Reading, flow, and the joys of the English major

(I recently recovered this little piece I had written back in 2009 for English majors, before I knew about “contemplative pedagogy.”)

Much of the reading I do these days should be called “skimming.” I skim web pages looking for the main gist of an article, an answer to a specific question, or contact information. Many high school assignments actually trained me to do this kind of reading. For example, when I’d be assigned a chapter to read in a Social Studies textbook, I’d also be given a list of questions. By skimming for key words (i.e. “cotton gin”), I’d answer all of the questions correctly (“Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.”). I did not read. I hunted and gathered. I am now an excellent and efficient skimmer of online information.

But when I read, really read, other stuff happens in my brain. I use my memory, remembering conversations or experiences I’ve had or other texts I’ve read. I use my imagination, forming new connections and wrestling with unique constructions of thought. Rather than myopically hunting for a fact to complete an assignment, my curious mind ranges freely among sentences, allowing the text to act upon me.

When my brain is active like this, really engaged in a text, I enter the state called “flow.” I don’t recognize time passing. I am completely absorbed. I am both out of my body (ek-stasis) and deeply rooted in my body at the same time. It is utterly delicious!

I have a theory that all English majors have at some point experienced flow when reading or writing. What draws them to this major, perhaps unconsciously, is the desire to tap into that feeling on a regular basis. We’re looking to recover that particular kind of pleasure that lies beyond aesthetics, that’s rooted in the activity of our brains. Is this true for you?

I find that when I’m restless or bored by reading, it’s because I haven’t tapped into my own curiosity and energy. When I mindlessly approach literature as though it were an online article or textbook—skimming—I deny myself the ecstatic experience of losing and finding myself in active reading. What a relief and joy it is for me to remember that all I need to do is close my door, tune into the book, and become lost in the mental aerobics literature inspires my mind to perform.

Accessing that flow, that ecstasy, is part of our homework as English majors. Aren’t we lucky? We aren’t required to skim textbook material; we are instead, each evening, invited to plug our minds into a rich text and begin exchanging information with it, stretching our abilities to comprehend, imagine, and create. Each hour we have the opportunity to be moved and utterly absorbed—we simply need to remember that this is the goal of our reading, our purpose as English majors.

And so I invite you to come to your reading with an awake mind, eager to be fired up, to remember, and to imagine. This kind of reading not only inspires us to take notes, develop ideas, and ask questions in class. It also trains our brains to recognize patterns, to synthesize parts into a whole. When we read well, we have the big picture in sight, and we rarely feel overwhelmed by and lost among details.

Commercials, web pages, and magazines target us by our age, gender, socio-economic class, and ethnicity. When we read these texts, we often encounter our own familiar version of reality reflected back to us. Literature is different. As English majors, we intentionally expose ourselves to texts that aren’t necessarily “meant” for us. Perhaps they were written a long time ago, or by someone on the other side of the world. As strong readers, we rejoice in the opportunity mingle with this “otherness.” Watch yourself when you next encounter a strange or difficult text. What do you do when you encounter such diversity? Do you neglect it? Run from it? Disconnect from it? Or, do you get curious about it?

I invite you to explore your own personal boundaries through strange and difficult texts. As you learn more about them, your own boundaries will shift. Your range of understanding will expand. You will get more confident and fearless in the face of the strange or difficult. Ignorance can feel pretty scary, but it’s temporary. We have the ability to activate our memories and imaginations to encounter difference with joyful curiosity. In fact, that’s our duty!

Active, alert reading that fires the memory and imagination can carry over into our lives and relationships. We can learn how to prioritize sentences and experiences, to linger on surprising phrases and people, to explore confusing concepts and situations.

We are so lucky! Our homework assignments have the capacity to be gateways to bliss. Are you up for the adventure?

“Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded. These are not the qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.”–  Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, The Boston Globe, April 10, 2005


Sept 18 Contemplative Communities Gathering

Plymouth, Nh area readers: Come learn about a Plymouth State University Cluster Project that foregrounds curiosity, kindness, justice, and mindfulness– Contemplative Communities!

Students, staff, teaching lecturerss, admins, and faculty are all welcome to attend this gathering. We will share space in support of the pursuit of joy & the reduction of suffering. You can learn about new courses, research opportunities, and community programming. All are welcome!

What: Contemplative Communities Gathering

When: Monday Sept 18th 3:30-4:30

Where: Museum of the White Mountains Open Lab

contemplative rocks

Interconnectedness: What’s happening at Plymouth State

With very little financial support from the University, we have launched a sturdy little Contemplative Communities cluster project up here at Plymouth State University, NH.

We (students, staff, faculty, community members) spent the spring and summer creating our Advisory Board, developing a Student Organization, proposing contemplative lab spaces, meeting graduate students, presenting at conferences, gathering mindfully, and designing courses.

What the university paid for was conference travel, so I’ll tell you a bit about that, first.

In April, two students and two alums presented with me on a panel entitled “Contemplative Education: Impacts, Outcomes, Transformations” at the 38th Annual Medieval and Renaissance Forum at Keene State College. Students synthesized course experiences, content, theories, and practices to deliver first-person accounts of transformative education in English and Medieval Studies. We have submitted proposals for publication… Fingers crossed!


John Rodgers (’18), Rachael Ferranti (’12), Karolyn Kinane (Faculty), Lindsey DeRoche (’17), Jessica Eldridge (’16) at the 38th Annual Medieval and Renaissance Forum, Keene, NH

In June I participated in the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute in Garrison, NY.  The Institute included 115 participants from thirty two countries and six continents. What an honor to be a part of this experience! The Institute’s theme, “Intersubjectivity and Social Connectivity,” invited scientists, clinicians, philosophers, legal and economic experts, and others to address how we relate to ourselves, to others, and to community and strangers.

Sessions explored the science of implicit bias as well as how social and cultural histories shape individual and collective well-being. Most pressing for me were the new research findings on interconnectivity of mind, health, empathy, and compassion as well as the “efficacy” and “usefulness” of meditative practices.

Much of the epistemology, methodology, and pedagogy of modern Western institutions (corporate, medical, academic) rest on the ontological position that humans are isolated individuals. Such a perspective invisibly shapes our ethics. The Contemplative Communities Cluster Project allows the Plymouth State and broader community consider an alternative to the default ontological position—to consider interconnectedness.

As the Mind and Life Organization demonstrates, when we operate from an ontological position of interconnectedness, new possibilities emerge for scientific inquiry, social structures, and ethical systems. Neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, humanists, and contemplatives are amassing a generous body of work that demonstrates how humans co-create our experiences, how our environment co-creates our experiences, and the very real effects of this participatory sense-making.

In my next post I’ll offer some juicy details on our new Contemplative Approaches courses and our Student Organization. In the meantime, check out our webpage! If you would like to get in the loop to receive all of our updates & events, drop me an email and I will add you to our communications. If you’d like to stay peripherally abreast, join our Facebook Group and “like” our Facebook page.



Shifting the Ethos of Busy-ness

When someone casually asks you “How are you?” how do you respond? Words can transform lived experience and one small shift can ripple out to a community.

Many times when I briefly ask people how they’re doing, they’ll answer with “Super busy—tons of grading to do” or “So stressed out—Jenny has practice every night this week.” Or they’ll give me an incredulous look—like we’re both in over our heads—and tell me they’re “Okay.” This has happened with students, colleagues, and friends.

Several years ago I examined my relationship to busy-ness and detected the ways that my sense of self was entangled with how much I “had to do.” The entanglement was two-fold: I felt like if I wasn’t busy, I wasn’t important. And I also believed that other people would judge me as lazy if I did not tell them that I, like them, felt stressed.

I’ve started asking students about the various replies to the casual question “How are you?” and we’ve anecdotally confirmed that we sometimes perform stress for each other and unnecessarily create the expectation of busy-ness for ourselves and each other.

Last year an advisee told me she generally felt okay but that when friends around her said they were freaking out with busy-ness, she began to wonder if she had forgotten something and she’d become worried and anxious at her own lack of stress.

In an attempt to shift this culture I developed a small exercise for one of my classes: We looked at our own identity in relation to “busyness;” we practiced small moments of gratitude;  we vowed to give other people permission to be “doing well.”

Here is the exercise in a nutshell:

When someone asks casually, “How are you?” resist the urge to perform stress and busy-ness. This does not mean you have to lie or slap a fake happy face on a miserable day. Instead, choose which moment of your day you will share.

This takes noticing.

Throughout the day, notice opportunities for gratitude and then share those. Sure I may have a ton of papers to grade, but I also noticed a new bird in my yard. Sure my car is in the shop again, but I also had a great conversation with my sister who lives in another state.

So when someone asks “How are you?” I can choose to tell them about all of the Very Important Work that I Have to Do and contribute to the Stress Olympics, or I can say I’m “Doing well” and them about the great meal I just had or the sweet walk I just took.

Speaking these very true words is like spell-casting. They transform my relationship to my own life and they give my interlocutor permission to also be “doing well.”

I don’t want to ignore or downplay the very real struggles with stress and anxiety many of us have. Nor do I encourage you to avoid ever discussing the painful and difficult things we all experience.

But rather, once in a while, especially with casual acquaintances, I’d ask us to consider sharing a moment of gratitude and giving our colleagues a priceless gift: permission to be “doing well.”

Permission to Fail: Clusters and a Leap of Faith

How do we craft spaces where creativity can thrive? In my new Writing and the Creative Process class this semester we have been talking a lot about giving people “permission to fail.” That is, if we’re going to take the risk of trying something new, of being truly “creative,” we need to know that our evaluators, teachers, managers, and collaborators have meaningfully given us this permission.

This course has become an elegant microcosm for me of Plymouth State University’s massive shift to a clusters-based approach to teaching, learning, and service. In order for me to thrive in this environment, which values collaboration, innovation, and interdisciplinary, I need to take a leap of faith. I need to believe that I actually do have permission to fail. And I genuinely need to offer that permission to my students. And this means I need to take a leap of faith and encourage such leaps in others.

After all, I have applied for and received funding. I need to offer “deliverables” at some point, justifying my university’s investments. Students are often taking on significant debt and investing valuable time to experience these courses. What if I fail?

What if students don’t participate? What if colleagues don’t follow through? What if failure is not an option? What if, what if, what if? my anxiety demands.

A colleague of mine shared this article with me that describes how we—in a variety of sectors—claim to value creativity while actively stifling it. A sobering thought.

I don’t think I could undertake a Contemplative Communities Cluster Project or “open” my Creative Process class without my practice. Years of grooming in higher education have taught me that failure is not an option. My own ego compounded with the significant role that course evaluations play in promotion and tenure have made me reticent to try new things that might… well… fail.

But my practice reminds me to see situations with fresh eyes, with a beginner’s mind. My practice encourages me to trust what people say, to believe that transformational change is possible for myself, my students, and my university.

And so I leap. I trust that my project collaborators will be honest with me about their commitments and tasks. I trust that my evaluators know the valuable role failure plays in innovation. I trust that my students will ask, try, speak up, and, perhaps most importantly, trust me.

Effectiveness: The irony of Socrates and the child

Please welcome guest blogger Dr. Scott Merrill, who teaches courses on Existentialism, Anthropology, and Religion at Plymouth State. Scott is a new-comer to contemplative pedagogy. For the past year he and I have been enjoying conversations about eastern and western concepts of “the self,” the role of “humility” in teaching and research, and all things philosophical. His readings of western thinkers such as Plato and Nietzche dialog well, I think, with some of the ideas contemplative educators bat around. Here are some of Scott’s recent musings on how some of our most effective teaching moments can occur when we are most ignorant.

A “beginner’s mind” is like that of the child’s in Nietzsche’s The Three Metamorphoses. This child, after having gone from being a camel, and then a lion, finally utters a “sacred yes” without the burden of preconception and without the social pressures to conform that adults often confront.

I sometimes see this open mind in my six year old when he is playing with questions of life after death or wondering whether he would rather have one hundred friends or one hundred movies to watch. He creates his own answers and shapes his world according to what brings him joy. He wills his own will freely. One of the features of this type of mind is that it can coexist with irony and contradiction. Socrates, who plays the role of teacher and student, serves as an archetypal model for this.

I would like to think that I have an open mind but when I read Plato’s dialogues I encounter myself siding with the sophists at times; I understand why Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the youth. I want the quick fix sometimes; Socrates is frustrating and his irony can be predictable. As a teacher I often want to bear the camel’s burden of seeking knowledge without help and in the classroom I  want to be right, like the lion fighting dragons with “thou shall” emblazoned on its scales, claiming small victories perhaps but lacking in lightness and an ability to connect.

Sometimes I ask myself if I’m an effective teacher. I don’t stress effectiveness in my teaching. When I begin a class I’m not asking myself, “ok, so what are my desired results, goals and outcomes?” I am mostly asking whether my class will be more curious about themselves and some of the ideas they encounter before they took the class.

Effectiveness, after all, can be an elusive term. It could mean different things depending on how the term is defined and in what context. For instance, a math teacher explaining the rules involved in balancing an equation might not have the same definition of “effective” as a philosophy teacher discussing the concept of justice. The math teacher can utilize symbols and rules in order to demonstrate truth whereas the philosophy teacher must often engage in irony and paradox. Equations, once solved, provide something close to certainty. Ethical debates about justice rarely, if ever, do.

Effectiveness is a popular term in our little academic realm and evaluations and student’s grades are often provided as measures of this. Tenure and teaching awards are based on it. What I’d like to know is whether there is a general definition of effectiveness that crosses disciplinary boundaries? I believe there is, if we use the model of Socratic openness and compassion as a measure.

Socrates was described as a midwife and a gadfly. He is the great ironist who maintains his ignorance in order to allow others to recollect what they already know; it was his ability to do this well which, according to Plato, led to many enchanting afternoons and eventually to his execution.

Plato’s Phaedrus includes a discourse between Socrates and Phaedrus, who he calls his Divine Darling, on a range of topics including rhetoric, love, and metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls. What interests me right now aren’t these subjects in themselves but the way Socrates engages with Phaedrus affectionately and uncompromisingly in their long conversation.

Before the dialogue begins there is some hesitancy on the part of Phaedrus to begin speaking. He has just heard a discourse about love by Lysias and is reluctant to recite what he knows because he has only a general recollection of the argument. Eventually, it’s revealed by Socrates that Phaedrus is hiding it under his cloak and Phaedrus agrees to read it.

The two then seek a place to sit. They choose a broad leafed Plane tree, platanos, (this is a semantic play on Plato’s name, derived from platys, both words referring to broad). Even while being absent, Plato is present.

Before getting to the dialogue there is another delay. Socrates reminds Phaedrus of an altar to Boreas nearby and Phaedrus asks whether he believes in the myths surrounding this God of the North Wind. Socrates knows quite a bit but tells Phaedrus he has no “leisure” for such “concerns” and that to be curious about these things, while still ignorant of himself, would be “ridiculous.” This is an example of Plato ’s dramatic irony in the form of a set up. Socrates is emphasizing the Delphian inscription to “know thyself,” which is the starting point for knowing anything. Socrates is reminding Phaedrus that while delving into the abstract can be important for understanding human nature and the mythical world, one should first know what it means to be a better person. For instance, a person able to engage in the type of dialectical conversation that Socrates values more than mere rhetoric.

Throughout this dialogue I’m reminded of how Socrates balances wisdom with compassion, playfulness and humor, as with his comment of being in a “Bacchic Frenzy” after hearing Phaedrus first speak, to which the later reminds him to please not joke. I’m reminded of myself as a student in that stage of life coming into contact with certain teachers whose patience, humor, and care I owe a great debt. I’m also reminded to maintain an ironic sense of humor myself. There is some small comfort, after all, in blaming those same professors who provided encouragement for the student loan debts and the piles of papers to grade. Yes, I chose these punishments after all. As did Socrates, ultimately, when he drank the hemlock.

I’ve been thanked by students over the years. I’ve been told that my courses have made them think about things from new perspectives. That such and such a course was their favorite. Sometimes these moments of gratitude come years later; sometimes they come in the form of evaluations. They always surprise me. When provoked to remember specific classroom discussions or office visits, I recall being open and eager to learn from students in these moments. I recall their faces, their curiosity, details they spoke of about family and friends, relationships and the complexities of their lives.

I’m reminded in these unofficial evals that my effectiveness depends on how well I forget my ego and become more like the student. I’m reminded of Socrates and the child. I’m reminded of the importance of living with and finding hope in contradiction.

I could do better.

Scott Merrill, Ph.D., is a teaching lecturer in Philosophy and Social Science at Plymouth State University. About his research, Scott says, “I find an existential approach to social phenomena to be valuable because it allows me to examine society through the lens of the individual, as opposed to more traditional (and limiting, in my opinion) social scientific approaches. Examining people and behavior this way has allowed me to engage personal interests and experiences seriously. Some of those interests were written about in my dissertation “Transcendent Transgressions: Exploring the Limits of Edgework” and include the role of transgression in creating authenticity and meaning, religious experience, embodied forms of transcendence, and risk taking.”

Words Matter: Authentic Learning

Authentic Learning” seems to be a collection of techniques and practices whereby students “learn by doing.” This year our January professional development event featured a presentation on “Authentic Learning.” Last week during a faculty meeting a dean off-handedly invoked this phrase.

I deeply appreciate (another) call to active learning, to moving beyond memorization and multiple choice tests. But I worry about the short-hand, about the way this phrase can be interpreted by students (and faculty and staff!).

If an instructor calls what students do in one class “authentic learning,” then other kinds of pedagogies and practices could be seen as… inauthentic. Let’s not create this kind of divide.  It’s too much like advisors telling students to get their Gen Eds out of the way.

From sustained explorations of (i.e. longer articles on) “Authentic Learning,” I see how my pedagogies and practices have a place within such a paradigm.* But many short overviews or bite-sized descriptions of “Authentic Learning” offered by a quick internet-search tend to focus on one point: “Authentic activities culminate in the creation of a whole product valuable in its own right.” Sometimes the main pitch for “Authentic Learning” revolves around students’ capacity to create a “useful, tangible product” as the measure of “Authentic Learning.”

A “product” is, generally, something we manufacture, buy, and sell. If we start telling students that “authentic learning” results in the creation of a “product,” we will be doing a huge disservice to them. Sure, a portfolio of creative or critical work, developed through reflection, revision, and collaboration could be called a “useful, tangible product,” but only with a certain degree of finesse or violence to the common definition.

Words matter.


*I do have concerns about how externally focused this paradigm is, but I’ll write about that another time!