5 questions with Alison Umminger

Alison Umminger is an Associate Professor of English at the University of West Georgia where she has taught since 2004. She teaches creative writing and was the President of the Harvard Lampoon as an undergraduate. Her first novel, American Girls, was published in 2016. In recent years, Alison has maintained a keen interest in monastic and contemplative spirituality which she has incorporated into her classroom practice.

JW: I share your interest in the contemplative habits of monastic communities and their capacity to center us in the world’s deep wisdom amid the trials and tribulations of the contemporary age. How do these practices facilitate learning and the well-being of your students?

I’m not sure how many of my students would think of themselves as having a contemplative practice, but I encourage them, at the very least, to put their phones away for set periods of time — take a walk, make a friend. Students are under so much stress and so crunched for time, yet much of their “free” time is spent on devices. I challenge students (and indeed everyone) to find spaces in their lives that are technology free, and also to have a period of time in each day to sit in silence, be that a meditation or prayer practice, or taking a walk in nature.

The other thing monastic communities practice is balance. I was struck by that the first time I visited one; no one area of a person’s life should become so overwhelming that it dwarfs all other aspects of their life. I think we see that very clearly with the primacy we place on work. Our culture not-so-subtly encourages work to be pursued to the neglect of other aspects of life — community, prayer, silence, family, etc. Students are so busy they rarely have time to reflect. While I can’t make them work less, I do have them keep journals in my classes so that they can pause and reflect on the work they are doing and their own progress and feelings. And I try to make my classrooms into spaces where kindness is practiced.

JW: These practices are rooted in relationships both with God and with others in a monastic community and the world beyond. Healthy child development is rooted in healthy relationship as well. What have you learned about your own relationships, especially with your child, from maintaining these practices?

AU: Two things — that children are watching you as much as they are listening to you, and that there’s no substitute for presence. In many ways, young children naturally possess some of the qualities we work harder to cultivate as adults — undivided attention and presence. If a six-year-old is playing with you, that child is generally fully in the moment. The challenge as the parent is to be in the moment as well — to put down your phone, or not be thinking about the e-mail you need to return or even what’s for dinner. And truly, I struggle with this as much as the next person, but I have removed all social media from my phone, and I try to limit computer time when my daughter is home from school. I want her to know that managing a relationship to technology takes work, and that she’s important enough to put my phone down. Jesus said that “where your treasure is, your heart will be also.” I think that monastic communities teach us that we have to cultivate the relationships that we want to grow. If I want to know God, or my daughter, or my husband better and grow that relationship, I have to put in the time — to make it my treasure.

JW: Humor has obviously played a major role in your life as evidenced by your leadership of the Harvard Lampoon as an undergraduate. What should families (re)learn about being funny together?

AU: I think Brene Brown talked about just being goofy with her kids and what a gift that is. In our family, we love to put on bad 80s music and dance around the living room. Sometimes I put my mom hat to the side and just really “go there” with my daughter in terms of being silly and making up rhymes and stories. I think that the “fun” part of “funny” is what to start with — if you’re having a good time, you usually wind up laughing. It’s hard to be fun and/or funny when you are incredibly stressed or stretched too thin. Sometimes I just remind myself that the world will keep turning if everything is not done perfectly, and relax into the kid-zone. I have been know to descend to potty-humor when we are not at the dinner table.

JW: What is one book we should read, podcast we should listen to, or piece of art we should encounter to better understand childhood and the experiences of children today?

AU: I think your previous question segues into this one, in that we can forget that children speak the language of PLAY. As adults, especially when you are trying to get your child to behave in a certain way, this is one of the easiest things of which to lose sight. My friend Bill Wu, a child psychologist, recommended the book Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen and I found it incredibly helpful. As a writer, I still get to “play” on a regular basis, but I found that I couldn’t connect that to my parenting intuitively. Cohen’s book promotes play as a way of bonding. Wonderful advice!

JW: Looking ahead, what signals or trends do you perceive that make you most hopeful about the future our children will inhabit?

AU: I am hopeful that we can stop this country’s love affair with guns. The actions students are taking now make me hopeful.