The Flourishing Academic

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

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Lynn Hertrick Leavitt – Effective Teaching Through Caring

MarkPrestopnikBy Mark Prestopnik, Assistant Director of Online Teaching and Learning, Duquesne University

We honor the memory of Lynn Hertrick Leavitt (1965-2017) who taught part-time for 11 ½ years in the Duquesne University MS in Leadership Studies.


Lynn Hertrick Leavitt was a strong and kind-hearted woman. I first met Lynn when I was working in the School of Leadership and Professional Advancement many years ago. In my role, I helped to on-board faculty and acclimate them to our processes and standards, as well as connect faculty with the resources and services that the University offered.

Lynn was enthusiastic and eager from the start. Her work-ethic was apparent. She wasn’t afraid to ask questions and to give a great deal of energy to her adjunct teaching for Duquesne. Even though Lynn had several other professional responsibilities, she always carved out time to provide more than enough attention to the courses she was teaching for Duquesne.

Lynn was proud of teaching for Duquesne. She really believed in the University, its mission, and the education of adult and professional students. She participated in retreats with the Center for Teaching Excellence, and was always seeking to further enhance her teaching and mentoring abilities. She made it a point to travel from Virginia multiple times to celebrate with her students at commencement. She was as much a part of the team as other faculty who lived in the immediate Pittsburgh area.

Even though it was outside of the realm of her responsibilities, Lynn constantly sought to promote Duquesne and its online leadership programs. She would relate stories about being at conferences and events and espousing the value of these degrees to those whom she sensed would benefit from them. If there was something that our administrative team would ask of the faculty, she would be one of the first to offer her hand and time, and to share ideas on how we could make things work more effectively.


On a personal level, Lynn was very kind and thoughtful. She always took the time to ask how I was doing, to encourage me professionally, and to reconnect if it had been several months since our last conversation. I could tell that she also had a similar impact when interacting with and motivating her students. She was authentic, and simply put, she cared. Even though most of our interaction was through phone or email, it was clear the type of person who Lynn was, and the positive impact that she had upon others.

The lesson that I’d like to impart to others inside academia, the lesson that I will take with me from knowing Lynn, is to put your heart into your work and your interactions. Take time to care about people on a genuine level. Look for ways that your interaction with others can make them better off, and in turn leave you more fulfilled knowing that you helped them. Get to know people, understand what matters to them, and you will find that this allows for a greater range of possibilities in your teaching and mentoring. It’s not always about knowing the right answer, or knowing the ideal solution to a problem. Sometimes it’s just listening a little bit more, and putting in that extra effort that can make the difference.

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Rhetoric, Combs and Rhizomes: Q & A with Dr. Derek Hook (Part I)

hook-headshotarvin-simonby Derek Hook, PhD, Associate Professor in Psychology at Duquesne University & Arvin Simon, MA, Doctoral Student in Psychology at Duquesne University

Derek’s work focuses on psychoanalysis with expertise in the area of critical psychology and psychosocial studies. Arvin is an Instructional Consultant for Teaching Assistants at the Center for Teaching Excellence.

For the past four years, I (Arvin Simon) have taken coursework towards my doctorate in clinical psychology. I have also enjoyed wonderful courses on philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Martin Buber to name a few. Each of my instructors found creative ways of presenting course material to students who did not have a background in philosophy. Dr. Derek Hook was one such instructor who stood out to me in the way he was able to lead instructional, collaborative and engaging discussions.

With Derek’s permission, I have written a reflection on how I experienced his class discussions. Derek was then invited to read my manuscript and respond with his own comments. This intertextual exchange might serve to illustrate how relations of power and knowledge were negotiated both as an object of study in our class (on Michel Foucault) and as a pedagogical discourse that was enacted between instructor and students.

My mentor, Dr. Steve Hansen, shared with me three types of conversations that can occur in a classroom.


A comb conversation

First, there are what he called rhetorical conversations. These are basically instances where the instructor is lecturing at students without giving them the opportunity to meaningfully critique the text or initiate discussions on a topic that interests them. The second type of conversation, comb conversations, frequently occur in classes where personal material is shared. Here, the instructor invites students to respond to the text but conversations are restricted between the instructor and an individual student. Because of mutual vulnerabilities (e.g. not wanting to seem ignorant; sharing personal opinions) the student and instructor may feel safer having a private conversation in the context of a classroom discussion. The third, and most difficult type of conversation to initiate, is a rhizomatic conversation. Eponymously named, the rhizome conversation does not stay fixed between an individual student and instructor. In fact, the conversation may extend in several different directions and involve multiple layers of interactions. These conversations are geared at getting students to engage with a) the material (instructional) b) the instructor (collaborative) and c) each other (engaging). Dr. Kathryn Strom has written extensively about applying the philosophical concept of the rhizome in the classroom.

rhizomeThere were a few things that Derek did very well to create rhizome conversations.

1) He clearly modelled a willingness to learn from both the text and his students. When discussing difficult passages of text, Derek wondered aloud about the ambiguities and contradictions in the text and even shared his own uncertainties as to the meanings. He invited us to collaboratively engage with him in making sense of dense material while also scaffolding our hermeneutics within social and historical contexts. This is consistent with rhizomatic conversations that aim to be transparent about the way that knowledge is formulated and the effects that it has within academia and the broader social-cultural context.

2) By incorporating written reflections with close, textual analysis Derek was able to invite students who would not ordinarily speak in class to share their thoughts. Derek seemed to always hear student opinions in a generous light and recognized that we might not be experts on the material but we had very worthy ideas that could be fruitfully related to the class. Rhizomatic conversations are horizontal (vs. hierarchical, vertical) in nature and invite collaborative and open-ended inquiry into complex subject matter where linear, authoritative knowledge is often subjective or incomplete.

3) Derek encouraged us to make the material our own by relating it to examples of our own clinical work or scholarship. Rhizomatic conversations are often interdisciplinary and recognize multiple intersecting lines (e.g. politics, economics, ecology) that each bring a different perspective to bear.


Part I of this post concludes by inviting Derek to respond, in Part II, to two common concerns instructors might have in leading rhizomatic conversations:

  • I am worried that I won’t have enough time to cover all the material! Is facilitating a discussion an efficient use of my lecture time?
  • I am concerned that if I lead discussions on difficult topics then students might get offended or offend one another. What can I do to create a conversation that does not shut people down?

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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.