As the fall semester winds down, some things to consider: contemplative practices to reduce stress and how promote completion of course evaluations

On Teaching

  • Promote Student Completion of Online Evaluations You can encourage students to complete course evaluations and improve feedback:Designate class time for the evaluation and don't wait until the last day of the semester.Let students ...
    Posted Nov 29, 2018, 11:34 AM by Rita Breidenbach
  • Take ACTION against microaggressions in the classroom Microaggressions are relatively slight, subtle, and often unintentional words or actions that cause hurt and harm. Allowed to occurred unchecked can harm the classroom environment and the relation between faculty ...
    Posted Oct 12, 2018, 12:21 PM by Rita Breidenbach
  • Call for Women Scholars: Promote Your Expertise Women scholars and practitioners may wish to more actively promote their expertise following the notorious case of A History Panel [which Set Off] a Diversity Firestorm, as reported by the ...
    Posted Sep 25, 2018, 1:41 PM by Rita Breidenbach
  • Community Agreements for Inclusive Classrooms Community or discussion agreements, sometimes called ground rules for discussion, can set the tone from the start. Faculty often draft a handful of general agreements and then invite the class ...
    Posted Aug 27, 2018, 9:54 AM by Rita Breidenbach
  • The Power of Self-Reflection Faculty in higher education are seldom ‘taught’ how to do most of the things they’re asked to do as faculty. They're not taught how to incorporate technology in ...
    Posted May 31, 2018, 10:40 AM by Faculty Development Network
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Welcome to The New School Faculty Professional Development Network, your resource for all things related to faculty, including teaching and learning, research and creative practice, grants, new faculty support services, and leadership development. 

Contemplative Practices for Yourself and Your Students

Cotter Christian, Assistant Professor of Interior Design, thinks it's a good thing to be confident but uncertain and that the issues and difficulties we face can be overcome by recognizing our interconnectedness within our shared human condition.

What is mindfulness? People would argue that, because mindfulness comes from spiritual or traditional places, making it secular doesn’t give credit to its traditionally spiritual foundations. I think it’s a matter of defining it for yourself. For me, it means to be present and aware of what I’m doing, thinking and saying. The opposite of that would be multitasking. We can’t do multiple things at one time so we end up doing something mindlessly.

How can we practice mindfulness to become better listeners? I think the important part to remember is silence. You don’t need to respond to everything. I think when you’re teaching you have an agenda and a certain amount of things that you want to cover for the class so there is a tendency to anticipate what people aren’t going to say and fill in those voids instead of just letting the silence emerge.

Originally I started to take it the wrong way; that people weren’t paying attention. For me, it was risky to allow too much silence in the classroom. I took Theresa Breland’s TESOL Toolkit workshop a few weeks ago and I learned that sometimes for international or second language learners, having silence is useful for them to process what they’re going to say. I think an interesting spin on this whole idea of mindfulness in the classroom is that some people just need time. Give people time.

In your “Contemplative Approaches to Pedagogy” workshop, we paired up and listened to each other speak for two minutes without replying. Why do you think this exercise was particularly difficult for some individuals? Well, public speaking is much more performative. When you’re in front of a classroom it’s different. It’s not as one on one, which can be more intimate. It’s rare that we just sit and actually listen without thinking about what our response is going to be. The hope for that exercise is that you would connect with the feelings that you were having while just listening and to think about what it means to just listen.

You shared an interesting quote from Ellen Langer in your workshop: “To be mindful is to be confident and uncertain.” What should this exemplify? The silence example is a good one. You’re confident that you’re going to meet the agenda of the class but uncertain of how it’s going to unfold. And that you don’t know what’s going to happen but you’re confident that you can handle what might emerge. This idea of being confident and uncertain at the same time is an interesting way of thinking about mindfulness because you’re not putting things into categories before you know what those categories are.

In other words, you’re open? Openness would be a more simple way of phrasing it. You’re confident that you can be open and that vulnerability is okay. That’s where it gets really difficult. When I’ve taught classes where I was uncertain of the material or it was new to me, I would always make the presentations and lectures overly designed. It was packaged so that it filled the entire two hours and forty minutes because I was uncertain about how people would receive it. But as you get better you begin to leave openness for that uncertainty. And you have to be confident that silence can be a good thing.

Is it possible to be confident and uncertain without projecting arrogance and unawareness? Sure. It’s recognizing that not everything is exactly how you see it. The mental models and constructs that you’ve created or have been created for you because of culture or experience are just that. They’re just models. And there is an uncertainty in how people are going to behave, what they’re going to think and do. You just have to be confident that that uncertainty exists.

You began the workshop with a quote from Matthieu Ricard: “Interdependence is at the root of compassion.” How does this relate to pedagogy in the classroom? If I feel there is a shared kind of human condition and if we approach our conversations from the nature of that then maybe some of the differences and issues that we face could be overcome. I think through meditation you can sometimes feel more of that interconnectedness. If I know that we’re all connected on some level then I may feel empathetic to others and, if I’m in a design field, I probably want to feel empathetic. I want to know what it's like to experience an environment from the perspective of someone else. So by leveraging this feeling of interconnectedness I might translate that into empathy, which might help me to be a more inclusive designer.

Pedagogically, the way I see that working is by hoping to foster a sense of community among the students who are all coming from different life experiences sharing in their interconnectedness. Then broadening that to think about whom we’ll be designing and working for and also the sustainability component. Then moving beyond sustainability into resilience; how do we design in a way that spaces aren’t negatively contributing to the environment? One simple pedagogical approach is the beholding exercise where you take a material that you might use in a project and think about its entire life cycle and all of the people and things that have touched that one thing. It makes you realize how connected you are to it.

Could the beholding exercise evoke a feeling of gratitude in the classroom between teacher and student? Sure. And gratitude is complicated. It doesn’t just mean it’s the most wonderful and positive experience but it can be something that has challenged you and you can be grateful to have had that experience.

What are the risks associated with introducing contemplative approaches to pedagogy in the classroom for the first time? The risk would be that you try to do too much and you’re suddenly leading a 30-minute meditation but you’ve never meditated before. I think there is always a certain aspect of risk-taking when introducing a new topic or practice to your class. It is critical that you describe why you’re introducing it. I think that helps bring everyone into the fold and gives it some pedagogical foundation. If you say, “close your eyes” and “take a few deep breaths” without giving any other options like “you don’t have to close your eyes” or “here’s what you can do if you don’t close your eyes,” it can be problematic. You have to embody what the practice is eliciting, which is compassion and community.

What advice do you have for faculty that are new to contemplative practices and struggle with engaging their students in the classroom? Make it appropriate for your class. It also needs to be a holistic approach. It would be uncomfortable if suddenly you interjected this into a class where you hadn’t set up the expectation from the beginning. You can’t expect more from them than you expect from yourself.

Any final thoughts? What does sacred space mean and how do we find that in everyday life? I’m working on a project that combines my fascination with design, space and mindfulness. I’ve partnered with Joy McKinney who is a course planner at The New School and teaches in the MFA photography program. We interview people about where they find sacred space and what that means to them. It’s very casual, secular and not religious based. I transcribe the interviews and write a creative non-fiction piece about it and Joy takes photographs of the space. It’ll be in a gallery in Atlanta at Georgia State University where we compile the stories, photos, and fragments of things that come from the space in one box where people can interact with it.

Read prior interviews here.