Clusters and Kindness

My university is in the midst of transformation to a model of education based on “strategic clusters,” interdisciplinary hubs in which students, faculty and staff work with community partners on real-world problems and intellectual and creative endeavors. (Information here, here, and here).

As we reorganize to facilitate partnerships across and beyond campus, one of my dear colleagues frequently asks, “How will reorganizing into clusters help me do things that I can’t currently do within the existing structure?”

My answer has been: By having a campus-wide ethos of collaboration, we will be more apt to—and able to—build bridges and ease communication between Student Affairs & Academic Affairs, between the campus & our region, etc.  Of course, my colleague responds that we are already doing these things in many ways. And that’s true.

But recently I’ve noticed how the rhetoric of clusters and collaboration is tangibly affecting the decisions I make, and therefore the work I do, and what the university becomes.

It’s a great example for me of how intention itself is a powerful driver. Even though I am still in a traditional department, for now, and even though our curriculum still looks the same, for now, I am making small but important decisions slightly differently than I would have two years ago, before these conversations and plans began.

I have two examples. I’ll share one tonight and another next week.


Recently, a group of people, mainly in Student Affairs, started a campaign called “Panthers for Peace.”

Frankly, I don’t even know if this campaign would have gotten on my radar two years ago. I confess that even if I had received notification of it, I probably would have seen it as a “Student Affairs” thing and would have believed that my Academic Affairs work needed my attention, and that would have been it.

But this campaign did get on my radar thanks to some deliberate choices on my part to learn more about Student Affairs. I currently serve as the faculty observer to our Professional and Technical Staff meetings, so, naturally, I heard people talking about Panthers for Peace. But also, by being on the Plymouth State bowling league, attending Jazzercise classes downtown, etc., I have developed friendships and connections with my Student Affairs colleagues that make us “rounder” and fuller, as humans, to one another.  I care more about what “they” do, honestly, because I care more about them.

And, also, of course, it makes sense for us to know each other and what we do so that students can have a more cohesive experience at our university.

But my point is that this group threw into relief how my pedagogy is already serving this initiative. Rather than taking on “more work” or changing the work that I’m doing so that I can work with this fabulous group of people on their projects to promote a kind culture on our campus (as I was at first tempted to do),  with reflection, I now see another way. I can share with my Academic Affairs colleagues how our curricular and pedagogical choices can contribute to this effort, Panthers for Peace.

To be honest, I didn’t even know (for sure) that my pedagogy was contributing to a culture of kindness on campus until recently, when two separate students shared anecdotes with me.

Last week I was a guest speaker in a Medieval Philosophy class that had one of my former students in it. Happy to see her again, we joked about a particularly vivid and adoring “validation” she had received from a classmate in Arthurian Legends—a Gen Ed course that draws students from all different majors. She said, “People from that class still come up to me and say that! It’s so funny.” I was tickled that, six months later, students would still feel kinship with one another, and that this student would continue to be (rightfully) validated for her awesomeness.

A few days later I mentioned this encounter to another former Arthurian Legends student—our student worker in the English department. She said, “Oh yeah—I still say hi to people from that class. Which is weird because I never talk to or remember people from most of my classes.”

Wow. You can imagine how happy this made me.

I’ve always been doing what I think is best for students, and I’ve hoped that they carry dispositions of curiosity, bravery, humility, and comaraderie into the wider world, but it never occurred to me that the way I do “class participation” could simply and importantly encourage students to be kinder to one another after the course is over.

And so maybe “clusters” aren’t yet helping me do things I couldn’t do before. But they are helping me see more value to what I do and to what I have felt I had been doing in isolation.

Knowing that the institution I serve is committed to kindness, collaboration, and creative-problem-solving has thrown into relief the small ways I can contribute to those causes without serving on more committees or overhauling my courses (though I may be doing that, too).

Intention does affect action. And words do matter. More soon.

The philosophy that drives the practice

Greetings from the ACMHE Conference at UMass Amherst!

Yesterday, in a session on Contemplative Writing, a presenter talked a bit about reflective writing, brainstorming, and free-writing. Noting that these exercises have a long history, particularly in literacy education, an attendee asked “What makes these activities “contemplative?”

It’s a good question and we had a vigorous, though brief, discussion about it. For me: I don’t think that “brainstorming” or “free-writing” are “contemplative writing” in themselves. Rather, they are writing activities that we can use in support of our contemplative pedagogy.

We, I think, share an underlying teaching philosophy that draws from centuries of human wisdom, from “the contemplative life” of various traditions.

Yes, “contemplative pedagogy” means using meditative practices from these traditions, but it also takes as its basis some ontological, or even cosmological, beliefs. Our teaching techniques cultivate dispositions, develop skills, and convey content in service of a larger philosophy—our pedagogy.

We borrow tips, tricks, and techniques from a variety of educational realms. We are not the first teachers to use reflective writing, to attend to the non-cognitive attributes of our students (i.e. their inner life). It’s important that we recognize our own indebtedness to the many educators who do not identify as “contemplative,” and that we have our own robust sense of the pedagogy that inspires our praxis.

This morning at 9:20 I’ll be attending “Embracing diverse cosmologies and practices in contemplative education,” a session described as taking a critical look at the primary routes (mindfulness, Buddhism) that we’ve, so far, used into contemplative inquiry. I’m hoping this session will help us articulate the individual and collective theories and philosophies that drive our teaching.

Historical Diversity and “Reality”

In the British Literature survey, we move through texts from the Anglo-Saxon, medieval, and Renaissance eras. Sometimes, when comparing and contrasting medieval and Renaissance texts, students will claim that the medieval texts, particularly the romances, are “surface-y” and “fake,” while the Renaissance literature presents more “realistic” and “truer” versions of, say, love.

The idea that the concepts, aesthetics, and forms of the Renaissance are more “realistic” is problematic for a few reasons.

First, it ignores how our own ideas about and experiences of the phenomenal world are themselves constructed and lensed. Why do we think that our version of love is the “real” or “true” one and not merely our own experience and perception of it at this particular moment in time and space? People lived within certain paradigms in the past and will (presumably) live within others in the future. I don’t believe their experiences or articulations to be more or less “true” or “real” than our own.

Second, calling Renaissance perspectives “real” or “true” hides the extent to which our own contemporary cultural norms are influenced by that era, which is, significantly, also called the Early Modern era. Religious toleration, separation of church and state, and freedom from press censorship have been central tenets of liberal bourgeois thought for centuries. It’s perhaps be more accurate to say that the aesthetics and articulations of seventeenth century texts are more familiar to us and our perceptions and values, not objectively “truer”.

Third, when we dismiss medieval aesthetics as something untrue that “we” transcended, we can be blind to the less savory or shameful aspects of our own aesthetic field.

Sometimes students denigrate the romances of the Anglo Norman period because they feature elaborate descriptions of the material world and its beauty: clothing, castles, and women. They’ll say things like: “Back then, people were all about surfaces and the external. That’s so unlike today where what’s inside matters.”

What a delightful delusion! Look at how much appearance matters in our contemporary media. From magazines, commercials, and products to television shows about makeovers and remodeling, we are all about externals.

We also must remember that we are dealing with literary representations, not historical truths. But I won’t go into that here.

I’ve written earlier about how studying literature from the past can make the familiar unfamililar. Here I suggest that it also encourages us to see our lived experiences and tastes as constructed, historically informed, and sometimes “backwards.”

These ideas have implications for encounters with diversity. Sometimes my students deride the European historical “other” as unreal, false and infantile in a way I hope they wouldn’t deride a cultural other.

Reading historical stuff can get us more sensitive to 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 that which is distinctly different, to take it seriously as a worldview with merits as well as demerits.

Medieval texts are more than curious artifacts from before we rightly “discovered” the self, and my teaching, I hope, provides the opportunity for us to read in ways that help us imagine, respect, and even adopt alternative worldviews.

Our pedagogy can do this no matter what the content of the field. What does it look like in your realm?