Contemplative Pedagogy

August is upon us, and for people like me, who live by the academic calendar, it always comes with a sense of panic: “I can’t believe it’s already August—I didn’t do half of what I wanted to.” I am way behind on all my projects, and deadlines are looming near. As always, it will be a race to the end.

This year, I put aside the first week of August for a week of Contemplative Pedagogy. The summer session was offered by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, a nonprofit at Amherst College with a vision of introducing “contemplative … practices and perspectives to create active learning and research environments that look deeply into experience and meaning for all in service of a more just and compassionate society.” In the words of Executive Director Daniel Barbezat, contemplative practices help students arrive and be present in class, and provide a supportive environment for inquiry. Education, continues Dan, is an opportunity to cultivate a deep personal and social awareness, stimulating exploration of what is most meaningful to us as interconnected human beings.
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I first heard about the Center from an interview on NPR’s On Being with Arthur Zajonc, who was at the time executive director of the center. I was intrigued by much of what Arthur said about using contemplative practices to cultivate attention and as a mode to inquiry. Following the interview, I read Zajonc’s book Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry and the book he co-authored with Parker Palmer, The Heart of Higher Education.

Of the many meditation books I have read over the years, this is the one I can relate to most. Zajonc contextualizes contemplative practices in both Eastern and Western traditions. There is as much Goethe and Rilke as there is Zen and Buddhism. There are taxonomies and epistemologies and jargon I can connect with to clarify experiences and actions. The book moved forward my personal yoga and meditation practices, and changed the way I think about my teaching. While I don’t walk into class and open with a five-minute meditation (as some of the summer session participants do), I realized that much of what I teach tries to instill mindfulness in how students think about problems. Examples of this would include ethical approaches to crafting information policies, empathy and reflective exercises with regard to the reference interview, or discussion of social responsibility in collection development. So the next natural step was to attend the Summer Session at Smith College.

The setting:
Smith College, for those who are not familiar with it, is one of those storybook New England colleges clad in green lawns, mature trees, old buildings, and proud tradition. Founded in 1891, Smith is one of the Seven Sisters, and sits in a lovely college town with welcoming cafés, bookstores, and boutiques.

One day I was on line at the cafeteria for lunch when a young student started up a conversation. She looked at my name badge and asked what “contemplative pedagogy” was. I gave her the 40-second elevator speech, and then asked what she was doing on campus during summer. It turned out she was a junior, on campus as an instructor in some summer program for high-school students from Japan. She asked me where we where staying, and when I answered Chapin House, she said, “Isn’t that a beautiful staircase? Did you know it was the inspiration for the staircase in the movie Gone with the Wind?” I didn’t know, and I thanked her for that information. The student went on to mention some of the notable woman who had lived in Chapin House: Barbara Bush, Julia Child, Betty Friedan, Madeleine L’Engle, and a few more. I was awe-struck; my jaw just dropped in amazement. She looked at me in disappointment and said, “Oh, you never heard of any of them?”

The participants:
Eighty people attended the summer session. With few exceptions (one high-school teacher, a couple of administrators, a couple of Ph.D. students), all were faculty members at universities in the U.S. and Canada. Every type of higher ed institution was represented, from Ivy Leagues to a new small online for-profit university. Participants came from public universities (CUNY, Arizona State, Kansas State), private universities (Pratt, Syracuse, Kenyon), Christian universities (University of San Diego, Baylor), community colleges (Baltimore County, LaGuardia), and some uniquely focused schools such as Naropa, a Tibetan Buddhist university in Colorado. In terms of disciplines, most were from the arts, humanities, and social sciences, with backgrounds in psychology, counseling, English literature, music, arts, economics, sociology, global studies, and more. Several had attended summer sessions and other Center events in the past, but many were first-timers.
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People explained that their situations vary greatly, and there are many ways they introduce mindful practices in their teaching. Some do so directly; they may incorporate a five-minute meditation or a walking meditation in the class. Other include such practices in their assignments. Some still don’t do anything and have come there to learn, and others, such as myself, introduce mindfulness indirectly as a subtheme of the course.

I was saddened to hear that many people referred to themselves as being “in the closet” at their universities. They are discouraged from exploring contemplative pedagogy, and are unable to discuss this with their colleagues. I have to say that I really just don’t get it. Shouldn’t contemplation and mindfulness be the underlying foundation of all education? One participant told me that in her first career she worked in a policy think-tank, and ten years later became a university faculty member—she described it as moving from a think-tank to an unthink-tank. I was dismayed by the level of closed-mindedness at too many universities, and grateful to be at Pratt SILS.

The faculty:
I was thrilled to learn that Arthur Zajonc was on this year’s summer session faculty, and was not disappointed. Arthur led a total of five sessions: a contemplative practice, a two-part presentation, and a two-part workshop. All sessions examined aspects of moving between focused attention and open awareness, holding both an open mind and an open heart. Arthur’s presentations are rich in substance and culture, anchored in a deep intellectual history of philosophy and literature. They examine contemplative pedagogy in terms of epistemologies, quoting Parker Palmer, who said that every way of knowing is a way of living and every epistemology becomes an ethic.

There were two movement classes a day, the morning session with Yin Mei and the afternoon class with Paula Sager. Both focused on authentic movement, a practice that helps explore the authentic force that moves us. Yin Mei teaches choreography at Queens College, and is a dancer and choreographer. Her movement class had some vocabulary in common with Tai Chi, but was more expressive. It was also very energizing as a morning workout before the more academic classes. Paula is a dance teacher and researcher, and has conducted research on the phenomenon of witness consciousness in the development of the individual. Much of the work in her class is done in groups or with a partner, and consists of alternating roles. For me personally, the experiential sessions, which included the movement session and the contemplative practices, were where I gained the most insight into what contemplative pedagogy is and can be. Mirabai’s compassion meditation was the perfect example of how meaningful witnessing and holding can be.
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Both Raul Quinones, talking about antiracism, and Vaishali Mamgain, an economist specializing in immigrant issues, discussed having to live with complexity and contradiction, and recognizing the importance of action. We often do so little because we think we do not make a difference, but it is our responsibility to demonstrate to students, through the work we do together in class, that every action counts. Vaishali told how her rather traditional data-driven economic research took a turn toward the contemplative. As a freshly minted Ph.D. she found herself at the University of Southern Maine. The area had a large immigrant community, and Vaishali decided to research immigrant employment and labor issues. She gathered all the data, analyzed it, and wrote the article. When the reviewers returned their comments they praised the research questions and methodology, but one reviewer asked, Did you talk to any of the immigrants? Talk? What a reactionary concept! Economists don’t talk to people, they analyze data. Vaishali went back to the immigrant center, began talking to people, and her life has never been the same. Vaishali now teaches about food politics in Southern Maine and helps students, many of whom come from fishing communities, to live with the conflicting pull of food politics, the humane treatment of animals, and their livelihood.

Some people accuse contemplative practitioners of escapism, but the discussion in the summer session surrounding information technology showed that nothing can be further from the truth. All participants recognize that technology is a part of both our own and our students’ lives, and David Levy demonstrated some concrete examples of using technology in mindful ways. David, a professor from the Information School at the University of Washington, and thus the closest to me in terms of discipline, talked about the course he teaches called Information and Contemplation. Thinking, David explains, is a slow process, but we live in a world that is all about accelerated production and consumption. Through exercises and discussion, he shows students ways to think reflectively about their use of technology, and to use it in ways that can better themselves and their surroundings.

Most university faculty are trained in their specific disciplines, and few have an education in pedagogical theory of any kind. We teach hundreds of students over our careers, yet have never learned what is important in teaching and what works best. Contemplative pedagogy is as much about the pedagogy itself as it is about contemplative practices. As Dan cautioned, as educators we must lead gently and be confident in our own practices. For me, the inquiry continues.


Grey Literature 15 conference coming soon

I’ll be giving the keynote address at the GL15 conference this winter in Bratislava (Slovakia) this Dec.
Hope to see you there.

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