Mind’s gift of concentration

In this post Jenni Carr shares the resources she used as part of a workshop at the ‘Re-enchanting the academy’ conference. To read about the background to the workshop and further details of the other activities included, please click on this link.

Background

 

I remember clearly the day I fell in love with Foucault. I was introduced to him by a matchmaker called Stuart Hall. There were others at the party. Stuart first introduced me to Ferdinand de Saussure and then Roland Barthes. Both had interesting things to say and were entertaining company. But Stuart had saved the best for last, he introduced Michel Foucault explaining that “relations of power, not relations of meaning” were Foucault’s main concern. Boom! I was enchanted.

My Foucauldian love affair continues today. I teach a course that asks students to engage with a number of different theoretical frameworks in their assessed work – Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism and psychoanalytical theory, in addition to post-structuralism. Much as I love ‘theory’ generally and enjoy the process of scaffolding students’ understanding of these frameworks, my heart still skips a beat when a student asks for help with “that discourse stuff”. And students ask this a great deal! Over the years I have had to accept that not everyone experiences ‘love at first read’ when being introduced to Foucault. This is troublesome for students studying this particular course because, although the other frameworks are used as analytical lenses at certain points, it has a post-structuralist underpinning throughout.

The course itself is quite unusual in that it explores the relationship between ‘the personal’ and social policy, arguing not only that social policy shapes our lived experiences, but that our personal lives shape social policy practices. To understand this central theme of the course students have to grapple with a rather different conceptualisation of power. This conceptualisation disputes the notion that power is a ‘thing’ – an object that is deployed in a top-down manner. Power is not an object in itself – power circulates, and power is embodied only in sets of relationships. Within this course power is a threshold concept. And students studying this course can spend a lot of time in a messy liminal space before they cross this particular threshold.

Richard Rohr has described occupying this liminal space as being akin to “when you have left the tried and true but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run… anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.” The activity I chose for this workshop is one that I use to support students within that liminal space.

The activity

The process of contemplative reading involves short periods of meditation interspersed with group reading, in a round, of a text and immediate responses to that text:

  • Sit quietly and relax our minds and bodies for one minute.
  • Read aloud, slowly, the entire text, each of us reading one or two sentences, “passing along” the reading to the left to the next reader.
  • One minute of silence and reflection.
  • We share a word or short phrase in response to the reading—just give voice to the word without explanation or discussion.
  • Facilitator reads the short passage again.
  • One minute of silence and reflection.
  • We share longer responses to the text—a sentence or two. We listen attentively to one another without correcting or disputing.
  • Another minute of silence.

The text I selected for this activity uses relatively simple, if provocative, language to talk about social policy and how it impacts on our lives – both personal and professional. The text is about how and why we both ‘care about’ and ‘care for’, and therefore links directly to the course that I teach. It is also worth mentioning that it is a text that I found very affecting when I read it for the first time. It was designed to encourage the delegates to draw on their own personal experiences to react to the relations of power expressed in the text.

An experienced Foucauldian analyst would readily see the concepts of discourses, counter-discourses, discursive formations, subject positions, resistance and excess embedded in the text. But I am not suggesting that anyone experiencing a contemplative reading of this text will immediately escape that “terrible cloud of unknowing”. What I am suggesting, however, is that when we value students’ (or in this instance, delegates’) engagement with texts that speak to their knowing and feeling self we create a space that can feel less threatening, less stress-inducing and make them less likely to flee.

Discussion

Have you used any contemplative practices to support your students’ learning? If so, how? What were the outcomes?

Please use the comment facility below to contribute to the discussion.

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