The Flourishing Academic

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


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What makes the military and veteran population students unique?

Lee Wagner casusl photo
 Lee Wagner, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran
This blog post is a collaboration between Lee Wagner and Erin Rentschler.

Over the past year, I have had the honor of learning from Lee Wagner, Duquesne University School of Nursing’s out-going Veterans to BSN Academic Coach. Lee also chaired the Veterans’ Engagement Consortium, a group of faculty and staff from across the University who are interested in helping to better serve our veteran and military students through targeted engagement focused on academic success and career preparation.

I asked Lee to reflect on how instructors can enhance the learning experience of this population of students—whose pathways to higher education and future directions both have a lot to offer both within and outside of the University. Over the course of the year, we hope to continue reflecting on how military and veteran students contribute to and diversify our campus community.  Lee’s thoughts are below. We wish him well in his new role as Veterans Program Outreach Specialist for the White Oak Vet Center.

I am often asked by faculty, “What makes the military/veteran population students unique?” That seems like a simple question to answer, but it can quickly become a rabbit hole of assumptions and speculation.  There are two simple answers, one is, “their life experience” and the other is that a majority of veteran students are first generation college students.  This unique life experience and a lack of exposure to traditional university life can leave the veteran student feeling isolated and confused.  In order for an instructor to understand this student population best, they must first have a better understanding of what that unique life experience is, what it is not, and how it differs from traditional college life.  This post will focus on the military experience, but a later post may center on the intersection of first generation and military and veteran students. 

Let us start with what it is not.  Not all military and veteran students have a service-connected disability, have seen combat trauma, or want to talk about their time in the military. There are hundreds of military occupation specialties that a man or woman can serve in.  Some members serve in the infantry, which has a higher likelihood of experiencing combat, while others serve in clerical administration positions that have a lesser chance of seeing action.  However, both can serve in a combat zone. Other occupation specialties include cooks, medics, reporters, truck drivers and helicopter mechanics–the list goes on.  Having assumptions about one’s service can limit the potential of the student and can greatly diminish the connection they make with the faculty member or University. 

Second, what it is.  Military experience, is just that, experience!  Our society often places an unnecessarily high value on military service. Today’s military services members are all volunteers who have willfully entered into a contract with the US government.  Of course, their service needs to be respected and honored; however, it should not lead us to blind patriotic beliefs that all military and veteran students are the same.  Those are assumptions that should not be made.

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Lastly, how does military service experience differ from traditional college life?  The best way to understand this question is to ask the student veteran directly, yourself.  My point being that all service members are people (individuals) first and how they see their experience is based off their core values and beliefs, not our own assumptions or generalizations about what military life is/service is like. 

Here is a tip to help get you started: when speaking with any veteran, not just a student, incorporate these kinds of opened-ended questions into your conversation.

  • Can you tell me more about why you decided to serve in the military?
  • Why did you choose the branch you served in?

The answers to these questions will give you insight into how that particular student’s military experience shapes who they are as a person and how they differ from a traditional college student. From there, you can begin taking steps for engaging this unique individual in an engaging learning experience.

Lee’s reflection begins thinking through how we might both serve and be served by our veteran and military students in our teaching and learning endeavors. I hope you’ll join me in considering this population as one of many that make Duquesne University a unique place to teach, learn, and work.

One place to continue this conversation is at the upcoming talk by Elizabeth R. Barker, who will present Military and Veteran Culture across the Education, Practice, and Research Continuum.” Details and additional resources below.

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For more information about how Duquesne engages and supports military and veteran students, see the following resources.
Miller, R. S., Accamando, D., & Wagner, L. (May 12, 2017). Collaboration between an Academic Library and Campus Partners to Connect with Military and Veteran Students. Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice, 5, 1, 35-41.
Support Services for Military and Veteran  Students at Duquesne University

 

 

 


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Parallelograms and Poetry: helping first generation students connect

Cepek Photo

Rebecca Cepek, Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of English, Duquesne University

A friend recently posted this joke on a social media site.parallelogram

This reminded me that students often do not understand the value of an assignment, especially first-generation college students, who often find themselves overwhelmed by minutiae that traditional students easily navigate. How to read a syllabus, paper prompt, or rubric are hurdles that must be cleared before they can even think about completing the assignment itself.

First-generation students are thus often doing twice the work of traditional students before they even begin an assignment. If, at this point, students cannot see or understand how these assignments align with their overall educational, career, or personal goals, they are likely to become discouraged, and to question why they are learning about parallelograms—or poetry—rather than something that seems more practical.

Transparent assignment design addresses this issue by explicitly communicating the skills and knowledge that students will acquire or increase through completion of the assignment. These skills are articulated as both discipline-specific and “real world” skills.

For example, a transparently designed close reading of a poem explains that students will gain and improve skills in understanding and analyzing literary texts and analyzing how literary devices help create meaning in texts, as well as critical reading and comprehension of complex texts.

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Close Reading of a Poem Assignment

 

Furthermore, transparent assignment design also requires an explanation of when and how these skills will be used. For this assignment, I explain that the ability to comprehend and analyze difficult texts is a skill that they will find necessary in other classes, and also one that will be essential to their success, both personal and professional, outside of academia. Mastering the analysis of poetry specifically, which is often dense and multilayered, will prepare them for any similar texts they may encounter and will help them come to an understanding and appreciation of the many nuances and levels of language.

This type of transparency is particularly useful for students who cannot see the connections between reading a poem and reading a report. Indeed, many students struggle to make these connections, but it is of paramount importance for first-generation students who need to be reassured that the benefits of higher education are worth the sacrifices – emotional, personal, and financial – that they are making to pursue that education.

In addition to helping first-generation students understand the value of assignments, it also aids in the successful completion of those assignments. This requires a change from what Mary-Ann Winkelmes, creator of transparent assignment design, calls “a ‘gatekeeper’ perspective,” the mistaken idea “that if a student can’t figure out the unwritten but implied purposes, tasks, and criteria for an assignment, that student shouldn’t succeed in the course and shouldn’t continue in the discipline.”

Instead, transparent assignment design lays out the steps needed to complete an assignment in a simple and easy to understand way, explaining terms (such as close reading) that are often unfamiliar to first-generation students. This is crucial to the success of students, who hesitate to ask for help, especially for understanding something that it seems like all of their peers already understand.

In my experiences with freshman composition, transparent assignment design has been immensely helpful for both traditional and nontraditional students alike. It has also forced me to articulate the value not only of my assignments but of my discipline, as well as how my chosen discipline is interconnected with other disciplines. Finally, transparent assignment design is a minor change that instructors can make, with huge benefits for everyone, but especially for first-generation students.  Because ultimately, it is always parallelogram season.


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Preparing for “Exploring Race and Pedagogy at our Predominantly White University III”

 By Erin Rentschler, Center for Teaching Excellence

In preparation for CTE’s upcoming workshop on Race and Pedagogy, I’ve been reflecting on how the role of comfort has emerged in prior years as a key theme. Last year, for example, Darius Prier encouraged the participants to “get comfortable being uncomfortable talking about race in the classroom.” The previous year, participants and I discussed how growth comes with discomfort and I emphasized the potential of productive vulnerability.  But now I’m wondering how productive that vulnerability is if, leading up to this third annual event, I still feel the same sense of discomfort (maybe even more so in this political climate) about engaging in this dialogue.  Does this mean that I haven’t grown?  Is it that race and racism have gotten more complex? Or is it because we’re not really talking about theories or concepts in this dialogue, but instead talking about human beings and very real lived experience?

I would like to think that it’s not me, but I know that it’s a combination of all these factors. I still have growing to do, and that’s one of the reasons that we’ll turn to student voices again this year: if we are going to help our students to learn, we need to know who they are, what they care about, and what empowers them in their learning. I hope you’ll join us on March 21 with open ears and a willingness to be a little vulnerable. 

For now, though, I want to focus on how we can apply some of the theories and practices that enable us to be better at teaching the humans in our classrooms.

The authors of How Learning Works remind us that student development and course climate contribute to powerful learning. They maintain that as much as we prioritize fostering the creativity and intellect of our students, we must also be mindful of how the social and emotional dimensions of learning “interact within classroom climate to influence learning and performance” (156).  They emphasize research that points to social and emotional growth of college students being considerably greater than intellectual growth, and as such claim that “if we understand [students’ developmental processes], we can shape the classroom climate in developmentally appropriate ways” (157). Specifically, the authors point to Chickering’s model of development, which posits seven dimensions in which students grow during the college years.  How Learning Works examines development theories, treating social identity as something that is “continually negotiated” rather than fixed (166).

Students’ ability to balance the various aspects of their development can be hindered or propelled by classroom climate. In reviewing the research on climate, the authors suggest that most classrooms fall at the midpoint on a continuum of climates that ranges from explicitly exclusive to explicitly inclusive. I’m not sure that the midpoint is a good place to be on this particular continuum.  The authors draw upon four aspects of climate and how these impact student learning. I outline briefly some of these below to help us think through ways we can move our classroom climates to the explicitly inclusive end of the continuum.

  • Stereotypes: Most of us know that stereotypes can alienate. Stereotype threat, however, addresses the complexities of marginalized groups’ feelings of tension and discomfort when they fear that they will be judged according to stereotypes of their identity group. Students who are exposed to even unintentional stereotyping show lower self-esteem and self-efficacy.  Fear of living up to a stereotype can distract or even paralyze a student in his/her academic performance. Promoting an open mind-set about learning can be beneficial for all students, particularly those facing stereotype threat.
  • Tone: How welcoming and inclusive is the language used in course documents and conversations? Is feedback focused on the work or on the student? Approachability of the instructor is key in students’ willingness to take risks and to seek help.
  • Faculty-Student and Student-Student Interactions: Again, students are more willing to learn when they see that their instructors care about their progress and treat students with respect and dignity. Students are more likely to persist in challenging situations when faculty intervene in a positive way in individual students’ learning and in interactions between students, especially in moments of tension or controversy.
  • Content: To what extent do students find a representation of themselves and their interests in course content (readings, examples, images, etc.)? Relevance of material to students’ sense of identity can empower students or marginalize them in their learning.

The research on race and learning is more complex than this, of course. But I hope that reflecting on where learning, student development, and climate intersect can help prepare us for working with our students at the 2017 Race and Pedagogy session.

Resources:

Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching.

Boysen, G. A. (2012). “Teacher and Student Perceptions of Microaggressions in College Classrooms.” College Teaching

Branche, J., Mullennix, J. W., & Cohn, E. R. (2007). Diversity across the curriculum: A guide for faculty in higher education.

Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dweck, C. S. (2010). “Mind-Sets and Equitable Education.” Principal Leadership

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success.

Doyle, T. (2011). Learner-centered teaching: Putting the research on learning into practice.

Guerrero, Lisa (2008). Teaching race in the twenty-first century: college teachers talk about their fears, risks, and rewards.

Killpack, T. L., & Melón, L. C. (2016). Toward Inclusive STEM Classrooms: What Personal Role Do Faculty Play?

Shaw, S. (2009). “Infusing Diversity in the Sciences and Professional Disciplines” Diversity and Democracy

Sue, D. W. (2015). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: race, gender, and sexual orientation.

Sue, D. W. et al. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice.

Tochluk, S. (2010). Witnessing whiteness: the need to talk about race and how to do it

Thomas, C. (2014). Inclusive teaching: Presence in the classroom.

Yancy, G., & Davidson, M. G. (2014). Exploring race in predominantly white classrooms: scholars of color reflect.


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Representation Matters

IMG_4948by Taylor Cavalovitch, a recent graduate from Duquesne University’s School of Education. Taylor was this year’s recipient of the Award for Undergraduate Research offered through the Center for Teaching Excellence.  He was recognized for is research project, “Representation Matters: How Representation in Children’s Literature Influences Children of Different Ethnicities,” presented at the 2016 Undergraduate Research and Scholarship Symposium.

Representation Matters

In a society where all students are subjected to watching and reading the same stories about white men, why and how can educators break past this single story narrative and share the manifold stories of our diverse student population? As a future educator, I have seen firsthand the lack of a diverse curriculum being taught in our schools. Through this realization and reflecting on my own schooling, I wanted to gain insight on how I can better serve my students, understanding that they too come from various backgrounds.  With the help of my professor, Dr. Sandra Quiñones, I was able to develop an action research project that I hoped would improve the engagement of a student from a non-dominant population. The idea for this project was cultivated over the course of an eight-week field placement in a first grade classroom at a suburban Pittsburgh school.

Through my initial observations, I noticed that my host teacher was selecting literature that represented the dominant population: the white students. While this was not a conscious decision my host teacher made, I could tell that three students who were part of non-dominant groups, Venezuelan, Korean, and Chinese, were tired of hearing the stories of one group. In particular, I noticed that my student participant, the student from Venezuela, was much more disengaged than his fellow classmates. I believed it was because this was his first year in the United States and his first experience being under-represented in a classroom. To test my hunch that under-representation and internalized oppression might be the reason for his disengagement, I showed my student participant two pictures, one of Joe Biden and the other of Leopoldo López, and asked him who he thought the smart man was. He selected Joe Biden; although, he was unable to provide a rational reason for his selection.

To positively impact his engagement and self-perception, I decided to read children’s literature that represented this student during the read-aloud portion of the day. As I was searching for appropriate literature, I found texts about Venezuelan culture but had difficulty finding a text that focused on a Venezuelan main character. Therefore, I decided to select the children’s book Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales; a book about a boy from Mexico pretending to wrestle his toys as his twin sisters slept. I thought this title would be a perfect choice due to it mostly being about the imagination of a young boy. However, I did make the decision to adapt the book to make the boy from Venezuela instead of Mexico. During my reading, the student was unable to take his eyes off me. When I asked a discussion question, his hand was the first hand raised.

The following week, I decided to read the book Dream Carver by Diana Cohn; once again, I needed to adapt this book to better represent my student participant. As with my previous read-aloud, the student was much more engaged with the text because the book acted as a mirror, my student participant could see himself in the text.  I then revisited my “Who is smarter?” question. This time, however, he selected Leopoldo López to be the smarter man. I believe that since my student participant was able to see himself represented in the classroom, he then in turn believed that Leopoldo López could be smarter than Joe Biden. My student participant and I developed what I would call an authentic relationship, because he could tell that I took a genuine interest in his culture; therefore, validating his existence in the classroom.

But my student participant was not the only one who benefited from this exposure these books. The other students were able to experience a perspective other than their own, and truly appreciate a different story. I believe that representation encompasses many facets of students’ lives: their linguistic and cultural background, gender identity, sexuality, differences in physical and mental abilities, family dynamics, etc. No student should feel lesser because they may appear to be different. As educators it is our responsibility to value and validate each and every one of our students. Representation matters, and it does play a pivotal role in students’ self-worth and engagement.


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Sketching to Sharpen Writing

By Allie Reznik, Teaching Fellow and English PhD Candidate at Duquesne University

How many of our students are visual learners? Even if the majority of students are, we might be apprehensive to bring creative lessons into our classrooms that engage visual learning. I’d like to offer one example of how we can inspire our students’ creative potentials to sharpen their writing and perspective regardless of discipline.

While reading Alison James and Stephen D. Brookfield’s innovative pedagogical text Engaging Imagination (2014, Jossey-Bass) for the Center for Teaching Excellence’s Book Study, I began brainstorming artistic, visual exercises for my UCOR102 class. And it was perfect timing: we were reading Marjane Satrapi’s powerful graphic memoir The Complete Persepolis (2007, Pantheon) which presents a personal perspective of Iran beyond what we might get from news and social media.

James and Brookfield’s “Three Axioms of Student Engagement” encourage us to think about creative ways for our students to sharpen the work that we’re already expecting them to do. What assignment is your class currently working on? Think of this assignment in terms of the “Three Axioms” here in abridged form:

1. Student learning is deepest when the content or skills being learned are personally meaningful, and this happens when students see connections and applications of learning.

2. Student learning “sticks” more (in other words, retention of knowledge and skill is increased) when the same content or skills are learned through multiple methods.

3. The most memorable critical incidents students experience in their learning are those when they are required to “come at” their learning in a new way, when they are “jerked out” of the humdrum by some unexpected challenge or unanticipated task. (6-7)

For my UCOR102 paper assignment, I had students create a list of questions that The Complete Persepolis personally raised for them in order to determine their thesis statements. My students—ranging from biomedical engineering, physician assistant, business, and pharmacy majors—expect lectures and worksheets in their classes. Asking them to sketch in the UCOR102 classroom would definitely compel them to “come at” paper writing in a new way. They’d be able to see the moving parts of their argument, as well as realize some moving parts that they would need to add or clarify.

Equipped with blank computer paper, I walked into class and announced we’d be sharpening our arguments about The Complete Persepolis. I asked students to write down their argument in 1-2 sentences. Students were then “jerked out” of the anticipated lesson: I asked them to draw—to the best of their ability— exactly what they wrote down.

Students first drew their argument to see their ideas tangibly. After they drew visual representations of their arguments, I encouraged them to consider what was still absent and invisible. Acknowledging the absences in their argument highlights potential blind spots that they needed to clarify. I asked them to write down what else they needed to specify to make their visual perspective sharper to create a more vivid textual argument. Here’s a gallery of student sketches here for you to see how their perspectives began to transform once they saw an artistic rendering of their argument.

Alex pic 1After sketching their argument, students saw what was apparent and what they needed to clarify. In image 1 the student reflected on “what do I mean by women’s rights? What does women’s rights look like?”

Alex pic 2Image 2 yielded questions of “Whose expectations of women am I assuming? How does age affect representation of rebellion?”

Alex pic 3Image 3 led to further clarification of “What does government control mean and look like in this specific case?”

Alex pic 4Image 4 pushed the student to consider “What is the spectrum of how Satrapi’s family members treated her that influenced her? What does Satrapi’s family’s impact look like specifically?”

Alex pic 5Image 5 moved beyond assumptions of childhood and into questions such as “What is Satrapi’s childhood perspective look like specifically? How and why does her perspective change specifically?”

Students moved forward from this exercise—after temporarily stepping into Satrapi’s position as graphic artist—thinking consciously about the creation of visual and academic arguments. Most importantly, students visualized their argument in a new way to see what they needed to clarify.

In what ways have you engaged your students’ creative potentials in your classroom, regardless of discipline? I’d love to hear more about it.

Allie Reznik is a fourth year PhD candidate in English studying the intersections of race and music in American literature. She writes #TSWBAT blog and tweets about food, music, and popular culture at @alliebgolightly.


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Exploring Race and Pedagogy: Powerful Student Perspectives

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

On Tuesday, March 15, the Center for Teaching Excellence collaborated with the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) to present a student panel at the second annual Exploring Race and Pedagogy workshop. Given the power students’ voices have had on college campuses around the nation this academic year, it seemed time to hear the students’ perspectives here at Duquesne. This was especially true since the session was held in conjunction with the Duquesne Day for Learning and Speaking Out.

Six undergraduate students, Don Crawford (Sophomore, Political Science), Essence Criswell (Freshman, International Relations), Sharifa Garvey (Senior, Information Systems Management), Abdul Junaid (Freshman, Undeclared Arts), Shawn Ramsay (Junior, Psychology), Ariana Sampson (Senior, Psychology), shared their experiences with conversations about race and racism in the classroom and offered advice to faculty seeking to engage their classes in these conversations. The panel responded to faculty questions regarding

  • mistakes that well-meaning faculty make in discussing race,
  • the panelists’ personal decisions to attend a predominantly white institution,
  • the use of trigger warnings and whether they help or hinder sensitive conversations, and
  • strategies that we can adopt to bridge the gaps between minoritized student populations and white students and faculty.

Their responses crystallized for me what is powerful and difficult about flipping the script and giving students the floor.  The students’ honesty may have been hard for some of us to hear; certainly some of us have made the very mistakes that the students called out.  But these students were gracious and understanding. More importantly, they provided insight and incredibly useful feedback. I was moved by their contributions and impressed by their courage and poise.

I encourage you to listen to your students. As Jeff Mallory (Director, OMA) indicated in his introduction of the student panel, they are eager for our time and attention, they want to get to know the faculty, and they want to share stories.  In the coming weeks I hope to be able to post some of the panelists’ advice in their own words; their voices are far more powerful than mine could be. In the meantime, I offer here only the advice with which Dr. Darius Prier (Faculty, School of Education) began our session on Tuesday, “Let’s get comfortable being uncomfortable talking about race in the classroom.”


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(Re)Presenting Race as a White Professor in a (Mostly) White Classroom

As an educator at the university level, I feel an ethical call to push beyond imparting knowledge to helping students understand how knowledge is constructed and to help them engage with and critique the ways in which it is constructed in their contemporary academic and social context. Integral to this type of learning is the (re)presentation of identities and perspectives that are under-represented (if represented at all) in mainstream academic and social discourse.

But there are perspectives and identities that I am more comfortable speaking to than others. As a queer woman I’m quite at ease addressing the subjects of gender and sexuality with students. As a white woman, however, I am less comfortable speaking to issues of race and ethnicity for fear that speaking to might become speaking for, which is something I cannot do. So how do I incorporate the perspectives of persons who identify as racial minorities?

Popular (and not so popular) media are useful tools for bringing these voices into college education. But wait!, you might say, Doesn’t mainstream culture poorly represent ethnic and racial minorities? To be sure, there is a lot of problematic representation. However, even poor representation can be used as a teaching tool. When the so-called ‘Loud Music Case’ news story broke in 2014, I showed my class video of the news coverage and compared it to the coverage of other shooting in which the victims were white or the perpetrators were African American. This opened up a productive, if tense, conversation about language, discourse, social expectation and implicit bias.

Problematizing representation in mainstream media is only one way to use media to inform and stimulate discussions of racial and ethnic difference. It is also important to incorporate media representation created by people of color. An English Department colleague uses the autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi about growing up in Iran. In psychology courses, I have often used works of fiction such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Contemporary films such as Dear White People (2014) and Chi-Raq (2015) also offer a unique opportunity to bring in voices that are not usually heard in academic discourse.

Also important is the use of research about and (when available) conducted by persons from ethnic and racial minorities. I talk about implicit bias research and the black baby doll experiment. But the problem with research on under-represented identities is that, in most fields, this research is not prioritized nor made accessible to a broad undergraduate audience.  And so the knowledge must be sought in less official or expected places.

“Alternative” forms of knowledge are not lesser forms of knowledge. They are powerful. They have the advantage of connecting students affectively as well as intellectually with perspectives to which they are rarely exposed. They also allow me to offer students an experience where marginalized voices speak for themselves.