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"Compassion grows out of the things we are..." (366/315 Nov. 10, 2012)

CAT is pleased to announce that our grant proposal to the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society has been funded. Now we're turning it back around to you. We invite all Xavier faculty to consider applying for support in developing a contemplative curriculum. Download the RFP to learn more.

Photo: "Compassion grows out of the things we are..." / Irmeli Aro / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Download Conversation #17

Daniel Barbezat

A conversation with Daniel Barbezat of Amherst College, on teaching, learning and contemplative pedagogy.

People ask, "What does a liberal arts college do? What does a good education do? It teaches people how to think." It's kind of a ridiculous claim in a way, because people know how to think. But we're giving them tools to think more deeply, clarifying what they're thinking about. That process can be deepened and expanded by a reflective process: not only of an abstract reflection, but a reflection on the inner life of the student... This inner life is being directly nurtured and sustained in an inquiry of the material that's being learned. The students now see how their inner life connects to what they're learning, and... that deepens both their curiosity and interest and their understanding of the material.

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I sat next to empty seats on my two flights up to Hartford (changing planes in Charlotte) so I didn't talk to much of anyone until I got on the shuttle I'd reserved. I was sharing the vehicle with three young folks who looked to be in their mid-twenties. As we pulled away from the airport, I said, "Hey, I noticed y'all had instruments. Are you musicians then?"

The reply: "No, we're not, we just enjoy carrying musical instruments with us wherever we go."
...continue reading "Contemplative Academy"

Earlier this semester, after eleven years working in faculty development, I led my first session that didn't have anything to do with technology.

The subject? A moment of silence.

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) has 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 this week, inspired by this very session.

After we talked about the potential challenges and pitfalls this technique presents, I distributed copies of the Tree of Contemplative Practices and noted that silence was but one practice of many. At this point I asked if anyone sitting around the table engaged in any sort of contemplative practice that they'd care to share with the group. Interestingly all three faculty who have used silence to open class also are regular practitioners. But the balance of attendees did not seem to engage in any regular practice. Or perhaps they just didn't want to share at this point.

I threw out the phrase "contemplative pedagogy" as a blanket term for using contemplative practices in teaching, which linked with integrative learning seems to be part of a emergent trend in the academy today. I mentioned the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education which I joined this summer. I also hyped the faculty book club which I'll be leading this semester. We're reading The Heart of Higher Education. I also referenced Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry, a book I just finished and am still digesting.

And then I talked about why I think all of this is potentially important to the University and its mission, and asked what the group thought. I also confessed myself remarkably unqualified to be promulgating this topic, since I know so little about it, but I just feel it's so important. And of course I had to mention that contemplation was not just a means to an end, but a worthwhile end to itself — if you can call something inherently transformative an "end."

I let the group know I was interested in collaborating if anyone wanted to study the effects of a moment of silence on classroom learning.

Finally we talked about possible future directions for the conversation which we'd begun. Indeed, the main purpose of this session, to my mind, was to gauge faculty interest in contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. I hope this is the beginning of a sustained dialog on the topic. I take it as my responsibility to nurture that dialog and expand the circle.