Contemplative pedagogy and our university’s mission (Ut Prosim)

[A version of my notes from Session B2 of Faculty Week 2012 “Contemplative and Integrative Education.” I hope my fellow facilitators will post their notes, too!]

I came to contemplative pedagogy by way of Reflective Practice. Usually in RP we focus on a problem, but one week I chose to focus on a good thing: Why is my general education course Arthurian Legends going so well? Why do I love it so much? It soon came out that one of the things that energized me was that the students’ inner lives became part of the course content.

Of course, we looked at medieval texts and explored “change over time,” as a Past Present direction class should, but the Gen Ed program also contains an explicit charge for relevancy to students’ lives. That RP session inspired me to think about how I could infuse my other courses with such energy but also to explore more deeply what I was doing at a nearly intuitive level in Arthurian Legends.

Pedagogically, I had known it was important to connect new material to existing knowledge and to tap into an existing student-interest: themselves. And so students wrote about and reflected on their own encounters with journeys, tests, challenges, and moral dilemmas before encountering those of medieval literary figures.

Additionally, I wanted to provoke students to have an emotional response to art, literature, music, and the past. I fondly imagined students twenty years down the road forgetting the details of Arthurian stories but feeling a residual connection or resonance to them, which could pique curiosity about the past and support of the arts. And so many assignments engaged students’ affective and emotional faculties, not just their intellect.

And lastly, it seemed important that students themselves defined how course material could be “relevant” to their lives. I couldn’t force that connection—how could I without knowing each student quite intimately?

These three desires on my part led to the creation of exercises based in reflection and creation. With research, I’m now learning that many of these exercises and assignments have contemplative and mindfulness-based underpinnings. (I write about these assignments in detail in an article forthcoming in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching).

To zoom out a bit: It may be easy shorthand to say that my goal as a teacher is to explode students’ worldviews and send them out with a sense that the world is larger and more diverse than they had thought (Arthur Zajonc mentioned this at a recent seminar I attended). But contemplative pedagogy leads us to ask: What else are we sending them out there with? And it charges us to tend to student’s sense of an inner life.

There is room at our university to do this kind of work all over our Gen Ed curriculum where we’re not only charged to encourage a sense of personal relevancy, but where were also free from the pressure to pack in content as some of us may be in our major-courses.

(There are also plenty of ways to bring contemplative practices into major courses—not discussed here).

Additionally, our university’s initiatives with technology offer environments conducive to reflection, relevancy, contemplation and mindfulness. If it’s about giving students experiences rather than information, of encouraging them to think with ideas rather than about them, then something like a flipped classroom is ideal. By delivering content electronically, teachers can use class time to craft enriching experiences of that content.

And none of this focus on “inner lives” detracts from our aim to make students marketable. The refrain “hire for fit; skills can be taught” may be familiar to some of you. (It’s featured in Business textbooks, for example). A sense of a person’s “fitness” for a job can come, I would suggest, from evaluating their disposition and affect rather than their intellect alone. And disposition and affect are not simply innate and inert; they can be tapped, disciplined, and crafted (Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life, ch.7). They are an essential part of education.

Whether you want to think about it in terms of Foucault’s “technologies of the self,” or the development of “character,” or the awakening and exercise of an “inner life,” we can develop assignments, curricula, and assessments that tap, discipline, and craft dispositions and affects.

I see these practices speaking directly to our university’s mission statement. As might be expected from an institution with “Ut Prosim” (“That I may Serve”) as its motto, both “service” and “education” appear twice in our mission statement.

Teaching students “to serve” means their education needs to include more than the delivery of information. Information alone does not motivate us to serve. (And here I draw again upon Bennett, who draws upon Schiller). We can accept a truth, an idea, a rule, and yet still not adopt it. Comprehension of information does not guarantee action on that information. People need not only a moral code or information but a “disposition hospitable” to it, “perceptual refinement” (creative and critical thinking) to apply the code/information to cases, and “affective energy”—the physical/emotional drive to act on information or perform the moral code (Bennett, 131).

Cultivating the inner lives of students, tapping into emotions (as that which can move us– stir us to action), can take us a long way to educating students to serve in ethical ways. And I would suggest, with Bennett, that we tap into joyful emotions rather than cynicism or outrage if the intent is to inspire ethical action.

In closing, I’d also like to point out how contemplative and mindful practices replenish rather than deplete the educator: self-care is of utmost importance. We cannot help students cultivate reflection, explore their inner lives, or develop their character, in authentic ways without tending to ourselves. And we need not have an hour a day meditation or Yoga practice.

We can mindfully be present on campus in any number of ways within our daily routine. For ex., every time I hear the Rounds Hall clock toll, I take a moment to notice my shoulders. They’re usually up at my ears, scrunching my already-tense neck. This simple reminder to relax at occasional intervals goes a long way to breaking the frantic and sometimes mindless pace of daily work.

And so I hope you’ll consider learning along with us the many ways of defining and enacting contemplative and mindfulness practices in and out of the classroom for the economic, creative, physical, intellectual, and spiritual wellness of our community.

Cited: Bennett, Jane, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, Princeton University Press, 2001.

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2 comments on “Contemplative pedagogy and our university’s mission (Ut Prosim)

  1. Jane Weber says:

    Thank you for posting these notes–which read much like a well constructed essay. (!!)

  2. […] not only our own environment but also to all kinds of diverse environments. As I’ve written about here and here, I invite students to see what is familiar about the past but also to play with and within […]

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