session would only scratch the surface and I continue to wonder whether that scratch will have any real effect. As Allie’s and Rachel’s posts already suggest, talking about race is hard, personal, emotional work. I do believe, though, that this work can transform a scratch in the surface to a dent in the structure. I want to highlight here some of the strategies that emerged through the workshop. My hope is that words evolve into work that causes dents, and that our communal dent-making can loosen the structures that impede productive dialogues about race.

One of the top strategies was that of telling your own story, which might mean sharing an anecdote about a pivotal event that shifted your way of thinking about race or positioning yourself racially in terms of your scholarship. As Allie’s post captures, the amazing thing about stories is that they offer a vehicle to model strategies for engaging in race talk. To open the session, for example, Emad told the story of a white friend who wondered, after attending a Persian wedding, why Persians tended to befriend and marry only other Persians. When Emad questioned this observation, pointing to the way that white people also tend to befriend and marry only white people, the friend’s observation was telling: “But it’s different.”  The response is telling because, as Emad explains, “it evidences one of the most challenging and beguiling problems of race these days, which is no longer […] racism; it is, rather, the spectrality (invisibility is not precise, actually) of whiteness. Whiteness–as a formation, not a community–has come to characterize itself as innocent of race, outside of it, over it, beyond it, immune to its torments, exempt from its responsibilities. It doesn’t see itself as a term in the structure of race.” Emad’s story illuminated the necessity of including whiteness in discussions of race—even if, or perhaps precisely because, it might make people uncomfortable.

During the workshop several participants talked about the growth that can come with discomfort. But situating students at this learning edge can be tricky. Many of the session’s participants talked about the delicate balance of creating a safe space while also challenging students to examine their own assumptions. Like others at the workshop noted, creating a space in which we’re allowed to be vulnerable by admitting to our own mistakes (and acknowledging that our conversation will likely lead to more) can ease some of the discomfort. As a white woman studying and teaching multi-ethnic literature about the Vietnam War, I talk with my students about how I struggle with my positionality: what right do I have to be making claims about how literature represents the war, the minority-group soldiers who fought it, or the way in which our national culture represents—or fails to represent—them?  I’ve been afforded opportunities to talk about my work with diverse groups of people in and out of the academy. It can be intimidating, and sometimes I overgeneralize so that I won’t have to engage too deeply and stick my foot in my mouth. But lately I’ve been more direct and I’ve learned so much more from the conversations that follow. Sharing these experiences models for students a productive vulnerability.

To emphasize that our conversation is a shared learning experience, I use a concrete comparison that addresses my students’ desires to be “politically correct” and also helps them overcome the fear of appearing racist. When we begin a conversation about race I say,

 “We’re going to have a complex conversation today/this week/this semester because we’re talking about race, identity, and Broken eggprivilege. Often these conversations might feel like we’re walking on a carton of eggs, choosing our words carefully so as not to break any. Well, I’m probably going to break some eggs because the complexity involved in race dialogues doesn’t go away. If I break some eggs today, I hope you’ll help me clean up the mess. Breaking the eggs doesn’t mean we’ve failed—it just means we have more work to do, and I want us to work together.”

Using this metaphor helps me to remain in a mindset that focuses on facilitating rather than fixing students’ conversations about race. Students can become resistant and defensive if they think that their words or actions are being judged, devalued, or viewed as offensive. This type of resistance can shut down conversations or relegate them to the superficial or non-productive. Approaching students empathetically helps to keep the lines of communication open.  When conversations reach a sticking point or the room becomes too quiet, I can focus our attention by raising the question, “do we have some eggs to clean up?”

Raising the question about my role in the field of multiethnic literature of the Vietnam War also illuminates the complexity and value of both intra-racial and inter-racial dialogues and it enables me to be empathetic to their fears and hesitations. I talk with my students about the difficulty of choosing words, especially those that refer to groups of people, and I model for them the careful, critical thought that goes into those decisions. This was described by workshop participants as providing context and equipping students with a lexicon for talking about race in a productive and informed manner. Prefacing Linda Alcoff’s idea of “speaking with” and not “speaking for” marginalized groups and then historicizing the importance of not letting the work of race dialogues fall on people of color helps centralize whiteness as a subject position that needs to be examined. I describe how reading the fiction of those who are not white isn’t about being a passive observer of the world of an “other” but about how the text is speaking to us as an individual whose actions and reactions can effect change. How, in other words, does the reading implicate us in the very systems it works to dislodge?

Being implicated can arouse feelings of shame and guilt, but it also signals that there’s room for growth, change, and action. In other words, being part of a system means we can also be part of the change. As was articulated in the workshop, the goal is to implicate, not incriminate. Stories can help students (especially in predominantly white classrooms) understand the intersections between their lives and those of others and to see more clearly their potential as change agents in their communities.

Perhaps you’re not sure that storytelling will work for you. Here are some other strategies that emerged from the workshop:

  • Ask students what challenges they face when talking about race. Share their answers (anonymously) and work together to develop some solutions.
  • Be thoughtful and intentional when planning your reading lists. Don’t simply include diverse authors. Integrate identity into the conversation through historical context, current events, etc. Remember, discussing whiteness is discussing race.
  • Make material relevant, personal, and engaging by taking advantage of events happening on or around campus (e.g., film screenings, guest speakers, arts exhibits, and other excursions)
  • Reach out to others, especially outside your field. Cross-disciplinary conversation provides fresh perspectives and can work to build confidence in engaging difficult dialogues.

Part of the reason that the workshop was draining is that for as many solutions as it illuminated, it also raised a lot of questions. As we often urge our students, though, asking questions leads to learning. New questions create energy that inspires dent-making. So…what questions remain for you?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 762 other followers