Friday, October 28, 2011

I'm new here

Parker J. Palmer's and Arthur Zajonc's The heart of higher education: A call to renewal (transforming the academy through collegial conversations) (the centerpiece of the most recent faculty Learning Circle in which I took part, and about which I've posted somewhat recently) gave me more than its fair share of things to think about. Many of its insights offered theoretical, even spiritual, enlightenment regarding teaching, but other insights were more practical and practicable.

One of the more down-to-earth suggestions offered up by one of the coauthors' colleagues (Patricia Owen-Smith, Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies in the Oxford College of Emory University) was a means of encouraging contemplative practice in the classroom simply by playing music to being each class period. Owen-Smith (pp. 157-161 in the above work) describes how several years ago she began the practice of playing 7-9 minutes of music at the outset of each class. She encouraged her students to "go within, be still, and listen to the self." While she admitted the difficulty of tying this contemplative practice to improvements in students' achievement of cognitive learning goals (as if this would be the purpose of playing the music in the first place!), she reports that

over time, I learned that the music and meditative moments had an impact on many students. Some students began to ask for guidance with their contemplation and reflection....By midsemester several students per class would mention that they looked forward to this nine-minute period of music. Some students began to bring music from their own collections that they found inspirational and important. As we neared the end of the semester, the structure of the class had changed from a group of individuals reluctantly gathered together for study to a community of friends and partners who were creating a space of introspection, quiet, and respect for the process of study and the development of self.

Once or twice a week for the past few weeks I've begun a similar practice in one of my classes. It began with my reading of an excerpt from Rilke's letters to Franz Kappus (a reading which moved one student so much she had to leave the room), and continued with a passage from Dick Leith's history of the English language. At one student's suggestion one morning we watched a scene from Harold and Maude, and the next day I read one of my own recently-written poems ("Ode to Ned Maddrell," which I penned for the last-living speaker of the Manx language). To open off on Monday (at the suggestion of another student) we'll take in one of Gil Scott-Heron's last videos.

This practice has developed naturally, in an easygoing fashion, and perhaps unsurprisingly it's happened in the most natural and easygoing section of any of my courses this semester. From Day One nearly every person in that section of Precalculus has worked well together, helping each other out and asking for help when help is needed. This natural ease with which we've worked together all term has made it hard for me to tell whether the contemplative practice has had a real effect on the esprit de corps of the class...

...but I'm not going to take any chances. The practice has definitely helped me to make connections between the intellectual and the personal, between the scientific and the humanistic. It's helped me to remain focused on what really matters, and it's helped to remind both me and my students that we do well to look for mathematics' usefulness...and to look for its beauty. Much like well-chosen low-stakes writing activities, this practice is well worth the few minutes of class time that it takes.

Beginning right away I'm going to introduce this practice in all of my classes. It can't hurt.

What effect can it have in a class like my current Abstract Algebra class, a room full of stressed-out work-wearied students representing, honestly, probably the greatest range of mathematical ability I've seen in one section since I began teaching at UNCA over six years ago? I admit here and now that I find myself frustrated at how I've managed this course. For some time now I've felt the need to slow its pace to accommodate the most modestly quick learners, but without sacrificing the true nature of the subject, a nature laden with often-abstract proofs. I don't know how much slowing the pace down has helped: several students are still struggling, and as much as I hate to leave them behind (I hate hate hate people who teach to the top ten percent), I simply must move on. Moreover, I sense that the slowness has led to frustration on the part of some of the class's quicker students, and I can feel cliquishness setting in...not a nice way to end the semester.

Maybe it'd be wise at this point to remind everyone that we all have a right to say "I'm new here": we're all free to make mistakes from time to time. After all, no one's lived this life before, and the future hits us all at the same time. But no matter how far you go, you can always turn around.

What say, folks? What are we going to make of our last five weeks or so together?

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