Your Trip to Amherst

Red Leaves

The nearest airport is in Connecticut, so when your plane lands you still have a good long drive to get to Amherst. You talk to the shuttle driver. She has an accent you can’t place, but she’s lived in Massachusetts for at least a decade.

She drops you off at Allen House, a little bed and breakfast you found online. It proves to be a lovingly-done Victorian-era restoration, cozy and charming. The place is booked full of people from all over the world who are here for the same purpose as you. An instant and easy camaraderie springs up between you.

You’re here for the Fifth Annual Conference of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE), which is being held at Amherst College.

You make your way up the street to a noodle shop with a couple fellow travelers for a quick dinner. It’s cold, much colder than New Orleans, but only outdoors. You’re surprised to find that it’s warm and toasty indoors wherever you go. Apparently central heating is to New England what air conditioning is to the Deep South.

Then you walk over to Amherst College campus. The conference begins this evening. After registering at Converse Hall you find your way to Stirn Auditorium.

The ACMHE conference is a little different from other conferences, and that’s evident from the start. The opening plenary begins with silent meditation. There are a couple hundred people packed into the auditorium. Though no one says a word, you feel the power of their presence all the more. You are aware of the potentialities that will unfold over the next 40 hours.

If that wasn’t enough to distinguish this conference as unique, what comes next certainly seals the deal. An extra space has been reserved on the keynote panel. An audience member is randomly selected to fill it.

Random

And so the conference begins. The theme this year is “Integrity of Practice.” The panel considers questions that revolve around this theme. Then the audience members discuss the questions amongst themselves, and finally share their thoughts with the larger group.

Integrity of Practice

The next morning you have breakfast at the Amherst Inn, owned by the same people who run Allen House. The breakfast table serves as an extension of the conference, the conversations of the night before continuing over pancakes and coffee.

Very soon, you’re back on campus for the first of the parallel sessions. There are nine sessions running at the same time, and all the topics look fascinating. How to choose? You find yourself drawn to a session by David Forbes of Brooklyn College/CUNY, with the provocative title, “Contemplative Education and Neoliberalism: A Perfect World Still Requires Radical Action.”

A Perfect World Still Calls for Radical Transformation

Forbes’ presentation is chock-full of ideas, far more than even a fast-talking New Yorker can cover in the allotted time. He is asking all the right questions. “What is the purpose of contemplative practices in education? Is it enlightenment/awakening and the elimination of greed, ill-will, and delusion for everyone and at all societal levels, or is it a relativistic technology used to improve attention, reduce stress, and gain personal success and productivity in a competitive society?” The conversation that follows is galvanizing.

The morning continues. All the sessions look so promising that you decide to take a cue from the previous night’s panel and select your next session randomly. You end up listening to Ed Sarath from the University of Michigan hold forth on “Integrity of Practice in Meditation and Improvisation Pedagogy.”

Ed Sarath

You’re stunned to realize that improvisation has been perhaps the most central musical practice throughout world history, except for a period of about 200 years in Europe. This seems to throw light on the state of the modern academy, which even in America tends to be both highly traditional and Eurocentric. But that is changing.

You’ve come here from a historically Black university, so it is with special interest that you attend your next session, “Contemplative Race Theory: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Racial Discourse.” The presenters, Seth Schoen and Rev. Christopher Carter, seem very young. In fact, they are graduate students, and this is their first such presentation.

Contemplative Race Theory

They present a “compassion practice” which they have developed together, a fairly advanced guided meditation that is grounded in critical race theory. It would seem to be a good way to prepare classes for difficult, sensitive or contentious discussions. They hope to publish on the practice soon. You make a note for future reference.

In the afternoon, there are open space sessions, organized around topics suggested by participants that very morning. You attend a discussion on race, class and gender.

Open Session on Race, Class & Gender

The conversation is heartfelt, respectful yet challenging. You are taken by one participant’s observation that contemplation disrupts her “default modes of being,” which suggests the subtle potential of such practices for subverting engrained social structures.

The theme for the conference is “Integrity of Practice.” But your own personal theme is beginning to emerge. It might be called, “The Joy of Walking Slowly.” You find yourself walking often in the company of two women who walk slowly for different reasons. Karen is walking with a cane. Eileen simply seems to be the sort of person who is never rushed. You find you must make a conscious effort to slow down and stick with their pace, but this seems entirely in keeping with the spirit of the conference.

Before dinner on Saturday evening Karen reveals she doesn’t have a sprained ankle or a broken foot. She suffered a life-threatening stroke some while ago. You listen in awe to the story of her recovery, and how her 30-year practice of meditation helped her through a very difficult time.

It’s been a full day. You’re tired. You sleep like a rock that night, for about ten hours, disturbed only by a welcome nocturnal visitation from the B&B’s resident housecat.


Sunday morning begins in much the same manner as Saturday, with conversation around the breakfast table as stimulating as any one of the formal sessions. You walk to campus with Robert-Louis Abrahamson. When learning of your fascination with seasonal progress, he bestows upon you a touching gift: a copy of his own CD and accompanying booklet, Journey Through the Seasons, a cycle of meditations on the five Chinese healing energies.

You’re excited to attend a roundtable discussion on “The Role of Teaching Centers in Introducing and Supporting Contemplative Practices,” convened by your new friend Eileen Abrams.

The Role of Teaching Centers

A nascent faculty development network seems to be emerging. You know from previous experience how powerful this can be, and the exchange of ideas is invigorating. For example, one colleague suggests exploring the connection between contemplative pedagogy and retention rates. It seems like a promising line of inquiry.

But the best has, perhaps, been saved for last. The impromptu student panel was one of the most engaging sessions at the ACMHE conference. This was, in part, an opportunity for faculty to ask students, “What do we need to know from you?”

Student Panel

A number of new connections are made for you. For example: Metacognition is enhanced by meditation. We’ve sponsored workshops on both topics but never drawn that connection. You think to yourself: We should sponsor more student panels at CAT. We have much to learn from our students.

On the ride back to the airport, you find yourself once again conversing with the shuttle driver. He hails from Morocco and is a big fan of the Boston Celtics. As you describe the conference you discover what you’ve learned.

Pedagogy must connect course content to a larger whole; otherwise, we are merely conveying disassociated tidbits of information, quickly “crammed” into short-term memory and just as quickly forgotten. Pedagogy must be meaningful, purposeful, and connected to deep values in order to be effective and transformative. You’re struck by the awe-inspiring scope of this charge. You realize that this domain — the domain of meaning, purpose and values — provides a good working definition of spirituality. These issues are the main concern of many religions. Therefore, in order to be effective, teachers must be on a spiritual path or grounded in a spiritual practice. It’s not something extra, some “value added” proposition. It’s absolutely essential. It’s the core, the foundation of what we do. And it follows that a holistic faculty development program must provide support for the spiritual development of faculty members.

The implications are staggering. However will you communicate this to the folks back home?

Cross-posted at CAT Food (for thought)

Step into the Light

Equinox Truck

Now we enter that half of the year where the days are longer than the nights.

The equinox came this morning at fourteen minutes past midnight. I have to make an effort not to fixate on that single moment. I was asleep anyhow. Better to extend the celebration. The equilux was last Thursday here in New Orleans. Why not start there?

I got a second equilux this year, as I flew up to Philadelphia. The equilux, that day when sunrise and sunset are most nearly twelve hours apart, varies by latitude. It comes a day later there.

I went to Bryn Mawr College for the fifth Mindfulness in Education conference, which culminated in a full day of (mostly) silent meditation. I’ve never done anything quite like that before.

In retrospect, it was a great way to celebrate the equinox. Mindfulness surely cultivates balance. But I missed my family.

Then I came back home, and kept Persephone home from school Monday, so we could celebrate the equinox together. In addition to baking our weekly bread, we dyed eggs to decorate an “egg tree,” prepared a vernal-themed feast for dinner, and ran to the doctor for the girl’s four-year checkup and vaccinations. The meal was delicious: spring greens with sprouts, quiche, and charoset for desert. I also made black and white cookies, but didn’t get them done until later that night. By the time I finally hit the sack I was quite exhausted. I bit off a little more than I could chew. Not very balanced.

In the spirit of purification, I haven’t had anything to drink since Mardi Gras. (Well, actually since the weekend after Mardi Gras, but really, who’s counting? We had a visit from Ed the Meat Poet and I popped a cork.) I’ve been tapering off the coffee too, down to just a few swallows this morning. I hope to start on some dandelion-chicory root tea later this week. The idea of a seasonal detox session is appealing to me. In the same spirit I’ve even looked into fasting, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that quite yet. I am eating less, but that’s a topic for another post.

And if the spirit of the season can be maintained why not continue until Hellacious Saturday? Or Easter? Or Passover? Or forever?

Six months ago, at the autumnal equinox, I dedicated myself to a full year of discovering or uncovering my religion. This is the halfway mark, the inversion of that time across the mirror of the year. The dark half of the year is behind us for now, the light half ahead. The past six months have been fruitful, but my spirits have often flagged. I haven’t written about that much. The idea was to post less often and to write more thoughtfully, but to remain continually engaged in that process. Instead I’ve lapsed into periods of complete disengagement. Perhaps I need that reflective exercise to maintain a proper perspective.

It’s always a good time to begin again. Looking forward, I feel a buoyancy.

Microaffirmations

So. My boss and I went to St. Louis for five days and four nights for POD 2010. Here are some notes on the whole experience.

Perhaps most noteworthy, from a strictly personal perspective, was the fact that I co-presented at not one but two sessions. The first was called “Investigating Our Blind Spot,” which I co-presented with my boss to a packed room.

Blindspot

I was proud of this because it was at least partly my idea. It grew out of a conversation we had on the way back from POD 2009. Here’s an excerpt from our proposal, which I wrote all by my very own self.

As faculty developers, we often rely on chronic participants to assess our programs, “frequent flyers” who see the value of our offerings and keep coming back for more. These faculty provide valuable insight into what we are doing right and how we can improve our services. However, the limitations of such an approach are self-evident. Chronic participants present an incomplete picture at best, and at worst they may contribute to a narcissistic cycle of self-admiration wherein fundamental assumptions are rarely challenged. As a result, even while we learn to better serve our most ardent supporters, our effectiveness across the institution may be limited.

If chronic participants act as a mirror, reflecting our own values, what might we learn by looking beyond the mirror, into our “blind spot”? Faculty members who never (or very rarely) take advantage of development opportunities can provide information that is just as useful in setting the direction of our offerings. Yet most of our knowledge about these nonparticipating faculty is anecdotal or speculative. Who are these faculty? Why don’t they participate, and how might we better serve them as faculty developers?

We conducted an investigation into these questions over the summer. I can’t take credit for the research. I had no clue how to proceed, but it was right up the Boss Lady’s alley. It was an educational experience for me. I won’t get into all the details here, but the turnout for the session indicated that the concept resonated with others. Perhaps a publication will come out of it.

On a truly bizarre note, after the “Blind Spot” session, I was asked for my autograph by a ROX fan. No lie.

The other session I co-presented was “Uncovering the Heart in Higher Education.” I mentioned my involvement with this previously. Here’s the description.

Beneath the frenetic pace of the academy and its superficial busyness, many of us feel an emptiness and absence of purpose. Surveys of faculty in the Spirituality in Higher Education project confirm the underlying fragmentation in the lives of faculty. This session extends a conversation ongoing at the conference since a symposium cosponsored by POD, the California Institute of Integral Studies and the Fetzer Institute in October 2008. Participants will experience aspects of the new academy we imagine including silence, mind-body practices and sharing personal worldviews. The session will also provide opportunity for exchange of promising faculty “heart” development practices on campuses.

It was a fun session. We took a moment of silence to contemplate some serious questions, we did a yoga breathing exercise, we broke into dyads to discuss our fundamental worldviews. We also shared what we were doing to promote this work on various campuses. That was my contribution; I discussed our modest efforts here at the University, which I have also written about here over the last few months.


As for sessions at which I did not present, the most interesting one I attended was called “Gateway to the East? Professional Renewal Using the Chakra System” by Michele DiPietro. This was fascinating to me because although I’ve heard of chakras for decades I know almost nothing about them, and certainly I’ve never thought about them as a framework for professional development.

My golden shining moment came during a plenary session by Kristen Renn of Michigan State University, titled “Intersections of Identity, Teaching, and Learning: LGBT Issues and Student Success.” At one point she talked about the concept of microaggressions, a term coined by Chester Pierce in the 1970s. These are everyday verbal comments or other behaviors that fall short of outright physical aggression, but serve to assert and maintain the dominance of a majority group over various minorities — basically little ways of putting other people down and perpetuating inequalities. When Renn talked about strategies for supporting students who might feel marginalized, she talked about small positive behaviors intended to indicate solidarity. These might be considered the opposite of microaggressions, but Renn complained that she didn’t have a word for such behaviors, and she invited suggestions from the audience during the comment session after her talk. When the time came I stepped up to the mic and offered my idea: microaffirmations. I got a big round of applause for this, and received continuing kudos throughout the rest of the conference. One person even mentioned how much she liked my voice.

Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun. It turns out this term was already coined by Mary Rowe in 1973. But I’ll happily take all the credit.

I don’t think POD 2010 will prove as transformative for me personally as POD 2009 was. How could it be? This is not a real disappointment nor a criticism, just a statement of fact. But only time will tell.
Continue reading “Microaffirmations”

POD 2009

I’ve been doing faculty development for over ten years. Yet I’ve never attended a conference on the subject — until now. Last week I went to Houston for the 34th Annual POD Network Conference. The theme was “Welcoming Change: Generations and Regeneration.” And it was a blast.

Window Box

I attended a number of sessions, including:

  • Welcoming the Change of Including Students in Faculty/Instructional Development
  • Religious Literacy and Interfaith Dialogue: Educating for Global Citizenship
  • Uncovering the Heart in Higher Education: Emerging Understanding and Practice
  • Contemplative Pedagogy: Fostering Attention for a New Generation

They were all quite good. It was especially interesting to see how those last three fit together. I’m not sure where that will lead, but it’s interesting to me.

I have to admit, somewhat sheepishly, that the highlight of the conference was a plenary session by Neil Howe, “Millenials Go to College.” I’ve been skeptical of Howe’s work ever since Generations came out in the early 90s. It all seems quite brilliant but a little too clever, a little too pat. So I had my guard up but found his presentation utterly beguiling. It was also unexpectedly moving, and I was surprised to find myself actually crying, not once but repeatedly throughout his talk. What’s really weird: I’m not sure why. Granted, I’m a softer touch since the events of four years ago, but I’m still not sure what this was all about. Perhaps it’s because I saw myself as standing outside of the march of generations for so long, outside of history in a sense, but now I’m a new father and still coming to terms with what that means. Maybe it was the positivity of Howe’s take on Millenials. Or maybe it was simply the (temporary) release of a long-held skepticism. In any case, much of what Howe said matched up well with my own experience. When he described Silents he could have been describing my parents. His characterization of Boomers reminded me of Xy’s parents. And of course my own skepticism about his theories is part and parcel of the Gen X experience. But don’t call me a believer quite yet. I’m still mulling this over. There’s a critical article in the Chronicle that I’m only midway through reading.

I also checked out a bunch of poster presentations. These are the ones that stick out the most in my mind a few days later:

  • Student and Instructor Satisfaction with the First Day of Class
  • Midcourse Evaluations: We Built It and They Came
  • Women Blog the Academy

That last one was a trip, because I work with a number of profs who blog, but I never noticed they’re (almost) all male. And to think I call myself a feminist. Plenty of food for thought there.

And in fact we did a poster presentation of our own. That’s why we were there — because our podcast was up for a POD Innovation award.

Poster Presentation

We got a number of compliments on the visual style of the poster itself.

Poster

We didn’t win, but we did get a certificate for making it to the finalist round. We even ran into our most recent interviewee, the irrepressible Mano Singham.

All in all I was very pleased with the conference. I was stimulated to think about my what I do in whole new ways. I met some great people like Kat Baker and Nan Peck and the aforementioned Mano Singham. I’m glad I went. In retrospect it seems kind of silly that it took me so long to get there.

Panel #3 (reflections)

Before the panel, Chris and Sandy and Alan and Ted and I were sitting together, having breakfast and chatting.

Chris asked each of us for a tidbit of personal info he could use in the introductions. I told him I put the first TV series on the internet. Alan considered for a moment and finally said, “just try not to use the word blog while introducing me,” because once you’re labeled a “blogger” it brings up certain associations and stereotypes that can be hard to overcome. A consummately reasonable request.

Shortly thereafter, the panel got underway, and Chris introduced us down the line. Sandy showed the new video from levees.org, which you should definitely watch. When Chris made his introduction of Alan he said, “OK, and now I’m supposed to introduce Alan Gutierrez without using the word ‘blog.’ Except, oops, I just did.” He proceeded to use the the word “blog” once more during his introduction, and then he let Alan say a bit about himself. When Alan made a passing reference to blogs, Chris interrupted to say, “You just said the word ‘blog.'”

I was up next, and when I said the b-word Chris interrupted me to say, “You just said the word ‘blog.'” Then he said it was OK for me to use the word, and I did so with reckless abandon.

If I was Alan, I guess I would have felt pretty annoyed. Still, I couldn’t help being amused, against my better judgment.

There’s a more comprehensive write-up of the panel at Alan Levine’s Cog Dog Blog.


Other highlights included Nick Spitzer‘s opening address which made the connection between creativity and creolization; a presentation on webcomics by Ruben Puentadora; Alan Levine’s 50 Web 2.0 Ways to Tell a Story; Joe Lambert‘s presentation on storymapping; and Michael Mizell-Nelson’s closer on the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank.

But mainly I’m glad to have finally connected with the New Media Consortium. My old boss urged me to check them out some time before Katrina, but after the storm I was preoccupied. My typical complaint of conferences and organizations is that they tend to be either too academic or too commercial to be relevant to what I do. But the NMC seems to be more or less in the zone.

Oh, and I also met Chris Wood, the distinguished author of Prytania Waterline.

Presentation

I was not very enthused about presenting at the MERLOT International Conference. I submitted a proposal out of a vague sense of duty, of professional obligation. I put off preparing until the last possible moment. Then I found a slide show I’d assembled for ED-MEDIA 2003, on the exact same topic. I threw in a couple slides for some projects we’d started since then, a couple slides for Katrina, and I was ready. Easy enough.

When it came time to make my presentation on Thursday morning, I was surprised at how many people showed up. There were quite a number of other concurrent sessions, and I was up against a “featured” session down the hall. Nevertheless my little room was packed.

As I made my presentation, a strange thing occurred. I felt my spirits lifting. I hadn’t thought of myself as particularly dejected, except in retrospect as my mood improved. It sounds faintly ridiculous, but I impressed myself. I didn’t intend to talk myself up, but that’s exactly what I did. When all the work I’ve done over eight years is stacked up and described in a few minutes, it sounds pretty good. And when I got to the part where I was going to talk about shortcomings in my whole approach, I came up empty-handed. Without fully being fully aware of it, I’d been planning to imply that the whole enterprise was a failure. Suddenly that seemed patently ridiculous.

It was kind of a spiritual experience for me.

I’m skeptical of the craze for distributing presentation slide shows online. So much is lost without the presenter. Nevertheless, you can check out my presentation, at least for a short while. Hint: You’ll need the Flash player; navigate with your spacebar or arrow buttons.

Reclusian

I spent a good part of the last three days at a conference entitled Humanity and the Earth: The Legacy of Élisée Reclus (1830-1905). It was put together by John Clark at Loyola University. Topics included “Classical Anarchism in the Age of Reclus,” “Kropotkin and Reclus’ Friendship and the Cross-fertilization of Ideas,” “The Future of Green Anarchy,” “Abstracting Anarchism: Élisée Reclus, Frentisek Kupka and the Project of Modernist Art,” “Élisée Meets the Big Easy” and others. I got to meet Peter Marshall, author of Demanding the Impossible, which we used as a text in the study group John organized a couple years ago. I also met Aragorn! (the exclamation mark appears to be a part of his name) who helps edit and produce the magazine Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed. I also saw some old friends and acquaintances, and Saturday night there was a “Reclusian banquet” at John’s house featuring Paul Gailunas and Ukelele Against the Machine. All in all it was a stimulating and provocative and inspiring event, and a welcome respite from the Katrina recovery issues that dominate my daily life.

NYC 40

The radio alarm woke me up Thursday morning with news of bombs going off at the British Embassy in Midtown Manhattan. And I thought to myself: “Shit. That’s where I’m staying tonight.”

A few hours later, I was in New York. I checked into the Vanderbilt YMCA, just a few blocks away from the British Embassy. No further explosions, though.

As for the Y, it was perfectly adequate. My private room, though small, had a color TV, a refrigerator, an alarm clock, a towel — everything, really, except a private bath. For $75 a night, it’s a good place to flop.

I had dinner with Phil and Jen Thursday night, and with Ed the Meat Poet Friday night. And of course I attended the Share, Share Widely conference, which was the whole reason for the trip.

Everything went smoothly, and I think that may be why the whole trip seemed kind of unreal to me: no friction, no pain, no proof that I was really there.

All told I spent 40 hours in the city. I observed the following:

  • People walk faster.
  • I wasn’t panhandled, not even once.
  • I only saw two homeless people.
  • Everything seemed very “safe” — plenty of hustle and bustle, but no dangerous edge, none of the tension I remember from previous visits.
  • Chain stores have taken over.

It was unpleasantly and unseasonably cold in New York, so I was glad to return to New Orleans. Xy was supposed to pick me up from the airport at 9:45 yesterday morning, only she thought that was New York time, and so she added an hour and was planning to be there at 10:45 — never mind the fact that arrivals and departures are always given in local time, not to mention that she should have subtracted, not added. Well, she got me eventually, but damn, what a ditz!