The Flourishing Academic

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

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Presence and Single Focus


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can do it! So can you.

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

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thank you

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles,

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Keeping Work/Life Balance Alive

By Rachel Luckenbill, Instructional Consultant for TAs at the Center for Teaching Excellence and English PhD Candidate, Duquesne University

Like most of you, I’m in the midst of attempting an impressive balancing act. I’m two years into writing my dissertation, working hard to finish within the next year while presenting at conferences and attempting to prepare an article manuscript for review by a scholarly journal. I have a graduate assistantship at the Center for Teaching Excellence. I’m beginning to prepare job materials since I’ll be on the academic market this coming fall. I’m a newlywed, approaching the four month anniversary and appreciating every day with my husband but realizing that balancing two schedules instead of just one is quite a feat. And then there are the “extracurriculars” that help keep life full and interesting: I play piano for my church, spend time with my adorable two-year-old goddaughter, volunteer, read books, exercise, cook, paint, and more.

Time. There is never enough of it to do all the things that I want and need to do.

balance by Stuart Miles

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles

Two weeks ago, I facilitated a faculty/graduate student workshop at Duquesne University called “Keeping Work/Life Balance Alive.” I found the perspective and advice offered by our four panelists to be realistic, encouraging, and useful. So in today’s post I want to share with you highlights from the workshop in the hope that you will feel better equipped to approach your busy over-full days peacefully and mindfully.

I structured the workshop in response to a December 9, 2014 CNN article titled “Work – Life Balance Is Dead” by Ron Friedman. Friedman questions the value of trying to keep work and personal life separate from one another in an age when we have the option of being always connected to technology. He writes, “We can bemoan the blending of our professional and personal lives, or alternatively, we can look for innovative solutions . . . Workplace flexibility has been linked with a host of positive well-being outcomes, including higher job satisfaction, lower stress, and reduced work-family conflict.” Not everyone has workplace flexibility, but academics often do. I asked participants in the workshop to begin by writing in response to the prompt, “In my life, achieving work/life balance means . . .” so that each person would have a chance to articulate for themselves whether balance means separation, integration or some combination of the two. Following the writing exercise, the four panelists spoke. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Dr. Heather Rusiewicz from Speech-Language Pathology embraces the blending of work and personal life. Her energetic young children often provide apt examples of speech development and she’s thankful for students who enjoy babysitting. She has also sought out quiet places where she can focus intently on work, increasing productivity and freeing her mind for time with family. Heather reminded everyone that loving what you have and being grateful is key to finding a sense of balance and peace in the midst of a busy life.
  • Dr. Ira Buckner from Pharmaceutics tries his hardest not to multitask and prefers to keep some sense of separation between work life and personal life. He recommended that faculty and TAs identify their limits for each task they have. What tasks require excellence, and for which ones is “good enough” sufficient? He recognizes that requiring excellence of yourself for every single task often leads to burnout and a lack of balance between work and personal life.
  • Dr. Sarah Wright from English underscored the importance of “dedicated” work time and “dedicated” personal time. She also called our attention to the importance of daydreaming. Some of the workshop participants talked about feeling guilty if they weren’t always working, but Sarah presented research which suggests that daydreaming and sleeping make our minds more productive. It’s not just okay to rest; it’s good to rest.
  • Dr. Benjamin Burkholder represented both a graduate student and parent perspective. He pointed out that the flexibility of an academic schedule can actually facilitate time with family. When writing his dissertation, Ben would wake up two hours earlier than his daughter so that he could put in solid focused work time and then be completely free to be with family without feeling like the two were competing. He also offered the welcome reminder that taking a day off every now and then doesn’t just help a person relax, it can help a scholar be more mentally productive.

I walked away from the workshop with a sense of relief. Whether balance means building a protective barrier between work and personal life or whether it means deliberately integrating the two, it is possible to find a balance that is meaningful for your own experience. But it takes letting go of the myths which so often persist in academia that those who are most productive are always working or that perfectionism always leads to higher-quality work. So join me today in taking some time to daydream, to sip a cup of tea while listening to the birds, and to get that extra hour of sleep instead of staying up to try and write one more page or finish grading one more exam. The work you do tomorrow may very well depend upon the rest you take today.

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Happy Holidays!

The Flourishing Academic is taking a vacation for the holidays – we will return with a new post on January 12.  Thank you to all of our writers, editors, and readers for a great first season of blogging! Here’s a special holiday greeting from all of us at CTE:

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving often elicits great emotions of joy and happiness: Christmas is a month away, we celebrate with family and friends, and we recess from the daily routine of academia.  It is truly a wonderful time of year.

As a high school teacher at this time of year, I would invite my students to take a scrap piece of paper and write a note to a teacher (other than myself) for something they were thankful for.  Was it something they learned?  Was it extra time the teacher spent with them going over a complex idea?  Was it the outreach another teacher offered when they learned of an illness or struggle in the family?  My students were invited to keep the notes anonymous, as I didn’t want it to be seen as an opportunity to “brown-nose,” but an act of humility and honesty.

What I learned from the experience was that my students were truly thankful for their learning and the teachers who taught them.  It’s easy to see our students as individuals who are aloof, busy, or uninterested, but when asked to reflect on what it is they enjoyed or absorbed from a particular subject, the opposite was demonstrated.  My students were engaged and had a general curiosity about the world they lived in.

At the end of the day, before we recessed for the holiday, I quietly passed the notes into the faculty mailboxes.  While many of the teachers never knew who it was who solicited these notes, those who found out appreciated that their efforts were recognized and applauded by the one-hundred or so freshmen and sophomores I had during a given year.

It’s easy to give thanks like this at a high school with sixty or so faculty, but bringing this to a university might prove more difficult.  Here’s my proposal: use a Twitter backchannel and the hashtags (#) #DUQEduThanks (for Duquesne folks) and #EduThanks (for all others).

  1. Invite your students via email to use the hashtag (#DUQEduThanks / #EduThanks) to give thanks to a professor, other than yourself, on campus.  We’re inviting you to ask your students to write something between now and the end of exams, to celebrate both holiday seasons!Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 4.01.09 PM
  2. Encourage them to recognize someone on campus who has helped them through the semester thus far.
  3. If you’d like to see what students are writing, complete a search for the hashtag which will produce a list of ‘thank yous’ for the students who chose to participate.  Our blog will offer a TweetCloud on Monday, December 1 and again on Monday, December 15.

Enjoy the Thanksgiving recess with family and friends!

– The Flourishing Academic

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Surviving the End-of-Semester Slump

balance by Stuart Miles

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles,

By Cheryl A. Read, PhD Student and Teaching Fellow at Duquesne University

With no fall break here at Duquesne, everyone on campus is wishing for a few days to step away from the daily grind and catch up on that never-ending to do list.

Now, more than ever, it’s important to both support students pedagogically and take care of ourselves. Here are some of my strategies for keeping myself and my students sane as finals week approaches.

Supporting Students

Keep students informed. Most students have a lot of new information swimming around their heads at this point in the semester, so now is a good time to remind them of your policies, particularly regarding plagiarism, late work, and attendance. The syllabus and the university’s academic integrity policy are always available to your students, but, at least in my experience, students are most likely to cut corners when they feel overextended. A brief reminder of your policies in class may save you some paperwork later on.

Additionally, it can be useful to explicitly inform students of their current grade in the course, their absences and tardies so far, and your expectations for the rest of the semester. Since the majority of my students are freshmen adjusting to the demands of college life, I typically make a “doomsday calendar” with all of the remaining deadlines in the semester and hand it out with a reminder of how many of their total points in the class remain available.

Be mindful of students’ schedules. Students may find themselves needing additional assistance to improve their grades or complete their courses. Remind them of the academic support services on campus, and consider making yourself available for additional appointments or office hours.

When planning next semester’s schedule, you may find it useful to adjust typical deadlines for major projects. As a writing instructor, I’ve found that I receive significantly better final papers if I set their deadline a week or two before the final exam period. This allows students to focus on the major project for my class before their exams begin, and it gives me the class time to help students develop a final portfolio.

Prioritize engagement when lesson planning. If you’ve read about a new pedagogical technique you’d like to try in the classroom, now might be the time to try it. You’ve likely already earned the respect of your students, and new approaches to course material can be a refreshing change of pace when students are feeling worn down.

Taking Care of Yourself

Clean up the house and stock up the fridge. I know that my productivity and mood are closely tied to my environment, so I take some time at this point in the semester to prepare for the busy days ahead. I give my apartment a thorough cleaning to counteract the days when I may not have time for anything more than washing the dishes, and I stock my freezer and pantry with easy-to-make meals and tasty baked goods. It may be hard to find the time to do these things right now, but I know my future self will thank me.

Stay organized, and prioritize your work. It’s easy to abandon your carefully crafted organization system when the tasks are endless, but it’s so important to keep yourself organized to ensure that everything gets done. Try to go into finals week with a clean slate: you’ll have enough grading to do, so you don’t need to be dealing with your own late work on top of everything else.

Adjust your feedback. At this point in the semester, students really should be responsible for their own learning as they become more comfortable with the subject matter. Depending on the type of course you’re teaching, you may be able to scale back the amount of feedback you give students on their graded work. This puts the responsibility on students to seek out answers to their individual questions and also saves you valuable grading time.

Finally, don’t sacrifice time for yourself and your family and friends. Even when you feel like little more than a grading machine, remember that you’re still a human being! Don’t forget to take care of the relationships that are important to you and do the things that you love outside of your work.

Do you have additional strategies to share? Please post them in the comments. Best wishes for a less stressful end to the semester!

Bio: Cheryl A. Read is a PhD student and teaching fellow in the Department of English. Her current interests center on investigating the people involved in the work of literature, including readers, authors, publishers, intellectuals, and educators. A native Minnesotan, Cheryl received her BA and MA from the University of Minnesota Duluth.