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.

individuality

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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Office Hours: Meeting Students Where They Are

This post is drawn from CTE’s Teaching & Learning Tip on Effective Office Hours, written by Erin Rentschler.

Many students, especially freshmen, do not realize the value of one-on-one interaction with their instructors.  When done well, instruction during office hours benefits both students and instructors. Office hours help improve teaching and learning by:

  1. Facilitating deeper learning by sharing additional resources and engaging in dialogue with students, especially those who might be excelling in your course.
  2. Coaching students before they have performance problems to help them grasp key concepts or clarify assignment expectations.
  3. Working with students who are performing poorly to learn how to guide or assist them.
  4. Fostering  important “critical connections” between student, instructor, and material by providing an opportunity to get to know one another—not for the sake of personal relationships, but to create “a positive and productive working relationship” (Kreizinger 2006).connecting puzzle pieces

So…how to make this happen? Read on for some tips on effective office hours.

Get Them There

  • Explain what office hours are on the first day of class, but remind students throughout the semester where and when they can find you. Post your hours and location on the course syllabus and consider publicizing office hours on Blackboard and/or in your email’s “signature” so that students see this information regularly.
  • Group sessions can ease some pressure, establish rapport between students (increasing class time collaboration), and streamline providing feedback. Topic-based office hours model productive individual sessions.
  • Consider requiring students to meet with you early in the semester, especially if you have smaller classes. Once they surpass initial anxiety, students are likely to come on their own. While it’s wise to have students schedule these visits around a course assignment, a brief meeting to discuss their personal goals for the class can also be effective. Other ideas for required visits
    • Davis (1993) suggests that writing “see me about this during office hours” gets a 75% response rate. However, you can avoid making office hours punitive by centering the requested visit on both praise and constructive criticism.
    • Nilson (2010) suggests having students drop off or pick up assignments during office hours rather than during class time.
  • Consider alternative “office spaces
    • “neutral spaces” may alleviate anxiety, and meeting in a working space, like the library, provides space to model learning or disciplinary practices.
    • Walk and talk. Requests for general information or clarification can be addressed “on the fly,” as you walk from one class to the next.
    • Supplement office hours with technology. Email, discussion boards, twitter or other online spaces “are most efficient when communications are brief and to the point and offer ‘easy answers to easy questions.’” (LASTA).
  • Allow time spent in office hours to count toward the course participation grade.
  • Plan office hours carefully. Avoid what James Lang calls “the Early Bird approach” (or variations of it) by
    • waiting, if you can, until the semester begins and polling your students to see when  a majority of them will be free. When teaching in one of Duquesne’s Learning Communities, for example, it doesn’t make sense to schedule office hours during the time slot during one of the other courses.
    • Holding office hours after class, so that “questions and concerns can be  addressed immediately” (LASTA).

      Office-hours

      What not to do when scheduling office hours. 

Be Productive Once They’re There

  • Instruct students on how to prepare, and ask them to reschedule if they haven’t.
  • Segment your office hours and ask students to come during a particular time slot; the new Starfish calendaring tool in Blackboard could be helpful in managing time slots. Set clear guidelines as to what can and cannot be accomplished within the specified time frame.
  • If students come to office hours eager to inform you of their latest dormitory exploits, set clear boundaries without dismissing the students entirely. LASTA suggests “reflect[ing] on the role you can play in students’ lives.” Remember that your primary responsibility is to foster learning, but be empathetic. Provide students with additional campus resources (Writing Center, Wellbeing Center, etc.), but make certain that they understand you aren’t ignoring them or denying a request for help.
  • “To maximize the value of your consultation, make it as student-active as possible” and make it clear to students that office hours are not a condensed version of class (Nilson 2003).

Get them to Come Back

  • Follow up with students on issues raised during office hours. Send an email with an additional resource that might be of interest or ask about an exam/event mentioned in passing.
  • Make students feel welcome and comfortable: “Interact with students with intentional time and depth” (Robertson). Close your books, silence your phone, and turn off the computer.

  • Validate the points students make in office hours. In Tools for Teaching Barbara Gross Davis (1993) suggests bringing students’ outside comments into the classroom: “If they make a good comment, check with them first to see whether they are willing to raise the idea in class, then say: ‘Jana, you were saying something about that in the hall yesterday. Would you repeat it for the rest of the class?’”

Learn from Students during Office Hours

While taking advantage of office hours to work on research or grading may sound appealing, not meeting with students can actually put you at a disadvantage. Once you have students visiting your office hours, you’re likely to learn from your students. Use the time to solicit feedback about the course and instructional materials. Ask students what they like about the course and what confuses or challenges them. Students are more likely to be honest if you demonstrate genuine interest in hearing what is working well and what needs improvement.

Resources
Davis, Barbara Gross (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Kreizinger, Joe (2006). “Critical Connections for the First Day of Class” The Teaching Professor. 20.5
Lang, James M. (2003). “Putting in the Hours: You Can Tell a lot about Faculty Members by How They Set Up Their Office Hours.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The Liberal Arts and Sciences Teaching Academy (LASTA). University of Illinois. “Making the Most of Office Hours”
Nilson, Linda (2010). Teaching at its Best. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Robertson, Douglas (2003). Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.


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Please… Step Away from the Podium

McFalls 2012Marsha McFalls, Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice and Director of Educational Technology, School of Pharmacy, Duquesne University

I recently read “Waking Up to Tired Teaching” by Maryellen Weimer (Faculty Focus, March 1, 2017). It was timely as I had recently celebrated 15 years of teaching at Duquesne University. As I reflect on those years, I am amazed at how my teaching has changed.

As a practicing pharmacist, I, like many other practitioners moving into higher education, was not trained to teach.  I had 3 weeks to prepare my first course, so I mirrored what my professors had done while I was a student. I prepared PowerPoint slides, note cards, and handouts. Each slide and handout was full of information. I stood behind the podium and tried not to “read” the slides to students. Students seemed to like my course. Teaching evaluations were always high. But as the years passed, I found myself faced with “tired teaching.” I wanted to engage students. I wanted them to getcartoon podium excited about their learning, interact with each other, and apply the material to something meaningful. I knew there had to be a better way.

In the Duquesne Master of Instructional Technology Program I learned about new teaching methods and innovative ways to interact with students. One thing I knew for sure—I had to get out from behind the podium. It no longer felt right to stand at the front of the room giving students facts and information while they fervently wrote every word that came out of my mouth. Real learning does not come until students do something with that information.

So I decided to incorporate two new methods of classroom experiences: flipped classroom and team-based learning.

Now, I record videos of slides with voice-over. Students don’t need to see me as they listen and view new content. Instead, they need me there for the more complex tasks of applying and creating with content. Following the flipped model, students are expected to view these videos prior to class. Then in the subsequent class, they engage in team-based learning to solve real-world problems. Of note, these classes have 140-160 students in large lecture halls with immovable stadium-style seating. Certainly not the ideal place for team learning, but it works!

2016_06_Flipped-classroom

Students take a quiz at the beginning of class using Nearpod, an interactive presentation and assessment tool. Through Nearpod I can create presentations using slides, video, audio, or websites, which the students view on their own devices. Viewing it on their own screen instead of the large projection screen makes it a more intimate experience. When I am among the students, it changes the entire dynamic of the classroom. I spend time with each group during the team-based learning sessions and participate in their discussions. I clarify concepts they might be struggling with and ask questions to stimulate further discussion.

During the times I am lecturing (or what I prefer to call presenting), I use Reflector software to “mirror” my iPad. I show slides and videos, annotate websites, and demonstrate various apps we use in the course.  All of this can be done without being tethered to the podium. I am excited again about teaching because I get to interact with students on a different level.

Every year I try something different.  It is important to continue to discover what you don’t know. I find inspiration by observing what K-12 teachers are doing. Yes, it is challenging to translate K-12 educational methods to higher education, but it can be done with slight modifications. If we continue with the “I speak, you write” way of thinking, I think we, as educators, will miss an exciting opportunity to engage with our students in a new way.


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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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SCALE-up with micro workshops and wrapper sessions

 

laurel-2013by Laurel Willingham-McLain, Director, Center for Teaching Excellence, Duquesne University

At the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence we’re trying out some new programs in the SCALE initiative.  SCALE, which stands for Small Changes Advancing Learning, was inspired by James Lang’s, Small Changes in Teaching series, and his book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (2016), as well small-teaching-imageas  AAC&U’s High-Impact Practices and the Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project.

Our initiative continues to explore the power harnessed by small changes in teaching and learning—methods that are

  • achievable by instructors in varied contexts,
  • based on principles of learning
  • known to benefit students equitably
  • open to creativity.

Lang, in Small Teaching, writes, “you can create powerful learning for your students through the small, everyday decisions you make in designing your courses, engaging in classroom practice, communicating with your students, and addressing any challenges that arise.”

twelve-twentyNew for Spring 2017, we are offering a series of 30-minute lunchtime workshops, 12:20-12:50 pm. Designed to accommodate busy schedules, these micro workshops highlight a teaching and learning topic and introduce simple, proven strategies that you can incorporate into your course right away.  Associate Director for Faculty Development, Steve Hansen, came up with the idea for these workshops as a way “to model to faculty how small teaching practices can have big connections to student learning.  We want faculty to experience how learning in a micro-context can have macro-learning implications that faculty can apply and scale up for their own teaching contexts.”

Spring topics include transparent assignment design, how emotions motivate learning, micro-aggressions, using nudges to deepen learning, and a student-learning graffiti wall.  The series will begin on January 23 and 24 and will continue through February.

Follow-up opportunities will be available through wrapper sessions and consultations with CTE staff.  Wrapper sessions provide faculty with an opportunity to reflect and learn from experience; they are based on the learning strategy called an Exam Wrapper, which guides students to review and analyze their performance (and their instructor’s feedback) on an exam, with an eye to improving their next attempt.

In December 2016, we tried out our first Course Wrapper where participants enjoyed time to reflect individually and with colleagues about a fall course, and then outlined steps for their spring courses based on their reflection and feedback. Participants repgift-with-boworted that “The reflection and discussion were a great way to put a bow on the semester” and the Wrapper session provided a “wonderful way to wind down the semester.”  The Wrapper
sessions encourage teachers to practice the systematic reflection they ask of students.  Participants are invited to consider successful aspects of a recent course and plan ways to model future teaching on what worked well.  We take a whole-person approach, encouraging faculty to plan ways to bring their very best selves to their teaching.  New spring Wrapper Sessions look at Students Evaluation Surveys and assignment design.

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Our semester culminates May 17-18 in the seventh annual Inspired Teaching Retreat at the Spiritan Retreat Center.


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Rhetoric, Combs and Rhizomes: Q & A with Dr. Derek Hook (Part II)

hook-headshotarvin-simonby Derek Hook, PhD, Associate Professor in Psychology at Duquesne University & Arvin Simon, MA, Doctoral Student in Psychology at Duquesne University

Derek’s work focuses on psychoanalysis with expertise in the area of critical psychology and psychosocial studies. Arvin is an Instructional Consultant for Teaching Assistants at the Center for Teaching Excellence.

In response to Arvin’s generous characterization of the ‘rhizomatic’ nature of my approach to graduate teaching and in relation to his two direct questions, I (Derek Hook) would like to offer a few brief thoughts. watch

  • I am worried that I won’t have enough time to cover all the material! Is facilitating a discussion an efficient use of my lecture time?

Perhaps not always, but we could reverse the question: surely NOT facilitating a discussion in class is often a bad use of teaching time. This is often the case when the material is overly theoretical, when it contains much that is paradoxical or counter-intuitive, or simply when students (and professors!) are not sure they properly understand the texts in question. Discussions, particularly when paired with the tactic of asking students to frame the inquiry, can be a good way of ensuring that students read in the first place. Through student participation, systematic errors or questionable assumptions can be revealed, then engaged and worked with.

It is a good idea to work with ‘questions from the floor’ and use them to direct students to crucial facets of the text. ‘Preparing to be spontaneous’ is a nice oxymoronic way of framing this approach to teaching: I come prepared (perhaps with some possible talking-points, crucial debates, points of uncertainty, critical challenges, etc.), but keep these in the background until needed, precisely as a way of drawing out crucial facets from what emerges in more general discussion. I also make sure that students have access to scaffolding materials covering the main material (i.e. handouts with summaries of key arguments; schematic, diagrammatic depictions of the material; accessible secondary readings, etc.), which they have in front of them when one decides to risk a slightly more open-ended discussion. This is also the learning environment where I believe teachers learn the most; they are ‘unscripted times’ when teacher and student alike approach a set of ideas from a different set of problems or conceptual concerns.

Constantly asking for examples from students puts them to work on thinking how their lives are – in a manner of speaking – also a topic of learning.

Sometimes the best and most effective practical everyday examples of the ideas in question come from class discussions. I am always on the lookout for fresh examples of key ideas, because they are often what students remember best about a given theoretical notion. Constantly asking for examples from students puts them to work on thinking how their lives are – in a manner of speaking – also a topic of learning. It also means that the learning continues beyond the parameters of the classroom, to the movie theatre, the realm of earlier personal memories, to the realms of fiction and popular culture. Soliciting examples is a great way of prompting discussion and also, importantly, of isolating instructive counter-examples (i.e. pointing to why certain apparent ‘examples’ DON’T work).disc

  • I am concerned that if I lead discussions on difficult topics then students might get offended or offend one another. What can I do to create a conversation that does not shut people down?

in teaching, the basic unit of information should not (at graduate level, anyways) be a fact, an isolated assertion, but rather a tension, a dynamic, a contradiction, a pair of terms, a debate

Perhaps the obvious point is to concede that discussions can be a risk in certain student groups – especially when lengthy and gratuitous tangents seem a strong possibility – and yet they bring the dimension of ‘liveness’ to the classroom, and with it, a sense of the unpredictable and spontaneous. A great deal of emphasis should be placed first though on facilitating trust in a given student group, and avoiding the snooty or judgmental intellectual atmosphere and enabling an atmosphere where everyone can – and should – contribute.

One suggestion here is that in teaching, the basic unit of information should not (at graduate level, anyways) be a fact, an isolated assertion, but rather a tension, a dynamic, a contradiction, a pair of terms, a debate. This may not always be possible, but, this idea can at least frame discussions, so that views and counter-views are taught together in a way that prioritizes the spirit of intellectual debate, of hearing out, of considering unintended consequences, of Devil’s Advocate kinds of arguments. This type of framing also sometimes adds momentum to developing discussions.

It is often a very good move to acknowledge areas of uncertainty, indicating from time to time that one does not completely understand something. It lets students know that they too should be allowed to ‘think out loud’, to extrapolate, guess, take a stab at what some or other evasive or difficult conceptual formulation might mean.  If one can communicate a collaborative ethos or approach to working through materials, this often helps a great deal also. Signaling that we are explorers – and indeed, a team of explorers – of a given theory goes someway to dissipating counter-productive rivalries within a group of learners.


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Rhetoric, Combs and Rhizomes: Q & A with Dr. Derek Hook (Part I)

hook-headshotarvin-simonby Derek Hook, PhD, Associate Professor in Psychology at Duquesne University & Arvin Simon, MA, Doctoral Student in Psychology at Duquesne University

Derek’s work focuses on psychoanalysis with expertise in the area of critical psychology and psychosocial studies. Arvin is an Instructional Consultant for Teaching Assistants at the Center for Teaching Excellence.

For the past four years, I (Arvin Simon) have taken coursework towards my doctorate in clinical psychology. I have also enjoyed wonderful courses on philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Martin Buber to name a few. Each of my instructors found creative ways of presenting course material to students who did not have a background in philosophy. Dr. Derek Hook was one such instructor who stood out to me in the way he was able to lead instructional, collaborative and engaging discussions.

With Derek’s permission, I have written a reflection on how I experienced his class discussions. Derek was then invited to read my manuscript and respond with his own comments. This intertextual exchange might serve to illustrate how relations of power and knowledge were negotiated both as an object of study in our class (on Michel Foucault) and as a pedagogical discourse that was enacted between instructor and students.

My mentor, Dr. Steve Hansen, shared with me three types of conversations that can occur in a classroom.

comb

A comb conversation

First, there are what he called rhetorical conversations. These are basically instances where the instructor is lecturing at students without giving them the opportunity to meaningfully critique the text or initiate discussions on a topic that interests them. The second type of conversation, comb conversations, frequently occur in classes where personal material is shared. Here, the instructor invites students to respond to the text but conversations are restricted between the instructor and an individual student. Because of mutual vulnerabilities (e.g. not wanting to seem ignorant; sharing personal opinions) the student and instructor may feel safer having a private conversation in the context of a classroom discussion. The third, and most difficult type of conversation to initiate, is a rhizomatic conversation. Eponymously named, the rhizome conversation does not stay fixed between an individual student and instructor. In fact, the conversation may extend in several different directions and involve multiple layers of interactions. These conversations are geared at getting students to engage with a) the material (instructional) b) the instructor (collaborative) and c) each other (engaging). Dr. Kathryn Strom has written extensively about applying the philosophical concept of the rhizome in the classroom.

rhizomeThere were a few things that Derek did very well to create rhizome conversations.

1) He clearly modelled a willingness to learn from both the text and his students. When discussing difficult passages of text, Derek wondered aloud about the ambiguities and contradictions in the text and even shared his own uncertainties as to the meanings. He invited us to collaboratively engage with him in making sense of dense material while also scaffolding our hermeneutics within social and historical contexts. This is consistent with rhizomatic conversations that aim to be transparent about the way that knowledge is formulated and the effects that it has within academia and the broader social-cultural context.

2) By incorporating written reflections with close, textual analysis Derek was able to invite students who would not ordinarily speak in class to share their thoughts. Derek seemed to always hear student opinions in a generous light and recognized that we might not be experts on the material but we had very worthy ideas that could be fruitfully related to the class. Rhizomatic conversations are horizontal (vs. hierarchical, vertical) in nature and invite collaborative and open-ended inquiry into complex subject matter where linear, authoritative knowledge is often subjective or incomplete.

3) Derek encouraged us to make the material our own by relating it to examples of our own clinical work or scholarship. Rhizomatic conversations are often interdisciplinary and recognize multiple intersecting lines (e.g. politics, economics, ecology) that each bring a different perspective to bear.

desks

Part I of this post concludes by inviting Derek to respond, in Part II, to two common concerns instructors might have in leading rhizomatic conversations:

  • I am worried that I won’t have enough time to cover all the material! Is facilitating a discussion an efficient use of my lecture time?
  • I am concerned that if I lead discussions on difficult topics then students might get offended or offend one another. What can I do to create a conversation that does not shut people down?