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
By Rachel Luckenbill, Instructional Consultant for TAs at the Center for Teaching Excellence and English PhD Candidate at Duquesne University
I recently read a book called The Serving Leader (2003) by Ken Jennings and John Stahl-Wert. Though as the cover of the book states the authors focus on “actions that will transform your team, your business and your community,” I was struck by how applicable their ideas are to academia. The authors profess a model of leadership that values excellence and competitiveness without sacrificing attention to the needs and value of people. In this post I offer a review of their book and make some suggestions about how college instructors can be serving leaders.
Jennings and Stahl-Wert present the concept of “serving leaders” through the fictionalized story of a young businessman named Mike who is pursuing reconciliation with his father and attempting to engage with his father’s consulting business as the older man’s health fails. His assignment is to learn about serving leadership and begin to implement it himself. After meeting a series of community leaders from sectors as diverse as education, manufacturing, and military, Mike begins to put together a complete picture of what a serving leader does, all the while realizing that the very principles which make an organization healthy can also breathe new life into a personal relationship. The leadership model outlined in the book has a distinct spiritual component; it relies on principles of altruism and community taught in both the Old and New Testament, but the authors demonstrate the model’s applicability in both secular and faith-based organizations.
The writing is clear and straightforward and the story itself is engaging, but the real value of this book lies in the principles that appear to go against the grain of typical cutthroat corporate practices. Here’s a snapshot of them.
Five Actions of a Serving Leader (pages 100-101):
- Run to great purpose – lead a team by offering a compelling goal and “reason why”
- Upend the pyramid – place yourself “at the bottom of the pyramid and unleash the energy, excitement, and talents of the team”
- Raise the bar – set high expectations and be selective in your choice of team leaders
- Blaze the trail – teach serving leader principles to others while “removing obstacles to performance”
- Build on strength – assign each person a role that allows him or her to “contribute what he or she is best at”
As I read the book, I couldn’t help but imagine how this model would play out on a University campus. What would it mean if each one of us tried using our position of authority or power to remove obstacles that stand in the way of our colleagues instead of using that same authority to focus on building our own reputations and CVs? Jennings’ and Stahl-Wert’s model is decidedly communal. They recommend that each leader build an “encouragement group” that provides affirmation and “perseverance” in difficult times (55) and they insist that “if you want to do something that really changes someone’s life, the best thing you can do is make the person you’re trying to help a participant in the process” (57).
Imagine with me for a moment what it would look like to perform as a serving teacher in the classroom:
- Run to great purpose – both on the syllabus and in class, connect the content and skills your students are learning to a greater purpose such as the learning objectives for the course and the careers and life situations your students anticipate facing outside of school
- Upend the pyramid – try a student-centered approach, de-centering yourself by employing active learning strategies that involve students in their own learning process rather than positioning them as passive listeners while you lecture
- Raise the bar – research suggests that the expectations you have for your students will affect their ability to perform: the more optimistic your expectations, the more likely the students are to succeed
- Blaze the trail – remove obstacles your students might face by scheduling practice sessions at a time and place when you are available, by surveying students at the end of each class to find out which concept was perplexing or unclear and revisiting it at the beginning of the next class, or by encouraging students to reflect on their own work habits and helping them construct environments and practices that promote concentration and productivity
- Build on strength – while it’s certainly important to help students improve skills they have not yet mastered, try pairing these lessons with either written or verbal comments about each student’s strengths: show students the potential their strengths offer and the next steps they can take based on their already positive progress
I myself have seen this model work outside the classroom as well. I’m currently writing my dissertation and am thankful that the way my committee functions resembles the serving leader model. All three of my committee members have helped me see the greater purpose of my work in building cultural sensitivity; they upend the pyramid by encouraging my own initiatives rather than letting their agendas drive my project; they raise the bar by having high expectations and refusing to allow me to settle for less than what I’m capable of even when I’m tired and discouraged; they blaze the trail by removing obstacles in my path, helping me make valuable connections with colleagues in my field and unraveling perplexing ideas in the theory I study; and whenever I get stuck in a cycle of comparing myself to others, the committee members build on strength by helping me focus instead on the methods and content that make my project unique. I can say from experience that this model makes me a more productive and satisfied graduate student than I would be otherwise.
So as you close out the semester and prepare your courses and committees for the summer and fall, think of ways that you can be a serving leader in your classroom, department, and university communities. Jennings and Stahl-Wert suggest that as you practice serving leadership, you pave the way for productivity and fulfillment for others while moving toward a greater sense of wholeness and accomplishment for yourself. In the comments below, I invite you to share ways you practice any part of the serving leaders model either in your classroom or organization.
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).
- 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!
- Encourage them to recognize someone on campus who has helped them through the semester thus far.
- 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
By Laurel Willingham-McLain
Director of Faculty Development and Teaching Excellence at Duquesne’s Center for Teaching Excellence
I love this time of year – when we are privileged to welcome dozens of new faculty and TAs to our campus. I take this responsibility very seriously because it’s important to set the right tone from the beginning. So, it takes a lot of work. But in return, I receive joy and energy from the new colleagues I meet.
Every year I think, “wow, this is an amazing group of people.” Marathon runners, kayakers, singers, dancers, quilters, gardeners, chefs, bakers, parents and partners… and teachers and researchers. And that’s just this year! At faculty orientation, I listened for themes. I noticed shared academic interests in adolescents among some faculty, and research on mobility and community in others. How good it was to watch people listen to one another and make connections their first day together – across the disciplines.
At the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), we have come to focus on community building. I learned from my mentor, Dorothy Frayer, to focus on people. To encourage them and congratulate them. To take time for a walk or a cup of tea. And in the last five years or so, we at CTE have intentionally shifted our central focus away from teaching technique to teacher identity. When faculty ask us how to lead better discussions and engage students in active learning, for example, we spend time getting to know them. We ask about their interests and concerns, their successes and obstacles, their teaching contexts and aspirations, and out of that conversation emerge strategies for getting better at teaching.
One thing I’m confident of is that the best teachers are avid learners. That’s an identity we all need to share. In fact, when I consider Duquesne’s teacher-scholar model, the primary pursuit that teachers and researchers have in common is deep learning. Brew and Boud (1995) point out that teaching and research require rather different skills, but they share the importance of learning. At the heart of both endeavors is an exploration of existing knowledge and the desire to go beyond it. Both involve the human act of making meaning, of making sense of phenomena in the world (pp. 267-268).
I see energetic learning – in both teaching and research spheres – occurring within community at Duquesne. At CTE we witness motivation and productivity among informal peer-mentors, creative teaching award teams, research partners, workshop panelists, and even committee members (!) – who inspire one another to learn and make that learning public to their students and peers. Who guide students in engaging deeply in their learning, and in turn, sharing their learning beyond the classroom.
Brew, A., & Boud, D. (1995). Teaching and research: Establishing the vital link with learning. Higher Education, 29 (3), 261-273.