After the Conference

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

Along the Path

I recently returned from the fifth annual conference of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education at Amherst College.

It was my privilege to also have attended the second annual conference back in 2010. After that event, I noted to myself that I was saddened to realize how many people experience the academy as oppressive. The topic of pain seemed to come up between sessions with surprising frequency.

At the fifth annual conference, that topic was present again. Only now it had moved front and center, no longer confined to the margins. Pain was addressed in the programming itself. A concern for suffering and injustice was a common theme. Issues of race, class, gender (and other) inequities came up repeatedly.

I think it’s good that we are talking about these things. At our university, the creation of “a more just and humane society” is part of our mission. Surely reforming the inhumane aspects of the academy would be a good place to start.

What is the role of contemplation in such a project? Some seem to think that contemplation in itself leads inexorably to compassion. I have my doubts about that, but I certainly agree that some practices can enhance and deepen and develop our faculty for compassion.

Any teacher concerned with social justice would do well to investigate contemplative pedagogy. I hope to continue to explore this connection in the future.

I’ve written a longer conference report, and I’ve made my own presentation materials available on our wiki.

Advertisements

What’s Next

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

Hooray! It’s the final installment in this series on contemplative faculty development. You might want to start at the beginning, or just read on and take it as it comes.

So what’s next on on the agenda here at Xavier? We have a number of plans in the works, some of which are more fleshed out, some of which are only vague glimmers at this point.

Introduction to Zen Meditation

We’re quite pleased to present a second installment in our continuing series on “Contemplative Practices in Diverse Traditions.”

Mid City Zen

This semester we have an opportunity to learn about Zen meditation from Rev. Michaela O’Connor Bono. Participants will learn the basics of how to practice sitting meditation in the Zen tradition and some of the essential principles of Buddhism relating to working with the mind.

Practical Applications

The Zen session will concentrate on a specific contemplative practice. We respect these practices for their intrinsic value, but we also place great emphasis on practical applications for teaching and learning. Therefore we will offer a follow-up session in January which will focus on how faculty can “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 don’t know exactly what the content of these workshops will be. They will be planned by the participating faculty. I’m excited to see what they come up with.

What Do You Love?

Inspired by Wayne Muller’s How, Then, Shall We Live? (cited in Sentipensante Pedagogy) 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 passions and desires. “By what star do we navigate our journey on the earth? What we love will shape our days and provide the texture of our inner and outer life. How can we plant what we love in the garden of this life?” These and other questions are all fair game.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan

World Tai Chi Day

There’s a Confucius Institute at Xavier now, the first such institute at an HBCU. It’s a partnership between Xavier University of Louisiana, Hebei University in China, and the Chinese Ministry of Education. Part of the mission of the institute is to teach about Chinese culture. Therefore it would seem to make a lot of sense to offer a third installment in our series “Contemplative Practices in Diverse Traditions” on the practice of t’ai chi ch’uan. In fact, I just sent an email asking if they’d help me set this up.

Me Personally

My own personal practice continues to develop.

Beginning

In addition to writing this series here at College Contemplative, I’ve been invited to write a regular column for Humanistic Paganism, which will be entitled “A Pedagogy of Gaia.” (Look for my article on the winter solstice coming on December 18th.) I’ve also been invited to officiate a blessing at a civic tree-planting ceremony next week; no one could be more astonished by this development than me.

Summing Up

Just as with my personal development, our efforts in this area of faculty development are very much in process. Furthermore, I believe it’s important to understand that this will always be the case. Contemplative faculty development is a journey, not a destination. There is no finished product here, no targeted endpoint. We proceed in good faith into continually unfolding mystery. It’s a lot like life that way.

Thanks to Karolyn for letting me write in the space (probably far more than she expected!) and thanks to you, Reader, for your attention. Please feel free to raise any questions in the comment section and I will try to answer.

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!

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.

Gong

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

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.

chain

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

SteinerBooks

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

My Story

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

Hello, it’s me again, Bart Everson. In my introductory post I promised to trace my personal journey. So here goes nothing.

I take my own story as a starting point in hopes of illuminating the connection between personal experience and professional life, in hopes of showing how one person’s development can inform a program of development.

Deep Background

I was raised in a suburb of a major Midwestern metropolis. Though I attended public school, I was given a thorough religious education through a doctrinally-conservative Protestant church.

Cross

Apostasy

At age 17 I experienced a “falling away” from the faith of my childhood. It did not feel like a choice. It felt like a nonchoice, a difficult necessity born of cognitive conflict. I simply could not credit the truth-claims of the church any longer. It was painful; I kept this a secret from my family for many years.

I often wondered why many of my apostate peers experienced only a gradual drifting away from religion without much angst. For me it was a sudden, distinct, devastating event. And yet, in retrospect, I feel that my life-journey began with this negation.

Over the coming years, my experience of atheism encompassed a broad range of emotions: pain, sorrow, fear, anger, despair, defiance, confusion, ambivalence, acceptance, compassion, humility, wonder, and even ecstasy.

Ecstasy

At age 22 I had a “peak experience”, what might also be called an “episode of unitive consciousness.”

One experiences dissolution of personal boundaries and has a sense of becoming one with other people, with nature, or with the entire universe. This process has a very sacred quality and feels like one is merging with creative cosmic energy, or God. The usual categories of time and space seem to be transcended, and one can have a sense of infinity and eternity. The emotions associated with this state range from profound peace and serenity to exuberant joy and ecstatic rapture. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow, who studied these experiences in many hundreds of people, gave them the name “peak experiences.” (Grof & Grof, 1989)

Though the experience itself seemed outside of time, by objective measures it lasted about five minutes. I spent the next week in an elevated, intensely integrative state. I spent the next year or two trying to write a novel which would somehow capture this indescribable experience. During this same period (perhaps not coincidentally) I was on bad terms with my family; I was finishing up school and supporting myself financially for the first time. I lacked a supportive framework for interpreting the experience or sustaining the sense of value, purpose and meaning.

Many other things happened over the next ten years: I got married. I put the first TV show on the internet. I went back to school and got a graduate degree. I gloss over these major milestones in the interest of brevity.

Coming to Xavier

At age 32 I was hired at Xavier University of Louisiana to work on the staff of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching. I moved to New Orleans and have worked here ever since.

I was hired to help faculty with multimedia production. I had not heard of “faculty development” before this job opportunity, and for years I did not identify myself as a faculty developer. I saw myself as a technology expert and an artist.

The One-Two Punch

Pardon the violent metaphor, but two things happened in the aughts which may have been precursors to later changes. I think of these as a sort of one-two punch.

The first punch came in August of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast. A failure of federally constructed and maintained infrastructure led to the flooding of 80% of the city of New Orleans, including my neighborhood (Mid-City) and my home. I was 38 at this time.

Me and My Stuff

For approximately the next three years or so, I lived in a state of high anxiety. These were hard times. A friend of mine was murdered. My wife had a painful miscarriage. I did a lot of hard drinking. But I was also highly engaged in my community. For example, I helped found a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the creation of a multiuse trail through the heart of the city.

The experience of living in post-Katrina New Orleans “softened me up” for the second punch, which came two and a half years after the flood, when my daughter was born. This was five weeks after my 41st birthday.

I realized that I was a part of something bigger than myself.

(Re) Awakening

Over the next couple years I experienced a spiritual awakening. It might be more accurate to call it a re-awakening, as I felt a profound resonance and revival of my experience at age 22. Yet this was much gentler, more like a slow-motion unfolding rather than a soul-shaking explosion.

I didn’t know the term at the time, but it seems like a plateau experience:

This is serene and calm rather than a poignantly emotional, climactic, autonomic response to the miraculous, the awesome, the sacralized, the Unitive, the B-values. So far as I can now tell, the high plateau-experience always has a noetic and cognitive element, which is not always true for peak experiences, which can be purely and exclusively emotional. It is far more voluntary than peak experiences are. One can learn to see in this Unitive way almost at will. It then becomes a witnessing, an appreciating, what one might call a serene, cognitive blissfulness which can, however, have a quality of casualness and of lounging about. (Maslow, 1964)

Eventually my plateau experience started losing its natural momentum. I realized that if I wanted to maintain my personal growth and development, I would have to work at it. You could say that I “got religion” as I slowly began to cobble together a contemplative, eclectic, Earth-centered practice. I desire to honor, celebrate, venerate and attend the larger processes working in and around and through me, through us all.

Many of the specific details of this re-awakening are intertwined with my professional life and faculty development, which I’ll get into next time I post here.

References

Grof, S., & Grof, C. (1989). Spiritual emergency: when personal transformation becomes a crisis. Los Angeles; New York: Tarcher ; Distributed by St. Martin’s Press.

Maslow, A. H. (1964). Religions, values, and peak-experiences. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Greetings and Introduction

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

Hello and greetings. My name is Bart Everson, and it’s a privilege and a pleasure to be posting here at College Contemplative.

As a new author on this site, I thought it might be best to give you some idea of where I’m “coming from,” geographically and otherwise, as well as where I’m headed.

Welcome to Xavier

As I write these words I’m sitting in my office on the Xavier campus in the great city of New Orleans.

I think most readers will be at least vaguely familiar with our city, but less so with our school. No, we’re not affiliated with that school in Ohio. This is Xavier University of Louisiana.

Students

Xavier University of Louisiana, founded by Saint Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, is Catholic and historically Black. The ultimate purpose of the University is to contribute to the promotion of a more just and humane society by preparing its students to assume roles of leadership and service in a global society. This preparation takes place in a diverse learning and teaching environment that incorporates all relevant educational means, including research and community service.

This is our mission. This is our context.

Some Recent Developments

We’re now in the sixth week of the fall semester, and so far it’s been shaping up to be a most interesting school year, one that is unique and quite different in its own peculiar way from any that I’ve experienced in my 14 years here — at least from my own personal perspective.

That’s because a tiny group has formed here. A small number of faculty and staff have been meeting regularly in the meditation room of the St. Katharine Drexel Chapel.

Meditation Room

We come here to sit together in meditation, sharing the space, the air, the stillness and the silence. We also discuss teaching and learning in the context of our shared mission.

It provides a break, a respite from the encroaching stress and hectic pace of the semester. This is valuable in itself. But it also feels like something more. I would not hesitate to label our small group as a community of spiritual practice.

It’s powerful stuff. But it’s also subtle. It’s the essence of simplicity, yet also quite complex. Like silence itself, it’s paradoxically empty yet full of mystery.

How Did We Get Here?

It’s my hope and my plan, in the weeks ahead, to share with you here the story of how we got to this point. It’s a journey that is at once highly personal and inherently social.

For now I’ll leave you with a pair of quotations which define a couple key steps along this path.

the term spiritual emergency… is a play on words, suggesting both a crisis and an opportunity of rising to a new level of awareness, or “spiritual emergence.” (Grof & Grof, 1989)

Our colleges and universities need to encourage, foster, and assist our students, faculty, and administrators in finding their own authentic way to an undivided life where meaning and purpose are tightly interwoven with intellect and action, where compassion and care are infused with insight and knowledge. (Palmer & Zajonc, 2010)

In the the near future, I will describe my personal journey from spiritual emergency to visions of wholeness, and how this has unfolded at Xavier in the practice of faculty development.

Sources Cited

Grof, S., & Grof, C. (1989). Spiritual emergency: when personal transformation becomes a crisis. Los Angeles; New York: Tarcher ; Distributed by St. Martin’s Press.

Palmer, P., & Zajonc, A. (2010). The heart of higher education : a call to renewal. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.