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 Slate.com 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.

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The philosophy that drives the practice

Greetings from the ACMHE Conference at UMass Amherst!

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

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

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

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

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

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