I’m slowly reading through Contemplative Practices in Higher Education by Daniel Barbezat and Mirabai Bush. I wish I could say I’m reading through it slowly because I’m putting into practice what they’re arguing, but it’s really just because the semester has started, and I don’t have time to read for long periods of time any longer. Still, the fact that I’m forced to read through it slowly is probably a good thing.
I’m still early in the book, but there’s one idea that’s already popped out at me. When it comes to teaching books at this point in my career, I’m usually happy with just one or two ideas. I can’t say that I’m convinced with all of their argument or how that might show up in class, and I don’t think people will see significant changes to my classes after I’ve finished the book, but there may be subtle differences. The one idea I hope to explore is that of silence.Barbezat and Bush talk about a variety of contemplative practices, ranging from meditation to ways of reading (such as lectio divina) to silence. I’ve been thinking about how much talking goes on in my classes, much of it from me, of course. I’m talking at them or listening to them talk or having them talk to each other in groups, and there’s almost never any silence. One exception is when I ask them a question that’s either poorly set up or beyond their ability to answer at that point, a feeling all of us know. Even then, though, most of us don’t allow that silence to last for more than a few seconds.
In thinking about this idea, I was reminded of Theodore Sizer’s book Horace’s Compromise (1984). Despite the fact that the book is now thirty years old and written about high schools, it has much to say about teaching. One point I remember Sizer making is the struggle students face in shifting from one class to another so quickly, moving from English to math to history in under three hours. We have been thinking about our subject all day, but they have had to juggle a variety of subjects, not to mention everything else students think about. College students are no different, and the problem is, in some ways, even worse, given that they might not have had our class for 48 hours. While we have been thinking and planning for that class, they have been thinking about everything else but out class.
I’ve been wondering if beginning class with a minute or two of silence would help them make the transition to class. Perhaps that moment would help them move from wherever they were when they walked in the class to a place where they can better engage with the material. I could possibly even have a quote from the reading that I could give them time to sit with, but maybe nothing at all. Instead of putting my first-year students into groups to talk through ideas, I could have them take a few minutes on their own, jot down some ideas in silence, then talk about them.
When I worked at a school in Washington State, we started faculty meetings with a moment of silence. The school wasn’t religious any longer, though the vestiges were still there (a chapel, a chaplain, classes on religion, but nothing required of students), and I wonder if the moment of silence was because of that background. I never asked, but I always liked having that moment to recalibrate myself.
My students might enjoy that, too. I’m not going to make a change this semester, but I’m seriously considering it for next semester. I might adjust my classes ever so slightly and see if it makes a difference. If all goes well, maybe no one will say anything about it.