The Flourishing Academic

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

It Was Never Just: On Student Activism and Racism (A Reader)

Source: It Was Never Just: On Student Activism and Racism (A Reader)

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Pedagogy and Micro-Resistance: A Strategy for the College Classroom

by Jess Dunn Instructional Consultant for TAs in the Center for Teaching Excellence at Duquesne University

The microcosm of the university can produce wonderful moments of introspection, encounter, and exchange but it can also produce terrible moments of oppression, aggression and interpersonal rupture. Often these terrible moments are not overt acts of racism, sexism, or heterosexism, but subtle expressions of these prejudices or microaggressions. When microaggressions occur in the context of the university classroom, professors and students alike are often frozen, unsure of what to do or if doing is even possible. One option is to respond to the microaggression with a form of micro-resistance.

Recently, while attending the annual Professional and Organization Development Network (POD) Conference in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to participate in a brief but extremely helpful training session led by Cynthia Ganote, Floyd Chueng, and Tasha Souza on a model of micro-resistance called Opening the Front Door (OTFD). The phrase “opening the front door” is a mnemonic device for the four steps of this model:

Observe:  State in clear, unambiguous language what you see happening.

Think: Express what you think or what you imagine others might be thinking.

Feel: Express your feelings about the situation.

Desire: State what you would like to have happen.

This model was originally developed to help individuals who are the recipients of microaggressions and their allied colleagues to confront and resist these issues in the workplace, along and between various strata of power and hierarchy.  The strength of this model is that it encourages direct and transparent communication while offering clear goals and instructions for how to proceed after the problem has been stated. It is also an incredibly flexible model which allows for a range of responses that are more or less confrontational depending on the environment, the power dynamic, and the interpersonal style of the individual. As suggested by someone in the session who is much quicker on the draw than myself, this strength and flexibility make it ideal for the classroom environment.

The following is an example of what this method might look like employed by a professor in an undergraduate classroom:


“I notice that, whenever we are talking about the impact of living in a low income environment on mental health a number of you refer to Brianna.” (Brianna is the only African American student in the class. She has mentioned in class, that she was inspired to go into psychology by her mother who is a neurologist.)


“I think that this might be happening because assumptions are being made about her background based on racial stereotypes that conflate socioeconomic status and race.”


“I am frustrated that Brianna continues to be spoken about in a way that is inconsistent with her lived experience and I am concerned that important aspects of what we have explored in class so far have not been attended to.”


“I want everyone in this class to be seen as a whole and complex person and treated thoughtfully and with respect. I would also like us all to be able to apply the information and ideas that we’ve discussed in class to our everyday lives and interactions.”

What this form of micro-resistance does is confront a classroom dynamic directly while minimizing embarrassment of individual students, including the recipient of the micro-aggression. It also takes the opportunity to couch the issues in terms of the specific content and over-reaching goals of the course. Finally, it expresses clear goals for how the problem will be addressed in the future as well as affirming a positive goal for the class as a whole, not just the individual student. Though this method by no means makes standing up and confronting microaggressions easy or risk-free, having tools at the ready makes us more likely to act and helps to promote intentional responses as opposed to knee-jerk reactions.

You’re invited to raise questions or give suggestions about resisting microaggressions in the classroom in the comments section. The Flourishing Academic wants to hear from you as do your colleagues!


Ganote, Cynthia, Cheung, Floyd, & Souza, Tasha, (2015) Don’t remain silent! Strategies for supporting colleagues via micro-resistance and ally development. Back to the Future: 40th Annual POD Conference.

Links to Other Relevant Posts

Engaging Race in the Classroom

Engaging Race in the Classroom Part 2: Writing About Race

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

Breaking the Glass Slipper

Students as Moral Teachers





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“But I’m not an Advisor. I’m an Educator”: Using your Advisement Role to Educate, Develop, and Guide your Students to Academic Success.

by Dr. Fawn Robinson Academic Advisor, Duquesne University

Each year, faculty members receive a list of student advisees that they are supposed to work with for at least one academic year. However, many faculty members are not trained to be advisors and they rely heavy on academic advisors to maintain a vital student relationships. Some faculty members even think that advising can only take place in Student Affairs professional offices or between a doctoral student and a Dissertation Chair. This is simply not true. Receiving advising and mentoring from faculty can be one of the most important aspects of the college experience for all students (e.g., undergraduates, second degrees, graduates, and doctoral students) (McArthur, 2005; Wiseman & Messitt, 2010).

So, what is a faculty advisor?

A faculty advisor is a faculty member who is assigned to students by their department to establish a faculty-student advising relationship in effort to retain students and assist them transition within the career. This faculty–student relationship is a mentorship which consists of reaching out and meeting with students. The meetings can occur outside of the classroom or office to bring a unique style to the conversation. I can remember in college there was a professor who would meet his students at the local Wendy’s. As a young student, I found it very bizarre. Why would a faculty member want to meet with his students at a restaurant? Even though, I didn’t understand the meaning, I secretly wanted to join the meetings. I wanted to be a part of the group and listen to this amazing conversation that so many students flocked to at least twice a week.

When does the Student Affairs relationship end and the Faculty Advisor begin?

It is a continuous cycle. Academic Advisors connect with students and assist them in their matriculation through college. They review program plans, help with registration, and navigate the policies. Faculty, instructors, and teaching assistants are experts in their particular fields and sharing their knowledge is valuable for the development of students within their specific major(s). The academic advisor and faculty advisor relationships are the bridge to greater success and built on learning opportunities.  These advising meetings should be used to guide students in their academic and professional career paths.

How can faculty members establish a stronger faculty-student advising relationship?

1) Keep in mind that faculty- student advising meetings are learning opportunities for students. Using meeting times to share your expertise can be influential for students and their career development.

2) Talk to your students – Students are just as scared of you as you are of communicating with them. Take a moment to teach them the appropriate communication skills by role modeling these skills.

3) Learn the program curriculum – Students like to know about their academic program plans and your class is not the only class in the program. Therefore, make sure you know the basics of your program curriculum so you can answer questions. You do not have to know the entire program plan but you should be knowledgeable on the general aspects of the curriculum.

4) Have a list of career paths ready! – This is your cheat sheet of graduate programs and employment opportunities when students ask you about the field and their possible next steps.

5) Think outside the box – Meeting in your office is great. However, think about having meetings with students at the local coffee shop or restaurant near campus. Students want to know that you are a real person.

6) Time is really not an issue – Taking five minutes to speak to or email a student can go a long way for the faculty-student relationship and a once a month/semester meeting can be powerful in the development of the students

With these few tips, educators can create a positive and effective advising environment for students and establish a great faculty- student advising relationship. Students are sponges and if you provide the knowledge, they will absorb it. That is the true purpose and benefit of the faculty-student advising relationship; to provide expertise, to educate students, to develop students personally and professionally, and to guide students as they transition within their field.

For further insight on the topic of faculty advising: refer to the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) website

McArthur, R. (2005). Faculty based advising: An important factor in community college retention. Community College Review, 32(4), 1.
Wiseman, C. S., & Messitt, H. (2010). Identifying Components of a Successful Faculty-Advisor Program. NACADA Journal, 30(2), 35-52.

Bio: Dr. Fawn T. Robinson is a Counselor Educator and Student Affairs Professional with 15 years of experience in higher education. Currently, Dr. Robinson is working as an Academic Advisor for Duquesne University.

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From Observation to Quantification: A Reflection on Spiritan Pedagogy

by Matt Kostek, Assistant Professor at Duquesne University, Rangos School of Health Sciences, Physical Therapy Department$fullname

Begin with the end in mind is a mantra worthy of reflection before beginning any meaningful project.  Yet in teaching, as in life, there are times when we just observe.  If uncertain of the goal, observation not only yields discoveries but can help us learn the landscape or define the question.  In teaching, however, we are told that we need concise learning objectives.  Objectives can be measured as a learning outcome, which is important not just because the accrediting bodies tell us so, but because outcomes tells us if we are accomplishing our goal – student learning.  To improve outcomes, we can change our teaching:  modify presentation style or content, add new assignments, or use analogies to which students can relate.  This is something that all good professors are trying to accomplish to varying degrees in different classes.  This was my initial interest when I heard about discussions on campus regarding Spiritan Pedagogy.  I think it was an email that I normally would have just deleted, but because it seemed like a perfect opportunity to learn about the Spiritan Charism and about pedagogy I decided to attend.

The discussion groups and panel presentations were informative and intriguing and upon reflection, led to new insights.  I thought I found something useful but was not sure what to do with it.  Some of the concepts like openness to the spirit, global concern, and concern for the poor seemed like noble topics and ideas that would be good to instill in this generation of college students.  But I didn’t see how I was going to use these ideas in my basic life-science lecture class of over 100 students.   The discussion groups, for me, were an idea generator.   I set out to trial a few of these ideas with my large lecture class.

I attempted to incorporate physiologic descriptions of organ function with new examples– Spiritan inspired examples.  For instance, I described kidney or pulmonary (lung) function coupled with the fact that most insurance companies do not pay for pulmonary rehabilitation or that a disproportionate number of African Americans suffer from chronic kidney disease and that their socioeconomic status is likely contributing to disease severity.  Keep in mind, these issues are not typically discussed when teaching cellular organ function at this level.  So these stories were mostly side notes to the main lecture topics.  My idea was to bring awareness of current situations that affect the poor and under-served in a context that relates to human physiology.  The lectures seemed to go well and I received some positive feedback in the form of questions and discussion during and after those lectures.  I did not attempt, however, to quantify outcomes, it was exploratory and I was observing.  There were no test questions relating to these topics and no request to address this on my SES (student evaluation survey) reports.  Yet, I did receive a few comments expressing confusion as to why these topics were even mentioned, they seemed distracting, and didn’t appear on tests.  Thus, while stimulating thought I was unable to convey with clarity the import of these issues in the context of human physiology.

What I observed using Spiritan pedagogy inspired techniques is that they are feasible in a large classroom.  But if I want to know about the effectiveness of these techniques, I will need to consider what I am trying to accomplish.  If I want students to understand and assimilate these ideas or, at the very least, not confuse them then I need them on board with the idea and the intended outcome.  If the examples are to be seen as important and relevant, then they should be evaluated (e.g. test or quiz questions).  Evaluation emphasizes the importance, encourages understanding through study, and gives a quantifiable result.  The result can be used to modify the approach.  This “closes the loop” as our accreditors might like to say.  Spiritan pedagogical techniques can, I think, be incorporated into any classroom but until we know what we are trying to accomplish, it will be difficult for us or our students to know when we have reached the goal.


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How Am I Doing? How to Have Meaningful Conversations with Students about Class Process

by Jess Dunn, Instructional Consultant at the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence07Teachers-t_span-articleLarge

Mid-term is a difficult time for professors and students. Both experience the sensation of time moving far too quickly coupled with the illusion that the end of the semester is an ever-retreating horizon. The excitement that characterized the beginning of the semester starts to wane and disenchantment sets in. It is at this point in the semester when I am filled with the most doubt: about the course, my teaching abilities, and the students. Thus, around mid-term, I open up a discussion with students around what is helping or hindering their process of thinking, learning, and creating. The focus of this discussion is not on course content but on the process of student learning and development. It involves asking questions about how students learn, about how professors teach, and, finally, how we are working together to create an environment that makes teaching and learning possible

Often, however, when you try to open this discussion, you are met with blank stares and silence. It may be tempting to take that as a sign that everything is great or that students simply don’t care. But it is far more likely that students are not comfortable entering into a conversation with a professor that feels like a confrontation. That is because students are savvy. They have been students for a long time and they know tPanopticonhe score. Whether or not they have read their Foucault, they know intuitively and through experience that the classroom is awash with technologies of discipline. Visibility in the classroom can too often be met with punishment in the form of shaming, grade reduction, and additional work. So, how do you get students to engage openly in this conversation, in the classroom, with you? How do you go about opening up the discussion when students tend toward silence in the face of authority especially when that face is asking for feedback that may not be entirely to its liking?

For starters, you can prepare for the discussion with the same gusto as any other classroom activity, assessment, or presentation. Take the time to prepare discussion questions that address your concerns and goals and invite students to express theirs. You may want to give the students an anonymous mid-semester course evaluation  and review it ahead of time to help you develop your questions accordingly. You also want to make sure that you leave enough class time to devote to this discussion. Five minutes at the end of class on a Friday afternoon is probably not ideal for this purpose. When you and your students feel rushed you are less likely to think clearly and speak cogently and more likely to be irritated, anxious, and defensive. Offering a few stolen minutes at the end of the class can also be interpreted as a lack of genuine concern which discourages students from taking the discussion seriously.

Having prepared, the most important thing you can do is enter into the discussion from a position of not knowing. This is not to say that you should feign ignorance in a Columbo-esque ruse to catch your students unaware and get them to confess! You may, however, want to let go of assumptions that you are the expert on how a classroom should be run and instead, position students as the experts on how they learn. Your actions, words, and responses all flow from this position of relinquishing claims to expertise and inform your comportment throughout the discussion. One way to begin the conversation might be to begin with observations about yourself and areas where you see room for improvement. This not only encourages students to help you with your goals as a professor and also shows them the kinds of issues you hope to address, it also models for the students how to take responsibility for their contributions to the classroom and how to offer constructive criticism. Another way to open up this discussion is to normalize the situation. Let them know that all courses can be improved upon and that not every teaching style or process works the same for everyone. You can frame the discussion by introducing the notion of a class as a collaborative project wherein we all have various roles and responsibilities to help create a useful, engaging, and enjoyable experience.conversations

But no matter how you begin your discussion, open-ended questions will likely be the most helpful contribution you can make. Questions that are too specific like, Do I assign too much reading? are often met with yes or no responses and can lead students to respond the way they think you want them to. Open-ended, however, does not mean vague or unfocused. Questions that are too broad, for example, What do you think about the class so far? often overwhelm or confuse students and tend to pull for responses like I like it or It’s really hard. Questions that are “just right” offer a framework for discussion while still leaving room for students to voice their ideas. Some examples of questions that are “just right” in this context might be How can we make better use of out-of-class readings? or If you could change anything about this course so far, what would you change?  If students still offer short, nondescript responses you can ask them to elaborate with questions like: Could you tell me more about that? or How so? By asking questions and pressing students in gentle ways, you can encourage a discussion that not only helps you understand “problems” in the classroom, but possible solutions.

And so, what you get when you engage openly and thoughtfully with your students is more than just an answer to the question, How am I doing? You get a way forward through the mid-semester malaise and feedback that allows you to continue to develop as a professor and help your students to continue to develop as learners, thinkers, and creators.

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The Power of Good Questions

photoby Jerry Minsinger, Supervisor of Student Teachers and Adjunct Professor, Duquesne University, School of Education

This past Spring I had the opportunity to attend the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence Inspired Teaching Retreat: “The Olive Tree Effect.”  Using a future orientation, we explored several questions.  How do we motivate our students?  How do we motivate ourselves?  What are our plans for personal and professional growth?  The retreat encouraged reflection of teaching practices; the readings and content facilitated a constructivist approach to learning.  Multiple perspectives represented by various disciplines and experiences contributed to a healthy dialogue, enriching my capacity to learn and grow.

As a teacher, I have observed students who are disengaged from the text and class discussions.  This can be an albatross or an opportunity.  During the retreat, a discussion of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation challenged me to consider my future purpose as a teacher, and strategies to address disinterest.  How can I model intrinsic motivation and promote personal growth, self-acceptance, and generativity?  How can I increase student engagement in the classroom and inspire students to become personally responsible, self-directed, reflective learners?  

Among the many takeaways of the retreat, I was intrigued by “the power of questions” to build relationships, engage students and facilitate learning.  Effective questions are thought provoking, reflective, and inspirational.  In the best sense, questions are motivational devices that elicit ownership and accountability.  Probing, open-ended questions require thoughtful responses, invite alternative viewpoints, and clarify misconceptions.

Good questions require students to analyze, evaluate, and create new thinking.  Questions are used in formative assessment, during instruction, to determine student understanding.  Powerful questions inform, organize, and require students to elaborate and act on their learning.  Examples include: What are you working on?  Can you provide an example?  Why are you doing this work?  How do you know your work is good?  Would you explain further what you mean?  What do you need to know in order to complete this work?  Where do you go for support?

The quality classroom requires rigorous activities that make learning meaningful and fun.  How does the teacher determine that students have learned?  Has teaching occurred if the students have not learned?  Who controls the learning?  What makes learning interactive and personal?  The benefits of powerful questions are numerous.  Good questions engage students in deeper learning and create energy in the classroom.  This is an adaptive challenge that improves the instructional process.

Rather than “telling” students or providing the “answers,” asking the right questions can lead them to “construct” new learning.  When you involve students in the process, they are more likely to take ownership, invest, and contribute.  Active listening and probing become instructional tools to deepen students’ knowledge.  Effective questions are invitational.  Students learn to hypothesize, connect ideas, and think critically.  Learning becomes authentic when students struggle to find the answer or solution to a problem.

“The power of questions” does not apply only to the classroom and my role as professor. As a parent, raising children is a fluid, evolving and exciting adventure.  Rebellion, challenge, and defiance can erode and disrupt healthy relationships.  I have found that questions are powerful tools in helping to work through difficult situations.  A knee jerk, visceral reaction is to tell, demand, or coerce, using parental directives “in the child’s best interest.”  This strategy often backfires or is resisted, causing further deterioration of the relationship, frustrating the participants.

Asking critical, thoughtful questions and allowing time for reflection, demonstrates care and concern.  Examples include: What is your purpose?  What are the benefits of your actions?  What values are you demonstrating in this decision?  What are some other options?  Why is this important to you?  Dialogue respects and honors the thoughts and ideas of others.  This opens the door to resolutions that are creative, synergistic, and most importantly, owned.

As a spouse, parent, teacher, or friend, powerful questions can help build healthy, enduring relationships.  Try it out.  The next time you find yourself making premature judgments about the motives of others, frustrated by situations out of your control, or worried about issues and events, use open-ended, probing questions.  Listen and inquire before responding.  You will empower others to think critically, reason, and practice personal responsibility.


Jerry Minsinger served 38 years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools; as a principal at various school levels for 25 years.  Currently, Jerry serves as an adjunct professor and supervisor of student teachers in the School of Education at Duquesne University.

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Presence and Single Focus


Laurel Willingham-McLain
Learners – students and faculty alike – are starting a new semester. Here are some thoughts on how I want to approach this new beginning as a learner:
“Full attention is needed for learning.”
“Focus on one task at a time, and you’ll do better at each task in much less time.”
“Typically, research demonstrates that individuals who shift tasks make 50% more errors and spend at least 50% more time on both tasks” (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2013, p. 79, based on Medina, 2008).

As a mother and center director, I had always prided myself on being a so-called ‘multi-tasker’. But lately I have noticed that I reach sensory overload very quickly. I have a very hard time, for example, focusing on a conversation or reading while the radio is on. In fact, I find it painful. My head hurts.

The research is clear. There is no such thing as multitasking – just serial switching, which has detrimental effects on both our work and the brain itself.

Now, of course, if at least one of the tasks is more procedural (repetitive, familiar, and low on cognitive processing), we can do two things at once. I can wash dishes and chat with a friend. Or walk and pray at the same time. But there are many tasks, both personal and work-related that deserve and even require my full attention.

And so, my resolution for this year is to learn to attend to one task at a time – be it a simple or complex task.

If I start to make a cup of tea, I plan to finish without using the intervening two minutes to leave the kitchen and fold the laundry – which inevitably means coming back to a tepid cup of water and starting the process over again. Or forgetting the tea altogether.

However, this resolution is not merely about being more efficient or productive but also about being present to the person I’m with rather than planning the next move in my mind. This focus is essential in other cultures where the present is valued more than the future. This doesn’t come naturally to me. I need to learn how to give very clear signals when I do need to move on from the conversation rather than allowing my mind to drift into giving half of my attention.

For reading and desk work, the pomodoro technique (aka, tomato timer) is a useful tool for attending to those tasks I’m resisting. The cycle of 25 minutes on task followed by a 5 minute break, fits another cognitive science finding: that we need to interweave our learning with “wakeful rest,” or periods of time where we are not taking in new information (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2013, p. 25). We also need physical movement.

The good news is that I just succeeded in a small way. I wrote this blog post without checking email, text messages, or Facebook.

I can do it! So can you.

Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2013). The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Medina, J. (2008). Brian rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.


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