David Brooks writes a column in the New York Times today about a Google database of books published since 1500 which can be used to tot up word usage. He notes that words such as virtue, decency, conscience, honesty, patience, compassion, bravery, fortitude, faith, wisdom, and evil have been used with declining frequency since 1930. He further notes that words such as preferences, self, unique, and many political words, such as economic justice, priorities, right-wing, and left wing have become more frequent. He facilely concludes from these lists that “…as [society] has become more individualistic it has also become less morally aware.”
This data set is not, in itself, informative. It is all in the interpretation, and I would reach different conclusions.
Who defines such words as virtue, faith, decency, and evil? After family, the first place that comes to mind is church; the second is political speeches. Recent studies have suggested that Americans have lost a measure of faith in both the church and the government, and we have refashioned the family. We are no longer sheep who flock to war when our government hails patriotism. A considerable segment of the American populace no longer reviles homosexuals or Jews because our churches tell us to. Many of us have noticed that formerly revered institutions like the church and the government are as likely to mislead as to lead, as likely to promote chaos as order. Somehow, we have claimed the confidence to think for ourselves, to construct our own conscience and behavioral guidelines, and in so doing, we have dropped definitions tailor-made by others. Many of us like and defend our gay cousins and our Jewish sisters-in-law, our Muslim neighbors, and our disabled classmates. We dare to set up companies functioning in new paradigms, marry whomever we please, and think new thoughts. In 1930, when Brooks’s favored set of words reigned, our behavior and even our thinking patterns were dictated by others.
Mr. Brooks is right about one thing — “gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture.” Mr. Brooks reviles the shifts that he detects, and I embrace the shifts that I detect. In academia, a battle of statistics, studies, and papers would ensue, but, according to my paradigm, it’s up to each of us to decide for him or herself what it all means.
You are, of course, invited to disagree…..
The class has insisted all semester on keeping to our Thursday meditation schedule. It has been a challenge to think up new meditations. My role is to conduct a writing class, not a meditation class. The goal is to introduce them to the concept of meditation, and to allow them to experience the feelings and thoughts which meditation induces. To that end, I have tried to vary their experience by introducing varying ways of meditating.
Physical changes are part of the contemplative experience. Maintaining silence is in itself a physical change, but we tried a couple of other ways as well.
SWITCH: Each student picks up his or her gear and chooses a different seat in the classroom. The effects are striking. Besides breaking up cliques or co-dependencies, it mildly shakes up thought processes, and is like a game, providing humor and delight. This practice might become annoying if it were frequent, but can be used when the class is lethargic, or as a variant from time to time. It wouldn’t qualify as a full meditation, but is a class enhancer.
TURN AROUND: We began our meditation with the lights out and the door closed, sitting, feet on the floor, arms at rest, breathing. After about two minutes, I asked them to stand up and continue their meditation. After another two minutes, I asked them to turn around and face outward. At the end of the meditation, I asked them to sit back down and take five deep breaths.
Their comments on each of the above experiences were few. I attribute this to the reticent personality of this class. (Each class has its own personality and I believe that part of the challenge of a teacher is to tailor the pace and content of a course to each unique class.) I thought it was acceptable that they kept their feelings about the meditations to themselves. They again and again expressed appreciation and enjoyment of our meditations, and that was enough.
At the end of every semester, students are asked to write a reflection. For the first freshman course, it is to reflect on one of the principles of good writing they learned, and in the second freshman course, they are to reflect on something they read which touched or interested them.
Marios was in the second semester course, and he wrote, “Four months ago [at the beginning of the semester] it took me less than a minute to read a short poem in English, now it takes me five to ten minutes to read the same poem.” How wonderful!
Scads of wonderful writers have commented on the nature of poetry, but Marios seems to be following the thoughts of Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” It takes time to lift the veil, time to let the beauty and uniqueness of the offering sink in.
The poet W. H. Auden wrote, “’Why do you want to write poetry?’ If the young man answers, ‘I have important things I want to say,’ then he is not a poet. If he answers, ‘I like hanging around words listening to what they say,’ then maybe he is going to be a poet.” Marios commented on this, too. “…now I understand that each word has its own deeper meaning and all the words put together are like a picture. A poet can give the meaning of his point in just a few sentences.” He carried his new appreciation into his native language, Greek, saying that while he “used to only take the general meaning out of [poems written in Greek], they are now more understandable for me.”
This translated into his learning how to “give meaning to my essays,” with an expanded vocabulary and better organization.
Ahhh. I wonder what Marios is doing now. I am satisfied, though, because he learned, and enriched his life.
I can’t report that I meditate daily or even weekly, but there were times in my life, difficult times, when meditation was a daily aid. I learned skills and habits that still help me today. I am, in other words, well aware of both the power and the long-lasting nature of discoveries and habits gained through a meditative practice. It is my suspicion that the rewards of meditation in the classroom might show up later, and might last well into the future.
The experience is new to the students and they have to get used to it. (Some students may never take to it, but most do.) Its benefits are highly individualized. Some may find it of benefit in order to achieve the proper state of mind to write; others may find it a well to reach into for new ideas or new links between ideas; still others may expand its usefulness to other areas of life as well.
One thing is for sure — the typical methods of measuring effectiveness do not apply to meditation. The ultimate academic goal in a writing class is better essays, stories, or articles, and so many factors go into that accomplishment that it would be impossible to tease out the gains achieved only through meditation.
The nineteen students in my class provided reactions which help in the assessment. On a general class survey, I asked them to evaluate each class activity this semester according to three criteria: 1) Did it stimulate you to think deeper, 2) Did you enjoy it, and 3) Was it useful in writing your essay. The highest number was 8, and lowest 1.
They rated meditation 4.5 for stimulation, 6.9 for enjoyment, and 4.5 for usefulness. Only individual conferences rated as high for enjoyment (6.9), followed by reading poetry (5.6)*. There is a divergence between the students who benefited from it the most and those who benefited least, but even those who gave low numbers for stimulation and usefulness rated it higher for enjoyment.
What this leaves me wondering is, “What is the value of enjoyment in the classroom?” Does having a calm class which finds itself in a much better mood after meditation produce better essays? Discounting the disgruntled student whose numbers were 1, 2, 1, the class enjoys this exercise more than it enjoys any other activity. In the comments section of the survey, they wrote, “not important, but fun,” “helps me relax,” “eases the stress,” “helps me think about the essay,” “helps me relax and open my mind,” “helps us clear our heads,” “helps connect everything together,” and quite a few remarked that it didn’t help so much in writing the essays, though they looked forward to it, it relaxed them, and it was fun.
In my experience, the meditation binds the class together and gives them a more positive attitude as they work together on writing essays and doing other exercises. Since many students have reported that they now set aside meditative moments as they tackle their homework in this and other classes, it must aid them in some way. This extra element of control over their stress and perhaps their confusion contributes something important to not only their academic, but also their personal lives. This must be evaluated on a scale which resides somewhere outside the Statistics books. My husband is an economist and statistician, and he is helping me make sense out of my first stab at evaluating meditation, but the proper questions to ask, and the proper factors to take into consideration are still under development.
For your further information, below are the averages for each category.
* For meditation: stimulation, 4.48; enjoyment 6.9; usefulness, 5.2
Individual conferences: 6.3, 6.5, 6.9 Overall: 5.5
Reading stories/books: 4.8, 4.4, 6.0 Overall: 5.0
Reading poems/songs: 5.5, 5.6, 5.9 Overall: 5.6
Grammar explanations/exercises: 3.9, 3.0, 4.4 Overall: 3.7
Peer review (traditional): 4.4, 4.0, 4.6 Overall: 4.3
Modeling writing an essay in class: 6.2, 4.5, 5.8 Overall: 5.5
This meditation took place between the clarification in class of the goal for the next essay, and each student’s attempt to narrow his or her focus.
The lights went out, the door was closed, the students set themselves up by adjusting their posture and taking a few breaths. I asked them to turn their attention to their next essay, then breathed on it for a minute or two.
“Ideas are running through your head, right? That is the Monkey Brain, always teasing you, taunting you, distracting you with thoughts unrelated to your focus.” Pause for a minute. ”Don’t fight these ideas. Let them enter your head and march out the other side. Instead of grasping them, let them move. Watch them.”
We breathed on that for a few minutes.
“Many of your are having negative thoughts about this essay — ‘I don’t know what to do,’ ‘I’ve always been terrible at writing,’ ‘I got a C in my high school writing class,’ ‘my teacher told me that writing was not my strong suit,’ ‘This is hard.’ Watch those thoughts march through your head and out the other side, too. They play no role in this task.”
We breathed on that for a few minutes.
“Now you are ready to think.”
We took at least five minutes to reflect silently, then turned on the lights, opened the door, and began to discuss the focus of the upcoming essay.
My next post will be about evaluating the efficacy of meditation in the writing classroom.
My students hate peer review, at least the way it is traditionally presented. I don’t like it either. Students are not skilled enough to analyze each other’s papers well, even when the peer review is tightly targeted.
My students love individual conferences.
I combined them into one activity which would be suitable for a class of 20 or less.
1. Students are divided into groups of three or four. If it is appropriate, they are grouped by area of interest or similarity of subject.
2. The students email each other their essays and, using Track Changes, each student comments on the essays of the two or three other members of their group. I do the same for each student.
3. Instead of class, the students attend conferences with the professor. These should be long enough to have a good discussion, say, 20-30 minutes, so more than one class period is needed to accommodate this exercise.
4. The conference begins with each student giving comments on each other student’s essay. It usually becomes apparent where the weak points are; often the students’ comments are similar to mine, which also strengthens their trust in me as a judge of their essays, and thrills me as well. NOTE: It is usually not necessary to even mention this, because students generally don’t want to hurt each other, but if a criticism is too harsh, the commenter should be reminded to say something positive about the piece.
5. The rest of the conference is spent discussing how to improve the essay, what sources would be useful, and, if there is time, doing some pointed revision.
This exercise proved very popular. It substitutes class time (quantity) for focused attention (quality), and resulted in a higher comfort level for the students, and better essays. It is difficult to judge the efficacy of class activities, but this one immediately yielded better work.
Rutgers just fired its basketball coach for some pretty offensive bullying, including sexual slurs. Rutgers buried one of its freshmen last year because his roommate was spying on him during an encounter with another man. These were examples of disregard for the welfare of the students. I am not surprised.
I interviewed twice at Rutgers for a position teaching freshman writing (my favorite course). Both times, the interviewer told me how dumb and disinterested the students were. The interviews were conducted in pairs, and the other person seemed as taken aback by the bitterness of the interviewer as I was. Let’s see if I can remember the interviewer’s words more or less exactly: “The students here are some of the best in the state, and they’ve never read a book, don’t do the work assigned, aren’t interested in class, and couldn’t tell a subject from a verb. What would you think of teaching this sort of student body?”
I answered, “I’d think that they needed me badly.”
I wasn’t hired either time.
The atmosphere were polluted with disdain and dismissal of the students, and I am glad that they didn’t hire me.
Naming things is an important concept in linguistics. People have cute, or crazy, or insulting names for people and things in their lives, and that is an area for productive study. Grandmother names are my present fixation — I am called Granna. I remember the struggle after 9/11 to find a name for the event that had just happened. In the end, we gave up and just use the date of a unique event which falls outside of our comprehension.
In the classroom context, knowing students’ names establishes intimacy and dignity, lessening the distance between teacher and student. I have 20 students this semester, and it took me about two weeks to get everyone’s name right. Last semester I had 60 and that also took about two weeks, even if some of them were Chinese and their names were just sounds to me.
Michael Sandel, the teacher of the legendary Justice course at Harvard, author of a book by the same name, has around a thousand students in this classes. He has an assistant pass the microphone to individuals, and before beginning the question-and-answer, he asks the student’s name, then continues, using the student’s first name. Though this is not true closeness, the moment of naming brings immediacy to the discourse.
Placards or name cards can be placed in front of the student so that a teacher can access the name without memorizing it. If you have access to photographs of the students, that helps. Memorization is made more difficult if the students switch seats or the seats are configured differently from class to class. This mixing up of seating avoids the formation of cliques, but makes it more difficult to memorize names.
Students sometimes work in groups, and if they are to make a report or otherwise present themselves as a unit to the rest of the class, it is amusing and bonding to have them choose a name for their group.
I get to know all of my students’ names (they inform me that this is rare, which shocks and upsets me), but when I run into them on campus the next semester or year I have forgotten them. I remember their faces and their papers, but not their names. Perhaps a psychologist or an expert on brain function and memory can explain that one!
EXERCISES: Not exactly exercises, but a listing of aids:
Give yourself a couple of weeks to memorize names
Have students name their groups
In large classes either have the students announce their name or have a name tag or placard.
Use photographs to help memorize names
This post is part of an ongoing series on Contemplative Pedagogy which often focuses as much on the absence of language as on its form.
In his book Meditation in Action, Chögyam Trungpa writes: “…one usually finds that books, teachings, lectures, and so on are more concerned with proving that they are right than with showing how it is to be done.” He laments the increasingly fast pace of the modern world, “The world is moving so fast, there is no time to prove, but whatever we learn, we must bring it and cook it and eat it immediately.”
I once asked an astrophysicist friend, “Do you ever think about what will happen once we get to Mars? For instance, what will their religion be with no Bethlehem?”
He laughed, “No. We never think about those things. They tell us ‘I want this to go there’ and we make it go there.” This is an example of “eating it immediately,” doing something “right,” but with no thought about the meaning or consequences of what is being done.
Trungpa continues, “If we go somewhere on foot, we know the way perfectly, whereas if we go by … car or aeroplane we are hardly there at all, it becomes merely a dream.”
Isn’t getting a B.A., an M.A., or a Ph.D. dream-like? We tumble over ourselves writing so that our advisors will find what we offer them to be “right,” stuffing sprawling ideas into a tidy little box ready to be signed, sealed, and delivered. And that’s that. So little of what we write in our dissertations proves to be useful later on.
We are dealing with a warming, overpopulated planet where more and more powerful arms are being disseminated throughout the citizenry, where wars are popping up continually in places we have never heard of, religious wars which appear not to affect us but are in fact, very dangerous to us. We should be thinking more deeply than ever because the consequences of our decisions could be fatal. Yet our education system fails to nurture deep thought, and cannot absorb the sometimes controversial or revolutionary results of sustained deep thought.
That is why it is important to slow down the process. Read fewer books, but better. Write from the heart. Expand the range of sources. Listen to each other.
This post is part of an ongoing series on contemplative practices in the writing classroom. It is about the absence of language as much as language itself.
Following a challenging autumn, during which we had a terrible hurricane, a contentious election, and the shootings at Newtown in which little children were mowed down with an automatic rifle, we needed some solace. The essays this semester have been about our support systems, beginning with community, then family, then job. The family essay was the hardest to write because it was the closest to home. The students confused telling the reader that their family was superior to all others, their father was superman, etc. with giving the reader something to work with. Knowing somebody else has “the best mother in the world” is either a challenge to a person who thinks SHE has the best mother in the world, or a sadness to people who do not have the best mother in the world. The writer must dig deeper. I tried to help them do this with the guided meditation below.
Stipulated, of course, that this is all an experiment. I have no idea whether such a meditation can improve a student’s thinking processes and thus his writing. The present parameters for testing the results of such a meditation are inadequate and thus the exercise would be dismissed for academic publication; but shouldn’t we continue to experiment anyway? Shouldn’t we be looking for different criteria?
Exercise: The students sat comfortably in their seats, the lights off. We breathed for a while. After each phase of the guided meditation there should be a period of silence lasting about a minute.
Imagine yourself driving along, and seeing a lake which invites you to stop. You park and take a path leading to the lake. Did you lock your car? Take your purse? Is the roadway deserted or busy? What do you see around the path? How far do you see into the distance? What season is it? Go slowly. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Do you touch anything?
Arriving at the lake, take time to observe its surface — the birds, small fish, plants, ripples made by the wind, rocks sticking out of the water.
You will now descend a couple of yards below the surface of the lake. What do you see there? Does the light from above filter this far down? Lurk for a while.
The lake is deep, and now it is time to go to the bottom where the big fish swim. What do you see there? Are the big fish benign or threatening? Do they approach you? Is it dark? Do you see plants? Is there anything lying on the bottom of the lake?
Now it is time to rise slowly up through the layers to the surface, time to walk back to your car. Do you feel differently from when you were last at your car? Physically? Mentally? Emotionally? Spiritually?
After a final minute or so of quiet, I reminded them that their own family story was like the top layer of the lake. It was now their assignment, in the next draft, to go deeper and find some deeper principles which could be shared with the reader.