The Flourishing Academic

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

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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.


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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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.

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






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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