The Flourishing Academic

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


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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.

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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.

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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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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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How Am I Doing? How to Have Meaningful Conversations with Students about Class Process

by Jess Dunn, Instructional Consultant at the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence07Teachers-t_span-articleLarge

Mid-term is a difficult time for professors and students. Both experience the sensation of time moving far too quickly coupled with the illusion that the end of the semester is an ever-retreating horizon. The excitement that characterized the beginning of the semester starts to wane and disenchantment sets in. It is at this point in the semester when I am filled with the most doubt: about the course, my teaching abilities, and the students. Thus, around mid-term, I open up a discussion with students around what is helping or hindering their process of thinking, learning, and creating. The focus of this discussion is not on course content but on the process of student learning and development. It involves asking questions about how students learn, about how professors teach, and, finally, how we are working together to create an environment that makes teaching and learning possible

Often, however, when you try to open this discussion, you are met with blank stares and silence. It may be tempting to take that as a sign that everything is great or that students simply don’t care. But it is far more likely that students are not comfortable entering into a conversation with a professor that feels like a confrontation. That is because students are savvy. They have been students for a long time and they know tPanopticonhe score. Whether or not they have read their Foucault, they know intuitively and through experience that the classroom is awash with technologies of discipline. Visibility in the classroom can too often be met with punishment in the form of shaming, grade reduction, and additional work. So, how do you get students to engage openly in this conversation, in the classroom, with you? How do you go about opening up the discussion when students tend toward silence in the face of authority especially when that face is asking for feedback that may not be entirely to its liking?

For starters, you can prepare for the discussion with the same gusto as any other classroom activity, assessment, or presentation. Take the time to prepare discussion questions that address your concerns and goals and invite students to express theirs. You may want to give the students an anonymous mid-semester course evaluation  and review it ahead of time to help you develop your questions accordingly. You also want to make sure that you leave enough class time to devote to this discussion. Five minutes at the end of class on a Friday afternoon is probably not ideal for this purpose. When you and your students feel rushed you are less likely to think clearly and speak cogently and more likely to be irritated, anxious, and defensive. Offering a few stolen minutes at the end of the class can also be interpreted as a lack of genuine concern which discourages students from taking the discussion seriously.

Having prepared, the most important thing you can do is enter into the discussion from a position of not knowing. This is not to say that you should feign ignorance in a Columbo-esque ruse to catch your students unaware and get them to confess! You may, however, want to let go of assumptions that you are the expert on how a classroom should be run and instead, position students as the experts on how they learn. Your actions, words, and responses all flow from this position of relinquishing claims to expertise and inform your comportment throughout the discussion. One way to begin the conversation might be to begin with observations about yourself and areas where you see room for improvement. This not only encourages students to help you with your goals as a professor and also shows them the kinds of issues you hope to address, it also models for the students how to take responsibility for their contributions to the classroom and how to offer constructive criticism. Another way to open up this discussion is to normalize the situation. Let them know that all courses can be improved upon and that not every teaching style or process works the same for everyone. You can frame the discussion by introducing the notion of a class as a collaborative project wherein we all have various roles and responsibilities to help create a useful, engaging, and enjoyable experience.conversations

But no matter how you begin your discussion, open-ended questions will likely be the most helpful contribution you can make. Questions that are too specific like, Do I assign too much reading? are often met with yes or no responses and can lead students to respond the way they think you want them to. Open-ended, however, does not mean vague or unfocused. Questions that are too broad, for example, What do you think about the class so far? often overwhelm or confuse students and tend to pull for responses like I like it or It’s really hard. Questions that are “just right” offer a framework for discussion while still leaving room for students to voice their ideas. Some examples of questions that are “just right” in this context might be How can we make better use of out-of-class readings? or If you could change anything about this course so far, what would you change?  If students still offer short, nondescript responses you can ask them to elaborate with questions like: Could you tell me more about that? or How so? By asking questions and pressing students in gentle ways, you can encourage a discussion that not only helps you understand “problems” in the classroom, but possible solutions.

And so, what you get when you engage openly and thoughtfully with your students is more than just an answer to the question, How am I doing? You get a way forward through the mid-semester malaise and feedback that allows you to continue to develop as a professor and help your students to continue to develop as learners, thinkers, and creators.


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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.

BIO

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.


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Presence and Single Focus

Luarel

Laurel Willingham-McLain
Learners – students and faculty alike – are starting a new semester. Here are some thoughts on how I want to approach this new beginning as a learner:
“Full attention is needed for learning.”
“Focus on one task at a time, and you’ll do better at each task in much less time.”
“Typically, research demonstrates that individuals who shift tasks make 50% more errors and spend at least 50% more time on both tasks” (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2013, p. 79, based on Medina, 2008).

As a mother and center director, I had always prided myself on being a so-called ‘multi-tasker’. But lately I have noticed that I reach sensory overload very quickly. I have a very hard time, for example, focusing on a conversation or reading while the radio is on. In fact, I find it painful. My head hurts.

The research is clear. There is no such thing as multitasking – just serial switching, which has detrimental effects on both our work and the brain itself.

Now, of course, if at least one of the tasks is more procedural (repetitive, familiar, and low on cognitive processing), we can do two things at once. I can wash dishes and chat with a friend. Or walk and pray at the same time. But there are many tasks, both personal and work-related that deserve and even require my full attention.

And so, my resolution for this year is to learn to attend to one task at a time – be it a simple or complex task.

If I start to make a cup of tea, I plan to finish without using the intervening two minutes to leave the kitchen and fold the laundry – which inevitably means coming back to a tepid cup of water and starting the process over again. Or forgetting the tea altogether.

However, this resolution is not merely about being more efficient or productive but also about being present to the person I’m with rather than planning the next move in my mind. This focus is essential in other cultures where the present is valued more than the future. This doesn’t come naturally to me. I need to learn how to give very clear signals when I do need to move on from the conversation rather than allowing my mind to drift into giving half of my attention.

For reading and desk work, the pomodoro technique (aka, tomato timer) is a useful tool for attending to those tasks I’m resisting. The cycle of 25 minutes on task followed by a 5 minute break, fits another cognitive science finding: that we need to interweave our learning with “wakeful rest,” or periods of time where we are not taking in new information (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2013, p. 25). We also need physical movement.

The good news is that I just succeeded in a small way. I wrote this blog post without checking email, text messages, or Facebook.

I can do it! So can you.

References
Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2013). The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.