The Flourishing Academic

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


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Presence and Single Focus

Luarel

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.

References
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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What’s your name again?

We all know how difficult it is to memorize the names of our students. Especially after several years of teaching it can seem as though we’re seeing similar faces each semester. But addressing a student as “you there in the second row” or calling them Jake when they’ve insisted multiple times they prefer Jacob can convey poor listening skills or a lack of care. Begin your semester with good first impressions by making every effort to learn student names within the first few weeks. Be candid with your students about how difficult it is to learn new names when you’re teaching three or four classes or one or two large classes. But make a concerted effort to show students that you care about creating quality faculty-student interactions. Check out the teaching and learning tip below prepared by Dr. Steven Hansen on this very subject:

Learning Student Names by Dr. Steven Hansen, Associate Director for Faculty Development, Center for Teaching

Image courtesy of Sicha Pongjivanich at Freedigitalphotos.net.

Image courtesy of Sicha Pongjivanich at Freedigitalphotos.net.

Excellence, Duquesne University

Instructors who learn their students’ names and use them in class build better student-faculty rapport, decrease the number of student absences, and bolster student participation (Sleigh & Ritzer, 2001).

“While it is difficult to learn students’ names in large classes,
an earnest attempt and even moderate success doing so,
is extremely salient to students.”

Here are some strategies that can help you to learn and remember student names:

1.   Make it a priority

” Focusing on any goal is the first step towards making it happen” (Mckinney, 2006).

2.  Study your course roster before the first class

Begin familiarizing yourself with the students’ names.  If you can memorize the roster of names, associating the faces of students with the names becomes easier.  At the first class, tell students to give you their last name and then you tell them their first name

3.  Get to know something about each student

Many Duquesne faculty members distribute blank index cards and ask students to give their name, nickname, hometown, major, year in school, etc.  I liked to ask students to tell me something about themselves such as hobbies, pets, favorite foods, etc.

A variation on the student index card is to have students make a passport for the second class:

“This is an exercise in creativity and an opportunity for you to get to know about the student as well as their name. Using an old notecard, have the student make a passport or document that tells about them. They must include a personal picture (a snapshot is okay), some information about their likes and dislikes, and something about where they have been and where they are going. This is especially helpful later, when the student calls and asks for a recommendation…you can use the card to jog your memory.” (Middendorf, 1997)

4. Include the class in learning names

“The student sitting at one of the corner desks at the front of the room begins by taking the first letter of their name and selecting an adjective that begins with the same letter. Examples include: ‘Gross Greg’ or ‘Awesome Alicia.’ The second person has to repeat the first person’s name preceded by its alliterative adjective and then gives their own. The third person repeats from the beginning and adds her own moniker to the game. When all of the students have participated I recount them all back by adding my own name at the end. It may or may not be your cup of tea, but it’s an effective device that is always good for a few laughs.”  (Middendorf, 1997)

5.  Use nametags or name tents, and /or a seating diagram

If remembering names is difficult for you, have students make a name tent to display at their desk or design a seating chart that reflects the arrangement of the seats in the room.  Some faculty members ask students to keep the same seat until they have memorized students’ names and faces.

6. Schedule group meetings

“I teach a class of 72-75 students every spring. Starting with the second week of class, for one week I have small group meetings with seven students at a time. I learn a little about them and they learn one another’s names. I take their picture as a group as well.”  (Middendorf, 1997)

Now it’s your turn to share. What strategies have you tried that have helped you retain those ever elusive student names?

Resources:

Mckinney, Mary. (2006). Learning your students’ names. Tomorrow’s Professor #752

Middendorf, Joan. (1997). Learning student names. The National Teaching and Learning Forum

Sleigh, Merry and Ritzer, Darren. (November 2001). Encouraging Student Attendance. Association for Psychological Science Observer.


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Appreciation

thank you

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles, freedigitalphotos.net

Happy teacher appreciation week and happy summer break! The Flourishing Academic will be taking the summer off and returning at the start of the fall semester to welcome the new academic year with all of you.

In honor of teacher appreciation week I wanted to say a special thank you to all of the teacher-scholar writers that have made this first year of our blog a success! Thank you for the diversity and depth of perspectives and ideas you shared with all of us. It’s been both inspiring and fun to work with each of you.

Jeryl Benson
Danielle St. Hilaire
Susan Hines
Steven Hansen
Leslie Lewis
Rachel Luckenbill
Jessica McCort
Michael McGravey
Jerry Minsinger
Elizabeth Pask
James Purdy
Cheryl Read
Erin Rentschler
Allie Reznik
Heather Rusiewicz
Matthew Srnec
Sarah Wallace
Laurel Willingham-McLain
Richard “Lanny” Wilson

We’ve published 41 posts on a variety of topics related to teaching and learning and our authors are TAs, faculty, and staff from nine different departments and offices across campus with one guest writer from another university. We are truly blessed to have had such robust participation from a strong and innovative teaching community.

A big thanks also to the rest of The Flourishing Academic blogging staff: Mike McGravey (editor), Laurel Willingham-McLain (content editor), Steven Hansen (content editor) and Erin Rentschler (content editor) for making the machine run smoothly!

I wish you all a refreshing summer!
Rachel Luckenbill, Lead Editor for The Flourishing Academic

 


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Breaking the Glass Slipper

By Dr. Jessica McCort, Instructor of Writing in the English Department, Duquesne University

breaking glass

Image courtesy of wallpoper.com.

Recently, I have become deeply invested in fostering my students’ ability to question the world around them, particularly the received messages that they tend to accept blindly rather than interrogate. This past semester, for example, in each of the classes I taught, we studied the written versions of different fairy tales with an eye to the fact that these stories are constantly evolving and changing based on the culture that is telling them. As one of the first written assignments for the semester, I asked my students to analyze a specific tale before they came into class to discuss it. I was once again struck, as I am every time I do this exercise, by how much students want to stick to the messages they have learned to associate with these stories, even when the words that are directly in front of them on the page contradict what they recall.

Let’s take “Cinderella,” for example, the tale my students were supposed to examine. I had asked them to read a translation of Charles Perrault’s version of the tale after our careful close reading of several different versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” and how the messages purveyed by each specific tale related directly to the culture out of which that particular version had evolved. Still, I got lots of reflection papers asserting that “Cinderella” is a “rags to riches” story in which the family’s poor, lowly housemaid “pulls herself up by her bootstraps” in order to become a princess; that the “charm” Cinderella has is that she’s such a kind person and that this is why she ascends in her social position by the story’s end.

In the version of the tale my students had read, Cinderella is not always just a lowly housemaid. She is the daughter of a gentleman, a girl who was knocked out of her rightful place in the social order by a stepmother who was a little nervous about her and her biological daughters’ place in the household. The tale has a lot to do with how blood will win out, how you can’t try to rearrange the social order. She may look like the housemaid, but she’s not. Secondly, she doesn’t “pull herself up by her bootstraps.” Her fairy godmother gives her all sorts of accoutrements to make her more desirable or, in the language of our specific translation, more “charming.” To follow up on the papers they had initially written, we spent the next class interrogating the text, asking questions of the following sort: If the Prince is so in love with Cinderella that he just can’t go on without her, why can’t he remember what she looks like? Shouldn’t he remember her face? Her voice? Why does it all boil down to whether a shoe fits or not?

My point here is that a crucial step in becoming a responsible citizen, a thinking person, and a worthy scholar is learning to question the world around you. To turn over the stones, especially the very familiar ones, and look underneath of them in an effort to understand the things squirming around in the loam. What my students wanted to stick to was an American Cinderella, a girl whose tale reflects the American Dream – not the girl they were actually reading about on the page. Any teacher of writing knows that a lot of what writing teachers actually teach is reading, and reading critically. In this case, I tried to get my students to turn the words over and think about the choices writers and translators make in order to persuade their audiences to accept or agree with a certain idea or perspective on the world. Such a thoughtful interaction with writing, especially in the freshman year, translates into greater depth of thought as our students move forward in academia and then enter the real world, whatever their profession.

Bio:

Dr. Jessica McCort is an Instructor of Writing in the English Department at Duquesne University. Dr. McCort’s scholarship focuses on two areas: (1) the appropriation of children’s literature, particularly Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, by women writers and (2) gothic horror in literature for children and young adults, particularly in modern fairy-tale revisions. Her most recent book project is a compilation of essays concerning the intersection of the horror genre and children’s books.


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Reflections on Teaching in Duquesne’s New FlexTech Classroom

By Dr. James P. Purdy, Associate Professor of English and University Writing Center Director, Duquesne University

As someone with a scholarly interest in the design of pedagogical spaces for writing instruction (e.g., see http://www.digitalwriting.org/ms/index.html for a link to Making Space: Writing Instruction, Infrastructure, and Multiliteracies, my in-press co-edited digital book with the University of Michigan Press on this topic), I was very excited to be scheduled to teach Writing for Digital Media in one of Duquesne’s new FlexTech classrooms in Spring 2015. This semester I also used another FlexTech classroom for a University Writing Center event.

FlexTech 551

The FlexTech classroom in College Hall 551. Image courtesy of Dr. James Purdy.

Duquesne’s FlexTech classrooms have seating organized in pods with chairs around glass-top tables and wall-mounted computers, wall glassboards, instructor stations with larger touchscreen monitors (and cool, fresh color schemes!). The room where I taught my course, 551 College Hall, has four pods and accommodates 20 students. The other room I used, 442 Fisher Hall, is larger, seating 40 students around five pods and one conference table. More information on the classrooms is available on Duquesne’s Media Services website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5R7G1knN48.

I have learned much from teaching in the FlexTech classrooms and share here some of my reflections. While I’m drawing from my particular experiences, these reflections are intended to be relevant to teachers using other similar spaces. Your mileage may vary, of course—local context is crucial—but I hope these thoughts and ideas will be applicable and helpful.

FlexTech 551 pod setup

The pod setup in 551 College Hall, showing the writable tables and wall-mounted computers. Image courtesy of Dr. James Purdy.

 

The most exciting aspect of the space was the collaboration it afforded.

The up-to-date computer technology was super, but more exciting was that the seating arrangement encouraged more collaboration. Through its physical design the FlexTech classroom space helped to enact this approach by compelling students to look at, talk to, and write for one another (rather than only me).

Students appreciated opportunities to use their own computer technology.

Because digital writing and research spaces are now so personalized, students welcomed chances to work with their own tools in class.

With more and multiple spaces for writing, participation spread more fully across students.

As a teacher of writing-intensive courses, I frequently ask students to write in class. In the FlexTech spaces, students wrote more in class.

My class planning changed—and didn’t.

As the semester progressed, I intentionally designed activities to exploit the room’s technological, spatial, and material affordances (e.g., asking students to post group writing on the pod wall-mounted computers, to share question responses on the wall glassboards; to use the glass tabletops to write to generate ideas for discussion; to give presentations on digital writing and research tools using the large, front wall-mounted computer). However, I was careful not to ask students to use the room’s technologies or features for their own sake. Writing for Digital Media lent itself very well topically to use and critical exploration of the room, so most days included engagement with the computers and tables. But not all did. And I quickly learned that was okay.

Digital technology wasn’t always better.

Initially I was excited about the whiteboard app on the instructor machine that allowed for writing on the large wall-mounted monitor with a stylus or my finger. The digital technology was super for projecting texts, showing videos, and sharing directions, especially as each pod computer could show the content of my instructor computer, which made for easier reading for students. Writing “on the board,” however, didn’t require it, so I went back to the whiteboard. I found that writing with a marker on the glassboards ultimately worked better.

These spaces made writing fun.

Something about writing on tables with colored markers made writing enjoyable for everyone. Perhaps it was the novelty of the space and its setup. But capitalizing on such newness helped bring life and excitement to writing activities.

 

Bio

James P. Purdy teaches in the English Department and directs the University Writing Center at Duquesne. With Randall McClure, he edited two collections: The New Digital Scholar: Exploring and Enriching the Research and Writing Practices of NextGen Students, which was awarded the Silver Medal for Education in the Commentary/Theory Category for the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Awards, and The Next Digital Scholar: A Fresh Approach to the Common Core State Standards in Research and Writing, which was a finalist in the Educational/Academic Category at the 2014 USA Best Books Awards. With co-author Joyce R. Walker, he won the 2011 Ellen Nold Award for the Best Article in Computers and Composition Studies and the 2008 Kairos Best Webtext Award.


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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 theservingleader.com

Courtesy of theservingleader.com

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.


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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 freedigitalphotos.net.

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.

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