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!

Contemplative Approaches: Shared Purpose, Meaning, Goals

Over the past two weeks I’ve had several opportunities to give descriptions of Contemplative Pedagogy and Contemplative Approaches in, say, two minutes or fewer.

I’m enjoying distinguishing “Contemplative Inquiry” from “mindfulness” and bringing the conversation beyond meditation and stress-reduction to the confluence of the critical, creative, and contemplative approaches to problem-solving.

While I can talk broadly about contemplative practices, when it comes to ontology, goals, and outcomes, I find myself wondering how broadly—if at all—my positions are shared by contemplative educators.

Please allow me to brainstorm-blog on my way to articulating something substantial. Please also share with me your comments and feedback!

With colleagues I’m currently drafting a series of General Education courses entitled “Contemplative Approaches to…” and developing shared pedagogical aims of “Contemplative Approaches to Scientific Inquiry,” “Contemplative Approaches to the Past and Present,” “to the Self and Society,” and “to Creative Thought.”

Here are some of my initial musings that I’m carrying with me into a round of collaboration, research and note-taking:

  • Contemplative inquiry complements (it does not replace) critical and creative capacities and approaches.
  • Contemplative inquiry arises from dispositions of humility and curiosity.
  • Contemplative approaches consider interconnectedness in epistemology as well as in approaches to problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Contemplative approaches share a service-driven purpose.
  • Contemplative inquiry illuminates habit and prevents mission-drift by re-evaluating and articulating the purpose or the meaning of the endeavor, which may change as problems and issues arise and are addressed.

This brainstorming grows out of some beliefs that inform my pedagogy, beliefs I need to re-examine and re-assess.

Ontology, Goals, and Outcomes:

I believe in simultaneous interconnectedness and emptiness.  This “belief” is (of course) subject to scrutiny, reflection, and revision by myself and others, but it’s certainly impacting my pedagogy.

Right now I’d say a major goal of my pedagogy is to develop capacities for living with intention and agency.

A core outcome would be a more ethical, just, and (dare I say) happy life.

The next step for the coming weeks is for me to probe how other contemplative educators and researchers articulate ontological beliefs and positions. (Nudge nudge! Be a guest blogger!) I’m also gathering data on the stated goals and outcomes of my fellow contemplative educators and researchers.

Lastly, for now, I’m wondering: How might the ontological positions, goals, and outcomes of contemplative pedagogy constellate with those of the Mind and Life Institute? With Contemplative Studies? Contemplative Inquiry? With good old fashioned Philosophy?

Share your perspectives!



Events for Spring 2017

Plymouth State University’s Contemplative Education Group has a few initiatives underway as well as our usual slate of events.

First, university-wide revisions to General Education may allow groupings of courses to carry micro-credentials. We are looking to “bundle” the existing courses that use contemplative approaches and also to develop new courses.

Second, we will be re-tooling our Contemplative Communities project, which involves partnership with the Center for Active Living and Healthy Communities.  Stay tuned!

For now, here are some opportunities to get involved.

  • Meditation Mondays: Frost Commons 12:15-12:30 p.m. every Monday through May 15th. Join us as we start the week by gathering for a few minutes in silence. All are welcome!
  • Reading Group: Frost Commons 3:30-4:30 last Tuesday of every month (Feb 28, March 28, April 25) We will discuss articles from the latest Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, which features contemplative educational practices in Law, the Sciences, Technology, Environmental Studies, and Writing.
  • Ed.D and M.Ed. course: Look for HD/EN “Special Topics: Contemplative Inquiry and Practice in Higher Education” to be offered June/July 2017 in online and residency format (Waterville Valley).
  • Staying in touch: Plymouth State members can join the Contemplative Education Group in Yammer or in Outlook Mail Groups, both available through Microsoft 365. There you can find files and past messages.

A Note on Yoga

Contemplative practices come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve turned to and engaged many of them– particularly journaling, meditation, dance, and ritual. But yoga has been “my practice” for over a decade. And it has shaped my life and lived experience in ways not always touted by mass-media.

I call the habit that yoga developed in me “notice, breathe, choose.” Due to this habit, I’m more aware of decisions I make. I have better emotional regulation than I did ten years ago. The incessant brain-chatter—a non-stop internal narrative I lived with for decades—has ceased.

Because I tend to both live in my head and get caught up in other people’s energy, I can lose track of my own desires and miss cues from my body and mind. A yoga practice has trained my mind to notice: to observe passively without narrative or judgement. It has trained me to breathe: to check in with my body to notice where the struggle is. And it has given me permission to choose whether to move towards challenge or to back away.

Initially I had been drawn to physically challenging, vigorous yoga classes. Yes, these experiences increased my strength, flexibility and balance. But, these classes (unexpectedly) introduced me to my ego, which took pride in staying in poses a long time, in my ability to push my edges and boundaries.

Once I noticed myself pushing on the mat, I discovered the persistent tendency I had for moving towards challenge in other realms of my life. This practice helped me see how the type-A, mildly competitive tendencies that were playing out in the yoga practice were also causing all kinds of unnecessary stress in my work-life. I discovered the choice to stop. And I did.

So now I don’t find myself deep in spirals of frustration or anger nearly as often as I used to. I notice sooner—“Uh oh, something’s happening!” I check in with my breath. This could mean taking a three-second pause or a three-day reflection period. When I’m ready, I reclaim my agency and choose. Do I want to move towards this challenge? Or is it time to step away?

As to quieting the monkey-mind: The practice of again and again recalling a wandering mind works. In those early yoga classes I’d be in downward-facing dog pose, but I wasn’t doing yoga. I was making a shopping list, planning the next article, constructing counter-arguments to a recent nasty conversation… My body was on the mat but my mind was in the past or the future.

We all have our own reasons for fleeing from the present moment, for staying disembodied, for keeping the mind entangled in the past or future. For me, my ongoing inner-narrative reassured me that I was smart and important.

So how did I drop that story? Practice! It really is like training a puppy. Eventually, if you’re diligent, they stop peeing in the house! Eventually, my mind became a tool I could use rather than something that distracted me and stressed me out. 🙂

In yogic philosophy, the human experience is simply and elegantly the interplay of energy and consciousness. In daily life I sometimes find my energy and consciousness split or divided, each engaged with its own task: I’m driving and talking. Eating and scrolling.

The physical practice of hatha yoga is one way for my energy and consciousness to be in the same place at the same time. It’s a feeling beyond description. If I had to describe it, I’d say it feels like being fully alive.

Experience precedes meaning

From the outside (and with distance) life can look like a series of well-planned choices. But from the inside (and in the moment), it feels like a series of well-timed stumblings.

While I was in my twenties I can say for certain I wasn’t following any plan or clear, goal-oriented route from college to jobs to grad school to jobs…. In fact, I often felt like things were just “happening” and I was lucky to be along for the ride.

I didn’t even know what graduate school was until after I had earned my B.A. when a history professor then at SUNY New Paltz, Carole Levin, stayed in touch with me and encouraged me to apply. Then one day, acceptance letter in hand and pissed-off at my boss, I took the leap to move half-way across the country, to seek the mysterious “Master’s Degree.” It was a bit impulsive.

Once in graduate school, I figured I’d quickly get the “medieval” requirement out of the way and begrudgingly signed up for Old English—the Anglo Saxon Language. Surprisingly, I fell in love with it! Seeing the way that nuances can’t be carried cleanly from one language to another, hearing the way sounds and rhythms work together to create meaning—I was hooked.

So, I became a medievalist because of a kind professor, a crappy boss, and a curricular requirement.

Now in my forties looking back, however, I make narrative sense of the past and draw meaningful connections between intentions and choices. I see agency or unconscious drives undulating, ocean-like, under seemingly random events. I can imagine it wasn’t just a series of meetings and mistakes that brought me to grad school and Medieval Studies, but rather, among other things, nostalgia.

In graduate school, in a new state, I was nearly drowning in a whole new world of really smart people. I hadn’t personally known anyone who had gone to grad school and my parents hadn’t gone to college. Perhaps the medieval world with its saints, iconography, morality, and low-brow humor felt like a little bit of home.

I was raised Catholic and had fallen away from the church while my parents remained deeply committed to it. Was Medieval Studies creating a way for me to tap back into those early, pious roots, to build a bridge back to my parents, to their love and acceptance? Maybe this discipline is my penance for my angsty, moody teen-aged years.

Here, at the end of another year, at the end of another semester, I’m grateful for whatever happy accidents, impulsive decisions, and unconscious cravings landed me in this cozy, book-filled office, surrounded by smart colleagues and sweet students, reading great literature and snuggling an awesome pup.

But I’m also curious to see what kind of meanings my future-self will weave a decade hence. What deep-seated, invisible drives propel me now that will be so clear to her then?