Stepping into Silence

[CollegeContemplative will feature Guest Bloggers from October 2013-February 2014. Welcome, Bart Everson!]

This is the third installment in my story about the evolution of contemplative faculty development at Xavier. (You may wish to read part one and part two for background.) In this post I will detail how our current efforts toward contemplative faculty development got started.

A Chain of Coincidences

I’m not one to attribute causality where none exists, but when I look back at the chain of coincidences that led us here, I’ll admit I feel a little spooked.


The first link in the chain might have been forged in 2002, when my wife and I purchased our first home. The previous owner was on the mailing list for the SteinerBooks catalog, and when we bought the house we inherited these mailings. Rudolf Steiner was, of course, the Austrian esoteric thinker, known as a social reformer, an architect, the founder of anthroposophy and the father of Waldorf education. SteinerBooks is a publishing house which keeps all his works in print and quite a few others besides.

I was not particularly interested in any of this; the catalogs went straight to the recycling bin for years. Yet for some reason — primed, I suppose, by the aforementioned “one-two punch” — in early 2009 I found myself leafing through the most recent arrival, perusing an article by Arthur Zajonc. It was the full text of the introduction to his new book, Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry.

I found it intriguing. Electrifying, in fact. The words seemed to leap off the page. I wanted to know more.

It so happened that I was producing the first season of our podcast at this time. Teaching Learning & Everything Else is a series of conversations about teaching in higher education which we’d begun in the fall of the 2008. I was actively on the lookout for potential interviewees. I got in touch with Arthur Zajonc, we interviewed him, and we got our first inkling of what contemplative pedagogy might entail.

Our podcast series was in the running for an Innovation Award from the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education, so in the fall I made my way to my first POD conference.

It seems odd, in retrospect, that I’d worked in faculty development for a full ten years before attending my first faculty development conference. But such is the nature of the “divided life” so accurately critiqued by Zajonc.

And indeed POD 2009 proved to be a transformative event for me. I went as a technologist, but I returned as a faculty developer.

It was a subtle thing, but at that conference in Houston, on the 25th anniversary of my apostasy, I found myself drawn to sessions on religious literacy, contemplative pedagogy, integrative learning, transformative education and the like. I don’t think I attended a single session on technology.

I did, however, attend a session called “Uncovering the Heart of Higher Education,” facilitated by Virginia Lee. It was a freeform discussion (following up on a forum sponsored by the Fetzer Institute) revolving around the idea of connecting our inner and outer lives as educators. I found myself very intrigued by the concepts under discussion, but I had absolutely no idea what to say about any of it.

That’s why it was such a surprise, a few months later, when Virginia Lee asked me to join a group presentation on the same topic for POD 2010. I’m quite certain she had me mixed up with someone else, which makes this perhaps the most unlikely link in the chain. Yet rather than disabuse her of my mistaken identity, I seized on the opportunity. I knew it would require me to extend myself in a new direction, and I relished the challenge.

A Moment of Silence

Fortunately I had the support of my immediate supervisor, Dr. Elizabeth Yost Hammer, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT). She wanted to encourage all CAT staff to take a broader view of our work in faculty development, and her disciplinary background in psychology meant that she had at least an inkling of familiarity with the topics I was beginning to learn about.

I embarked on a process of discovery: reading, attending webinars and conferences, learning as I went. I joined the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education and (later) the Mindfulness in Education Network. There seemed to be a burgeoning movement afoot, which was very exciting and encouraging.

But this wasn’t enough. In order to be ready for POD 2010, it would be necessary to actually do something, to practice what I was learning about. At this point I did not have anything that I would call a formal personal practice. Without that foundation, how could I possibly conduct a faculty development session on the topic, much less have the audacity to report on this effort to other faculty developers from around the world?

Sometimes the first step is the hardest. In September of 2010, after eleven years on the job, I led my first workshop that didn’t have anything to do with technology.

The subject? A moment of silence.

Silence is golden (Pomi's mosaic)

A handful of faculty showed up, intrigued by the topic, and we sat around the table in our conference room. We began the session with a brief moment of silence, then I asked some questions to prompt a short discussion.

What mindset is most conducive to learning? What mental states might actually obstruct learning? What do we do as teachers that encourages the latter or the former?

We went around the table and talked about these things for a bit.

Then I took us back to the beginning and asked how the prefatory silence shaped the discussion. Did it foster a better mindset? The consensus seemed to be that it did. It provided a transition that allowed people to let go of their previous tasks and focus on the matter at hand.

Then I asked the faculty present to consider if such a technique could work in their classrooms. In fact one person (a Dominican brother) had been doing this for thirty years. Another person tried it for one semester a while ago with seemingly good results. Another has just started practicing a moment of silence that week, inspired by this very session.

I was intrigued to discover that all three faculty who used silence to open class were also regular contemplative practitioners. It was heartening to know that there were already people on campus who valued of meditation. But the prevailing culture seemed to define this as something private, something personal; it was not something to discuss with colleagues. I wanted to change that.

Ultimately I can’t imagine anyone got more out of that session than I did. We were still a long way from the sustained dialog I felt we needed. But I’d finally taken that first step.

Into The Darkness ♥

Next time, I’ll make a list of our efforts since then.

References, Links & Credits


Meditation as contemplative inquiry: when knowing becomes love by Arthur Zajonc

POD Network

Virginia S. Lee & Assoc.

Center for the Advancement of Teaching

The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education

The Mindfulness in Education Network

Image: chain by sfu.marcin / CC BY-SA 2.0

Image: Silence is golden (Pomi’s mosaic) by LaWendeltreppe / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Image: Into the Darkness ♥ by Lυвαιв / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


One comment on “Stepping into Silence

  1. […] faculty development at Xavier University of Louisiana; you may wish to begin with parts 1, 2, 3 & 4. Or just dive right […]

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