Contemplative and Open Pedagogies: Trusting Ourselves and One Another

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Contemplative and Open Pedagogies: Trusting Ourselves and One Another

Faculty: Register by July 1, 2022 for the Contemplative Institute for Teaching & Learning: Exploring Our Edges, August 8-12, 2022, at the Serenity Ridge Retreat Center in Shipman, Virginia.

After 27 years of teaching, Associate Professor of French Claire Lyu decided to try a new approach in her class on French Romanticism.

As a student of meditation, she was seeking a way to complement traditional intellectual modes of engaging her class. So, in 2021 Lyu attended the Contemplative Institute for Teaching & Learning co-facilitated by Karolyn Kinane of the Contemplative Sciences Center and Dorothe Bach of the Center for Teaching Excellence at UVA.
“I’ve been discovering over the years that my students and I often find ourselves seeking to relate to course materials and with each other in ways that intellectual means alone do not afford: We seem to yearn for alternate ways of thinking and being in the world,” she says. “I think this comes from our deep desire to attend to the question ‘how should we live?’”
After the institute, Lyu says she felt inspired to offer students an alternative to writing a final research paper in favor of a more collaborative process with students.
"I wanted to move away from a vertical one to one relationship between myself and students during COVID-19. A research paper is between me and them; there is no communal horizontal sharing,”says Lyu. So, on the first day of class Lyu proposed another option in addition to the paper — a Virtual Museum of Romanticism. Her students chose the museum. “They loved the idea of a creative, collaborative project,” she says.  
Over the course of the semester, Lyu and her students brainstormed about how to undertake the project. Midway through, things began to gel. 
“It took time for us to think about what we would do,” Lyu states. “It was such a dynamic process. In 27 years of teaching, this was the first time I did not have the final project already spelled out in the syllabus.”
According to Kinane, CSC’s Associate Director of Contemplative Pedagogy and Faculty Engagement, “Contemplative pedagogy invites us to be with the process rather than hyper-focused on product. It creates space for students to have voice and agency, to co-create their learning experiences,” she says.
In this way, Kinane says that contemplative pedagogy overlaps with Open pedagogy, the practice of engaging with students as co-creators of information rather than simply consumers of it. Both, she says, require instructors to be present and flexible.
“Being with students for the process rather than abandoning them to it provides the security and stability they need to creatively engage,” Kinane says. “Lyu tapped into this.”
At first, Lyu says, students were unsure about how to approach the more open-ended method.
“I verbalized the uncertainty, and we shared a willingness to be with the process and each other,” says Lyu. Eventually, she says, they built trust while engaging in open debate and discussion. “It felt very vital. There was a living energy in these conversations. Collaborating to design what ‘we’ want was a big shift for all of us,” she says. 
Kinane says that paying attention to how we are being with one another can be transformational for both students and instructors. “It communicates to students that we value them beyond the product they produce.”
It felt like the final project was a gift and not a transactional assignment,” Lyu says of the presentations. “I remember having tears in my eyes—these are the moments when teaching really has meaning, why I came into this profession in the first place. And it took me this long to discover that.
Year-long Support
When participants attend the institute, they also have access to a year-long learning community where instructors meet regularly to share experiences about how things are going in their classrooms. Lyu says this support allowed more self-trust in implementing these new ways of teaching. 
“My colleagues empowered me to be more willing to experiment,” says Lyu. Sharing some of this process with students allowed them to offer feedback and support as well,” she says. "This class project was truly a community endeavor. The students, and also fellow faculty, helped to build it.”
Lyu says in addition to providing concrete tools and support, the institute and community also facilitated a process of self-examination that has fostered better learning outcomes and more fulfilling interaction with students.
“With practice and the support of the year-long community, I now notice what makes me turn defensive. I can recognize those moments when the ego comes in, and I can remember that the ‘I’ and the ‘other’ are not in opposition.”
For example, recently a student came into Lyu’s office to dispute a low grade. “I felt myself get defensive. That defensiveness made me reactive and caused suffering on my part. With practice I can acknowledge and become softer with myself about it. That is my way of opening a space that is more generous and peaceful within,” says Lyu.
I can be present with the student rather than in my own head,” she says. "Rather than to argue, confront, and convince, we explore things together. That is a new way of being.
As a woman growing up in Korea, Lyu says she had learned to put the needs of others before her own. So before becoming a part of this community she says she would feel guilty for taking time for herself.” 
“I had thought that self-care was being self-indulgent,” she says. "I had thought that slowing down meant I wasn’t doing the work or didn’t care. This year I received permission from the group to offer myself a pause.”
As I slow down, I realize that care does not have to be depleting," she says. “I am discovering that I can trust myself. Being slow and present... actually improves the quality of my interactions with students and reduces our suffering.
She says that over-preparing, rushing, and being overly busy brings her pain. "When I am trying to suppress my own pain, I don’t have time or room to think about anyone else.”
Going forward, Lyu has created some principles to help guide her teaching. “Don’t over prepare; let go of busy superficial work; slow down; listen to myself and to students more deeply.”
Kinane points out that tendencies such as perfectionism and self-judgment can crop up around the practice of contemplation just like they do in other aspects of our lives. “It can be just another thing we’re supposed to do, another thing we can fail at," she says.
Kinane says the institute and community take great care to acknowledge and address this issue. "It's so important that we apply the type of kindness to ourselves to this added practice in our life and not promote the type of thinking that brought us to contemplation in the first place," she says. "Here, you are enough. Your being is enough.”
Lyu says this feeling was almost too good to be true. “Being in a space where just being is sufficient…. it has taken some work this past year to accept that. The institute and community provided an openness,” Lyu says. “Before our meetings, even if I don’t feel great in the moment. I remember that I don’t have to be a certain way to ‘qualify.’ And I feel better having shown up and been accepted just as I am.”

More Articles Highlighting the Impact of the 2021 Pilot Contemplative Institute for Teaching and Learning:

OverviewLooking Forward to the Contemplative Institute 2022: Faculty Engage in Contemplative Pedagogy

Care, Community, and Social Change,” Genevieve Brackins, Maxine Platzer Women’s Center, UVA

Inclusive Contemplative Pedagogy,” Shizuka Modica, Darden School of Business, UVA

"Promoting Kindness, Community, and an Exploration of Imperfection to Enhance Learning," Ran Zhao, East Asian Languages, Literatures & Cultures, UVA

"Redesigning Academic Courses to Support Connection, Values, & Well-Being" — Six instructors speak about how the 2021 summer institute positively impacted their personal and professional lives.

Forthcoming Article

“Reflection and Transformation,” Indu Ohri English UVA / College of General Studies - Humanities, Boston University