Sustaining the Dialog

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

This is part five in a miniseries on the evolution of contemplative faculty development at Xavier University of Louisiana; you may wish to begin with parts 1, 2, 3 & 4. Or just dive right in.

Perhaps the most exciting outcome of the “Mindfulness for You & Your Students” session was an long-term initiative which we’ve titled Sustaining the Dialog. Up to this point, our efforts have been, ironically, somewhat disjointed, disparate and diffuse. That’s because it’s basically been one person (me) doing what I can as the inspiration strikes me. A systematic, programmatic, formal initiative should be more powerful in transforming campus culture.

As is often the case, financial support in the form of a grant has made all the difference. After “Mindfulness for You & Your Students,” we set about looking for opportunities to support a programmatic initiative. We were fortunate to find a perfect match almost immediately, in the form of a grant from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

Tree of Contemplative Practices

Sustaining the Dialog supports faculty in developing a contemplative curriculum. The expected outcomes of the initiative include deepening faculty understanding of contemplative pedagogy, sharing expertise with colleagues, and ultimately enhancing student learning experiences.

We aim to develop a learning community of faculty through travel to the Summer Seminar in Contemplative Curriculum Development, who can share their expertise with colleagues on campus. As such this grant will allow for faculty to become faculty developers themselves, focusing on the theme of contemplative teaching.

As the name implies, the overarching purpose of the grant is to foster a sustained dialog campus on the topic of contemplative pedagogy.

In the spring of 2013, CAT solicited proposals from Xavier faculty and selected three faculty to participate.

Participating Faculty

Dr. Katherine Eskine

Dr. Eskine came to Xavier one year ago, in the fall of 2012. She has conducted research on the preclinical stages of Alzheimer’s, verbal fluency abilities in older adults, the nature of procrastination in undergraduates, and memory consolidation. Currently, she is studying evolutionary theories of music and creativity, neurophysiological changes associated with preclinical stages of dementia, and the relation between music and dementia.

Photo of Kate Eskine

Prompted in part by sessions at CAT, Dr. Eskine had already begun sharing contemplative practices with her students. Well-versed in the empirical literature on contemplative science, she viewed Sustaining the Dialog as “a necessary next step” in her pedagogy.

This semester Dr. Eskine has been integrating contemplative practices in all her classes, as a way to center around the intended topic of the day. She has also been using a breathing meditation to decrease test anxiety before exams, and she has completely reworked her Abnormal Psychology class to include mindfulness.

Dr. Eskine identified three goals for her Abnormal Psychology class: “1) give students a new way to alleviate stress, 2) explore how contemplation/mindfulness is used as treatment for psychological illness, and 3) foster compassion for those suffering from psychological illness.” Students are required to select a specific practice to research and incorporate into their lives for the duration of the semester. Students chose a diverse array of practices from music listening to Qi Gong to yoga. Informal discussions around the effective stress relief are positive. Overall students report feeling calmer, more centered, and better focused. Dr. Eskine has also lectured on the benefits of meditation for populations suffering from psychological illness; this lesson was extended to consider societal benefits of a contemplative mental health system. Dr. Eskine writes that “students suggested that a contemplative system would carry less of a stigma and help society to focus on mental health rather than mental illness.”

(An interesting footnote: Dr. Eskine also used a breathing practice to demonstrate how to use a statistic. She asked each student how stressed they were on a scale from 1 to 8, and then asked them to focus on breath for one minute. She then measured their stress again. In both of of her statistics classes there was a significant decrease in self-reported stress after focusing on the breath.)

Dr. Ross Louis

Ross Louis joined the Communication Studies program at Xavier in 2003 and teaches courses from a performance studies perspective. He currently serves as the Chair of the Department of Communications. His recent research addresses how citizenship is performed in post-Katrina New Orleans and has appeared in Text and Performance Quarterly and The Review of Black Political Economy. He serves as editor of XULAneXUS, Xavier’s online undergraduate research journal, and has previously served as service-learning faculty in residence for CAT.

Photo of Ross Louis

Dr. Louis began a personal practice of mindfulness in March 2012, meditating and reading texts from Eastern spiritual traditions as well as secular sources. Soon thereafter, he observed that this work was having an impact on his interactions with others, in both his personal and professional life. In addition to sitting quietly every morning, Dr. Louis experimented with small mindfulness exercises throughout his day on Xavier’s campus. He writes that he was particularly interested in “merely observing (not evaluating) my body, thoughts, and emotions during various interactions with students.” He observed the reaction of his body to a disruption during lecture, his chain of thoughts as he entered the classroom. These simple exercises proved disruptive to Dr. Louis’ “standard teaching script” and what he calls his “professor persona.” This lead to a realization: “I am frequently on autopilot in the classroom, moving from one rehearsed teaching behavior/thought/emotion to the next, usually without awareness.”

Through participation in CAT’s ongoing contemplative sessions, Dr. Louis came to see his personal mindfulness practice having clear connections to his pedagogy. Even before participation in Sustaining the Dialog, Dr. Louis implemented small meditation exercises in his performance-oriented Communication Studies courses, which he practiced alongside his students. In Fundamentals of Public Speaking, for example, he revised a traditional warm-up session before graded speeches, asking students to begin from a position of stillness and quiet. “We stand, shifting slightly from right to left, forward and backward, until we find an equilibrium that balances our bodies along a horizontal and vertical axis. Then, we follow our breaths inward and outward. While this brief exercise takes no more than one minute, I am struck by how still and quiet our bodies become. The exercise seems to function as both a relaxation technique and a community effort toward mindfulness.”

In his proposal, Dr. Louis identified his goal as linking “discussions of mindfulness to academic content, always balancing such discussion with embodied practice…. My wish is to enhance both student learning and my lived experience as a teacher through in-class moments of shared, embodied presence.”

After being selected for Sustaining the Dialog and participating in the 2013 Summer Session on Contemplative Pedagogy, Dr. Louis reports that he is setting a contemplative intention for each class meeting. He cites a question that was repeated throughout the Summer Session: “What is it that I am trying to cultivate in this class?” As Dr. Louis writes, this has proven to be a useful “guiding question that brings me back to considerations of meaning and value when preparing for a class meeting.”

As the semester opened a few weeks ago, I told students that I was interested in discovering what “compassionate, contemplative communication” meant, felt like, looked like. While I understand each of these terms in isolation, I had not previously considered what they meant together. In ten years of teaching Communication Studies at Xavier, I had never consciously, intentionally considered “compassion” or “contemplation” as part of my communication instruction or research.

Dr. Lisa Schulte

Dr. Schulte has worked at Xavier University since 1993 and served as chair of the psychology department for seven years. Her research interests include prejudice and discrimination and positive psychology, with current research focused on both the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) and positive psychology.

Photo of a tree

Dr. Schulte identifies strongly with her role as a teacher. She serves as a mentor and role model to her students, as well as a facilitator of learning. Her role, as she sees it, is that of a guide: clarifying, elaborating, and summarizing discussions. She emphasizes student ownership of learning, utilizing techniques such as interteaching in psychology classes. Because of this, she understands learning as a “complex, integrated, and active process,” as she wrote in her proposal.

In addition to further understanding and enriching student learning, Dr. Schulte hopes her grant will advance her research on “qualities of the student (i.e., engagement) and their relationship to course satisfaction and performance.” The ultimate goal of this work is “enriching student experience, fostering self-evaluation and critical thinking, and promoting the application of what is learned to life outside of the classroom.”

Dr. Schulte also noted the consonance between Xavier’s mission (to create a “more just and humane society”) and that of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (to create a “more just and compassionate society”).

Dr. Schulte also reported a “very personal basis” for her interest in the initiative. She resides in LaPlace, Louisiana, and experienced flooding during Hurricane Isaac in 2012. The process of recovery was stressful and “almost overwhelming.” During this time she began exploring the field of positive psychology; she was especially interested by exercises in gratitude. She kept a journal focused on gratitude and made a special effort to focus on her emotions and reactions. This introspection proved to be of great value, enabling her appreciation and enjoyment of positive aspects of her life. She began to sharing her experience of these benefits with others, informally, and expressed interest in learning how to “share the benefits of introspective practices” with her students.

After attending the Summer Session on Contemplative Pedagogy, Dr. Schulte has incorporated contemplative practices from around the world in her positive psychology class. Her syllabus specifies these practices will have “a focus on enhancing understanding of and compassion for the self and others. In the context of positive psychology, the goal of this integration includes enhancing signature strengths, optimal functioning, and well-being.”

Dr. Schulte has incorporated contemplative practices in three of her four classes (two sections of introductory psychology and one section of positive psychology). In the positive psychology course, students engage in contemplative practices (meditation and journaling) both in and out of class, while students in the introductory class periodically engage in in-class journaling.

When asked for an early reflection, Dr. Schulte wrote about “the importance of knowing my students on many levels. I have found myself opening up to, and learning more about, the personal lives, concerns, motivations, etc., of students.”

Learning Community

This brings us back to the beginning. Since returning from the Summer Session, these three faculty members have met regularly, to meditate together and to share dialog. It’s been my privilege and pleasure to participate in these meetings as well. We have discovered the meditation room of the St. Katherine Drexel chapel to be an aesthetically pleasing place for these sessions.

Contemplation

However, we have also met in other locations around campus. We feel there is value in practicing in various places, in order to effect a culture shift. Also, as we move toward greater openness with the larger campus, we want to emphasize that this emergent community is open to all, to people of every religion and to people with no religion.

I’m keen to move forward in that process of opening up. But so far, our meetings have been private. This is an important phase as these faculty have felt very tentative in their efforts, very exposed and vulnerable in trying something “new.” Recognizing that a tender new plant may benefit from shelter in the initial stages of growth, we have been proceeding cautiously and slowly. We are taking the time to explore this territory together.

But even the most reticent among us have affirmed that this sense of community needs to be shared. That is one of our next steps.

Next week: The final installment of this miniseries!

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One comment on “Sustaining the Dialog

  1. […] “use” contemplation in their teaching. This will also serve as a coming-out party for Sustaining the Dialog participants, the first of several workshop which will be offered over the coming semesters. I […]

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