Exploring the Creative Process through Contemplation: A New Lab for Students

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Exploring the Creative Process through Contemplation: A New Lab for Students

This semester CSC’s Karolyn Kinane, Associate Director of Pedagogy and Faculty Engagement, has partnered with professors from the Music, Dance, and Writing departments to design and pilot a new one-credit Contemplative Lab for undergraduate students. The lab is offered as a co-requisite to students in Public Speaking with Professor Devin Donovan, Dance Composition with Professor Kim Brooks Mata, and Sound Studies with Professor Noel Lobley. A total of 23 students across those courses have been coming together for the 50-minute lab once a week to engage in contemplative practice enabling them to notice habits and approach challenges with care in support of their creative endeavors. 
In this lab setting, the students practice deep reflection and becoming present to increase their self-awareness and capacities for creative expression. They also learn to develop vocabulary, skills, and space for experimentation and connecting with their environments.
“Over the semester, we engage in a variety of experiences that create a pause between a stimulus and reaction so students can bring awareness to how they habitually move, speak, and listen,” says Kinane. “We practice being intentional, curious, humble, and supportive. We engage in reflection and check in with our values to turn reactions into intentional responses.
Students practice deep listening, mindful movement, sound walks, journaling—all kinds of activities to create a pause or gap that enables presence and observation.”
Professor Devin Donovan explains that one of his goals for the lab is to “help our students generate questions and projects that they could not have envisioned prior to this unique intervention.” 
Kinane adds: “The idea is that along the way students may also begin to discover how contemplative and creative processes can enhance not just their academic experiences but their greatest and most important creative endeavor: their lives.”
The Student Experience
Arts and Sciences student Lexi Baker ‘24 explains how these goals for the lab have been realized: "Something that has been very useful for me has been practicing being present. This can include breaking out of habits I have, calming my mind during times of stress, and becoming more connected with my environment.” 
Baker says she’s been able to apply these lessons outside the lab as well: “I have used techniques from the class such as breathing and noticing in my daily life to help cope with stress and to inspire my work. I am also a very habitual person and I’m questioning how it is beneficial for me to push myself out of those unnecessary and sometimes stress-inducing habits.”
Kinane notes that many lab students were surprised to learn that contemplation is not just about “meditating to relieve stress” but rather a broad category of experiences for exploring their academic work, interests, and day-to-day experiences, freely and playfully, so they may chart their own course for a flourishing life. 
"Awareness can bring the possibility of working on becoming the person I want to be by acknowledging who I am right now. I can't control the past and I can't control the future. All I have is this moment to be the person I can love and live with, to do right by myself, to make my future self proud,” says Hidaya Williams ‘21, African American Studies Major.
Kinesiology major Allie Taylor ‘22 agrees that the lab has opened her eyes to the variety and usefulness of contemplative practices. "Coming into this course, I had some preconceived ideas that contemplative practice always looks a certain way, but I’ve learned that there are many ways to practice and as individuals we can choose to practice in ways that best suit our needs,” she says. Commerce major Maria Paula Guzman ‘24 agrees with that sentiment. “I realized the variety of ways to explore and discover and to be self-aware. There is not one solution and one way that fits everyone,” she says.
The lab also provides time and space for students to collaborate on transdisciplinary creative endeavors. For example, Professor Lobley says that Sound Studies students made electronic “treatments” of vocal recordings from the Public Speaking class, merging them into pieces of sound art and potential installations that will next be “visualized” by students through movement and dance. “I’m hopeful and confident we’ll create multi-modal or multi-dimensional sound objects that can be shared meaningfully between all of the students in the Contemplative Lab, and that we’re all proud to share more publicly,” says Lobley.
The activities have enabled students to get out of their comfort zones, says Youth and Social Innovation major Caroline Marshall ‘22. “The old me would have dropped this course as soon as I found out we had to do anything ‘embarrassing.’ However, I feel my growth—I realize that I don’t have to run from experiences like that. I think this openness is going to allow me to actually grow more and see progress in myself. I want to further reflect on what it would look like to bring this same curiosity and humility into other areas of my life. ‘What if I just bought-in, went for things, sent it’? I wonder what my life would look like.” 

The Power of Gratitude
Kinane says one of the most impactful practices so far has been the Gratitude Practice designed to counteract habituation. Here, students had the option to text a buddy three times in a week with photos of something for which they’re grateful. “It’s difficult to feel creative under scarcity conditions. This practice helped students acknowledge challenges and at the same time recognize some of the taken-for-granted resources they can draw upon to face those challenges.”

Global Commerce Major Sophie Mallas ’23, writing about her experience with her gratitude partner Talia Schleifer ’22 BioStatistics (pictured above), said: “I noticed that when I was actively thinking of things to be grateful for, I found much more than I would have had I not been searching. This helped me see how worthwhile life is and how much the little things are truly beautiful.” 
“When priming myself to think about what I was grateful for, I began to appreciate many aspects of my environment," said Brantley Murphy ‘24, about her experience with her gratitude partner Yuni Choi ‘24, a Foreign Affairs major, "most of which I usually take for granted. I wonder if everyone partook in this activity, if it would result in the world being a much happier and safer place.” Yuni Choi is pictured above with her friends Yumi Kim ‘24, Pre Comm and Yannie Wu ‘24 Computer Science.
Faculty Enrichment
The lab enriches faculty’s work, as well. Professor Brooks Mata observed the richness of the experience. “I’ve appreciated the questions and the connections that are beginning to manifest in our lab together and have found personally that these connections are not only being made within this particular class, but more broadly in all of my teaching and movement coaching. I’m excited to see where this collaboration takes us next.”
“At a basic level, contemplative pedagogy builds capacities for awareness and connection,” Kinane says. “I’ve met many faculty at UVA who already do this work in their courses and they wish they had more room for it. It’s been such an honor to work more closely with Professors Brooks Mata, Donovan, and Lobley to witness how they guide and inspire students to become more self-aware and connected in a variety of environments.” 
While this particular Contemplative Lab allows students and faculty to immerse themselves in the role of contemplation in creative endeavors, Kinane is developing versions of this lab that can be paired with courses that work more closely with critical thinking, problem solving, and ethical action. She plans to identify additional faculty partners in the coming semesters. 
UVA instructors and faculty at all levels interested in contemplative pedagogy and contemplative course design can apply for the Contemplative Institute on Teaching and Learning, June 7-11, 2021. Visit our faculty resources webpage for more information about faculty engagement initiatives at CSC or contact Karolyn Kinane at with any inquiries.