Mindfulness in the College Classroom

I distinctly remember the moment it occurred to me that teaching undergraduates was taking a significant toll on my health. It was late-November. I had just finished a lecture on the 2016 presidential election and the role of racial animosity in voter behavior. It was 9:00 PM, the classroom was emptying, I hadn’t eaten yet, and my FitBit showed my heart rate was 134 BPM — the fat-burning zone. By the time I got back to my car and was driving over the causeway from Sacramento to my home in Davis, I was lightheaded and dizzy. I spent the rest of the night trying to unwind with some garbage TV, but it was well into the early morning hours before I fell asleep. My last thought was, “THIS is unsustainable.”

Flash forward to September 2019. I stood in a newly built lecture room on the campus of CSUMB. It was my first day on the campus since finishing my Ph.D. and my first day as a full-time lecturer/TT hopeful. Seated in front of me were about 35 upper-division, prelaw students eager to learn about conflict resolution. I had built the course as part skills-based learning and part political theory — a kind of exploratory course on the origins and potential solutions for political conflict. The clock on the wall showed it was time to start. Taking a deep breath and listening to the air enter and exit my lungs, I told the class, “Before we begin, I want you to pause . . .”

The Need for Mindfulness

The difference in my approach between 2016 and 2019 comes down to what should be an obvious realization: just as our personal lives require care and cultivation, so, too, do our professional lives — especially as college instructors. Unlike my public school teacher parents, who see the same set of students every day for an entire year and who are deeply involved in the lives of a small sample of students, I am a distant presence in my students’ academic lives. Sure, they sit in my classroom, they take notes, they discuss, they occasionally appear in office hours with a limited set of questions. Rarely, one or two will ask for career advice (the law background shows up on their radar). But for the most part, I am a guy they listen to for a few hours a week and a dispenser of grades.

At the same time, I feel passionate about the subjects I teach. I get amped when I talk about a topic dear to me (e.g., citizen solidarity, conflicts between the religious and irreligious, Native American struggles of respect, etc.). I rage when I attack counterarguments. I feel the excitement of seeing a student “get it.” I slump my shoulders when I face the mundane tasks of university teaching — which I won’t name here. And I rinse and repeat at the start of a new semester.

This separation inevitably breeds the kind of thing I experienced in November 2016. The stress of “getting through the material,” the energy needed to hold students’ attention, and the individual struggle of 30–60 people on various points of an emotional spectrum is, quite simply, a recipe for burn out. It is for this reason that I began turning to mindful pedagogy as a solution.

After my 2016 experience, I began reading the research on techniques for fostering a contemplative learning atmosphere for my students and myself. The research is new and growing, as more and more college professors embrace the need for buttressing content with contentment. In a 2008 summary of this research, Shapiro, Brown, and Astin note that mindful teaching can not only have an impact on improving both teacher and student mental health, but it can have a significantly positive effect on performance — both in how a teacher delivers material and how students receive it.

Some of this is about technique: real changes to lecture tone, activity, and discussion can “bring down the temperature” in the room. But a large part of changing classroom atmosphere is about recognizing and capitalizing on different ways of knowing. As Tobin Hart argues, contemplation is one of multiple types of knowledge acquisition, but often overlooked when a lecturer has so much information to dispense in a limited time. Creating space for students to think about a subject — rather than take notes, discuss, do an activity, or to ask questions — allows them to sit with a subject in the privacy of their own minds, teasing out the nuances for themselves. Think Plato, Montaigne, or Descartes alone in their rooms, creating thought spaces for themselves to reflect and ponder on broader questions.

What is Mindful Teaching?

Over the last few years, I have used a few classroom techniques that I think allow for contemplative learning. Each of these techniques has led to a dramatic drop in my own classroom stress and has been something students enjoy doing. Each semester, when my students continue to lament my grading habits or critique my selection of readings, they overwhelmingly say how much they appreciate my efforts to create mindful space.

1. Meditative Moments

In my meditative moments, I usually set aside a short amount of time at the beginning of class to create a structured meditation activity. The goal is not to make the students into headspace experts. Rather, as I routinely tell them, it’s a chance to leave their daily “baggage” at the door and to neutralize whatever stress might get in the way of a rich discussion of the day’s topic. Sometimes I play music and ask them to close their eyes, concentrating only on the music itself. Other times, we do two- to three-minute breathing exercises, in which we listen to the air enter and exit our lungs. Occasionally, I will ask them to think about a specific idea and to reflect on it for a short period: think about a time that you experienced joy, think about a person who you currently lean on for support, what about the current season are you enjoying, etc. Sometimes, if it’s a long lecture period or if I sense the emotion in the room is rising, I will do this activity midway through the class to “hard reset.”

I’ve found that by doing this, I experience a drop in my own anxiety and a clarifying sense of where I plan to go with the lecture. Meanwhile, they have a chance to let go of whatever might be limiting their ability to focus through a long lecture.

2. Outdoor Walks

Outdoor walks have been the activity that my students most enjoy. Here, I dedicate a portion of the lecture hour to do a kind of walking discussion, wherein I spend a few minutes with the class content at one point in our walk and then lead the students on a walk to another point. I ask the students to be still and to keep their devices away in between lecture points. A key factor I try to emphasize is that they be aware of their surroundings as we move and to focus on what we see as we make our way on the walk.

That walking time in between gives students ample opportunity to think through what we have just discussed. The physical activity of moving through an area gets students to shake off that tired feeling that all of us start experiencing midway through a lecture. What I’ve found is that it also forces me to slow down and to think through each piece of the lecture, rather than ramming it through a set block of time.

I have the benefit of currently working on a beautiful campus in Monterey Bay, where there are plenty of opportunities to stroll through a natural setting. But it doesn’t have to be a hike through the Yosemite Valley for this to work; most campuses, even very urban ones, have some kind of quad or area to walk through. The key is to find a route that works for you and your students. Obviously, it should be a safe environment, free of obstruction. Moreover, it should be a route that affords everyone, regardless of physical ability, the chance to enjoy moving through an area with a group of their peers.

3. Journaling

Journaling is the classic form of contemplation and one that students are probably already familiar with. Most of the time, I ask students to keep a dedicated portion of their notes for their journal, either in a notebook or document on their device. Once in a while, I will send them home with a longer journaling project that I ask them to bring back with them for the next class hour. I always try to have a specific goal in mind for the journal entries, whether it is a question about the day’s topic, a prompt from their readings, or an opportunity to write down what they might be feeling that day. I try to avoid having the students share their journals with one another; I want to foster as much honesty as possible in the journals so that over time students can look back to get a clear window into their mental state throughout the semester.

The benefits of journaling have long been documented. I have found that these regular moments for writing create time for my own contemplation; while the students spend time working through a journal entry, I get that extra time to pause and to think through where I am in the lecture. I’ve also found that, if done with a goal in mind, students enjoy the free-writing experience. As I say to them repeatedly, even if the entry is nothing more than doodling, the act of putting pen to paper makes the connection between motor and mental activity. Granted, journals can get tedious, so I try to limit the number of times I do this during a semester; students can burn out quickly if the journals are becoming an end and not a means.

4. Listening

What I mean by listening is something very specific. My uncle, a high school teacher, often used to say, “You’re hearing, but not listening.” Undergraduates are always hearing; if they’re in the room, they’re hearing you and their peers. But listening — active, attentive listening — is a rare, difficult activity. Research shows that not only is this better for retention and learning, but it is a critical step to addressing conflict or problem-solving.

In my classroom, active listening activities usually involve students listening to one another. After lecturing or discussing for a while, I pause and put the students into groups of three or four. Two students usually serve as interlocutors, discussing a portion of what we’ve been working through as a class. Meanwhile, the other member of the group sits quietly and observes. As part of their observation, I ask the students to write down notes on the content of the discussion, the kinds of details each interlocutor brings up, and the “subtext” of the conversation (e.g., body language, emotion, voice tone, etc.). I then give some time for the observer to give feedback to the interlocutors about what they discussed and what an observer might have learned.

What I really enjoy about this activity is how students make the connection between what they say and what they mean. Frequently, observers will find details that interlocutors didn’t even know they were conveying. Moreover, observers learn pretty quickly that listening requires many levels of commitment to a conversation. I challenge the students to use these same techniques in their lecture participation; throughout a lecture, when I say “Now is a time to use those active listening skills,” students know exactly what I mean. And, for my own part, this activity gives me a chance to move around the room, to listen in on conversations, and to gauge what questions students might have about the lecture and to adjust accordingly.

5. Wrap-up Silence

If the meditative moment is the bookend at the beginning of class, the wrap-up silence is the bookend when class is over. In this activity, I ask students to pause before leaving the room. I seldom have a specific prompt in mind for this. Instead, as I explain to the students, this is their chance to spend a few minutes letting their minds complete the thoughts that may have been neglected in the rush of the lecture. This is exactly the Montaignian or Cartesian moment I want the students to aspire to, and it is my most favorite time of the class. I ask the students to put away their books and devices — to “pack up” for the day — and to sit still with the topic we’ve just explored. It’s probably too much to assume that students have earth-shattering realizations through this. But, as I do it regularly, I think students start to get what it is that we’re doing: the mental equivalent of allowing our bodies to digest what we’ve taken in.

What I’ve found from this activity is that it models exactly what Tobin Hart is getting at in the psychological literature. If other parts of the lecture are about processing facts, this part is about being contemplative, to access that part of the brain that allows for making connections, retaining information, and determining what to do with the content. For my students, they get a chance to close up the lecture and move on to the other parts of their day. For me, its a chance to be reflective about what I’ve accomplished and to think about where I might go the next time we meet. It’s perhaps a little sappy to go this far, but I want to believe that this activity does what teachers and students have been aspiring to since the earliest classrooms: to dedicate a sacred space for human flourishing through learning. Maybe it does that, or maybe it’s just a nice way to end an hour.

Conclusion

Now, this is all purely anecdotal. I am not a psychologist and have done zero original research on any of what I have just offered. I have no data to point to that my students get better grades or are better humans because of my efforts. Instead, I have offered all of the foregoing as a list of what is working for my students and me. I hope that by offering this list, it might help another college lecturer get some breathing space. And, most importantly, I hope that I can add my voice to those who think that mindfulness in the college classroom is a necessary component of modern learning. I would love nothing more than to have conversations with anyone on this topic!

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