By Vicki Tolar Burton, WIC Director
We are all distracted writers. David Levy, Professor of Information Sciences at the University of Washington, is so concerned about the effects of omnipresent media on his students that he asks them to study themselves and their own media-driven distractibility. Try this: While you are reading this article, make a hash-mark every time you think about your phone or email and what new message might have arrived. Don’t check it, just mark it down. Or ask your students to do this for the first fifteen minutes of class tomorrow. Levy believes that our immersion in technology has a cost, and that cost is loss of the ability to maintain focus. Not only do Levy’s computer science students meditate for five minutes at the beginning of each class, but they also conduct reflective inquiries regarding their own technology habits. Using the screen-capture video tool Camtasia, students video themselves working on email for 15 minutes. The software records their facial expressions while they complete—or skip around among—online tasks, and tracks every move they make online during the fifteen minutes. Then students review their video and data and write a paper analyzing their own online habits as revealed during that time. Levy’s pedagogical goal is to teach his students contemplative and reflective practices that will help them improve focus and attention span. (Pod Talk, October 2012)
Stanford’s Alex Soojung-Kim Pang describes himself as an intellectual omnivore and futurist focusing on technology trends. Much like Levy, Pang claims that we live in in a state of permanent semi-distraction and that there is a need in our lives for deep, extended thinking. We must relearn how to support the life of the mind because, “Distracted people never change the world.” Pang asks his students to keep a technology diary in which they record and reflect on their lives in technology. He aims to help his students change the way they relate to technology through what he calls Contemplative Computing, which is also the name of his website. In his book Addicted to Distraction, Pang advocates for apps referred to as Zenware—software that simplifies the interface so that your screen has as few distractions as possible. Zenware is designed to help writers manage their online clutter, focus on the task at hand, clear the screen of toolbars and icons, and write more productively. WriteRoom for Macs and DarkRoom for PCs are among the most popularly reviewed clean-screen apps.
We university teachers have much to learn from colleagues like Levy and Pang. The distracted students in Levy’s IT classes have their counterparts in our own courses. We see them in class, eyes lowered and hands cupped together as if in prayer. They are not praying, of course, but reading and sending text messages on their tiny, addictive phones. Instead of turning iphones into contraband and us into the tech police, I suggest that we can find ways we can help our students improve their ability to focus, think, and write in a sustained way by bringing contemplative pedagogy to our classrooms.
I approach both mindful practices and their use in writing pedagogy with an experimental mind. I like to try things. I ask students to try things with me and on their own. I ask them to turn off their phones when they are writing, to reflect and write about what happens. I invite them to dwell with their topic, and as they do so, to let go of distractions, to break the technology trance or whatever trance is distracting them.
Mindfulness seems suddenly ubiquitous, even making the cover of Time as the next big thing. Daniel P. Barbezat and Mirabelle Bush, in their 2014 monograph Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, identify contemplative practices and pedagogies as inward or first-person focused approaches that promote introspection, and reflection. “Whether they are analytical exercises asking students to examine a concept deeply or opportunities to simply attend to what is arising, the practices all have a . . . focus that creates opportunities for greater connection and insight” (5). Their goal is “to stimulate inquiry” (6). According to Barbezat and Bush, the goals of contemplative pedagogies include:
- Attention and analytical problem solving
- Deeper understanding
- Connection and compassion
- Personal meaning in learning (Barbezat and Bush 12-17)
Their strategies include mindfulness, contemplative approaches to reading and writing, deep listening and beholding, contemplative movement, compassion and loving kindness, and outreach. Physics professor Arthur Zajonc advocates what he calls “meditation as contemplative inquiry,” including in the sciences.
In classes not focused primarily on contemplative practices, meditation and mindfulness can have a number of uses. English Professor Mary Rose O’Reilley, who uses meditation with literature students, speaks not only of making space for silence in the classroom but also offering students hospitality in the Benedictine sense of “welcoming all arriving guests.” O’Reilley also describes deep listening as helpful to contemplative pedagogy. Concerning “deep listening,” she writes:
People are dying in spirit for lack of [deep listening]. In academic culture most listening is critical listening. We tend to pay attention only long enough to develop a counterargument; we critique the student’s or the colleague’s ideas; we mentally grade and pigeonhole each other. . . . By contrast, if someone truly listens to me, my spirit begins to expand (19).
She advises her students to “listen like a cow. . . . We don’t need fixing, most of us, as much as we need a warm space and a good cow. Cows cock their big brown eyes at you and twitch their ears when you talk. This is a great antidote to the critical listening that goes on in academia” (29).
Like O’Reilley, I have sometimes invited students in a literature course to begin class with a couple of minutes of silence, sensing that they have rushed to class with their minds going in a hundred directions. I do not guide their thoughts during these two minutes but ask them to sit in a dignified position and use silence to settle and prepare silently for discussion of the poem at hand. In this same Introduction to Poetry class with seventy students in a room so packed that neither I nor the students can move around, or breathe, I have introduced slow reading, where we take our time through a poem, with multiple voices performing the reading. We create movement with voices located around the room, each standing and reading one stanza of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Student 12 reads, “The river is moving./ The blackbird must be flying.” Student 13 answers,
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat in the cedar-limbs.
I recommend multi-vocal slow reading.
Environmental philosopher and OSU Emerita faculty member Kathleen Dean Moore suggests that student writers who fully comprehend the implications of climate change also benefit from meditation that expresses loving kindness for themselves as well as for others and for the earth. Moore says that deep engagement with climate change can elicit a kind of grieving before the person can go on and do the work to which they feel called. Their distraction is not from technology but from the pain of understanding. I explored this with my class on contemplative writing pedagogy, which included several environmental science majors. Several students recalled courses in which distressing topics were discussed but no time or suggestions for processing were included. Students suggested that journaling or meditation afterwards would have helped.
What is the ethos of contemplative pedagogy? If the earliest roots of the word ethos are in the term ethea, which means to dwell, where does contemplation dwell? And where do we dwell as teachers when we invite contemplative/minfulness practices into our classrooms? I would say, first, that we do not dwell in any one spiritual tradition. Nevertheless, contemplative practices are of the spirit. Some people don’t like that. Some people doubt that the human spirit can be acknowledged and welcomed in a classroom without proselytizing. There are both faculty and students at land grant universities like OSU who believe that curriculum should focus only on the material world: on engines and laboratories and animal breeding. A colleague asked her students in an ethics class to sit quietly for one minute at the beginning of class, only to have a student protest to the department chair that his freedom of religion was violated by the request to sit quietly with his own thoughts. He did not want to dwell.
But I suggest that the distracted writers in our classes are in need of practices that can help them learn to recognize their distraction, to focus, to read deeply, and to listen. Through various practices of mindfulness, we can help them learn to dwell. And to turn off their phones.
Sources and Sites
Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. www.aepl.org/. Web.
Barbezat, Daniel P. and Mirabai Bush. Contemplative Practices in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.
Center for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education. http://www.contemplativemind.org/programs/acmhe. Web.
Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. http://trace.tennessee.edu/jaepl/
Levy, David. “Contemplative Pedagogy.” POD Conference, Seattle, Washington. October 26, 2012.
OReilley, Mary Rose. Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998. Print.
Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. Addicted to Distraction. New York: Little, Brown, 2013. Print.
Rosenthal, Norman E. “Using Meditation to Help Close the Achievement Gap.” Web. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/06/02/using-meditation-to-help-close-the-achievement-gap/?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0
Zajonc, Arthur. Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry. Great Barrington, Mass.: Lindesfarne Books, 2009.