Three Resolutions for More Mindful Teaching

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Anyone who’s tried mindfulness strategies knows that, though though they are trendy, they aren’t very sexy or dramatic when actually practiced. Whatever benefits accrue are usually small and cumulative, revealing themselves like tree buds opening in an unusually cool spring. If life is a roller coaster ride, then mindfulness practices help us notice the feel of the cold steel safety bars across our laps, and the whiff of nervousness and cotton candy in the air. Through mindfulness practice we learn to pay non-judgmental attention to the buzz of expectation in the creaking, ratcheted climb, and to become as curious as we are terrified at the dropping sensation in our guts as the free fall begins.

When it comes to enhancing our lives, mindfulness turns out to be as useful as zippers, can openers, and sturdy boots. If we merely fetishize the idea of mindfulness, though — devouring articles about it and praising it from afar — it sits on the shelf like a curio. As a longtime student of mindfulness who is easily distracted by the abstract, I’ve resolved to more explicitly link basic mindfulness practices to my upcoming semester of teaching. More specifically, the three simple resolutions I describe below are meant to support my attention to some basic inputs and experiences — feelings, really — as they move through me, instead of fast forwarding to habitual conclusions and reactions. Introducing even this tiny gap of attention could lead to teaching that is a little wiser, more effective and creative. But, at the very least, I will be a a little more awake during the journey.

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Resolution #1 expresses my plan to pay better attention to how particular teaching activities impact my mood. Over the years, I’ve tended to accept that certain tasks are intrinsically grueling and must simply be powered through. Grading online discussions falls into this category for me. In fact, my dread of it leads me to try to push through it as quickly and numbly as I responsibly can. This coming semester, though, I plan to pay precise attention to the negative feelings as they arise before my reactivity and avoidance kick in. Is it a bodily tightness? A sense of being trapped? Boredom?

The investigation might not lead me to make any changes, of course. I might simply conclude that grading discussions is a misery to be endured and keep trying to ease the pain; I’m fine taking a little Novocain if that’s the best I can do. But if I can rouse my curiosity about my animus toward this loathsome task, there may be something to discover. It occurs to me, for example, that the poor quality of many of these discussions makes me feel like a failure, a sensation I would definitely prefer to ignore.

Resolution #2 is to notice my feeling responses to informal student feedback, for example, in critical or affirming emails to me or asides made to other students during group work. For most of us much of the time, the leap from a perceived criticism to the arising of defensiveness can seem automatic. For example, I’m sometimes moved to what feels like instant irritation and the need to self-justify when students complain about the reading assignments. Can my feelings point to my implicit, perhaps false, assumptions about what their complaints mean? Am I taking them personally? Why? My goal isn’t to pander to students’ superficial gripes but to be open to real information that can help me either adjust or feel more confident about staying the course. In any case, clues are wasted if I zip blithely past them, supplying my own habitual rationalization as soon as I feel threatened by criticism or puffed up by praise.

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Resolution #3 involves reflecting on my feelings about my teaching work as a whole, about how it fits into my overall ethos, values and life goals. Because I’m a professor of gender and women’s studies, my work is explicitly tied to social justice. But for me too the risk of nihilism and complacency is real, and at times I’ve been unable to see my work making a dent or, alternatively, been a little smug about its significance. My commitment this semester is to better notice the sensations of excitement or flatness that arise when questions of larger purpose arise. For example, in recent months, I felt nervously hopeful at the media emphasis on fake news. Taking my incipient excitement seriously led me to explicitly connect some upcoming course activities to the critical skills our country is clamoring for. The changes, while not dramatic, have been motivated by my awareness and acknowledgement of my own feelings. Whether or not such awareness typically leads to visible changes, being honest about feelings of guilt, pride, and purpose in our work can certainly lead to greater sense of intentionality about it.

When I take the sometimes invisible step of noticing, then meaningful improvement and appreciation become possible. For busy teachers, offering the same classes over and over again, the entire semester can become as routinized as a morning commute. We’re suddenly at the destination without knowing quite how we arrived. And, of course, this isn’t the worst of it. The current hunger for all things mindfulness attests to our fear of passing through the whole of our lives on autopilot. As tempting as sexy, dramatic quick fixes are at the new year, what I describe is both more banal and important, a practice of being genuinely present to ourselves. When all is said and done, I will have piled up a startling number of hours grading student work. If this is how I am to use my life, then, at the very least, I want to take responsibility for having done so, even if I ultimately choose to sleep through some of the most tedious parts.

Talking about IT: privilege and politics in the classroom

Lots of college instructors feel the urgency and difficulty of talking to our students during especially troubling social and political times. On the one hand, we are taught that our classrooms, like good newspapers, are supposed to be fair, balanced and apolitical. It’s supposed to be our job to teach students how to think better without becoming overly normative about the particulars. But when we are faced with raging ignorance, gross injustice, and threats to our most basic values, the pressure and responsibility to speak in more clearly values-based terms grows.

The narrow space we occupy is revealed to be even tighter when we consider that our students, primed by gun fever and a white supremacist president, may use weapons or cars to mow us down in the parking lot if they don’t like us. And we must add to the mix that those same angry students may well have parents who have the ear of the provost, the president, or a university regent with the power to strip us of our very livelihoods. We want to do the right thing — to create a space for authentic discussion in the face of evil — and we also want to keep ourselves safe and secure.

Except that, as it happens, safety and security comes only through the embrace of and identification with privilege. For ostensibly white, middle-class, heteronormative instructors, the “politics” question arises in the midst of unavoidably huge, newsworthy events such as “race riots,” anti-immigrant policies, or heedless wars. But for everyone else — for example, the visibly black, brown, foreign, Jewish, Muslim or queer — “political considerations” shape nearly every gesture and choice. When Black Lives Matter was finally deemed worthy of mainstream media attention, many white professors began to wonder earnestly about how to discuss it with students. But, of course, black people had been dying all along at the hands of police officers. It took mainstream media interest to make it classroom worthy because that was when it began to matter to most of us who are white.

It is a tribute to the victims of highly publicized hate crimes that we are moved by their stories to address social issues in the classroom. It would only deepen the tragedy were business to proceed as usual in the wake of their murders. But such pedagogical tributes also threaten to devolve into a one-off performance of social penance by otherwise apolitical instructors. The suddenly concerned professor leverages this dramatically political news cycle to bravely initiate a discussion — understanding full well that silence equals complicity — and then breathes a sigh of relief when the news changes and it’s time to return to the “real” curriculum.

It is a reflection of a professor’s privilege when this turns out to be a temporary, almost seasonal pedagogical question. Our students and colleagues of color, or those who appear to be foreign or queer, never enjoy the escape into apolitical repose from which they can emerge at will. For them, existence itself, as a person, a citizen, and a professor, is always already highly charged. In the eyes of students, parents, and administrators they are, by and large, deemed guilty of political advocacy — and this is treated as a sort of failing to be indulged or monitored — simply because they exist.

Bravely socially conscious instructors have been here all along, maneuvering around perceptions and accusations that they lack objectivity or are mired in “identity politics” — as shameful as being called a feminist or a liberal — fighting for dignity and fairness. It’s just that they are generally too far behind the sexy headlines for the more privileged among us to notice or care. Anyone who wants to be a genuine ally in the struggle for social justice must risk “talking about it” well before and long after Dan Rather has decided it is time to care.

The Sweet Ego Boost of Teaching

If you ask college professors what they love about their work, they’ll likely wax on about the vibrant intellectual discussion, the synergy of mind meeting mind, and the joy of seeing the lights go on in students’ eyes. What only a handful will cop to is that the performative aspect of owning the room, of being the focus of all of those captive, attentive eyes can be a powerful, addictive ego boost.

Having spent some decades as a quietly performative teacher with a presence that attracted and held student attention, I’m speaking first hand. Although I’m essentially an introvert and even a little shy, I quickly discovered the heady satisfaction of helping my students learn, sure, but also of getting to strut my (hard-earned) stuff.

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For all I know, some ego element might just be endemic to performative activities, whether in sports, theater, politics or teaching. It might even be that some capacity to feel this satisfaction is part of what makes some people great teachers. Perhaps they are who they are, in part, because they derive this ego satisfaction, which does not rule out, of course, the existence of more altruistic motives as well.

What seems clear enough to me, though, is that an online teacher will suffer in  proportion to her or his addiction to this classroom attention. If what you most dig about teaching is the adoration-fest — and it’s good to be ruthlessly honest about this — say, some version of the dead poets society, then you’re out of luck in the virtual world. Here there’s little reward for one’s charisma or spontaneous wit. And those looks we cultivate? The horn-rimmed glasses, elbow patches, or whatever visual markers we have used to cultivate authority and presence? Gone, gone, gone.

And so cutting loose from the physical classroom can be eye opening to the point of burning one’s retinas. If you fall into a full-bodied embrace of online teaching, at least for a little while, you will be dragged out of the cave and forced to notice the degree to which your love of teaching has been grounded in the attention of students who think you’re awesome. It’s an opportunity born of loss, then, as so many are, a stripping away of some of the most addictive, self-serving, trappings of the teaching endeavor.

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None of this is to say that there are not lots and lots of intrinsically good things about a spontaneous, dynamic physical classroom or that enjoying student attention is bad. When done well, in-person dialogue creates a magic that cannot be replicated in online discussions (which, as it turns out, are very hard to do well). But I think we are fools if we fail to explore what the minimalism of online teaching can reveal about how we have relied on teaching to satisfy cravings for acceptance and approval.

Of course, this post may really just be a description of my own experience. For me, the shift to online precipitated a gentle, not entirely unpleasant, upheaval in my own sense of identity and self-worth. In fat, this was how I learned that my sense of self had been, without my really knowing it, anchored partly in the mild student adulation I had enjoyed. How liberating to discover that the power and alchemy of teaching is so much more deeply rooted than the shallow pond of my own ego!

Plunging into Online Teaching

The first time I taught online was about a decade ago when I got pulled in like a tug of war contestant into a mud pit. A mid-career philosophy professor, I was a good teacher, a popular teacher, content with my pedagogical approach and buoyed by the energy of the face-to-face classroom.

I approached the challenge of online teaching like a translation problem: how to interpret my existing course into a virtual one. Back then there weren’t many online education resources to save me from this error, but even if there had been, I doubt I would have paid much attention. My real weakness was that I didn’t fully get that my classroom teaching represented a particular modality, one with its own accidental logic and underlying values. I couldn’t fundamentally rethink my strategy — lecture, discuss, exam, repeat — because it all seemed too basic and fundamental to deeply question. It’s no surprise, then, that this first foray into the virtual classroom was less than successful. I left with my ego bruised, feeling bad for my students, and resentful that I’d been nudged into participating.

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Fast forward and I am now deeply immersed in online teaching. Instead of fighting the waves, and tightening my grip on long-standing pedagogical habits and commitments, I am beginning to relax into the unfamiliarity of it. I can accept, at least sometimes, that this is not merely a shadow version of being a “real professor,” but, rather, a fundamentally different enterprise. I had been like the traveler unable to appreciate new vistas until she recognizes the biases she carries with her. I couldn’t see what online teaching had to offer until I could view my traditional teaching values and practices from a distance. At some point, I began to recognize my habitual way of teaching as involving particular, and changeable, assumptions, values and strategies. I still hold onto some of my traditional ways, and there are others whose loss I will probably always mourn. But for all of that, I am moving forward.

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I won’t sugarcoat this. My experiences with online teaching and my feelings about it are complicated. But the project of engaging with it is one that has transformed not just my teaching, but also my relationship to change itself. In ways I painstakingly explore in this blog, I am not only a better online teacher than I used to be, but I think I’m a better teacher period. Certainly, I am less ego-focused, less change-averse, and less nostalgic than I used to be. While I’m not an uncritical cheerleader for online education — I still rail against its worst tendencies — I have warmed to it enough so that it is working for me and my students. And even if I never taught another online class, I would still be enriched from having looked back on my pedagogical values and commitments from the shore of this new virtual land.

When students refuse to follow our orders and advice

According to the quirkily wise Byron Katie, when we get angry with others, it is often because they have failed to fulfill the function we have assigned to them. We operate with an implicit master script, she explains, that can include quite specific ideas about how THEY are supposed to act. Not surprisingly, we may become irritated, even incensed, when they deviate from the plot line, even though THEY may not agree they’re bound to our plan or even be aware of it. No where do I find this account more relevant than with students, especially when, like now, I am feverishly preparing a new class. One way I now understand my efforts to meticulously craft a new syllabus and painstakingly word my assignments is that I am, effectively, trying to nudge students into doing what I want.

What a revelation it is to learn that we really can’t make other free agents do our bidding even when it is actually in their best interest to follow our orders or advice. We all know this, of course, but we often fail to assimilate this fact, especially in contexts such as teaching, parenting, and management where there are obvious power and responsibility imbalances. This explains why so many “bosses” start out asking nicely — as if they are actually requesting — but quickly transform into barking autocrats. A managerially sophisticated veneer initially compels them to proceed as if they work with underlings rather than over them, but, in reality, these bosses simply expect others to fall into line. We teachers too often make a nice show of being committed to student agency and pedagogical equality, but when it comes down to it, we still expect students to quietly accept our authority.

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I am not suggesting that it’s somehow wrong when we instructors operate this way — a healthy dose of manipulative pedagogical hierarchy often gets the job done, I think — but, of course, general expectations of student obeisance are simply foolish. Our students, like our friends, insurance agents, lovers, and political representatives — ultimately do as they damn well please. Their behavior may be rude, self-sabotaging, brilliant or mystifying, but it belongs to them. And, just so, though I may be pleased, irritated or indifferent in reaction to them, my responses belong to me. In fact, it is often only when I realize that I am supremely irritated by someone that I recognize I had quite specific expectations of them in the first place.

Even if I remain quite convinced that my advice to students is spot on, it fascinates me that I can become so prickly at their failure to follow it. And I can’t help but notice other teachers too who claim to radically respect student agency and autonomy even as they take it quite personally when students don’t obey them. I’m not, of course, suggesting that it’s bad or wrong to become irritated when someone fails to meet our expectations. When, for example, I pay an airline to carry me expeditiously to the West Coast and they summarily overbook me out of a seat, my irritation is utterly justified as we normally use that term. I may even be able to skillfully leverage my irritation to manipulate a better outcome, to cajole, threaten, or otherwise make things go my way. And sometimes too, perhaps much of the time, it makes pragmatic sense to shape our language and reactions so that students are more likely to choose the paths that we have selected for them.

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But when they don’t follow orders, when they blow past deadlines, arrive late, or insist on repeatedly submitting 200 rather than 500 words, I need not take it personally. In doing what they wish to do they are, in fact, expressing a quintessentially human capriciousness that is, if not to be celebrated, then to be respected. And I can respect their autonomy best simply by letting them face the consequences of whatever path they have chosen rather than taking it personally.

Certainly, I am a much happier person, and probably a better teacher, when I am able to take responsibility for my irritation at their apparent defiance. And from this wider perspective it can even be kind of amusing when they ignore my carefully prepared instructions and do whatever they felt like doing in the first place. It is, I think, a microcosm of what life “does to me” all the time. Just as, despite our frantic best efforts, our dogs die and our beds refuse to stay made, I cannot bend reality to my will, no matter how I may wail and stamp my feet. But it is perhaps also quintessentially human of me that I reserve the right to moan and groan in protest from time to time nonetheless.

Beyond (merely) mindful teaching

I hesitated when I first chose “mindful college teaching” as the subhead for this blog. On the one hand, it’s a great virtue of Buddhism that many of its most powerful insights can serve people of myriad spiritual, cultural and temperamental leanings. On the other hand, though, is the sense that terms like “mindfulness” pale and weaken when applied to every imaginable situation, much as “addiction” has lost force over the years. It may be useful sometimes to describe people as addicted to love, failure, and shopping, as well as to nicotine and OxyContin, but the term loses some diagnostic specificity and therapeutic power when applied so broadly.

Similarly, it has proved irresistible to describe nearly any effort to focus or pay attention as an exercise in Buddhist mindfulness. There is mindful dieting, mindful parenting, mindful weightlifting, mindful communication, mindfulness for stress relief and even, of course, mindful college teaching. Probably each of these applications is more or less salubrious. Certainly, I have found lots of mindfulness self-help books to be insightful and helpful. I wonder, though, about the ultimate impact of so many different mindfulness books ostensibly applicable to subjects of every shape and size. My concern is partly about missing the point and has been well illustrated for me by tussles I’ve had with my backyard bushes.

When I moved into my century-old house seven years ago, I inherited a yard that was some combination of a Tudor garden and Jurassic Park. What was, I think, originally supposed to be a sort of hedgerow around the periphery had long since become a jungle thicket, choking out the yard’s open center and pushing upwards with such tenacity that many of the so-called bushes could pass for spindly trees. Taking control of the situation — which is, when I think about it, exactly the wrong way for me to describe my haphazard process — has taken years of unceremonious lopping, selective pruning, and a tenacity that ebbs and flows. Still, I have reclaimed some open yard space, and am now mostly in maintenance mode.

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What I had not understood when I began, though, was that bushes are not discrete, individual, well contained entities — though they appear to be so in carefully groomed yards and when they’re bundled neatly for sale at garden nurseries. As I learned from the green shoots venturing well outside the boundaries I had arbitrarily settled upon, some bushes are more like viruses or mushrooms or schools of fish in that their identity is communal, diffuse, and unbounded. It’s as if my bushes, having tasted the frenzy of unrestrained growth, are permanently feral. At any moment, I can still find dozens of new tendrils pushing up through the earth like a zombie’s fingers. While it’s an impressive demonstration of pure life force, it’s also unnerving, as it was when an ivy vine slithered and nosed its way under a window frame and into my living room in the snowy dead of winter.

But I digress. My point is that while the swamp of mindfulness-in-context material — including my own “mindful college teaching” blog — may be useful, one risks becoming forever caught up in addressing only the scattered symptoms of an unfocused life and consciousness, while ignoring the heart of the matter. For several years, I just mowed over my bushes’ insistent new growth, even after I’d recognized my bandaid approach to the problem. It was so temptingly easy to merely push my mower along and make these visual reminders disappear for a while — usually just a few days — but overwhelming to face the full extent of a challenge (this yard! this old house! these bills! this job!) that I would never, could never, really control.

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In short, my yard work, like many so many of my “life changes,” was mostly cosmetic, often superficially focused on the most unsightly, or easily addressed, issues rather than the most important ones. Like the guy searching for his lost car keys under the street lamp simply because the light is better there, I was busily, sometimes comically, missing the point. What I wonder, then, is if it may be too easy to get distracted by the idea of mindfulness in this or that particular, sometimes superficial, context such that the truly awesome power and life-altering efficacy of mindfulness is bypassed. I feel a bit guilty as I write this because mindfulness is such a hot topic I’ve been able to exploit the term to attract people to my work. But perhaps it’s not as crassly self-serving as it sounds. As I’ve also acknowledged from the beginning, this blog, the Virtual Pedagogue, is only sort of about college teaching.

In the end, I am quite happy to lure people into the dark thicket where, it seems, there is only one question to be asked, the question that most of us, simply by virtue of being frightened, distractable, voracious humans, try so hard to avoid. It’s the Buddha’s question, of course, and that of many other psychological/spiritual explorers, and it has both everything and nothing to do with teaching, trimming bushes, or elaborate meditation practices. Maybe it doesn’t matter if we come to this big question by way of teaching or praying or tending the garden, so long as we come to it somehow. What a tragedy, though, if we become so enamored of and distracted by the “little” practices of mindfulness that we overlook the deeply transformative question that stands just behind them, right under our very noses.

The loneliness of the online teacher: Is anybody out there?

As another intense summer semester comes to a definitive conclusion, there’s time to breathe and let the reality (and unreality) of my latest online class wash over me. Though I’ve become a skilled practitioner, and sometimes advocate, of online teaching, I am still unsettled sometimes by the physical distance from my students. Here I am about to assign final grades, without ever having developed a strong sense of connection to them. The breakneck speed of the summer semester and the online modality itself have helped nurture a pedagogical loneliness that, like an itch or pain, I reactively want to scratch or anesthetize.

It’s been a while since any of us could gape in wonder at the voices emerging from electronic boxes — radios, TVs, and computer speakers — so it’s not as if my students and I experience one another as utterly mysterious. But though we are all sophisticated enough to know there’s an actual person out there somewhere, how much do we experience each other as really real? I can’t help but compare and notice I feel more affection for and rapport with students I worked with months ago in a face-to-face class than for these I’m finishing up with just now. And this slender emotional connection reminds me of the nearly compulsive tendency to compare online education to brick and mortar classes and find it wanting.

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I am reminded, too, that my online students and I don’t even experience one another’s reality in the same way, partly because of the asynchrony of our interactions and contributions. Much of what I share with them has been prepared in advance, sometimes months ago, including recorded mini-lectures sprinkled with my personal anecdotes and bad jokes. In a way, students experience me like a starship crew trapped behind the horizon of a black hole — or maybe I am in the black hole? — in that communication and intimacy are distorted. I am struck by this each time I see my slightly obsolete profile photo. Do my students still imagine me as that broadly smiling white woman with the super short hair? Do they imagine me at all? Still, despite my own sense of isolation, in communications with me this term, students have been unusually expressive and warm. I have no reason to think that they share my sense of disconnect.

I’m inclined to say that the emotional distance I feel is not necessarily a problem, but this doesn’t mean that I like it or that I rest easy with it. For just a moment, though, I want to focus on my compulsion to try to recreate the (apparently deeper) emotional experience of my face-to-face interactions. As a long-time brick and mortar professor, I have an urge to run quickly back to what I know, to what helps me feel competent, confident, and fulfilled by my teaching work. Whatever pedagogical value connecting emotionally has from the student side — and I don’t doubt there is a great deal — it also helps boost my self-esteem and satisfaction. But I’m not entirely sure I want to rely on my engagement with students to prop up my emotional well being in this way and not only because emotional connection can be harder to cultivate in the virtual classroom.

When soap operas migrated from radio to television, they did it with the conventions of stage and radio firmly in place. Television and movie programming were both made possible and, initially, limited by the basic assumptions of the older modalities, including visceral issues such as what counted as funny or sad. But just as we no longer regard a car as a horseless carriage or require a snare drum “bah-da-bing” to signal a joke’s end, I don’t want to create and judge my online classes primarily by the rules, conventions and rewards of face-to-face. Until we let the newer modalities really stand on their own — and this includes, for me, facing down the demons of virtual loneliness — they will be found utterly inadequate. We will be like the stage actor who moves to the big screen only to find she is paralyzed without the immediate response of a live audience. It’s not that she has failed as a movie actor, but that she never really left the stage at all.