Reflecting on the Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium

As many of you know, in August we held our first four day Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium at Emerson College. I had been thinking about the design of this event for several years but it took time for things to fall into place in order to make it a reality – not least having Iddo, Siobhan and Steven on board to help.

Despite having to be engaged in the running of the event, I found there was lots of time to join in. I will briefly make a few comments on some particular areas of learning for me.

Connection and community

I was particularly struck, even from the very early moments of the event, how grateful people seemed to be there.  The commitment of everyone who attended was palpable and I felt that there was a real energy and sense of importance in this collective exploration of contemplative pedagogy. I was struck by how moved I felt when others shared how much they had been looking forward to the event, it felt very affirming for me personally and professionally. More than that however, as the event progressed, I felt touched by the mutual sense of care that started to arise, even in the midst of very challenging conversations in which people held diverse views and had different experiences.

There were several times over the event that I was moved to tears, and whilst I know that I am often moved in this way, feeling that it was appropriate in the space of meaningful academic exploration and critical thought was new to me. Seeing this tenderness in others too, in this context, was a revelation. It made me feel that I was not wrong for caring about students and the education they receive, that it was OK to hope and that things could be different. To be moved, was not a reflection of sentimentality but the weight of the importance of the issues we were discussing.

Learning who we are

Before the event I had been reading about racism and had listened to a podcast on white privilege and white woman violence. This had been motivated by a study within my own department at Essex. I therefore had lots of questions about what this means in terms of education and how we make these issues visible within our classrooms without causing further division, blame and tension.

Over the event I learnt several different ways of doing this which I will share in another blog. However, what I most treasured from my learning on these issues, most notably from Michelle Chatman and Byron Lee is that this type of education can only start by encouraging students to explore their own experience, come to a clearer understanding of who they are; how they are connected with others; and how this then manifests in the world. It is necessary to move beyond the theoretical and abstract to help students see how the circumstances of their lives, and the privilege or disadvantage these have afforded them,  have shaped who they are, how they learn and what they go on to do.

In this safe yet challenging environment I started to see more clearly how my construction of issues and sense of what needed to change was by no means ‘neutral’ but emerges as a result of all my previous conditioning. My language and framing of racism as a problem suddenly seemed incredibly white, middle class and naïve.  None of us can magically stand aside to see what is ‘actually’ going on.  I was powerfully struck by my own need to do the work I ascribe to students in the paragraph above.

Hope and the future

I took away from the event that contemplative pedagogy, through which we not only learn about ourselves and the world, but about ourselves in the world, could offer an educational perspective which facilitates the creation of meaningful connection and deeper ways of knowing which then changes how we act in the world. I left feeling full of conviction that that might be the case – if it has been for me why not others.

Yet I felt at the end a note of caution, which has grown stronger since the event. We need to remain critical in our discussion of contemplative pedagogy. I realise I remain unsure of what contemplative pedagogy really is  – is it a pedagogy? is it a selection of practices? I am also unsure where my sense of its value arises from –  the evidence we have so far is quite limited. It may fit well with my view of the world but is that sufficient to warrant its use in my teaching?  Conversely, I am very critical of a dogmatic pursuit of ‘evidence based teaching’ and its underlying assumptions.

What I would like to see moving forward are conversations about research in this area and collaborative efforts to find out more about the effects of contemplative pedagogy in higher education, not just in trials of mindfulness interventions (although they have value) but in broader ways that employ methodologies which meaningfully facilitate the exploration of contemplative practice and it effects.

A huge thank you to everyone that came, especially to all those who presented and of course Iddo, Siobhan and Steven for supporting the organisation.

We will be in touch in due course with our plans for next steps and perhaps even an event next year!?

Warm wishes Caroline

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