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.

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Dialogue in the Classroom: A Student’s Perspective

by John W. Foster, an undergraduate at Duquesne University

Hello! I hope this post finds you well as you embark on a new semester teaching. Today I’d like to share my perspective on how classroom discussion and flexibility might help you achieve your course goals and objectives.

Throughout my undergraduate courses I acquired and retained more information in courses that had discussion components than those driven by lecture alone. I firmly believe that providing students the opportunity for classroom discussion not only creates a dialogue but also allows for new insights. There are the inevitable initial reservations on the part of students in any classroom discussion but, sooner or later, we adjust and join in.

I am amazed at professors’ ability to have a lecture-oriented course yet still find opportunities to have discussions regardless of field of study or size. Being a current student I can attest to the positive benefits classroom discussions provides. However, not everyone will participate in discussion. This does not necessarily equate to an individual not having interest in the material. For students who may not be comfortable engaging in discussions, I encourage you to have alternatives such as written reflections throughout the semester.

In the same vein, flexibility is an important component of any course and in any classroom. Classroom discussions run the possibility of getting behind anticipated schedules. I observed that there are clear distinctions in professors who solely abide by the initial syllabus without flexibility and others who make adjustments based on classroom discussion and material covered.

One of the main reasons why I chose Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit was the teacher to student ratio. I am one of many students who learn the most by learning through others and their different viewpoints. Furthermore, it provides me the opportunity to think critically and feel more enticed to ask questions and provide insight.

This is truly an exciting time for you as you kick off the year and engage with new students. Throughout my education I have observed that a classroom can be one of three things between a professor and a student: a monologue, duologue, or a dialogue. There is a tendency to fluctuate between a monologue and a duologue; where learning can occur, but I believe learning occurs at its highest degree when a student and a professor reach a dialogue.

As you embark on the spring semester I wish you all the best in your endeavors and hope that you are able to find the value and time for classroom discussions!

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Biography: John is originally from Reading, PA. He is currently in his senior year at Duquesne University where he is pursuing a Double Major in History and International Relations with a dual concentration in Security Studies and U.S. Foreign Policy.

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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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Who Are You? Pitching to Your Students

Tune into any major city’s local sports talk radio, and you will most likely hear a sentence or two about baseball.  The final few weeks of regular season baseball can be some of the most entertaining: who’s going to the post-season, which batter is chasing a title, and what pitcher is chasing a Cy Young award.

Teaching, like baseball, is a long and strategic game.  But if we think of the semester as a nine-inning game, where both sides get to pitch and both take swings at the ball, we see ourselves and our students.  As pitchers, we are offering up our fastballs, curveballs, sliders, our splitters (our knowledge) in order to position our ideas before our hitters, who might bunt, hit a single, double, or triple, or outright hit the ball into the Allegheny River. 

But for  a moment, let me take this one step further and ask you to imagine yourself as one of three pitchers: George Bradley (St. Louis Brown Stockings, 1876), Clayton Kershaw (LA Dodgers, 2008 – Present), or Jon Lester (Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, 2006 – Present).

George Bradley: The Perfect Semester

Since Pittsburgh is a National League city, it’s worth mentioning George Washington Bradley.  Who?  In 1876, at the age of 24, Bradley finally caught a break and was signed by the St. Louis Brown Stockings.  Standing 5’ 10.5” tall George pitched the first complete game in the National League against the Hartford Dark Blues on July 15, 1876.  That year, Bradley would stand out as a most valuable player: he pitched 23 of the 24 perfect games for the Brown Stockings, had 16 shutouts (no hits allowed), and carried a 1.23 earned run average (ERA) for the remainder of the season.  In other words, Bradley was good, but he was only this good for one season.

I often think that this is the type of pressure we put on ourselves as lecturers.  We strive to have that perfect lecture, the perfect offering to our students, only to find that Bradley’s line is impossible to copy (his single season shutout record still stands).

Clayton Kershaw: The Consistent Performer

Six seasons in the league, and Kershaw is being compared to the greats in Dodger history: Drysdale, Koufax, Newcombe, Roe, and several others.  Kershaw alone has pitched the team to 18 victories so far this season, three shy of his 2011 win-count.  In this season, he holds five complete games and two shutouts.  While close to perfect, Kershaw shows his flaws, remains humble, and continues to go and give a great effort every five days.  Kershaw is near perfect and if you are a baseball fan, he is great to watch! 

Hearing Kershaw speak about his performances, one gets the impression that he is a realistic individual; I don’t think Kershaw goes to the mound every day confident that he’s going to meet or exceed Bradley’s outstanding 1876 season, a near impossibility.  What stands out and what we can learn from Kershaw is his consistent preparation, despite the positive and negative games he may have had before.

Jon Lester: The Every Day Balance

Admittedly, I am a die-hard Red Sox fan.  My New England roots gave me no other option; I certainly was not going to be a fan of the Evil Empire (the Yankees!).  That changed, of course, in 2004, 2007, and 2013, where suddenly being a Sox fan no longer elicited sympathy, especially from Pirates fans, but snide remarks eluding to the money spent, the question of steroids in some famous players, and the overall Sox pride we too often wear on our sleeves.

That said, one pitcher comes to mind as a phenom in his own right: Jon Lester.  But Lester is no Kershaw or Bradley (Lester: 114 wins, 66 losses, 3.60 ERA, 11 career complete games, and 4 shutouts over nine years).  What makes Lester a phenom is what has happened to him off the field.  Lester is a cancer survivor.  Between 2006 (his rookie season) and 2007, Lester underwent treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, surrendering about one year of professional baseball for treatment and recovery.  Through the process, Lester believed he would come back stronger, and did he ever, helping the Red Sox win the 2007 World Series.

Lester reminds me of what we all contend with: off-the-field issues.  God-willing, the issue for you is not cancer, but the balancing act of children, family, research and publication, or exams and dissertations for graduate students.  So, when approaching your students, know that you are going to have those days where your teaching may be less than stellar.  Just like the ace pitchers of today’s game, know you’re going to have day to day struggles.  And that’s okay.

So, I conclude with four thoughts:

  1. Approach each day with the goal of showing your students ‘your best stuff,’ but acknowledge there will be those days when your fastball is operating at 70% efficiency.
  2. Be consistent with your day-to-day approach, your preparation, in your feedback to students, and most importantly, be honest when you have those difficult days.
  3. Don’t be afraid to try new things.  Have a new curve-ball you want to try out?  Give it a go!  This is especially true when trying new active learning techniques, incorporating technology, etc.
  4. And lastly, during those days you struggle, note what was difficult and how you might change it the next time you teach the lecture and plan on how you can make the next class better.

Your objective, unlike these ace pitchers: get your students to take the pitch and run with it.  As much as we would hate to see the Pirates get overtaken by the mighty bat of Matt Holliday, our objective as teachers should be just that: let Matt go yard and take our knowledge for a run.

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Welcome to The Flourishing Academic, the newest online resource produced by Duquesne University’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE). We, the staff of CTE, are entering the blogosphere in order to increase community and conversation surrounding our favorite topic: teaching. The Flourishing Academic is a multi-voice blog devoted to exploring the question, “How can we as teacher-scholars thrive in academia?” and featuring posts on teaching and learning by CTE staff, faculty guest bloggers, and participants in our Certificate of University Teaching. The blog will also highlight outstanding Duquesne teacher-scholars through brief monthly interviews. We hope you visit us often, comment actively, and teach enthusiastically!

Stay tuned as we publish new resource pages and begin posting on a regular basis . . .

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