Computer crash: taking off the training wheels

At the end of August, when I told my colleague Liz about how Windows had crashed, how IT had tried to save my data, how I hadn’t backed anything up in months, how course materials, research notes and photographs were just suddenly gone, she offered her condolences and then said, “I wish there was a way to turn this disaster into some… I dunno, mindfulness… contemplative kind of thing for you…..” At the time I simply grimaced– the sting of the lost research too fresh, the prospect of recreating my classes too daunting for indulgence in mindfulness and contemplative practices.

I’ve repressed the sick feeling and anxiety whirling around the lost research (months of material–gone!). I’ll deal with that when sabbatical begins in January. Instead, for the last several weeks I’ve been squarely focused on my teaching. After the initial scramble to recreate syllabi, I launched into my classes assured that I had only lost material that had been created since June. Where did I ever get that idea? Wishful thinking. By September 3 I knew this was not the case. I’d recreate a lot more than syllabi this semester.

Now, as I prep for my classes, I search in folders labeled “Anglo-Saxon poetry,” “Shakespeare,” or “Arthurian Legends” for reading notes, quizzes, paper topics and assignments to update and reuse. Sometimes I find them. Certain files will open willingly and swiftly, sending a small thrill through me. Others will stubbornly insist that they include no data. Still others  open but present me with unreadable code. I’ve stopped being surprised, angry, or even sad when I try to open a file I’ve known and loved for years only to find it empty or unreadable. When that happens now, I just open a blank doc and start anew. Frankly, I’m surprised by my own resiliency.

But enough of the computer woes. What I want to write about is the in-class experience and how losing most of my data has energized my teaching, loosened up my expectations, refocused my attention on the students, and given me an experience of my ability to teach.

So there’s the obvious: I’m not able to dust off old lecture notes. Not that I lectured per se, or that I even had “lecture notes.” But I certainly had schticks (page numbers for passages that illustrate key points, outlines of social and historical context I thought pertinent, ideas for connecting the material to other texts or experiences) for various texts and eras and these schticks were preserved in Word Document form.

I had initially made those Word Docs because, as a new instructor years ago, I didn’t know how to hold class discussion, I didn’t always know my material very well, and I certainly didn’t have an overarching plan for the entire course to which this text or class period was clearly contributing. Those Word Docs made sure that “class discussions” weren’t meandering, baggy monsters that went nowhere, frustrating all of the students except the three that constantly talked. They were safety nets to keep me on track.

But I now know my material inside and out. I have curricular understanding. And, it turns out, I’m pretty good at guiding class discussion; it’s much easier for me to helpfully prod and guide now than it was ten years ago. Having that schtick in Word Document form had, I now realize, been limiting and binding me. No longer a needed safety net, my notes were locking me into a tired and tiring agenda. For example, when students’ comments would lull, it was too easy for me to resort to my schtick, to my notes, rather than creatively respond to students’ needs and enriching their discussion. It took losing my Docs to realize I had outgrown them.

Now, because I’m pressed for time, I can’t overprep for class and stuff a new Word Doc full of my bombast or tired old observations. (I was of course tempted to do this each time I stumbled upon a corrupted file. Thank goodness I don’t have enough time for that!). Without that Word Doc I’m free to see new aspects of the text or concept. I’m forced to go into class equipped only with years of experience and an open mind. How scary! And yet, how beautiful it has been.

Never have I felt so truly present in the class. I’m feeling for the first time my self as a teacher confident in my knowledge of the content, able to respond genuinely to class discussion, mindfully adapting to students’ interests and energy levels. These are all things I thought I was doing before. I now see I was only doing a shadow of what could be done.

I think abashedly of past semesters when, time and again during “class discussion,” I would take a student’s comment and rephrase it so it would segue into the next point on my Word Doc. That ain’t no discussion. That’s manipulation. Now, instead, I think on-the-spot about how to shift the energy level in class, provoke the discussion in a new way, or follow up on a students’ point that got buried early in the conversation. And I’m genuinely interested in and surprised by what I’m learning, even about Beowulf and Midsummer Night’s Dream, texts I’ve lived with for years.

So, this has all been scary but class meetings have been more rewarding and relaxing for me than they have in the past. I’m not as drained after class. Without my Word Docs, I have no temptation to turn it into the Professor Kinane show. Instead I simply listen to these interesting individuals and try my best to provoke them to think more deeply and articulate more clearly. I know I’ll continue to make a lot of mistakes and more awkward and unsuccessful classes await me. But at least I feel like I’m finally starting to walk the talk. And I hadn’t even realized how very full of talk I had been.  🙂

March Conference: A possibility?

In the ACMHE newsletter yesterday I found a workshop entitled, “Teaching and Learning with Mindfulness” by Kathy Bishop – at the 24th annual Teaching Academic Survival Skills Conference (Ft. Lauderdale). Is anyone interested in attending or at least investigating the possibility more with me? Let me know!


Meditation in class

We’ve come to the end of our first partial week of classes and I wanted to share an experience I had in my Communication, Media, and Wellness course. After watching a 4 minute youtube introduction to meditation by Jack Kornfield, we talked as a class about the merits of meditation and what they (my students) thought were his most important points. Of course we meditated then and wrote a journal entry. What I found interesting was that the students who had experienced meditation in the past (in a variety of forms) were all male students. What also stood out to me was that two of the five male students actually practiced for a while. They both indicated that they missed it and appreciated the reminder from Kornfield and our discussion.  In the past and in my experience with this course, I found that male students do not open up about this kind of activity as easily as females (and especially not the first day!).

I just found this interesting and curious at the same time – we’ll see what happens this semester!

I would encourage you all to think about ways in which you can integrate some of these meditation tools into your courses as appropriate. This course I refer to is a wellness course, so the fit is explicit. I may also engage a contemplative component into my Senior Seminar, they are ALREADY stressed and scattered!

Enjoy your semester and I look forward to hearing what you are doing in the classroom.


The whys of it all

As Faculty Week workshops have left me hungry to learn why I should incorporate more technology into my face-to-face teaching, I thought I’d ask why people incorporate contemplative practices into their teaching, online or face-to-face. And, are your “whys” connected to what you believe higher education can and should do?

Zajonc has suggested that the purpose is for us to become “more fully human,” and I’m eager to learn more about what that means. Other faculty focus on wellness. Some on ethics. Some on the efficacy of these methods– that they simply make the teaching and learning “better” (defined and measured in any number of ways).

I have to say that while I believe in the wellness- benefits of contemplative practices as demonstrated both by research and my own experience, I feel uncomfortable as an English professor purporting to tend to students’ wellness. And relatedly, who am I to decide what makes for ethical behavior?

But then I think about myself as a teacher in light of my personal practice– wouldn’t I want to do all I could to tend to the wellness of everyone around me?  Isn’t every moment an opportunity to cultivate compassion to move toward a more ethically driven culture? Isn’t higher education a place where students explore not only fields of knowledge but ways of using them to better our world?

I feel like I’ve been so scared of having an “agenda” and thrusting it upon students that I’ve lost a sense of meaning, the larger framework for my teaching, or at least, ways of talking about it that don’t make me feel politically incorrect, or like a New Age dingbat, or like a bleeding heart liberal. I can’t tell students how to make the world better, but I can give them every opportunity to reflect upon what “better” means to them and the power of their passions, intentions, and actions to manifest that.

But college these days is simply supposed to get you a job, right? And it doesn’t, so what’s it for…. And we need to change the dialogue around higher education, etc…. And we’re in the ruins of the university system as we know it….

The coming apocalypse has prompted administrators to highlight the crisis in ways that seem strange to me. I’m hearing that we need to train students for jobs that aren’t even created yet, that we have no idea what the world will look like so we have to be creative, that we need to prove our value on a number of fronts and be a nimble institution…. It’s like the conversation starts with how we can best serve students who will enter this quickly-changing world and then it slides into our own fears for survival.

The current plans for our survival– massive numbers of courses moved online, increased silo-ing of departments, hyper-specialization in undergraduate programs, and commodifying assessment initiatives–  do more to cripple students’ senses of creativity, flexibility, and wonder (all of which I would argue are necessary to build a strong economy and an ethical society) than they do to prepare them for an ever-changing mysterious new world.

So, to take it down a notch: Personally, I started to bring contemplative practices into my classes simply to provide students with a place to be alone with their own thoughts, and perhaps without them, for just a bit. I wanted to offer them a sense of silence, a different way to perceive self, other than the performances of facebook, etc. I’ve been so grateful for the past year in which I’ve been able to do some reading, reflecting, and talking with thoughtful and brilliant people so I can start this semester with a little more intentionality to my work-as-practice. I’m still curious about my role in cultivating wellness and ethics, and eager to learn from this community.

I’m likely to return from this upcoming conference even further provoked….

Where are you at?