This post is one of a series on contemplative pedagogy, where the subject is as much the absence of language as language itself.
In an essay writing class, a fictionalizing imagination is not necessary, but students must think of everyday events and reactions in new ways, and must link these events and reactions to larger ideas. The imagination must be unleashed to do that. This exercise may aid in the process.
EXERCISE: We sat in our customary circle, feet on the floor, lights off, following the breath in its courses. This takes a minute, two minutes.
I asked them to imagine themselves getting out of their chairs and going to the door. This thought rested about a minute. They might, in their imagination, be putting down their purse, or meeting up with another person, or waiting a little while before getting up.
Once at the door, they were instructed to choose a place on the campus which they would walk to, always in their imagination. And then to walk there. Another minute.
What do they do once they get there? What do they see? What is the weather like? What season is it? Are they alone? What are they carrying or wearing? Do they stand still, turn around, walk around? This should take a minute or two.
They were then instructed to return to the classroom and sit down, always in their imagination.
Lastly, they were asked to think about their little journey. Do they feel different upon their return? Is the sun still warming their hair? Have they seen something beautiful? Something awful? How does sitting feel different from walking?
The lights went back on, and I asked for reflections. ”We should do this every class,” said the burly construction worker. The rest of the class agreed that it was a very pleasant experience and they would like to do it again.
I cannot say what was accomplished by this exercise. The first step in a meditation practice is likely a small one. All I can say is that they fell deeply into the exercise, enjoyed it, and wanted to do it again. Perhaps they will feel more confidently about the workings of their own imaginations. They bonded as a class just by sharing in the experience.
This is one of an ongoing series of posts on contemplative pedagogy. It focuses on lack of language rather than on language itself.
One of the bugabears of essay writing is making too many assumptions, from “everybody” thinks this, to “My father never uses swearwords.” One of the challenges of the writing teacher is to lure students into a new context so that they can look at issues and experiences with fresh eyes. Their customary patterns must be disrupted and perhaps turned inside out. That will not dislodge the truths inside them, but should strengthen them.
Exercise: Since contemplative practices are, among other things, aimed at disrupting the sense of time, I chose a time exercise as the beginning of our class contemplative practice.
“Raise your hand when you think a minute it up.”
The students looked around shiftily, watching how others were reacting.
No hands went up. Good.
Still no hands up. Good.
Then I looked at my watch (I was, after all, the timekeeper), and followed the second hand to one minute, then looked up, and hands shot up.
I asked what method they had used to determine when we had reached a minute, and it turned out that all the students were watching for my reaction, not concentrating on time. They could tell by my body language and facial reaction that I was following the second hand.
We had a laugh over that.
So that exercise was a failure.
Later in the semester I’ll try again, and will be more sly. I will turn off the lights and ask them to close their eyes. I will place my cell phone on the desk and will spend the whole minute looking at it, rather than checking the class from time to time.
My class has asked (by vote of 19-1) for regular meditation exercises. We do them once a week. I will document those in subsequent posts, but yesterday we did a variation — a concentration exercise. A case could be made that because of multi-tasking and the constant electronic intrusion into their lives, students rarely concentrate on a single activity. I wanted to test their frequent assertions that they can do two things at once; listen to music or television while studying, text while having a conversation, check the baseball score on their iPad while taking in the class discussion, and so on.
EXERCISE: Our class is in a room with no windows, and I wanted the students to be in a place where visual or audio intrusions would be frequent, so we went into the hallway outside our classroom and they lined up at the windows, looking onto the Student Center Plaza, which was frequently criss-crossed by pedestrians. Another teacher and one of her students were discussing an assignment at the end of the hallway, clearly audible. After they had lined up, I advised my class that they should remind themselves that the noise and activity around them was other people going about other lives and had nothing to do with them.
They were instructed to pick an unmoving object and concentrate on it for two minutes. I would announce the beginning and the end of the period.
During the exercise two people looked away, but most remained unmoving and silent.
After it was over, the consensus was that 1) it was most difficult to ignore the audio intrusion of the teacher-student conversation, and 2) the two minutes did not seem a long time.
This exercise may have suggested (I don’t know, what do you think?) that students these days can indeed multitask, or at least can tune out visual and audio intrusions quite well. I consider this bad news, as it means that they can tune me out in class with ease if left with access to electronic devices, though the students agree unanimously that computers/iPads/iPhones should be put aside in class. I remember well the first time I tried to concentrate like this, on a hillside outside Jerusalem in 1966. It was impossible to concentrate on a single object for even a minute. Perhaps constant practice has wired modern students’ brains differently. It will be up to somebody else to figure this out, but I was surprised by the ease with which my students accomplished this exercise.
I asked my class today what the ideal writing class would be like. I haven’t analyzed all that they said, but was surprised by a couple of comments in our class discussion.
1. They hate peer review, find it useless. I agree, as presently structured (though I don’t follow the recommended structures). They do benefit from reading other peoples’ papers. Next time, I will put them in groups of four, they will read three other papers, and have a discussion period about them without judgment, correcting, or editing.
2. They suggested two drafts instead of three. I disagree. I see a clear difference between the second and third draft.
3. They want to be given readings and other sources, have some time to digest them, and then have a long class discussion about how these sources are related to the subject of the essay. I told them that I did not know how to structure such a discussion, but that we would have one on Thursday, and they should think about what questions we should be asking ourselves. The subject for the essay is WORK, its place in their lives, what they expect of the future, how they are guarding against the obsolescence of all that they know how — all that fancy computer gear will be SO old-fashioned to their grandchildren. Think anti-work – unemployment. What should we do about it? Why are there no songs like Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, or Brother Can You Spare a Dime to image the suffering that people are going through in today’s prolonged recession/depression. This Thursday will be an experiment.
4. They are very aware that their teachers do not fully read their papers. One student raised his hand to say that I was the only teacher who commented on all pages of their papers. At another university, the students complained that one of their teachers only read the first paragraph of each essay. I explained that I have the luxury of only having one class and so can devote time to each of their essays, while other professors are teaching four or more classes. I don’t know what the solution to this is. Perhaps fewer essays and better? Perhaps time spent in class on other matters than writing itself, such as analyzing the writing of excellent writers, reading, and doing exercises which will contribute to excellent essays. Perhaps we just have to live with this.
5. I will await their comments about use of online components in class. They definitely do not want an online class, and they emphatically banned computers (and iPads and phones, etc.) from class. Too distracting.
6. They love meditation.
So that’s it from the front lines, for today at least. I urged them to keep in touch — we need to transform the university experience, and this is just the very beginning. They’re ready for change.
Research has shown (as if we needed much research to know this!) that some students process questions slower than others. This may be for a variety of reasons, among them that the student may be an introvert or shy, or may be a detailed thinker who wants to pause over certain parts of a question before giving an answer, or maybe the student wants to pose some interior counterarguments before answering. There are minds that barge ahead at 80 miles and hour, and others which cruise at 35.
For this reason, a teacher should always leave breathing room for answers and points of view to develop. Even rapid-fire thinkers will appreciate the stress-free, tranquil atmosphere of a moderated pace.
Leaving an even longer time to respond would be a good idea in many situations in a classroom. Let’s say you pose the question, “Are good manners important?” when discussing Huckleberry Finn’s objections to Miss Watson. That answer requires some thought and requiring an instant answer would guaranty a superficial discussion.
EXERCISE: After posing a meaty question or introducing a poem or story, leave an extended period for reflection and meditation. Not every such period need be the same. Here are variations:
Allow the students to refer to their books during the period, as long as they are quiet
Allow the students to take notes or make lists
Turn off the lights so they can meditate quietly on the issue for a given period, perhaps 3-5 minutes.
If reflecting on a poem (it would have to short-ish), have each student, or a selected group of students, read it aloud so that everyone can hear it read at least six times, with a pause between readers. Then turn off the lights and allow 2-3 minutes of meditation.
Several major universities and other centers are developing curricula which include contemplative and meditation practices. My own university, Montclair State University, is developing a center of its own, and I have been invited to be a Fellow in the group that will investigate including contemplative practices into our own courses. I have written several posts on this subject of which this is one. The links in this paragraph represent only a sampling of the work going on in this area.
Montclair’s site explains its purposes thusly:
Contemplative pedagogy involves teaching methods designed to cultivate deepened awareness, concentration, and insight. Contemplation fosters additional ways of knowing that complement the rational methods of traditional liberal arts education. As Tobin Hart states, “Inviting the contemplative simply includes the natural human capacity for knowing through silence, looking inward, pondering deeply, beholding, witnessing the contents of our consciousness…. These approaches cultivate an inner technology of knowing….” This cultivation is the aim of contemplative pedagogy, teaching that includes methods “designed to quiet and shift the habitual chatter of the mind to cultivate a capacity for deepened awareness, concentration, and insight.” Such methods include journals, music, art, poetry, dialogue, questions, and guided meditation.
In the classroom, these forms of inquiry are not employed as religious practices but as pedagogical techniques for learning through refined attention or mindfulness. Research confirms that these contemplative forms of inquiry can offset the constant distractions of our multi-tasking, multi-media culture. Thus, creative teaching methods that integrate the ancient practice of contemplation innovatively meet the particular needs of today’s students.
I am looking forward to joining the Montclair State group this spring, and welcome any comments you might have which would inform our efforts.
We should watch our gun language. The New York Times has an article today, “In Gun Debate, Even Language Is Loaded,” documenting the pervasive gun references in our language. I speak six languages, and in thinking about each, I believe the article is correct — we have far more expressions, verbs, and nouns which come from gun culture than other languages do. It would be interesting to compare American English to British English and other World Englishes in this regard, too.
The parents from Newtown made the statement yesterday that they were in the gun debate for the long haul. Legislation can help, but the bigger changes have to come from the bottom up. There has to be a cultural change before this violence begins to subside. Just as we changed our language regarding race and gender, we might begin to change the national obsession with guns by changing our language. The first step to doing that is to increase our awareness of how often we use military and gun terms in our everyday speech.
A consistent mistake made by my students is using “everyday” instead of “every day.” “everyday” is an adjective, as in “That is an everyday concern of mine.” The other is a noun with a modifier, as in “Every day I brush my teeth.”
While on an unrelated Internet quest (looking for the website which best lays out the rules for use of prepositions), I landed on www.grammar.net which provided the following advice: “Although ending a sentence with a preposition is considered incorrect, these constructions are used everyday.” This is a GRAMMAR website, and they used “everyday” when they should have used “every day.” How can I object when my students make the same mistake? I can, but it is an uphill fight.
The www.grammar.net posting about prepositions was written by “Victoria,” a mysterious creature about whom no information was available other than her purported first name. (Is the author really a “she?” or could this be Victor or Viktor in female guise?) Being at the top of an Internet search for grammatical guidance, my students might land on this site, and could they not raise the “everyday” usage to contradict my assertion that this is a grammatical error? No. In order to use a website as a source, it must be from a trusted organization, not creatures like “Victoria,” and should have an academic sponsor or some expert backing. Digging a little deeper into the “About Us” section of www.grammar.net reveals that the website is linked to “SpellChecker.net” which sells two products named SCAYT and WSC. www.grammar.net is thus a commercial organization, and not a reliable source. Their minds are on their products, and the related grammar websites are no more than a come-on.
Another consistent mistake concerns using apostrophes to make plurals. In the popular textbook A Writer’s Reference, by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers, the section on apostrophes states, “Do not use an apostrophe to pluralize an abbreviation.” According to this textbook, the plural of G.M.O., an abbreviation, should be G.M.O.s. But a recent New York Times (9/16/2012) article by Mark Bittman is entitled G.M.O.’s: Let’s Label ‘Em, defying the rules in my textbook. Shot down again.
So what’s a teacher to do? Neither The New York Times nor grammar.net support her. She is beginning to doubt the reliability of popular textbooks such as A Writer’s Reference, and has long ago despaired of using The Elements of Style because “style” has changed. Article one, page one, of that venerable tome declares that we should write “Burns’s poems” and “Charles’s friend.” The universal book at Montclair State this year was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and the university posted announcements about the appearance of “Lacks’ son” at a symposium there. I can’t even get past page one of The Elements of Style before losing support from academic and scholarly sources..
I come back to a point I have made many times before – our language is changing quickly, unreliably, unpredictably, constantly. There. I broke the first rule of Stephen King, stated over and over again in his masterful book On Writing, “Avoid adverbs!”
A common mistake made by my students is using “everyday” instead of “every day.” One (everyday) is an adjective, as in “That is an everyday concern of mine.” The other is a noun modified by an adjective, as in “Every day I brush my teeth.”
I thought my analysis was undeniably correct until I landed on the website www.grammar.net and found the following sentence: “Although ending a sentence with a preposition is considered incorrect, these constructions are used everyday.” This is a GRAMMAR website, and they used “everyday” incorrectly. How can I object when my students make the same mistake? I can, but it is an uphill fight.
Just one example? Oh no. What about the use of apostrophes to make plurals? In the popular textbook A Writer’s Reference, by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers, the section on apostrophes states, “Do not use an apostrophe to pluralize an abbreviation.” According to this textbook, used in college classrooms across the country, G.M.O., an abbreviation, should be written G.M.O.s. But a recent New York Times (9/16/2012) article by Mark Bittman is entitled G.M.O.’s: Let’s Label ‘Em, defying the rules in my textbook.
Back to Grammar.net, a graphically enhanced website which comes up near the top of list on an Internet search for “grammar.” The blogpost on that site with the “everyday” error was written by “Victoria,” a mysterious creature about whom no information was available other than her purported name (is it really a “she?” or could this be Victor or Viktor in female guise?). It would (being at the top of the Internet search) be a place my students might land, and could they not raise this usage as an objection to my correction of their “everydays?” No. It does not meet the criteria for academic sourcing which I enforce in my class. In order to use a website as a source, it must be from a trusted organization, not creatures like “Victoria,” and should have an academic sponsor or some expert backing. Digging a little deeper into the “About Us” section reveals that the website is linked to “SpellChecker.net” which sells two products named SCAYT and WSC. This is, in other words, a commercial organization, and not a reliable source.
So what’s a teacher to do? Neither the solid The New York Times nor the shaky grammar.net support her. She is beginning to doubt the reliability of popular textbooks such as A Writer’s Reference, and has long ago despaired of using The Elements of Style because “style” has changed over the years. Article one, page one, on the possessive apostrophe, declares that we should write “Burns’s poems” and “Charles’s friend,” but it wouldn’t take long to find a New York Times or New Yorker article which blew that one out of the water. The universal book at Montclair State this year was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Flyers about appearance of Lacks’s (according to The Elements of Style) son announced that “Lacks’ son” would appear at a symposium there.
I don’t despair. I come back to a point I have made many times before – our language is changing quickly, unreliably, unpredictably, constantly. There. I broke first rule of Stephen King, stated over and over again in his masterful book On Writing, “Avoid adverbs!”
My French textbook, French Reference Grammar (1993), has an index entry for the “conditional,” and in the section devoted to it, calls it “the mood of verbs tied to a condition.” My Greek grammar, Greek: A Comprehensive Grammar of the Modern Language (1997) also has a section on the conditional mood. My English grammar, Discovering Grammar: An Introduction to English Sentence Structure (2000) does not have a listing for the conditional in the index, including the “conditional” forms in the section on “modals” instead. However it is phrased (and perhaps the re-phrasing adds to the confusion), this form is used to express complex thoughts, and my students do not know how to use it.
Modals express possibility, permission, volition, necessity, and other conditions which express far more than a simple action. There is the old chestnut “can/may I do something?” with “can” implying physical ability, and “may” implying that you have permission to do it. The modals bring into play our imaginations and predictions, and often embody opposites. “Should I leave the room?” suggests that there is a reason why you should not leave the room. Perhaps Mary may arrive while you are absent, or maybe there is a gunman standing in the hall, or maybe the room is on fire. In each case, you are questioning your decision to leave the room because there are reasons for and against.
“Will you come to the party with me?” requires the other person to guess what he or she will be doing at some point in the future. He or she is only expressing an intention. Even if the answer is “Yes,” it still might not happen – there might be a hurricane, or one of you might get sick, or the party might be cancelled. It is quite a different animal from the simple past tense, “You came to the party with me.” That happened, and no further analysis is required.
There are usually two parts in a conditional sentence, and in English the present tense is matched to the future (If he wants to, he will come), the past tense (although the action doesn’t occur in the past) is matched to the would form (If he wanted to, he would come), and the past perfect goes with the would have form (If he had wanted to, he would have come.) There are permutations, of course, but my students don’t know how to use even the easiest ones. They struggle to express complex situations, and usually do not succeed in creating graceful sentences. Here are some examples:
The life cycle moves on so that everyone could enjoy what the earth has to give him or her.
It seemed as though I’ll never write my best seller,
This is when I realized I have gotten myself into this mess.
All I could notice was how red his face is getting.
I couldn’t possibly have both of them as my boyfriend. It will mentally and emotionally harm me and the guys.
These sentences should have been expressed this way:
The life cycle moves on so that everyone can enjoy…
It seemed as though I would never write…
This was when I realized I had gotten myself into this mess.
All I could notice was how red his face was getting.
I couldn’t possibly have both of them as my boyfriend. It would …..
Without the conditional, these sentences depend heavily on the reader’s ingenuity to make sense.
Sports announcers have produced another variation on the conditional. Here is a recent gem from Ron Darling, commenting on a Mets game in May, 2012:
He throws a knuckle ball curve on the third strike, that guy was not there.
This convention has become so common in baseball that fans understand it. They have just seen the action on the field on their television screens, so they can scramble together Darling’s meaning. I also remember sentences like, “That ball goes one inch higher, it’s a home run.” It’s almost as if baseball grammar were different from the rest of the world’s, but from my students’ sentences, I conclude that the rules for the conditional are collapsing everywhere.
Darling’s sentence would have been a lot clearer if he had said, “If he had thrown a knuckle curve ball on the third strike, that guy would not be there.” That is a sentence of 18 words, versus the confusing sentence, which only has 15. Perhaps this is a case of the language trying to simplify, economize, be more efficient. Languages do that all the time. Some of the efforts work, and some don’t.
These changes in the conditional are not adding anything to the language – they are confusing us, breaking up timelines and removing the “possibility, permission, volition, necessity,” elements of the sentence. Since there is no replacement for these forms, omitting them causes only confusion.
There are several ways to approach this, but perhaps the most efficient first attack should be aimed at improving fluency with the basic forms. Choose sentences from student papers which use the conditional correctly, ask all the students to express the sentences in the two other tenses.
If he wants to, he will come
If he wanted to, he would come
If he had wanted to, he would have come.