The Flourishing Academic

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

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Preparing for “Exploring Race and Pedagogy at our Predominantly White University III”

 By Erin Rentschler, Center for Teaching Excellence

In preparation for CTE’s upcoming workshop on Race and Pedagogy, I’ve been reflecting on how the role of comfort has emerged in prior years as a key theme. Last year, for example, Darius Prier encouraged the participants to “get comfortable being uncomfortable talking about race in the classroom.” The previous year, participants and I discussed how growth comes with discomfort and I emphasized the potential of productive vulnerability.  But now I’m wondering how productive that vulnerability is if, leading up to this third annual event, I still feel the same sense of discomfort (maybe even more so in this political climate) about engaging in this dialogue.  Does this mean that I haven’t grown?  Is it that race and racism have gotten more complex? Or is it because we’re not really talking about theories or concepts in this dialogue, but instead talking about human beings and very real lived experience?

I would like to think that it’s not me, but I know that it’s a combination of all these factors. I still have growing to do, and that’s one of the reasons that we’ll turn to student voices again this year: if we are going to help our students to learn, we need to know who they are, what they care about, and what empowers them in their learning. I hope you’ll join us on March 21 with open ears and a willingness to be a little vulnerable. 

For now, though, I want to focus on how we can apply some of the theories and practices that enable us to be better at teaching the humans in our classrooms.

The authors of How Learning Works remind us that student development and course climate contribute to powerful learning. They maintain that as much as we prioritize fostering the creativity and intellect of our students, we must also be mindful of how the social and emotional dimensions of learning “interact within classroom climate to influence learning and performance” (156).  They emphasize research that points to social and emotional growth of college students being considerably greater than intellectual growth, and as such claim that “if we understand [students’ developmental processes], we can shape the classroom climate in developmentally appropriate ways” (157). Specifically, the authors point to Chickering’s model of development, which posits seven dimensions in which students grow during the college years.  How Learning Works examines development theories, treating social identity as something that is “continually negotiated” rather than fixed (166).

Students’ ability to balance the various aspects of their development can be hindered or propelled by classroom climate. In reviewing the research on climate, the authors suggest that most classrooms fall at the midpoint on a continuum of climates that ranges from explicitly exclusive to explicitly inclusive. I’m not sure that the midpoint is a good place to be on this particular continuum.  The authors draw upon four aspects of climate and how these impact student learning. I outline briefly some of these below to help us think through ways we can move our classroom climates to the explicitly inclusive end of the continuum.

  • Stereotypes: Most of us know that stereotypes can alienate. Stereotype threat, however, addresses the complexities of marginalized groups’ feelings of tension and discomfort when they fear that they will be judged according to stereotypes of their identity group. Students who are exposed to even unintentional stereotyping show lower self-esteem and self-efficacy.  Fear of living up to a stereotype can distract or even paralyze a student in his/her academic performance. Promoting an open mind-set about learning can be beneficial for all students, particularly those facing stereotype threat.
  • Tone: How welcoming and inclusive is the language used in course documents and conversations? Is feedback focused on the work or on the student? Approachability of the instructor is key in students’ willingness to take risks and to seek help.
  • Faculty-Student and Student-Student Interactions: Again, students are more willing to learn when they see that their instructors care about their progress and treat students with respect and dignity. Students are more likely to persist in challenging situations when faculty intervene in a positive way in individual students’ learning and in interactions between students, especially in moments of tension or controversy.
  • Content: To what extent do students find a representation of themselves and their interests in course content (readings, examples, images, etc.)? Relevance of material to students’ sense of identity can empower students or marginalize them in their learning.

The research on race and learning is more complex than this, of course. But I hope that reflecting on where learning, student development, and climate intersect can help prepare us for working with our students at the 2017 Race and Pedagogy session.


Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching.

Boysen, G. A. (2012). “Teacher and Student Perceptions of Microaggressions in College Classrooms.” College Teaching

Branche, J., Mullennix, J. W., & Cohn, E. R. (2007). Diversity across the curriculum: A guide for faculty in higher education.

Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dweck, C. S. (2010). “Mind-Sets and Equitable Education.” Principal Leadership

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success.

Doyle, T. (2011). Learner-centered teaching: Putting the research on learning into practice.

Guerrero, Lisa (2008). Teaching race in the twenty-first century: college teachers talk about their fears, risks, and rewards.

Killpack, T. L., & Melón, L. C. (2016). Toward Inclusive STEM Classrooms: What Personal Role Do Faculty Play?

Shaw, S. (2009). “Infusing Diversity in the Sciences and Professional Disciplines” Diversity and Democracy

Sue, D. W. (2015). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: race, gender, and sexual orientation.

Sue, D. W. et al. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice.

Tochluk, S. (2010). Witnessing whiteness: the need to talk about race and how to do it

Thomas, C. (2014). Inclusive teaching: Presence in the classroom.

Yancy, G., & Davidson, M. G. (2014). Exploring race in predominantly white classrooms: scholars of color reflect.

It Was Never Just: On Student Activism and Racism (A Reader)

Source: It Was Never Just: On Student Activism and Racism (A Reader)

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Pedagogy and Micro-Resistance: A Strategy for the College Classroom

by Jess Dunn Instructional Consultant for TAs in the Center for Teaching Excellence at Duquesne University

The microcosm of the university can produce wonderful moments of introspection, encounter, and exchange but it can also produce terrible moments of oppression, aggression and interpersonal rupture. Often these terrible moments are not overt acts of racism, sexism, or heterosexism, but subtle expressions of these prejudices or microaggressions. When microaggressions occur in the context of the university classroom, professors and students alike are often frozen, unsure of what to do or if doing is even possible. One option is to respond to the microaggression with a form of micro-resistance.

Recently, while attending the annual Professional and Organization Development Network (POD) Conference in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to participate in a brief but extremely helpful training session led by Cynthia Ganote, Floyd Chueng, and Tasha Souza on a model of micro-resistance called Opening the Front Door (OTFD). The phrase “opening the front door” is a mnemonic device for the four steps of this model:

Observe:  State in clear, unambiguous language what you see happening.

Think: Express what you think or what you imagine others might be thinking.

Feel: Express your feelings about the situation.

Desire: State what you would like to have happen.

This model was originally developed to help individuals who are the recipients of microaggressions and their allied colleagues to confront and resist these issues in the workplace, along and between various strata of power and hierarchy.  The strength of this model is that it encourages direct and transparent communication while offering clear goals and instructions for how to proceed after the problem has been stated. It is also an incredibly flexible model which allows for a range of responses that are more or less confrontational depending on the environment, the power dynamic, and the interpersonal style of the individual. As suggested by someone in the session who is much quicker on the draw than myself, this strength and flexibility make it ideal for the classroom environment.

The following is an example of what this method might look like employed by a professor in an undergraduate classroom:


“I notice that, whenever we are talking about the impact of living in a low income environment on mental health a number of you refer to Brianna.” (Brianna is the only African American student in the class. She has mentioned in class, that she was inspired to go into psychology by her mother who is a neurologist.)


“I think that this might be happening because assumptions are being made about her background based on racial stereotypes that conflate socioeconomic status and race.”


“I am frustrated that Brianna continues to be spoken about in a way that is inconsistent with her lived experience and I am concerned that important aspects of what we have explored in class so far have not been attended to.”


“I want everyone in this class to be seen as a whole and complex person and treated thoughtfully and with respect. I would also like us all to be able to apply the information and ideas that we’ve discussed in class to our everyday lives and interactions.”

What this form of micro-resistance does is confront a classroom dynamic directly while minimizing embarrassment of individual students, including the recipient of the micro-aggression. It also takes the opportunity to couch the issues in terms of the specific content and over-reaching goals of the course. Finally, it expresses clear goals for how the problem will be addressed in the future as well as affirming a positive goal for the class as a whole, not just the individual student. Though this method by no means makes standing up and confronting microaggressions easy or risk-free, having tools at the ready makes us more likely to act and helps to promote intentional responses as opposed to knee-jerk reactions.

You’re invited to raise questions or give suggestions about resisting microaggressions in the classroom in the comments section. The Flourishing Academic wants to hear from you as do your colleagues!


Ganote, Cynthia, Cheung, Floyd, & Souza, Tasha, (2015) Don’t remain silent! Strategies for supporting colleagues via micro-resistance and ally development. Back to the Future: 40th Annual POD Conference.

Links to Other Relevant Posts

Engaging Race in the Classroom

Engaging Race in the Classroom Part 2: Writing About Race

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

Breaking the Glass Slipper

Students as Moral Teachers





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Engaging Race in the Classroom Part 2: Writing About Race



Image courtesy of Carnegie Natural History Museum exhibit Race: Are We so Different? and

By Rachel Luckenbill, English PhD Candidate and Instructional Consultant for TAs

This blog post is full of confessions.

Over my nine years teaching at the college level, I have been conspicuously aware of my own discomfort when broaching the topic of race in the classroom. I often found myself worrying that I would accidentally say something offensive or make a student of color feel uncomfortable because of my own bumbling attempts to handle race dialogues. I think a part of me believed that my whiteness disqualified me from leading such discussions. I teach literature so there’s no way around it – race comes up all the time in my classroom. I’ve attended conferences on race, read articles, and my own research engages deeply with race and ethnicity in contemporary literature. But still I found myself feeling self-conscious and hesitant whenever the topic surfaced.

Last summer all of this began to change when I participated in a writing exercise that helped me to explore my past experiences with race and understand the roots of my discomfort. In this post, I will describe that writing exercise and suggest ways it could be incorporated into the college classroom.

During the summer and fall of 2014, I participated in a poetry workshop held in conjunction with the Race: Are We so Different? exhibit at the Carnegie Natural History Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. I signed up for the workshop precisely so that I could explore why talking about race makes me so anxious, and I was more than a little tempted by the opportunity to work with the facilitators, well-known poets Sheila Carter-Jones and Terrance Hayes. Approximately 30 of us gathered on two Saturdays and one Sunday for five hours at a time.

On day one, the facilitators encouraged us to share openly the reasons why we wanted to attend a workshop centered on the topic of “race.” The candidness with which each person confessed suffering, complicity, confusion, and more raised the comfort level I felt with revealing my own ambiguous experiences with race. Next, the facilitators then prompted us to identify our earliest awareness of race and then list in writing experiences from our upbringing that helped shape how we currently view race. This part of the workshop was quite a challenge because it forced many of us to record experiences we did not want to explore but it was also freeing, allowing us to discover the roots of our current perspectives.

After these writing opening exercises, together we toured the exhibit and learned about the science behind skin color, the social dynamics surrounding race in grade schools, the inequities facing veterans of color, and more. We were encouraged to spend considerable time in the exhibit reflecting on what we heard, saw, and felt. We left the first day with our writing prompts, all of which pushed us to reflect on what we learned from the exhibit and also what we discovered when we remembered our own personal histories with race.

Our second Saturday was dedicated entirely to workshopping our poems, each person in turn hearing feedback from the entire group after sharing what he or she had written. This was a scary experience for me.  My poem confessed that I grew up hearing older members of my family use racist language and I was afraid to out them, afraid I would dishonor them while making myself appear insensitive and ignorant. The fear and uncertainty that clouded my thoughts about race were palpable.  The facilitators set a precedent for listening to each person’s poem attentively and then honoring its strengths and identifying possibilities for improvement without invalidating any one person’s experience or perception. In the end, the participants encouraged me to tell the truth about my experiences growing up, not just the darkness I was afraid to admit but also the beauty.

The workshop concluded on a Sunday as all of us gathered for a public poetry reading at the museum. We were all anxious and feeling incredibly vulnerable as we prepared to share very personal reflections. Ultimately, the experience of reading our poems was transformative. We voiced our stories in the midst of a community characterized by understanding and a desire to grow.

The poetry workshop taught me many things about being a writer, but more importantly it taught me how to dialogue honestly about race. It helped me accept my own experience in the context of my family as one that was both complex and ambiguous.  I wouldn’t say that I now am entirely comfortable dialoguing about race in the classroom but I certainly approach these conversations with more confidence and less fear.

Here’s a suggestion for how this writing exercise can be translated into a multi-day lesson for the college classroom. It can be adapted to fit almost any discipline.

Step 1:  Set the tone by laying the ground rules for dialogues about race so that every student knows they will be heard and respected when they speak.

Step 2: Prompt students to identify in writing their earliest awareness of race and then to write a list of experiences that contribute to their current understanding of race. These can be from their childhood or they might be from their current experiences in college. Invite students to share what they wrote if they feel comfortable doing so, making sure to model listening and respect.

Step 3: Give the students a common learning experience. If you want to stay in the classroom, you could offer a brief selection of readings on race from your discipline or if you have the resources to venture outside, take students to a relevant museum exhibit, play, or other event that foregrounds race.

Step 4: Have your students talk about what surprised them or interested them most during the common learning experience. Hearing what other’s think can prompt students to new realizations and deeper reflection.

Step 5: Give a writing assignment that encourages students to craft a response both to their own experiences and what they discovered from the readings or field trip. They might discover intersections between the two or contradictions. This can take the form of a poem but it can also be a letter, editorial, memo, story, journal entry, or an essay.

Step 6:  Have students share excerpts from what they wrote with the rest of class. For the poetry workshop, even though this was the part of the experience that made us feel most honorable it was also one of the most pivotal components. Sharing our work with each other gave us an opportunity to offer support, affirmation, and sometimes empathy. Keep in mind that you should only do this if you announce at the very start of the activity that you will want students to share the final product with others. This gives students the ability to control how much they are willing to share with their colleagues. This is part of what it means to build a safe and respectful learning environment.

The exercise I’m recommending will not work for every class. In fact, I think it’s well-suited for classes where a particular unit or the entire course is focused on race. Whatever your discipline, having students begin engaging with race by writing about it offers all students, the shy and the outspoken, an opportunity to articulate their thoughts about a topic that often stirs up fears and insecurities.

Have any of you already experimented with having your students write about race? We invite you to share those experiences in the comments below. Feel free to describe other assignments that have successfully challenged your students to engage race in the classroom.



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Engaging Race in the Classroom

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Over the next couple weeks, The Flourishing Academic will be exploring race in the classroom. Here’s the first post in our miniseries:

By Allie Reznik, Teaching Fellow and English PhD Student at Duquesne University

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel Americanah, she presents an American undergraduate classroom where the main character Ifemelu, a transplant from Nigeria, watches Roots. After the film ends, a “firm, female voice from the back of the class, with a non-American accent, [asks]  ‘Why was ‘nigger’ bleeped out?” (168). What ensues is a dialogue between a diverse body of students in the classroom, as Professor Moore, “a tiny, tentative woman with the emotionally malnourished look of someone who did not have friends,” begins to cower into a corner, as “a vague terror was freezing her features into a smirk-smile ” (169). Of course, Adichie creates the situation as both a tense and comical one. Yet, more importantly, Adichie highlights and critiques the professor’s role in this exchange, as Professor Moore is unwilling to release her authority to engage with her students and their experiences.  The first key to discussing race, and its intersections with class, gender, and environment in the undergraduate classroom, is to courageously speak and listen.

Stories, including yours and your students’ and what appears in news media, films, scientific reports, literature, among many other cultural texts, all play a powerful role in the construction and understanding of race. In order to talk about race, we as educators need to be able to courageously speak and listen to stories, but also model how to interpret those stories and how they can be used to empower or oppress. In “The Danger of a Single Story,” Adichie’s powerful TED talk (~ 19 minutes, please consider watching!), Adichie offers an incredibly useful paradigm that equips students to theorize and think critically about their experiences by situating them in larger conversations. Adichie’s paradigm also positions the professor in a place of learning, rather than authority, through stories. The medium of stories is a pivotal place to begin to speak, listen, and learn. I touch on a few of the quotes from her talk here, and elaborate on methods that I use in my classroom.


Adichie explains that her American roommate had “seen and heard different versions of the single story” regarding Africa, which led her to assume that Adichie could not cook on a stove and listened to “tribal music.” She follows up with humor, explaining that her roommate was surprised when she brought out Mariah Carey, yet she points to a larger issue of how stories that we consume shape and solidify assumptions about people. Moreover, this interaction emphasizes the need—no matter how awkward or painful—to address those assumptions and move forward to a deeper understanding. This insight is an incredibly useful way to get both students and professors thinking about how their lives are impacted by racial identity. Each of your students experienced a new place when they arrived at university, so the opportunity is ripe to push them to think about the single stories that they enacted or had to react to.


A huge obstacle that students face when discussing race in the classroom is that they don’t have the language. Adichie explains that “…the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes, is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Some students will not know what a stereotype is, or think they do but are confusing it with something else. The single story is in itself a stereotype based on one representation that is incomplete. To counter stereotypes and model cultural consciousness, offering students scaffolding is incredibly useful. For instance, the film Ethnic Notions traces black stereotypes both before and after slave emancipation to show how the “Uncle Tom” and “Mammy” stereotypes reinforced the notion that slaves were content in the slave system to reinforce and justify its existence, while “Jezebel” and “Zip Coon” stereotypes proliferated after emancipation to emphasize the social consequences of freeing blacks. These stereotypes highlight that race is highly contextual and constructed based on the historical moment, and calls students to see real world consequences of these stereotypes that continue to resonate in culture today. Defining terms is essential to creating students and citizens who can engage in meaningful conversations in the classroom and beyond. I’ve even had to define race versus racism in my classroom, so find out where your students are and meet them there.


How else can you get students to engage and critique the single story and understand how power operates? Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is an accessible and engaging text that moves students towards thinking critically about the single stories they encounter and consume in their lives so they can begin to think about the large systems that they operate within rather than feeling burdened or shy because of their personal identities. Focusing on white guilt won’t do anything for a discussion, rather opening students up to learning about cultural differences in addition to interrogating how others are treated differently because of race, class, or gender begins to make the theoretical connections and material consequences more clear. bell hooks, a renowned cultural critic celebrated for engaging with complex theories of class, race, and gender via popular culture, spells out the theoretical scaffolding of power with her term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchal forces” to understand how race, class, and gender intersect in regards to how power circulates.


Adichie also emphasizes, “it is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power.” The single story is a single representation of a people that has been historically exploited to disempower and stereotype. Those who have the political and financial strength to create and circulate the stories (think, Hollywood, government) have power over whose voices are heard. Regardless of discipline, historical contextualization is highly useful when discussing race since it is so engrained in historical systems of power. Katy L. Chiles’s Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America offers an incredibly fascinating perspective on the scientific and literary intersections
of how the narrative surrounding race shifted from the 18th century understandings of race, when it was considered an exterior social symbol, to 19th century in America, where conceptions of racial interiority were perpetuated to uphold the system of slavery: this even carries into today (7-8).


Adichie offers another way for students to challenge the single story. Consider “how they are told, who tells them, when [are] they told, how many stories are told” to spell out how power operates. Push for you and your students to ask questions, not seek static answers. Release your authority and push for students to interrogate the representations in a literary text, commercial, historical document, or scientific report. Moreover, channel hooks and push beyond the limits of academic texts to popular culture. Be like a sponge and absorb everything so that you can push your students to think critically about the world they live in. For instance, last week I saw an article on colorism regarding Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose, where her parents wouldn’t attend the wedding because he was “too dark.” Also, you may recognize Adichie’s voice—Beyoncé samples her definition of feminist in her song “***Flawless” from her latest album, which begins to move beyond racial difference to other urgent issues regarding gender that connect everyone.


Adichie meets her audience where we should meet our students: we all agree that everyone deserves dignity, which makes talking about race so incredibly urgent. She explains, “…the consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity…it emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” History again can offer an effective lens through which students can consider the linguistic consequences of defining racial difference. While it is important to expose students to specific cultural norms that they might not have had access to or never had to think about—this was true for hair culture and colorism while I taught Americanah—they also need to be aware of the power of language and narratives.

Just as Adichie explains how she experiences the consequences of the single story based on her American roommate’s assumptions about her, she self-consciously identifies where she also enacted the single story on others. Based on her consumption of American news, she made assumptions about Mexicans and immigration, but discovered that this single story was incorrect and incomplete when she arrived in Guadalajara. Based on her mother’s description of their house servant Fide, she assumed his life was horrible until she went to his house and discovered that his family were highly skilled artists. In this active self-reflection, Adichie offers an effective model for educators to facilitate dialogue rather than merely relay content to your students in the classroom. To fruitfully discuss race in your undergraduate classroom, don’t be a Professor Moore. Instead, “regain” in your classroom what Adichie refers to in her TED talk as “a kind of paradise” by cultivating the strength to courageously speak and listen.

How do you engage race in your classroom? Please share here and join CTE for the panel, Exploring Race and Pedagogy at Our Predominantly White University, this Wednesday, February 25th.

Allie Reznik is a second year Ph.D. student in English studying the intersections of race and music in American literature. She writes #TSWBAT blog at and tweets about food, music, literature, and popular culture at @alliebgolightly.


Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED. July 2009. Web. 19 February 2015.

—. Americanah. New York: Anchor Books, 2014. Print.

Chiles, Katy L. Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

Cultural Criticism and Transformation. bell hooks. Dir. Sut Jhally. Media Education Foundation, 1996. Film.

Ethnic Notions. Dir. Marlon Riggs. California Newsreel. 1987. Film.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” 1989. Web. 19 February 2015.