The Flourishing Academic

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

Leave a comment

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.

1 Comment

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





1 Comment

The Power of Good Questions

photoby Jerry Minsinger, Supervisor of Student Teachers and Adjunct Professor, Duquesne University, School of Education

This past Spring I had the opportunity to attend the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence Inspired Teaching Retreat: “The Olive Tree Effect.”  Using a future orientation, we explored several questions.  How do we motivate our students?  How do we motivate ourselves?  What are our plans for personal and professional growth?  The retreat encouraged reflection of teaching practices; the readings and content facilitated a constructivist approach to learning.  Multiple perspectives represented by various disciplines and experiences contributed to a healthy dialogue, enriching my capacity to learn and grow.

As a teacher, I have observed students who are disengaged from the text and class discussions.  This can be an albatross or an opportunity.  During the retreat, a discussion of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation challenged me to consider my future purpose as a teacher, and strategies to address disinterest.  How can I model intrinsic motivation and promote personal growth, self-acceptance, and generativity?  How can I increase student engagement in the classroom and inspire students to become personally responsible, self-directed, reflective learners?  

Among the many takeaways of the retreat, I was intrigued by “the power of questions” to build relationships, engage students and facilitate learning.  Effective questions are thought provoking, reflective, and inspirational.  In the best sense, questions are motivational devices that elicit ownership and accountability.  Probing, open-ended questions require thoughtful responses, invite alternative viewpoints, and clarify misconceptions.

Good questions require students to analyze, evaluate, and create new thinking.  Questions are used in formative assessment, during instruction, to determine student understanding.  Powerful questions inform, organize, and require students to elaborate and act on their learning.  Examples include: What are you working on?  Can you provide an example?  Why are you doing this work?  How do you know your work is good?  Would you explain further what you mean?  What do you need to know in order to complete this work?  Where do you go for support?

The quality classroom requires rigorous activities that make learning meaningful and fun.  How does the teacher determine that students have learned?  Has teaching occurred if the students have not learned?  Who controls the learning?  What makes learning interactive and personal?  The benefits of powerful questions are numerous.  Good questions engage students in deeper learning and create energy in the classroom.  This is an adaptive challenge that improves the instructional process.

Rather than “telling” students or providing the “answers,” asking the right questions can lead them to “construct” new learning.  When you involve students in the process, they are more likely to take ownership, invest, and contribute.  Active listening and probing become instructional tools to deepen students’ knowledge.  Effective questions are invitational.  Students learn to hypothesize, connect ideas, and think critically.  Learning becomes authentic when students struggle to find the answer or solution to a problem.

“The power of questions” does not apply only to the classroom and my role as professor. As a parent, raising children is a fluid, evolving and exciting adventure.  Rebellion, challenge, and defiance can erode and disrupt healthy relationships.  I have found that questions are powerful tools in helping to work through difficult situations.  A knee jerk, visceral reaction is to tell, demand, or coerce, using parental directives “in the child’s best interest.”  This strategy often backfires or is resisted, causing further deterioration of the relationship, frustrating the participants.

Asking critical, thoughtful questions and allowing time for reflection, demonstrates care and concern.  Examples include: What is your purpose?  What are the benefits of your actions?  What values are you demonstrating in this decision?  What are some other options?  Why is this important to you?  Dialogue respects and honors the thoughts and ideas of others.  This opens the door to resolutions that are creative, synergistic, and most importantly, owned.

As a spouse, parent, teacher, or friend, powerful questions can help build healthy, enduring relationships.  Try it out.  The next time you find yourself making premature judgments about the motives of others, frustrated by situations out of your control, or worried about issues and events, use open-ended, probing questions.  Listen and inquire before responding.  You will empower others to think critically, reason, and practice personal responsibility.


Jerry Minsinger served 38 years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools; as a principal at various school levels for 25 years.  Currently, Jerry serves as an adjunct professor and supervisor of student teachers in the School of Education at Duquesne University.

Leave a comment

What’s your name again?

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

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

Image courtesy of Sicha Pongjivanich at

Image courtesy of Sicha Pongjivanich at

Excellence, Duquesne University

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

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

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

1.   Make it a priority

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

2.  Study your course roster before the first class

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

3.  Get to know something about each student

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

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

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

4. Include the class in learning names

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

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

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

6. Schedule group meetings

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

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


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

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

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

Leave a comment

The High Call of Being an Educator

By Richard “Lanny” Wilson, Theology Ph.D. Candidate  at Duquesne University Lanny Wilson
Lanny has a lovely wife and three young and energetic children that keep him very busy. 

Satisfaction is the best way I can describe it. When you get that letter, or email, or evaluation where the student says something like, “This class has positively changed how I think.” I had a student write a similar statement in a reflection assignment not too long ago. My first thought was equal parts embarrassment and exhilaration. My next thought was that I hope they weren’t just trying to “butter me up.” Nevertheless, I just took the student at their word. The emotional impact hit me in a one-two punch.

First, elation. Wow, a student thought my class changed their mind!

Second, anxiety. Oh, no! What have I done? Did I change their mind for the better? Don’t get me wrong. I was thankful for being a vessel of change. I was thankful for such a wonderful opportunity. For such a terrifyingly wonderful opportunity.

This moment exposed to me the gravity of what it means to be an educator. As an instructor I really do have an impactful influence over other minds. What an awesome responsibility! What an awesome privilege! As instructors, we have an obligation to give these students our all. They are not peripheral to our mission – they are our mission. We exist to serve them. And we do this by challenging their ways of thinking. We push back against bias and ignorance. We expose poor ideas and present alternative concepts to fill the void. We encourage, exhort, and extol them to do better and to achieve their inherent potential.

As educators we are in a never-ending cycle of preparatory work. We are constantly learning, developing, and sharpening our positions. We make mental notations of what works in lecture and what does not. The next time we cover that subject we try and get it “more right” than we did before. We attend and participate in conferences and workshops ever in search of better, more effective strategies to help our students. We often have long, lonely nights grading or prepping material. Frequently this is done with little-to-no thanks. Perhaps that’s why it is so encouraging when a student seemingly acknowledges all of your hard work – even when it may seem like a throwaway comment at the time.

As educators we understand the importance of shaping the minds of the next generation of students. Our students may not comprehend our sacrifice and dedication; nevertheless, they will base life-altering decisions on what we teach them. They will apply what they learn in our classes. Hence, we need to teach them well. We have the privilege and honor of influencing the next generation of citizens and scholars. Even with the “mid-semester” fatigue setting in and student apathy on the rise, let us continue to be teachers of excellence – guiding students the way we were, or would want to be guided; genuinely caring for them as people of immeasurable worth; shepherding them through the hazardous labyrinth of academia – so that when the time comes they will be able to navigate the rough waters of life.

Ask yourself, what teacher had a profound influence on you? How did their class(es) shape who you became? How different may your life have been had you never crossed their path? Likewise, how do you think you influence your students? What would they say about you if given a dose of “truth serum”? Give them every reason to think of you in the best possible way. I had a professor in seminary that greatly influenced the tenor and path of my own educational journey. He was a brilliant individual who could move effortlessly between hermeneutical theory to metaphysics to philosophical theology and all the while crack jokes to both engage students and illustrate his points. It was really something to behold. And at the end of the day he genuinely cared for his students. He was a striking example of someone who could both effectively communicate profound intellectual notions and nurture students on a more personal level. He not only counseled and encouraged me in pursuing further education, but exemplified the type of teacher – the type of person – I want to be.

For better or worse, teachers wield a tremendous amount of power in the lives of their students. Sure, we want our students not only to grow in knowledge and get better jobs, but we want them to become better people. We want our students to have genuinely fulfilling lives. It is my hope and prayer that we be constantly aware of our motivations. Never forget to put the student’s interest’s first, if for no other reason than this is the high calling of being an educator.

How has a teacher influenced you? What did they do, or how did they act that made such an impact? We would love to see your story in the comments below.

1 Comment

Academic Motivation

By Rachel Luckenbill, Instructional Consultant for TAs At Duquesne’s Center for Teaching Excellence

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

When we first started dating, my husband Mike and I quickly realized we would each have to do some work in order to learn about the other person’s interests. He had trouble appreciating my passion for music, seeing little purpose for it in his life, and I perceived physics as inaccessible, too difficult and hypertechnical for me to understand. While we both wanted to learn more about each other, we felt a level of reluctance dedicating time and energy to exploring subjects that felt inconsequential to our respective lives. But we liked each other enough that we began to adopt practices that made the pursuit of each other’s interests manageable and even fun. I explained connections between particular songs and meaningful emotional and spiritual experiences I remembered having, and Mike began introducing me to the complexities of physics on an elementary level using YouTube videos and object lessons. Pretty soon we were each voluntarily scheduling “music” and “science” dates, both having realized that learning about the other’s interests has a strong payoff; it can contribute to a lasting and meaningful relationship.

Without realizing it, Mike and I were putting into practice key concepts from B. D. Jones’s model of academic motivation. In his article “Motivating Students to Engage in Learning: the MUSIC Model of Academic Motivation,” Jones (2009) suggests that five principles, when applied to course design, can facilitate increased motivation among college students. These principles include empowerment, usefulness, success, interest, and caring. While some of these concepts are best implemented before the semester even starts, many of them can be incorporated in the middle of the term to inject new life into a class that feels tired or unmotivated.

Jones begins with empowerment. He writes, “a key principle in [self-determination theory] is that individuals enjoy activities when they believe that they have control over some aspect of them” (274). For me, this is the most difficult of the five concepts to employ because it means trusting that my students will be responsible with the level of control I give them. But that trust is precisely part of what makes empowerment so impactful.  Jones suggests giving students “meaningful choices” regarding the structure of the course. For example, if you require students to complete 10 writing journals or quizzes throughout the course of the semester, offer three dates on which they are due instead of scheduling each one of them. This allows students to work at their own pace (274). In a recent Flourishing Academic post, Dr. Jerry Minsinger of Duquesne’s School of Education also suggests involving students in creating course policies. Mid-semester you can use an informal evaluation to ask students what practices they would like you to adopt or change. Incorporating their feedback is one way of helping them experience a level of control over their education.

The second principle Jones identifies is usefulness. Students are more likely to approach class content with energy and purpose if they understand “the usefulness of the task in terms of [their] future goals” (275). All too often, we as instructors assume our students understand why our course is important for their career, but this should never be implicit. I recently spoke with one instructor at Duquesne who periodically asks his students to write a brief reflection on how they might use the knowledge from his class in specific future situations. I like to highlight usefulness by connecting course content to the community outside the class, helping students see that a well-crafted argument can raise awareness about a critical issue or even persuade city government that change is necessary.

Third, Jones argues that “instructors should design all aspects of courses such that students can succeed if they obtain the knowledge and skills and put forth the effort required” (276). Perception is a powerful tool. Jones notes that “students who believe that they are likely to succeed at an activity are more likely to . . . put forth more effort . . . persist longer . . . [and] be resilient in the face of adverse situations” related to that activity (276). Setting students up for success does not mean making your courses easy. It does mean making the requirements manageable. Jones suggests “divid[ing] longer and more complex learning activities into manageable sections that challenge but do not overwhelm students” (276) and offering students regular feedback measuring “their level of competence” and helping them identify “attainable (but challenging), short-term goals that lead to longer-term goals” (277).

Fourth on Jones’s list is interest. Most of us who teach naturally find the content of our courses interesting but students don’t necessarily share our passion. Drawing from research by Hidi and Renninger (2006), Jones notes that while a student’s interest is piqued by “hands-on activities,” hot button issues, humor and more, that interest will diminish if not cultivated into “individual interest,” a state during which a student has “obtain[ed]” and now “value[s]” knowledge. This transformation happens as instructors build on attention-getting activities with content specific instruction (Jones 278). In last week’s blog post, Dr. Susan Hines makes a similar suggestion. She recommends beginning by “awakening students’ current knowledge” and then building on that connection by “adding new knowledge.”

And finally Jones contends that caring is central to engaging students.  He doesn’t call on instructors to become “good buddies with the[ir] students” but he does recommend demonstrating that you care “about their learning” and “well-being.” Accomplishing this can be as simple as paying careful attention to each student’s progress and contacting any of them who appear to be struggling (279) or offering grace when a student encounters an extraordinary situation and needs an extension (280).

For Mike and I, caring and interest came first and the other steps made learning about music and physics not just doable but desirable. Since those early years, each of us has developed a sustained interest in the other’s favorite subject. Mike invites me to concerts and I stage science experiments in the kitchen. The fear of a subject being too hard or a lack of connection to it does not have to prevent your students from engaging deeply with course content. It’s possible to craft your class so that students not only become interested but also work hard to gain a deeper understanding.