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.