November 21 2019

Critical, Creative, Contemplative

by Karolyn Kinane, University of Virginia

a small tower of rocks built on an enbankment in front of a forest

“I no longer read for fun.” “I can’t enjoy movies anymore.” “Reading a menu at a restaurant, I start analyzing its rhetoric and can’t think about what to order.” These and similar comments from students across the humanities got me thinking: Students are—even unintentionally—applying critical-reading skills that we practice within courses to life beyond class. But are those skills enough? Are they helping students to flourish as humans? In order to complement critical thinking, about a decade ago, I started incorporating a different set of practices into my courses, drawn from contemplative traditions and the then-emerging field of contemplative pedagogy.

Contemplative pedagogy is an approach to teaching that uses the notion of “practice” to attend to the inner-world of students. This means we use practice to: notice existing cognitive, affective, and somatic habits; bring critical reflection to bear upon them; move toward course material, fellow students, and our larger communities with the awareness that arises from practice. By working with students on their capacities to direct their attention and emotionally regulate, many contemplative instructors aim to build students’ sense of agency and resiliency—to encourage their flourishing as individuals who can in turn build humane communities.

Contemplative practices such as deep listening, journaling, meditation, etc., offer students the opportunity to “be with what arises” rather than grasping for outcomes, leaping to judgments, or otherwise reacting from habitual ways of being. “Practices” have a clear beginning and end. One does not multitask while practicing. Some contemplative instructors choose simply to begin and end class time with a moment of silence wherein students are invited to gather their attention and notice how they are feeling. Other instructors weave practices throughout their courses in the form of exercises, activities, assignments, and even evaluations, thereby developing students’ capacities for contemplative inquiry across domains.

For many, key to contemplative pedagogy are “first-person critical approaches,” which allow the practice to become the object of inquiry. That is, students bring critical faculties to bear upon the content of “what arises” for them during their practice.

In my senior seminar “Mysticism and Contemplation,” a course that explores texts from a variety of religious traditions and secular contexts across thousands of years, students engage in a four-stage process that I describe as a contemplative reading practice. Their weekly preparation requires that they 1) notice cognitive, somatic, or affective responses that arise during reading. Students may notice that they are bored, confused, annoyed, tense, or delighted by what they read. The assignment then requires students to 2) pause and explore those reactions/responses. I encourage students to “own” their emotional reactions rather than project them on to the text. Students’ subjective, “first-person” experiences become the object of “critical” analysis.

For example, through analysis, students have observed that they are annoyed because they are detecting misogyny in the text, and that they are confused by the idea of one-ness because their sense of individual identity is so strong that they can’t imagine any other way of being. Then, in detail, students have explored their relationships to misogyny, or individual identity, or whatever else has arisen. And so, students have subjective, first-person experiences of noticing their emotions as they read a difficult text and then subject those experience to critical inquiry. This practice involves much more than stating how a text makes us feel. It is a process of noticing the projections, expectations, and cultural norms that we bring to a text so that we may turn towards that text with more presence and attention to what else it has to say.

It sometimes takes a few tries before students “get” this part. For example, students have expressed hesitation at “going off on a tangent” about their own life experiences, or they think I don’t want their “manifesto” diagnosing the ills of society. I have to encourage students that, yes, taking space to articulate your own experiences and beliefs that give rise to feeling is absolutely necessary and productive to the process.

Students then 3) return to the text to examine its content, rhetoric, and contexts, which is the more familiar, third-person, critical part of their weekly preparation that I won’t discuss here.

In the final part of the assignment, students 4) reflect upon what this text may have to teach about its topic. Students consider: what may you learn about joy, suffering, duality, immanence, transcendence, nature—whatever the topic—through engagement with this text? What wisdom may you carry forward as a result of exploring your own expectations and projections, the words of the text themselves, and its contexts?

I have found that this final step, which is the truly transformative moment, could only be achieved once students had engaged in both critical and contemplative reading—when they had the opportunity to approach a text with curiosity and humility cultivated by contemplative practices. Rather than reifying students’ existing beliefs and expectations about their own values and those of others—as had happened in previous iterations of this course—this four-part reading practice successfully allows for a deep engagement with the self and other wherein the experiencer walks away a little different than when they started.

In course evaluations, students note how “challenging” this exercise is. But it is challenging for all different kinds of reasons. Some students aren’t used to writing about themselves. Others describe it as “training a muscle” they hadn’t used before. One student described the slow and steady “falling away of resistance” towards different ways of thinking that this process provoked over the semester, even if their own beliefs about a topic did not change.

Contemplative reading, as practiced by St. Augustine, among others, sprung from an essential faith in a text’s capacity to have meaning. I ask my students to bring that hermeneutic of faith to texts, if even just for a little while, before returning back to the more familiar hermeneutic of suspicion.1

Contemplative reading and writing complement critical thinking and reading. Unlike critique, when we read contemplatively, we seek connection, communion, and understanding. We step into another person’s shoes and perspectives to better understand them and ourselves. Contemplative reading and writing practices encourage us to explore our deeply held values, biases, and preferences so that we can move through and with them into compassionate engagement with the other—be it a text, person, situation, or idea.

Often, when we read critically, we are suspicious of the text or wary of what it is trying to say to us. We critique it, dissect it, and analyze it to find where we agree or disagree with its ideas and why. Critical thinking and critical reading practices are essential for helping us become independent thinkers, for helping us discern rhetorical strategies so we may become informed and responsible citizens able to make our own choices about what is right and wrong, true or false, good or bad.

Contemplative, critical, and creative are complementary dispositions that students can develop to serve a variety of contexts. One should not replace the other. Rather, our pedagogies should help students to discern which attitude or approach is called for in a particular situation and empower them to enact it. In this assignment, students adopt each of these dispositions. They practice noticing their reactions and exploring them; approaching a text with some critical awareness of their emotional reactivity; analyzing the text’s rhetorical content and historical contexts; contemplating the text’s impact upon them and its message; creating meaning from the interaction.

Religious studies seems both an ideal and fraught place for contemplative pedagogy. On the one hand, the content of the field includes centuries of wisdom on what it means to be human, how to deal with suffering and joy, and how to explore the relationships among such ideas as the inner and outer worlds, contemplation and action, individual and community. Such content, I have found, evokes strong, visceral responses in students, particularly when that content is mined for insight into human experience. These features provide fertile ground for contemplative inquiry wherein one learns about the self and the other and is transformed by the interaction.

On the other hand, some of our colleagues in other disciplines already suspect religious studies of proselytizing; contemplative pedagogy could be seen as a covert means to do just that. For example, instructors themselves may favor particular ways of understanding the complexities of the human condition and, rather than allowing space for exploration of questions of meaning, they unwittingly steer students to adopt that worldview. Additionally, some instructors may blur the church/state line in the ways they invite students to “try on” or “practice” devotional modes from various religions. Further, some instructors may perpetuate colonizer-mentality and cultural misappropriation through unskillful application of contemplative practices drawn from various religious traditions. And, as in any discipline, there is the danger of a charismatic instructor becoming a guru or a caring instructor becoming a therapist.

When considering adopting contemplative pedagogy, instructors may want to reflect deeply upon their own practice-commitment and their aim of transformation. I would encourage instructors to ask themselves: How does my own contemplative practice inform my teaching? What is it that I hope is “transformed” through engagement with course material? What opportunities do students have to draw from their own backgrounds? To what use is that experience put? How do students position themselves in relationship to contemplative practices from a variety of traditions? Consistently and honestly working with these questions privately and in community can help instructors to establish integrity in the process and to open themselves to the possibility of their own transformation.

Just as we ask students to engage in critical exploration of personal experience, as instructors we must identify biases and contexts that shape our own course design. I would encourage instructors to subject their teaching experiences, assumptions, and habits, as well as their contemplative practices, to this mode of inquiry with some regularity. This process, paired with third-person ways of knowing (scholarly study) can clarify desires, drives, ontological beliefs, and epistemological processes that shape the course goals and student experiences.

The habits we practice in the classroom shape our behaviors beyond those walls. Let us inquire: how humane are our current pedagogical habits and practices? I believe that instructors cannot continue to place more importance on the content of our field than the humans before us. Disciplines are merely ways of making meaning, and we should not confuse them with meaning itself. At the University of Virginia Contemplative Sciences Center, I work with faculty across colleges to reorient not just individual courses but whole disciplines towards decolonizing our educational spaces and advancing human flourishing.


1 Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. D. Savage (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1970).

Resources

Barbezat, Daniel P., and Bush, Mirabai, eds. Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning, San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 2014.

Hart, Tobin. From Information to Transformation: Education for the Evolution of Consciousness. New York, New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

Komjathy, Louis. Introducing Contemplative Studies. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Blackwell, 2018.

Palmer, Parker J., and Arthur Zajonc. The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. Translated by D. Savage. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1970.


Karolyn KinaneKarolyn Kinane is associate director for faculty engagement and pedagogy at the University of Virginia Contemplative Sciences Center. Previously, Kinane served as professor and chair of the English department at Plymouth State University (PSU), New Hampshire, where she researched and taught medieval studies, English literature, mysticism, and contemplative reading and writing. Over her thirteen years at PSU, Kinane served as founding codirector of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, director of the Medieval and Renaissance Forum, and founding director of Contemplative Communities, a cross-campus initiative that helps students, faculty, staff, and community members explore and develop agency, resilience, purpose, and mindfulness. When she isn’t hiking with her dog Buddy, she blogs, researches, and teaches on contemplative approaches to teaching and learning.