Festina Lente: Contemplative Practices in the Classroom

Monastic Monday

Monk by Matthew Adamson

No “good morning.” No “let’s get started.” Not even the unsubtle flash of a first Powerpoint slide. Rather, the professor sat down and counted down to one. The class, which had filled the auditorium with a gentle morning buzz fell instantly silent.

I instinctively relaxed even before realizing what had just happened. The philosophy class studying various religious traditions incorporated contemplative pedagogy into every session. For the first minute of every class, students were asked to remain quiet.  They were free to do whatever mental activity they wanted as long as they respected the silence of the room. Only one moment seemed to change the tenor of the class, and the professor noted that students have said that they look forward to that opening moment.

And then the smart phone alarm went off. The moment of meditation was ended and the day’s activities were about to begin. What a fascinating balance of contemplation and technology.

There’s so much talk in academia about how we’re going to reach the millennial generation. We focus on how to navigate their isolation and anecdotally assume an over-attachment to technology, especially social media platforms. Yes, this generation is entering college with an impressive digital skill set. Yes, we should incorporate technology when it enriches the curriculum. But what if more ancient forms of learning are just as meaningful.

Imagine a beloved abbot known for smoking his pipe while meeting with novices and postulants. He may label the cloister’s computer lab in Latin like it’s a scriptorium but be delighted by photography and desktop publishing. This same abbot, a mixture of tradition and novelty, will say the same thing his abbot said to him when he sees a young novice running down the stairs for vespers: festina lente, “make haste slowly.” To facilitate student learning, we need to “make haste” by integrating apps and digitizing manuscripts and engaging the culture. At the same time, we need to “make haste slowly” by retaining moments of silence and leaving space for the whole person to be engaged.

But how do we integrate contemplative pedagogy appropriately into a lesson? Academia isn’t the desert or the Northern Thebaid. Our students aren’t monks. I think freedom might be the answer. In the philosophy class, the students weren’t given a specific meditative technique from a particular tradition. They were only asked to respect the silence for others.

I’m currently developing a monastic literature course that I’ve been thinking about for some time. While we read sayings of the Desert Fathers alongside J. F. Powers and Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz, I want to inject something of the cloistered experience into the classroom so that we as a community can feel something of what Powers and Miller capture so elegantly. Traditionally, monks take their meals in silence, accompanied by a table reading by a confrere. As an assignment in this course, we would have a rotating table reader. In the place of an opener or bell work, someone would have prepared a chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict to read out loud to his or her classmates. We could then transition into freewriting or a discussion, but only after taking a silent moment to think on the reading. Much like a technical writing class may emphasize collaboration to simulate the cross-functional teams engineers will experience in their professions, this class would reside in a rhythm of moments of silence and fraternal dialogue.

What do you think about contemplative pedagogy? Comment below to share how you would incorporate contemplative practices in the classroom.

7 Responses

  1. Wonderful. I agree. A contemplative, reflective moment to start class or engage people is an interesting thing to try in a class. How will we know it works?

    • Hi Matt,

      Great question. Since it is necessarily an internal and private activity, it would be difficult to gauge whether or not there are any positive effects, or even if the student is making use of the time. There is the subjective experience of the students who reported back that they enjoy the first moment of class, but that doesn’t tell us if the activity meets course outcomes.

      Depending on the structure and needs of the course, one way could be to see if there is any impact on student capacity for written reflection. I’ve worked with many writers who can craft brilliant arguments and engage in complex analysis but may struggle with a reflective essay that was intended to be low-stress. I wonder if that same thing that Peter Elbow calls the “freewriting muscle” can be exercised by having class time set aside specifically for reflection.

      Another way to look at it would be within the framework of Kolb’s Learning Styles. In this theory reflection is an integral part of the entire learning process and should lead to more conceptualization. A moment of silence might be welcomed by students who tend toward assimilating or diverging learning styles.

      These still don’t give us a way to easily assess student growth. One reason might be that contemplative practices tend to operate in kairos while we assess our students in chronos. In a quarter system, we only have ten weeks and the fruit of engaging in a contemplative practice could be instantaneous or it could take much longer.

      Even if we can’t develop a metric for contemplative activities, I think there can still be value in a room full of people wasting a moment of silence out of respect for their neighbors.

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