The Transformative Banquet

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

How to integrate contemplation onto a program of faculty development? That is the question to which I continually return.

Many traditional contemplative practices and traditions emphasize the importance of silence and quieting the mind. There’s a strand in our culture of superficial busyness that actively resists this. The tension between these countervailing tendencies is palpable.

In thinking about our faculty development activities, I realized that we participate in both sides of this equation. To some degree, almost everything we promote at the Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT) has the aim of establishing space and time for some form of contemplation and reflection. Yet we are often merely substituting one form of busyness for another.

We do not always truly move toward “uncovering the heart” of things. It seems that in most of our faculty development activities, the deepest questions of meaning and purpose are consistently deferred. We strive to develop specific skills in our faculty members, which is well and good, but we neglect to encourage the development of the whole person.

Changing that is the essence of what I’ve come to call “The Transformative Banquet.”

Preparing for a Banquet

Laying the Table

When report on my efforts at POD Network Conference, I employed the following metaphor to describe what we were trying to accomplish:

The image of a banquet has been helpful in conceptualizing this work, emphasizing the virtues of hospitality and joyful fellowship. Our hope is that the right nourishment and refreshment will prove transformative for our faculty, staff, students, administrators, alumni — indeed the whole Xavier family. At this stage, we are still laying the table and inviting the guests.

I have used the concept of the Transformative Banquet ever since, in my mind at least, to group our diverse efforts under a single heading.

What follows is a listing of such faculty development activities sponsored by CAT over the last three years.

Contemplative Examples

Metta Bhavana for Teachers

In May of 2011, I had the opportunity to lead a short discussion with participants in our annual institute, the Faculty Communities of Teaching Scholars (FaCTS). Our theme for that year was “Promoting Critical Thinking and Self-Authorship in the First Two Years.” Contemplative practices seem like a perfect fit for developing self-authorship, and so I attempted to teach by example. As we were thinking so intensely about our students’ needs and capacities, I conducted a loving-kindness meditation. Also known as Metta Bhavana, this is an ancient practice from the Buddhist tradition. I modified the typical practice to focus specifically on our students.

In some ways, I may have been overreaching. I am not a practicing Buddhist, and more to the point I had never done Metta Bhavana before. Nevertheless, I went forward with it, and I was fairly pleased with the results. Certainly I did get some good feedback from the participants, with at least one person saying she repeated the practice later on her own time. That’s wonderful.

All the same, in some ways I considered the exercise at least a partial failure. The problem was not the practice itself, I think, so much as what followed. I was so intent on preparing for the Metta Bhavana itself that I did not attend to the context. I failed to make a strong connection between the meditative practice and the larger conversations that had been emerging in the classroom over the previous days. That left some participants wondering what to make of it all.

But if this was a failure, at least it was an educational and perhaps necessary one. I learned a valuable lesson. Several in fact. Always attend the context. Always make the connection. When trying something new, don’t neglect these important basics.

Cultivating a Reflective Classroom

One of our first faculty to actively attempt implementing a contemplative curriculum was my boss, CAT director Elizabeth Yost Hammer. She integrated various contemplative practices into an Advanced Research class in psychology.

In fall 2011, we gave a joint presentation. I gave a broad overview of the ideas of contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. Dr. Hammer described her class and shared student responses to these techniques. We encouraged attendees to discuss the utility of such techniques in their own courses and disciplines.

Tonglin for Faculty

In May 2012, our FaCTS institute theme was “Teaching for Social Responsibility.” We integrated contemplative practices into each day of the program, to demonstrate the variety of possibilities, from reflective writing to deep listening. Of these, one of the most moving and effective practices was an adaptation of the tonglin of Tibetan Buddhism. Our university was on the brink of a reorganization, and there was some tension on campus. We invited faculty to breathe in the collective stress and breathe out peace.

Mindfulness for You & Your Students

I’d set myself a year-long personal project, to deepen and strengthen and integrate just about everything I do, to live with more fullness of intention. I found four major practices very useful and helpful in this regard: meditation, baking bread, writing, and observing a cycle of seasonal celebrations. (I’m still practicing all four.)

After a year of mindfulness meditation, and bolstered by my attendance of the Mindfulness in Education Network’s annual conference, I felt that I was ready to offer a more focused workshop to Xavier faculty. So, in September of 2012, I conducted a session called “Mindfulness for You & Your Students,” inspired in large part by Deborah Schoeberlein’s wonderful book, ”Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness”.

This felt like a breakthrough. It was also a lot of fun. I got to borrow a huge gong from our music department.


Though I strongly feel mediation has intrinsic value, I played the unabashed salesman, extolling the benefits of meditation and citing well-established research. We did a short mindfulness practice together. Following Schoeberlein’s lead, I invited faculty to try a formal mindfulness practice for one month. This led directly to the formation of a support group.

Xavier Mindfulness Support Group

The Xavier Mindfulness Support Group met weekly throughout the experimental month to allow faculty (and staff) space to discuss their experiences and challenges, to talk about how this might inform their teaching, and to discuss programmatic initiatives.

These support sessions were sparsely attended, but nonetheless valuable. I was quite interested to see how varied were the responses to the one-month experiment. Some people took to it; they simply enjoyed the exercise and said they planned to continue. Some people reported difficulty in “finding time” in their busy schedules. Others reported difficulty in actually doing the practice. They could not see their way through all five minutes.

Another important outcome was our “Sustaining the Dialog” initiative, about which more next week.

Contemplative Practices in Diverse Traditions, Pt. 1: Lectio Divina

We invited Rev. William Thiele of the School for Contemplative Living to join us and lead a session on lectio divina. Though my approach so far had been decidedly secular, I wanted faculty to learn how contemplative practices play a role in diverse wisdom traditions. I also wanted to start building connections with practitioners from the local community. I figured something with Catholic roots would be a good place to start.

Smaller Moments

We also integrate contemplative practice into our programs in smaller ways that might often escape notice or mention. For example, I almost always begin my presentation and discussions with a moment of silence or just a few deep collective breaths. It’s just become a part of what I do as a faculty developer.

Triple Goal

As these efforts have progressed, three goals have emerged. I can’t say that we began with these goals in mind. At the outset, my thinking was more instinctive and intuitive: This seems interesting. This feels right. I was driven by curiosity as much as anything else.

Now, after several years, I can assert say that we integrate contemplation into our faculty development programs for three distinct but mutually supportive reasons:

  1. to enhance the programming itself,
  2. to promote faculty well-being, and
  3. to encourage contemplative pedagogy.

It’s pretty basic stuff, and in retrospect it all seems perfectly obvious. It takes a bit of mental effort to remember that I didn’t always do things this way.

But wait, there’s more!

A Larger Integrative Program

While contemplation is a worthy end in itself, it’s vitally important to remember that contemplation does not happen in a vacuum. Some might imagine the meditative practitioner floating on a cloud somewhere “up there,” lost in the sky, lost in esoteric and ethereal pursuits, disconnected from the world of people and society. That’s not an accurate image in my view. Therefore it’s been equally important to me to get faculty thinking about how everything connects: how we connect to our mission, how contemplation connects to learning, how our basic life skills connect to our professional work, how our creativity connects to teaching, and so on.

Who Are You?

With the subtitle “Your Vocation & Our Shared Mission,” this roundtable discussion turned on the following questions: Who are you? What values and life experiences do you bring to Xavier? Do you have a personal life mission, or do you wish to develop one? What passions motivate your teaching? Where do you feel you have your greatest success, and what are your biggest challenges? What aspects of Xavier’s mission are most compelling to you? Are there aspects of the mission which are difficult to connect to your teaching?

The Heart of Higher Education

Every year CAT sponsors a Fall Faculty Book Club. In 2010, we read The Heart of Higher Education by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc. We met three times to discuss our reading. As the conversation opened up, a number of themes emerged. Here are some that seemed most salient:

  • For ourselves as teachers, the need to examine “who we are” rather than technique
  • For our students, the need to focus on inquiry rather than answers
  • The importance of conveying a sense of awe and wonder
  • Holistic perspectives need to be woven into discussions on our campus (one faculty member reported only having such discussions off-campus)
  • One faculty member confessed: We are not connecting with students in our program as we should
  • Our relation to students may have moved from transformational to transactional
  • We may do more integrative learning than big research institutions — but perhaps less than we did twenty years ago

This text has served as a touchstone ever since. I often refer back to it for inspiration and support.

Integrative Learning Spotlight

For several years, Dr. Michael Homan (Theology) has used a unique project-based approach that challenges students to engage the course content in the so-called real world. In his biblical studies course, Dr. Homan wanted students to understand the prophets of the Hebrew Bible as living people with relatable concerns, rather than antique characters in an ancient text. To this end, students in his class must complete a semester-long project with 15 clearly defined steps. Students are required to identify the biggest problems in the world today, to pick one as their focus, to develop a plan to change the world and address their chosen problem, to implement that plan, and to reflect upon their efforts afterward. It’s no easy task, and it involves a lot of work for both student and teacher.

This approach is profoundly integrative. CAT invited Dr. Homan to share his process with colleagues. Several students also participated in the session and discussed their projects and what they’d learned about the content matter and themselves. We hope to make this the first of an occasional series.

I Don’t Have Time for This Workshop

This was a time management workshop inspired by Catherine Ross (Wake Forest University). This seemingly quotidian topic is of course of paramount importance to stressed and overburdened faculty. It gave us an opportunity to talk about the importance of work-life balance and setting priorities.

Supporting Your Own Creativity

Academics are required to manifest a great deal of creativity. Teaching, research, service — all may be viewed as a creative acts. Yet we don’t often think in these terms. This session invited participants to understand creativity as playing a central role in our professional lives. We dispelled unhelpful myths and examined current theories of creativity. A broad array of tips and techniques for enhancing and supporting creativity were offered.

Sentipensante Pedagogy

Currently in our Fall Faculty Book Club we are reading Sentipensante Pedagogy by Laura I. Rendón. This is opening up a discussion of the role of spirituality and religion in teaching and learning.

Amandafied Table Setting

Whew! When you add it all up in one place it certainly seems like a lot. Of course, in actual fact, all these sessions were spread over several years. Yet it’s my hope that these efforts are not so diffuse as to be lost in the churn of professional responsibilities from semester to semester. It’s my hope that at this metaphorical banquet table, faculty will find a rich source of nourishment within themselves.

Next week: Sustaining the Dialog

References and Photo Credits

The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc

Sentipensante (Sensing/Thinking) Pedagogy: Educating for Wholeness, Social Justice and Liberation by Laura I. Rendón

Preparing for a Banquet / CC BY 2.0

Gong / CC BY 2.0

Amandafied Table Setting / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

2 comments on “The Transformative Banquet

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

  2. […] this will be a follow-up discussion to the “Who Are You?” session we sponsored in 2010. We will invite faculty to participate in an informal roundtable centered around the topic of our […]

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