Charlotte Rogers on Planting the Seeds of Learning During Remote Instruction
Charlotte Rogers is Lisa Smith Discovery Chair and Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Virginia, specializing in 20th- and 21st -century Latin America and the Caribbean, with a comparative focus on representations of the tropics in literature and culture. She was a member of CSC’s 2019-20 Faculty Learning Community—a year-long annual program that helps UVA instructors learn contemplative methods to enhance their teaching.
Rogers said she joined the FLC because she’d experienced personal benefits from exploring meditation classes at CSC and realized they could benefit her students academically and personally as well: “I wanted to look at enriching the whole student.” She now regularly incorporates short meditations, journaling, and other contemplative exercises into her classes.
“From my collaboration with CSC’s programs, I have come to understand that through contemplative practices, students learn not just the course material but also how to flourish as human beings.”
Remote learning, however, poses particular challenges to both goals, so when the COVID-19 pandemic forced many Fall 2020 classes online, Rogers specifically began to wonder how she could use contemplative practices to (1) enable students to bring an attitude of measured, focused attention to the course and (2) build trust within a digital classroom community.
Specifically Rogers wanted to help the students in her undergraduate Spanish course “The Latin American Jungle Novel” and her graduate seminar “Caribbean Environmental Humanities” focus some attention away from their computer screens while also creating a sense of connection to the course and each other from afar.
Enter Karolyn Kinane, CSC’s Associate Director of Faculty Engagement and Pedagogy and facilitator of CSC’s Faculty Learning Community. During the summer of 2020 Kinane spent a lot of her time advising faculty on how to integrate contemplative exercises into their curricula specifically for purposes of digital community-building. Her one-on-one work with Rogers yielded a semester-long activity for Rogers’s Fall courses called Cultivating Community (Cultivando Comunidad). Inspired by Jane Compson’s 2017 article “Cultivating the Contemplative Mind in Cyberspace: Field Notes from Pedagogical Experiments in Fully Online Classes,” the project involved literally planting seeds. CSC helped students purchase the seeds, pots, and other necessary supplies.
A Hands-On Contemplative Experience
The students in Rogers’s Spanish and Environmental Humanities courses were likely surprised by the unconventional project, but the syllabi clearly explained how cultivating a plant from seed was designed to support their learning and well-being:
In addition to the community building effects of sharing a contemplative practice, this activity is also intended to cultivate your ecological awareness, enhancing your understanding of course material. Lastly, this activity aims to build your capacities for awareness (of self and others), empathetic engagement, present-moment attention, curiosity, and care. These capacities, stimulated through the cultivation of a plant from seed, can be transferred to your reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and listening processes.
Rogers started the project with the following exercise:
Hold the seed in your hand. Examine it closely—try to pay attention to what it looks like so closely that you could pick it out from a whole bowl full of other seeds. Notice any colors or patterns of the seed, notice its shape and the texture of its surface. Notice its weight, its temperature, and how it feels in the palm of your hand or between your fingers. Do this for at least a couple of minutes.
Now, still holding the seed, close your eyes and think about other aspects of the seed—where did it come from, and how did it get to be in your hand now? What potential is in the seed?
In addition to caring for their plants, Rogers asked the students to spend a few minutes each week contemplating their seedlings and their perspectives on the project and to share their experiences on a weekly class discussion board. Before the end of the semester, the students individually presented their growing plants to the entire class live online or in a photo.
Rogers said the students responded to the project in some unexpected ways. “Some students had never grown anything and were afraid they would fail. It took a lot for them to realize this was more about the methods than the outcome.”
Student Jake Edwards clearly understood the project’s direct connection to course content and broader implications:
Without a doubt, when studying themes such as ecofeminism, climate change, and the relationship between humans and the natural environment it helps to cultivate a plant. The simple reason behind that idea is when cultivating a plant you're forced to begin thinking of a plant as a living, growing being. This is in deep contrast with so much of Western ideology that depicts the natural environment as material.
Many students began referring to their plants as their babies. “I thought this was really important because it showed the fluidity in boundaries. The plants are small creatures and the students recognized it,” said Rogers.
Student Liz Troy also learned something larger from the tiny plants: “I think that the awareness component of this project is one of the most powerful. A lot of people noted how they began to observe more plants in their day-to-day life, and it makes me consider how we could set the intention to apply academic principles to the mundane.”
Another important outcome of the project was that it established grounding rituals for the students. “It helped mark time in a healthy way during the pandemic,” said Rogers.
Student Claire Netemeyer agreed: “Each morning before I began to really worry about my day, I would check on my plant on my balcony while I was heating up my coffee maker. These few minutes every morning became special, because the rest of my day is usually filled with some kind of other stress, and I always looked forward to seeing my plant grow as well as drinking my coffee.”
Troy felt the project was especially poignant for her last year as an undergraduate: “This project was one of the bright points of my semester, and I think that all of my classmates would agree. While we all shared the mutual bond of being fourth years during a pandemic, the plant project gave us something to focus on that was about growth rather than our shared stresses and sadness.”
Learn more about CSC’s Faculty Engagement Programs and resources here.