Contemplative Course Design Beyond Technique

While many practitioners and advocates of contemplative pedagogy focus on implementing Mindfulness, Yoga, or Buddhist-inspired techniques aimed at relieving suffering in their classrooms, I, professionally, have some apprehension around that narrow focus in public educational spaces.

My personal life may feature such practices but in terms of public educational spaces I am more interested in how contemplative inquiry and pedagogy can enrich our critical and creative capacities and develop more caring communities.  

For me, a contemplative approach to course design would include two steps: 1) Faculty’s contemplative inquiry into the practices, habits, and values their courses cultivate 2) Development of context-appropriate practices (assignments, activities) for students that are values-aligned.

In my world, “traditional” education features indoctrination into particular kinds of values (i.e. consumerist) and requires students to engage in certain embodied and cognitive practices (i.e. sit still, be quiet, work alone) to shape dispositions (comply, compete).  

Contemplative approach to teaching and learning “Beowulf”! (2018)

I first work with faculty to explore those hidden values so that we may be intentional about what we are cultivating—what our classroom practices and habits (which include assignments and activities) are developing in students. The contemplative precedes the critical. We look at what is happening in our classes in a non-reactive way so we can be honest about what, why, and how we are teaching and how we may wish to change it.

Next, I work with faculty to develop context-appropriate assignments and activities that offer students tools, vocabulary, and space for practicing

  1. RECEPTIVITY AND GENEROSITY towards other people, ideas, and situations to precede critique and critical analysis
  2. FOCUSED ATTENTION and OPEN AWARENESS, to facilitate problem solving and creativity; to explore the ethics of attentional practices
  3. REFLECTION, to turn experience into wisdom; to interrogate values-alignment and practice meaning-making
  4. CARING for self, other, planet; exploring ways to express care cross-culturally

This is not an exhaustive list—just some of my current favorites.

The specific tools, vocabulary, and space will look different from instructor to instructor, discipline to discipline, course to course. (I am working on gathering and circulating these kinds of materials from instructors so that we can learn from one another what contemplative pedagogy can be beyond teaching meditative “techniques.”)

Contemplative pedagogues don’t need merely to import practices from American Yoga or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction into their public-school classrooms, nor should we limit ourselves by looking merely to neuroscience for “approval” of contemplative approaches to living and learning.

May we continue to study contemplative, creative, and critical processes from a variety of historical, cultural, and disciplinary contexts to encourage flourishing in our lives, classrooms, and communities.

Leaving Home

There was a time when, if I were to be petty at work, a colleague might affectionately ask me, “Does Princess need a cookie?” Now, I do not have the luxury of being petty at work. I am the new person.

For the past thirteen years, working as an English professor, department chair, conference organizer, and center director at a small New England university, I have benefited from my colleagues’ generous and perhaps faulty memories and assumptions about me, the power of which I’m only just now coming to recognize.

I got very used to my colleagues knowing I am a hard worker, believing my intentions to be benevolent, and assuming my actions had integrity. Now– working in a new role, in a new state, at a new institution– I find myself operating without this safety net. It’s hard.

Rather than my slip-ups being generously read as a momentary lapse in an otherwise long and distinguished career of “getting it right,” I feel like my slip-ups now are magnified as potentially pattern-setting character deficits. They have the power to define me to colleagues I have only just met. And, being new, I slip-up. Often.

I gotta say: I got used to people thinking I’m awesome.

Or, at least treating me like they do.

This move has been great in a lot of ways. But once in a while I find myself struggling with identity issues and homesickness. It’s times like these I am grateful I have a practice that requires me to pause, reflect, digest.

Spring in Virginia

After contemplative practice, I am reminded that one of the reasons I left my cozy, tenured New England paradise was that I had wanted to be stretched and challenged. I knew I had been resting on my laurels and suspected I was getting… less awesome. And, after practice, I feel inspired to embrace this stretch and challenge.

But also, while people had treated me like I was awesome, some part of me knew I wasn’t actually being awesome. I wasn’t working as hard as I could. I wasn’t as sharp as I could have been. Don’t get me wrong: I have no interest in over-working or self-flagellation. And I did a good job. More precisely, I was comfortable but I wasn’t flourishing.

I recognize the ridiculous amount of privilege I have to even write such words. Ouch.

And so, this new environment, while challenging, is … well… challenging! And that is awesome. I am re-learning humility as I watch myself screw up this and that little detail. I also have a chance to examine my enaction of integrity and devotion– two key words for me in my practice. I also get to feel fear arise as I now, without tenure, vulnerable to budget cuts and the vacillations of administrative whims, navigate new dangers.

All of this is to say: I miss my peeps. I am excited by this challenge. I am fearful of being inadequate. I am human. I am feeling. I am privileged. I am struggling. I am grateful.

What is “contemplative reading”?

Recently a friend asked me:

What is “contemplative reading”? Is it just “thinking about” what you have read?

My shorthand answer was this:

We read for lots of different reasons: to be entertained, to acquire information, to analyze, to build arguments, to escape, etc.  But when we read contemplatively, we read to reflect upon our own lives. We engage the big questions– the un-Googleable questions: How may I live with more peace and joy? How may I deal with despair?

But there’s more!

I suggest that contemplative reading-– whatever it looks like–

  1. Requires a faith in text’s capacity to have meaning
  2. Features first-person critical practices
  3. Aims at transforming habitual ways of being, thinking, doing

This weekend I’ll be convening a one-hour workshop on contemplative reading at the 10th Annual Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education conference. There I’ll propose these broad contours and facilitate a conversation to help synthesize and shape this aspect of the emerging field of Contemplative Studies.

What are your thoughts? Let’s collaborate!

Contemplative Approaches in Communication and Media Studies: Dialogue, Language, and Empathy

By Dr. Annette M. Holba, Communication and Media Studies at Plymouth State University

Contemplative approaches to learning and knowing in communication and media studies involves understanding and comprehending the other at a basic human level. In doing so, conscious listening and conscious communication aims at building empathy and cultivating conditions for dialogue so that collaborative and deliberative dialogue ensues, opening public communication and dialogue toward collaboration, consensus, and community.

When we consciously listen contemplatively, we achieve empathetic understanding of the other allowing us to step in the shoes of the other and learn from their experiences. This enhances our ability to communicate openly with others from different contexts. This can transform our own perspective(s) and inform our decision making.

We consciously listen contemplatively when we intentionally bring an attitude of openness and curiosity, and the capacity to ask questions grounded in the experience of others.

Example: “Tell me about a time when you felt uncomfortable in a situation and what you did about it to become comfortable?

Rather than: “I don’t really need to know about your experiences – I suspect we have similar experiences and I have had a broad range of experience, so I already get it….”

We consciously communicate contemplatively by intentionally considering how we might connect with the other from a different worldview—using dialogic principles to cultivate empathy with others and making decisions from a place of collaboration, consensus, and hermeneutic humility. We do this with a disposition of openness and serendipity.

Example: “I don’t understand why you think this is important, so, please tell me why you believe this is important and together we can find a way to go forward together?”

Rather than: “This doesn’t make sense. I have no idea what you are talking about and I don’t understand why this is important—so let’s do something else, ok?”

We listen and communicate contemplatively when we notice our own feelings and thoughts as they arise and we consider how our feelings and thinking relates to thoughts of others. We allow this openness to keep our mindsets open and we seek dialogic means for finding common ground from which we can move forward together.

Example: “Let’s figure this out together. Both of us bring valuable and legitimate experience to the table and we can figure this out together if we set goals and have a shared vision of our outcomes.”

Rather than: “I do not care what you think…. I am tired and finished talking.”

Conscious listening and conscious communication are essential elements for meaningful interdependent engagement with others while supporting our ability to be independent yet empathetic thinkers. This enables us to discern rhetorical strategies so we may become informed and responsible citizens able to make our own choices about what is right and wrong, true or false, and good or bad while recognizing interpretive possibilities. Without conscious listening and conscious communication, we cannot be purposeful or thoughtful about what we communicate or how we communicate.

Contemplative conscious listening and communicating enables us to identify pathways for connecting with other human beings, enhance communication competencies, and to forego missteps, assumptions, and unintentional consequences of sloppy communication with others.

Conscious listening and conscious communication practices cultivates an empathetic sensibility encouraging us to explore our deeply held values, biases, and preferences so that we can move through and with them into compassionate engagement with the Other.

This blog post is a slightly modified version of a document Dr. Holba  created for undergraduate students in a contemplative General education course that explores The Self and Society: “Curiosity, Ethics, and the Public Good.” This course was part of a suite of four courses, including those that explore Creative Thought (“Curiosity, Playfulness, Creativity”) and Past & Present (“Curiosity, Perspective, and Shakespeare”)

Contemplative Reading: Some definitions and examples*


Contemplative reading helps us practice being compassionate with ourselves and others. When we read contemplatively, we read with the aims of achieving sympathetic understanding of the text. We aim to see what the text can teach us. We are open to transformation.

Contemplative reading is both a skill we practice and a disposition we choose. We read contemplatively when we intentionally bring an attitude of curiosity and openness to texts.

Example: “I wonder what this means? I wonder why it is said this way? I have never thought about it that way before and I want to learn more about these ideas.”

Rather than: “I don’t know why I have to read this. This has nothing to teach me. This is not relevant to my life.”

We read contemplatively when we seek to find ways to connect with a text, to find both what is familiar and what is strange about it and to move into those spaces with inquisitive minds.

Example: “I don’t understand why this story has so much x in it. Let me see what I can learn about why and how this author or these characters have so much x, and why I am confused.”

Rather than: “I have no idea what this person is talking about and so can’t understand anything. I am giving up.”

We read contemplatively when we notice our own feelings and thoughts as they arise through reading a text and when we own them, rather than projecting them on to the text.

Example: “Wow, I am getting really angry/bored/happy/excited at this passage. What is it about me and my assumptions that is making me so angry/bored/happy/excited?

Rather than: “This text is boring/stupid/fun.”

Critical thinking and critical reading practices are essential for helping us become independent thinkers, for helping us discern rhetorical strategies so we may become informed and responsible citizens able to make our own choices about what is right and wrong, true or false, good or bad. Often, when we read critically, we are suspicious of the text or wary of what it is trying to say to us. We critique it, dissect it, and analyze it to find where we agree or disagree with its ideas and why.

Contemplative reading and writing complement critical thinking and reading. When we read contemplatively, we seek connection, communion, and understanding. We step into another person’s shoes and perspectives to better understand them and ourselves.

Contemplative reading and writing practices encourage us to explore our deeply held values, biases, and preferences so that we can move through and with them into compassionate engagement with the Other—be it a text, person, situation, or idea.

Contemplative reading is a practice within contemplative pedagogy, which, in my courses, has three aspects:

Meditative: Noticing, mindfulness, presence; moment-to-moment awareness of what is arising for us internally so that we may consciously act with what is before us rather than unconsciously react to or against what is before us.

Reflective: Exploring values, purpose, and questions of meaning; reflecting upon what we believe and why, noticing the relationships between our beliefs and actions, understanding our motives.

Active: Aligning behaviors with beliefs; bridging theory and practice; applying what we learn to a variety of circumstances beyond the classroom; practicing agency and receptivity.

*This blog post is a slightly modified version of a document I created for undergraduate students in two contemplative General education courses, which explore Creative Thought (“Curiosity, Playfulness, Creativity”) and Past & Present (“Curiosity, Perspective, and Shakespeare”)


Curiosity & Creativity: Statement on Teaching

Last year I was asked to write a brief teaching philosophy in order to be considered for the university’s distinguished teaching award. Here’s what I sent:

It’s an exciting time to be part of higher education, to be in the Humanities, and to be a contemplative teacher and scholar. Higher Education leaders are championing the application of inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches to real-world problems. We also know that students need to feel the relevance and purpose of classroom experiences for education to be meaningful and valuable. Our own university is launching transformative, community-building initiatives that engage students and regional partners in collaborative experiences. What a time to be a passionate advocate for education’s role in promoting well-being and ethical action!

Thank you for this opportunity to share briefly two of the mindsets that have helped me experience lively and enriching encounters with our Plymouth State students over this past decade. I’m excited to see how curiosity, creativity, innovation, and service can drive our clusters-based approach in the coming years. As students learn how to trust themselves and to cultivate curiosity, wonder, and resilience, they can, upon graduation, craft deeply satisfying and rewarding lives for themselves and their communities.

While applying for tenure in 2009 I reviewed my course evaluations and noticed that students most often praised my teaching by citing my enthusiasm for the subject matter. I found this trend a bit disturbing since I had considered myself a practitioner of student-centered learning. These evaluations caused me to reflect: Is my teaching style actually all about me? Am I simply hoping that the sheer force of my own enthusiasm for literature could be contagious? And, most pressingly, would I be able to sustain my enthusiasm year after year, course after course, teaching similar kinds of things again and again? Student-centered, I determined, must become learner-driven.

That summer I explored the roots of my enthusiasm in order to nurture this strength and sustain it, which brought me to contemplative pedagogy. I’ve since discovered how to cultivate curiosity not just about the material but about the interesting, unique, and surprising individuals in class alongside me. And that, as they say, has made all the difference.

Curiosity drives Innovation

Once I think I know a thing, I no longer see it clearly. This is true with literary works, courses, people, and a variety of “taken for granted” assumptions. By keeping open the possibility that I can be surprised by a text, a student, or an assignment, I can feel genuine wonder and curiosity. Only then can I authentically learn to see new possibilities in my work and relationships. I model this disposition and cultivate it with my students as an explicit methodology. That way, together, we can learn to innovate and more deeply appreciate our time together. At any time, we can change courses, assignments, and we can change our minds.

For innovation to occur I have to let go of the idea of mastery– let go of control– and simply notice: What’s happening with this student? With this class? With this assignment? I then ask myself: What can I do to improve it? How can we do things not just differently but better? And then, I must act. So, too, must my students.

Stability encourages Creativity 

We must feel safe, supported, and encouraged if we are to make truly innovative changes in our lives and communities. While all sectors claim to value creativity, we—as individuals—are actually quite resistant to change and suspicious of the novel. It takes great courage to try something truly new. Fear of failing a class, losing a job, or looking foolish all hinder creativity.

When we tap into students’ intrinsic motivation and empower them to craft enriching and successful experiences for themselves and their peers, we can rely less and less on the “grade” as a motivator. Don’t get me wrong—I use rubrics; students earn grades; courses are rigorous. But often students do their best (i.e. most creative) work on the ungraded assignments.

I work hard to deserve student-trust by providing clear and consistent communication. And I’m finding that many students, when liberated from critique and fear of failure, respond by experimenting, innovating, taking risks, asking good questions, and helping one another more than they had when trying to “get it right,” “get a good grade” and “meet the teacher’s expectations.” They are truly creative, producing works and experiences I could never have anticipated.

I am honored by this committee’s request of a teaching philosophy and grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the evolution of my teaching and learning practices over the past eleven years at Plymouth State. From an assistant professor demonstrating “mastery” of the subject matter, to an associate professor experimenting with contemplative pedagogy, to a full professor who brings a “beginner’s mind” to every class experience, I’ve grown into a joyful, curious, and confident educator thanks to countless Plymouth State student, faculty, and staff mentors.

Thank you.