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Conversation #48: Jane Compson on Contemplative Pedagogy in Online Course

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Jane Compson

A conversation with Dr. Jane Compson of UW-Tacoma, on implementing a contemplative pedagogy in an online course.

Dr. Compson got her PhD in Comparative Religion from the University of Bristol, and more recently got her second Masters in Philosophy, concentrating on bioethics, from Colorado State. She currently teaches classes in Comparative Religion; Philosophy, Religion and the Environment; Environmental Ethics; Biomedical Ethics and Introduction to Ethics. She’s working on projects related to self-care and stress management for healthcare professionals as well as documenting local efforts for environmental justice, as well as mindfulness theory.

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B. Everson: Hi. I’m Bart Everson and I’m here with Jane Compson who is on the faculty of the University of Washington Tacoma campus. Dr. Compson got her PhD in Comparative Religion from the University of Bristol, and more recently got her second Masters in Philosophy, concentrating on bioethics, from Colorado State. She’s working on projects related to self-care and stress management for healthcare professionals as well as documenting local efforts for environmental justice, as well as mindfulness theory. She also fulfills her responsibilities as a teaching faculty member. So Dr. Compson, thank you for speaking with me today.

J. Compson: Thank you for having me. It is my pleasure.

B. Everson: You came to my attention recently as I came across a chapter that you had in a book called Meditation in the Classroom, and before we get into that, I was wondering if you could tell us more about the classes that you teach. I understand that your classes are relevant to teaching online as well as a contemplative approach.

J. Compson: Okay well I teach classes in sections really between religious studies and philosophy. So I teach classes in environmental ethics, comparative religion, and introduction to ethics. But the one where I really use a lot of contemplative practices is a class that is ironically online. I say ironically because you don’t typically think the online space is conducive to doing online practices but that was a challenge so I figured I’d take it. And that class is called philosophy, religion and environment. So we look at different attitudes and worldviews that varies amongst different traditions, times, and culture.

B. Everson: That sounds very interesting. We have been trying to promote contemplative in our podcast and in some of our faculty development efforts here at the center for advancement in teaching and faculty development. But there are still probably some listeners out there who don’t quite understand what we are talking about, so I was wondering if you could kind of explain what this contemplative pedagogy means and what does it mean to you?

J. Compson: I think that that is a great question and a complicated question because it could mean different things to different people. To me, it doesn’t just focus on the rational part of learning which we are all familiar with and I’m not criticizing that at all. But sometimes I feel that when you are studying something or reading something, part of me is not engaged in that. The part of me that isn’t engaged could be more effective I suppose or emotionally based or thinking about how I relate to the things I am learning about. So contemplative pedagogy opens the door to exploring subjective interactions with the things we are engaging with. So it’s opening the door to not only your head but to your heart is another way of putting it.

B. Everson: Oh yeah. All of the stuff you were saying I was kind of thinking this was a way of teaching from the heart or to the heart. The metaphorical heart matters more. And I do think you’re right. The online experience sometimes seems more conducive to other modalities. And I’m wondering how can you do that online?

J. Compson: Yeah that was a question I first asked myself when I was asked to teach online. I was a little bit skeptical about it especially teaching a class about environment and I thought it was so ironic. A lot of the writers we look at talk about the disconnection from the outside world, and here I was teaching this class from behind a computer screen to other humans that I never even see. A lot of my students I never actually met. And I was talking about the natural world. But I felt that at this part of my teaching career that this part was so important because you cannot leave out the effective emotional relationship part of it. So that was challenge to see if this would work online. And funny enough, I found that some of things about teaching online kind of made an advantage. For example, sometimes when I do contemplative effects in person with students, they can be a little shy. It’s an unusual thing they are being asked to do. I notice when students are online, they are usually by themselves. So they are more frank in their experiences. They spend more time thinking about what they are writing being online gives them the permission I believe the dig a little deeper. So once I realized that, I started playing a little more into contemplative practices. And i found it to be very fruitful and the student feedback has been very positive. And as a teacher, the things that they write about can be very moving and shows a development in their ideas and relationships and a shift in their attitudes. So it does work but you have to learn different ways so that it can become effective.

B. Everson: The idea of solitude is associated a lot of times with the idea of contemplative traditions. And there is something about the online student that is solitary. One thing that you mentioned in the chapter of Mediating in the Classroom that really got my attention was the idea of being present when you are physically not present. Which is the irony of it. And you even mentioned how some students can’t hear your british accent.

J. Compson: Right which is funny because that’s always a feature that students in america associate with me. And it’s sometimes irritating because for students teach evaluations they’ll say I love your accent. But so much of my classroom work depends on the dynamics of the relationships between us. And that element has kind of been taken away. So indeed that is different.

B. Everson: Indeed I was going to say that was different and scares some faculty away because it’s not something they are used to. And there’s a certain competence in that. So perhaps maybe a contemplative approach may be a way a faculty member who has a lot of deep misgivings about teaching online, a contemplative approach might help that faculty member.

J. Compson: Yeah I think so. I think one thing about this approach is not online exploring the relationship on more of a subject matter but but also exploring one's own reactivity and emotions as a student and inquiry. I think that includes being a teacher , one’s ability to teach. So I think all of those misgivings that you talk about are worries that you anticipate people may have. And I worry about all of those. But one of things I found that helps me and students is that you try to use those areas of discomforts as a teachable moment. You don;t ignore those moments, you acknowledge them. And for me too, I tend to self disclose about what it means to me as a teacher. And that kind of sincerity about how we are all in this together can ironically build up a sense of community because we’re looking at our human reactions. It becomes more of a connective inquiry I guess.

B. Everson: And maybe we can get specific then. Maybe you can share specific techniques you used or specific assignments.

J. Compson: Sure. I’ll mention the four principles that I found really helpful and then kind of explain and give examples of them and the things that I do. So the four principles that I have are having grounding, so getting a foundation for these practices using a form where their weaved all the way through, integrating through every step of the class so their not just kind of an add on so that’s the third thing, and fourth is assessments. So in terms of grounding, I think it is really important to start right at the beginning of class explaining to students that there is a contemplative element that will run throughout the class. So assume that they know absolutely nothing about that and they may be kind of suspicious about that. And I give them a reading to do called Opening the Contemplative Mind in Classroom by Tobend Heart. And I think that’s a really wonderful thing how Contemplative practices are used in a classroom. And he also gives little exercises that students can experiment with like deep listening, not doing, or mind control exercises. So I have students read that so they get the rationale. And then I have them try one of these exercises and reflect on that. Right from the beginning, they are with me in terms of why we are doing this. What I often do is talk about the experience of previous students and a lot of them in the beginning say this is crazy and off the wall. And how by the end about 90% of them come around and say wow, this was really helpful. So I try to normalize the fact that in the beginning it is really unusual, look into that and see why they feel that way and explore. So I think the first part of that is more theoretical thing and a forum with which they can discuss it with me and with each other. My experience has been they are really willing to talk about and share that. So that’s the first thing. Then in terms of form, I try to chose practices that match with the subject matter. This is a class about relationships with the environment and so the kind of inaugural exercise they do is plant a seed. And I guide them through the kind of mindfulness of the seed exercise and then encourage them to reflect and really feel what’s it's like and then they plant it. And they do it and they say it’s kind of interesting and it was really amazing to see how much potential this seed had and they get more space to talk about their emotions and feelings. And then as we go through each module of the class, I try to tie this experience back to the seed planting experience. So we try to tie everything back to the readings we do. So I guess the themes must be integrated with what you are studying. So integration is important. And the other thing is when you are studying structurally, I try to have consistency throughout the course. So for each course students will have the set readings, they do quizzes and conventional discussions on a prompt. But they always have a contemplative assignment that goes with that module so that they know each week, this theme will be reinforced. And at the end of the class, their final paper has a section where they are asked to integrate their own learning experiences into the body of the paper. So all the way through, the contemplatives aren’t just kind of a add on but a substantial part of the inquiry. So that has been important to me. To run them all the way through, not just make them little extras. And then the last piece is assessment and that is what they do on their contemplative exercise, they basically free write or use other media. They write these reflection based on their experiences and although they get a pass or fail grade, for those assessments, its just pass fail because I don’t want students to feel judged on their reflections but they have to do it. And most of the time they thrive in that sense of freedom. So often at times they will write very long and moving reflections. Even though they aren’t getting formal grades, they don’t tend to exploit that. They really write deeply and interestingly.

B. Everson: Well grading is a whole can of worms that we should really do an episode about that sometime. But I’m wondering, if you have encountered any pitfalls. You talked a little bit about how students may perceive this at first, although we find students are very receptive. Put I’m wondering if you had experienced any challenges or pitfalls with students or colleagues or anything you feel like you learned along the way.

J. Compson: Yeah I feel kind of fortunate. I keep waiting for that to happen especial if people start to say that it’s sort of quasi-religious or that it only has something to do with private emotions and it has nothing to do with what you are supposed to be learning. But I’ve actually doing this for about 10 years and that has yet to happen and so that’s really great. Sometimes i get students who just don't take it seriously, who just blow it off or don't really see the point. But you get that from whatever your teaching. Pitfalls, sometimes it hasn’t worked as well when I didn’t integrate it throughout the course, because then it seemed like more of a add on. I agree with you though that is was unthinkable during my undergraduate years. So so far I keep waiting for those push back potentials. But so far so good.

B. Everson: Well that’s great to hear. That’s a confidence booster for people looking into this. We are nearing the end of our time on here so I am wondering if there are any final thought you would like to make?

J. Compson: I think one of the things I found that was really important for me was to have a supportive community who are also interested in contemplative pedagogy. I can get such a charge of my battery by reading or going to conferences where other faculty are focusing on contemplative and also focusing on my own practice of contemplative, helps it become more organically for me without just going through the motions. But I think the more I do my own practice of contemplative, the more natural it comes to me and the better contemplative teacher I am. So I guess that’s important but I don’t always practice what I preach. So yeah, community and practice I think are two things that I aspire but don’t always get.

B. Everson: Great. Well thank you so much Dr. Compson for your time and for speaking with me today.

J. Compson: Thank you it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today.

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