The Continual Unfolding of Our Work

I took this picture near my office yesterday. Spring!

This week was an especially stressful time of the semester. Some of you are looking forward to spring break, but Vanderbilt’s was at the very beginning of March.  The week after break–or, as we often call it, “break”–is hard for instructors and students alike. We see the home stretch in front of us, but it’s a track full of due dates, major assignments, projects, meetings, events, and more. Combine full schedules with the explosion of spring outside our office windows, and even the most dedicated fantasize about playing hooky.

During one such fantasy, I came across Amy Johnson’s “Falling in Love with Any Work You Do,” in which she recalls truly loving her college summer jobs in a way that stopped when she began working “‘real'” jobs:

“I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about what I was doing and how I was doing it — was I working to my potential? How did my job stack up to others? Was I getting enough opportunities, challenge, pay, accolades Should I settle in or continue to look for something better? Was I doing well? What did my colleagues think of me? Did three business trips this month mean I’d have to travel a lot in the future, or was this month a fluke? What did it all mean? It’s clear to me now that all of that thinking is what changed it for me.”

The onset of worrying and ruminating–what she generically calls “thinking”–increased her stress, blocked her connections with colleagues, and distracted her from the work itself.  Before the stakes were high and she started fretting about her job, she “was in the moment, living in the continual unfolding of life.”  This kind of inductive living, if you will, is mindful living: “We get to experience life as it unfolds in front of us rather than simply experiencing our thinking about life. We get to discover life rather than confirm our theories about it.”  Johnson concludes that she “can be happy anywhere. Like seriously, deeply content in any circumstance.”

I realize this assertion walks (and perhaps even crosses) the fine line between “be happy with what’s in front of you” and “stop complaining and accept injustice”–a line that also leads to confusion about the Buddhist tenet that “life is suffering.” I continually work to wrap my mind around these easily-conflated ideas because while I believe in contentedness, acceptance, and mindfulness, I also feel to my core that each of us has an obligation to act for social justice.

For me, it’s about the stories we tell–as I wrote in “Stories of the Slow Professor.” I was (and continue to be) inspired by the work of Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber in “The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy,” which implicitly negotiates this distinction in its discussion of faculty work-stress.  Berg and Seeber argue that we should change our perspective about our work to reflect both the “‘Politics and Pleasure'” of the Slow Food Movement (6).  Rather than simply slowing down and withdrawing from the “corporatisation” of the university that exacerbates the stress and speed, they identify “individual practice as a site of resistance” (4-5).*  So starting today, I’m going to resist by reconnecting with my “otter narrative,” or framing my thinking with a sense of play, allowing myself to soak up the sun while floating on my back, and working as necessary.  I love my job–more than any previous one–but it still and always will require a “continual unfolding of the work” of circling back around to these lessons of mindfulness.

Click here for an 11:14 meditation on gratitude.

Deeper than any stress and despite any complaints, I am grateful for my job, my colleagues, my students, my home, my friends, and my (relative) health.  I like this meditation on gratitude because it begins with the sun, which for many of us was starting to feel like an old friend who’s been away for too long.

I’m also going to listen–really listen–to one of my favorites, the late Richie Havens, welcoming the sun.  For an extra boost, here’s George Harrison’s original.

* How? Read their article (it’s only six pages), or my final paragraph in “Stories of the Slow Professor.”


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About Time

This work of mindfulness–in essence, focusing awareness on the present moment–has me noticing more clearly how I experience time. Despite the best efforts of clocks and schedules, time is a subjective, varying, and malleable phenomenon. In October’s “Stories of the Slow Professor,” I wrote about it from the perspective of how we talk about our work.  In December, I mentioned that one of my favorite recent books is Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, in which he distinguishes between the “presentism” we chase by always being plugged in and logged on and the other “now” of experiencing the moment and place right in front of us. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how my notion of time is influenced by my discipline.

William Faulkner famously wrote in one of his novels, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  Although this refers to the characters in his fictional universe whose Southern and familial pasts are constantly with them, the quote also captures something essential about the discipline of literary studies. We have our own grammar for talking about the objects of our inquiry: we use what’s called the literary present” tense, which means that

“we consider the text, its events, and its characters alive every time we look at the page. Each time we read Hamlet, he agonizes over what to do about his father’s death; each time we read Moby-Dick, Ishmael joins Captain Ahab in search of the white whale; and each time we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck decides that helping Jim escape slave-catchers is worth going to hell. We talk about the texts we love as offering something new with each reading.” (Chick, 2009, p. 49-50)

This sense of “an eternal present” (Vanderbilt Writing Studio) can certainly–as in the case of Faulkner’s characters–lead to the worrying, dwelling, and ruminating that mindfulness seeks to quiet.  But it doesn’t have to go there.

Instead, I think of two layers of presentness in our approach.  First, the text–no matter when it was published, no matter when it’s set–is always now.  The action in the plot is always happening, again and again, every time we look at the page. We see these texts as “still alive, generative, and inviting of new questions, approaches, interpretations, and significance” (Chick, 2009, p. 49). Also, we readers are fully present with the text as we read, anticipating the discovery of an additional nuance in the language, the metaphorical landscape, or the characterization of the fictional people we thought we already knew so well. Paradoxically, while the world inside the text is always there, it also offers something new each time we visit it.

A book from my shelf citation in both styles, to illustrate

This attitude toward time is captured in how we document research. Documentation styles are painstakingly precise and, as a result, fascinatingly meaningful.  In the humanities like literary studies, we use MLA citation style, which illustrates that the writer and the text itself are paramount. In our bibliographies, we list our sources by noting the author’s name, the title of the work, the location and name of the publishing company, and then the year of publication.  In its most recent edition, MLA added the publication medium at the very end to distinguish digital from print sources.  When citing within the body of our writings, we only use the author’s name and page numbers of specific passages. We don’t even bother with the date. Social scientists, on the other hand, foreground the date of publication in the bibliographic order: author’s name, date of publication, title, location, publisher.  (There are other differences that are equally meaningful, but I’ll stay focused here on time.) Their in-text citations and even mentions of a text always include the date because when something was published determines its relevance and sometimes even its validity.  For us, the date is an afterthought because the texts and the ideas within them are timeless and eternally present.

I could go on and on about the literary present (ha!), but I’ll stop here. I’m curious: how does your field represent time, and why? And how does that affect the work you do and how you see the world?


The fundamental act of a mindful practice is being in the present moment.  Try thisComplete Meditation Instructions” recording from UCLA.  Follow her instructions that so carefully and gently bring you and bring you back to now.  She offers 10 minutes of guidance and then periods of silence. If you’re unable to sit for the whole 19 minutes, feel free to stop it when she shifts into silence.

* In my editing work, I have to use APA style, so to keep me practicing this unfamiliar style, I’ve been using it in The Mindful PhD as well.  I think I’ll now return to my “native” style, which reflects my worldview more precisely.

Chick, Nancy L. “Unpacking a Signature Pedagogy in Literary Studies.” In Exploring Signature Pedagogies: Approaches to Teaching Disciplinary Habits of Mind. Eds. Regan A.R. Gurung, Nancy L. Chick, and Aeron Haynie. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2009. 36-55. Print.
Faulkner, William. Requiem for a Nun. New York: Random House, 1950.
Vanderbilt University Writing StudioHow (and Why) Do I Write in Literary Present Tense?Handouts. PDF file. 6 March 2014.
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My Women & Gender Studies class talked about “slut shaming” recently, and I’ve since been thinking about another kind of shaming that worries me–and that I want to be careful to avoid. The flurry of popular media discussions of mindfulness (and other topics) have been accompanied by concerns about how busy every one is.  Absolutely.  However, at the same time, there’s an undercurrent of “busy shaming” that’s worth calling out as clearly as the criticisms of busyness itself.

Last Friday, Rosa Brooks responded to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book urging working women to “lean in,” or assert themselves more and “push through” whatever obstacles they face. Both praise and criticisms of the book have been many, spotlighting what’s useful (e.g., new images of working women) and what’s not (e.g., dismissing the effects of systemic gender bias).  In “Recline! Why ‘leaning in’ is killing us,” Brooks recalls her feelings of shame about her college days of “leaning back on my sofa, with a good book and a nice cup of coffee,” rather than taking leadership roles.  And so she leaned in, worked hard, works harder, enjoyed the rewards, and became exhausted. The pressure toward “ubiquity” (being available, plugged in, working all the time) is “killing us,” she says.  “No one can survive” working 24/7 in one job and then picking up the “second shift” at home. She concludes,

When a workplace is full of employees who always lean in and never lean back, it’s full of employees who are exhausted, brittle, and incapable of showing much creativity or making good decisions…. If we truly want gender equality, we need to challenge the assumption that more is always better, and the assumption that men don’t suffer as much as women when they’re exhausted and have no time for family or fun. And we need to challenge those assumptions wherever we find them, both in the workplace and in the family.”

Yes yes yes!  In addition to arguing for a more nuanced understanding of work, work-life “balance,” gender dynamics, and power, she’s urging us to embrace a more mindful life that includes the “psychic space” and “time for the kind of unstructured, creative thinking so critical to any kind of success.” In fact, her call to “recline” might be translated as “butt on cushion!” (mindful shorthand for “sit, breathe, be here now, meditate”).*

However, despite her best intentions, Brooks (like many others) is on the threshold of making those who work hard (for whatever reason) feel bad about themselves, as if they are individually the problem, harming their colleagues, peers, and friends. Throughout, she says, “I hate Sheryl Sandberg.” That bothers me for a few reasons, not the least of which is because I resist the ways people (girls and women especially) are encouraged to compete with and “hate” each other: rather than turn our critical lens outward to the larger societal systems that create the conditions that we “hate,” we merely turn sideways and resent the individual people right next to us. (See my old newspaper column that explores this idea of women in the workplace more.)

Tim Kreider crosses that threshold of “busy shaming” in “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” published in The New York Times a year and a half ago but recirculated recently as part of this discussion. He says that the claim to be “busy” is “a boast disguised as a complaint,” “histrionic exhaustion,” that’s “self-imposed” resulting from “their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.” At one point, he offers “it’s something we collectively force one another to do,” but it’s a brief and unique admission in a 1,700-word essay, and he immediately turns the criticism back to the busy: “obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

I’m all for distinguishing between being busy for busyness’s sake and productive, encouraging slowing down, rest, and attending to here and now. But these criticisms are oversimplified sleights of hand misdirecting our frustration and resentment toward people who instead deserve compassion. In our efforts to be mindful, let’s not assume that “others” are mindless–or worse. Let’s look closely at the sources of the problem rather than blaming the victims.


A loving kindness practice in the Meditations for College Students from the University of New Hampshire's Health Services.

I used to be one of these people, and I care a great deal about plenty of people who are still struggling with overwhelming work- and life-loads–all for complex reasons.

This week, then, I’d like to return to the “loving kindness” meditation that encourages connectedness and compassion. Click the image to the right, and wish the busy people in your life well:  May they be well.  May they be happy. May they be peaceful. May they be loved.

* I’m aware that all of this post can easily be rephrased to focus on students, for they may be the most busy (and stressed) among us–and with good reason.

Brooks, Rosa. (Feb 21, 2013). Recline! Why ‘leaning in’ is killing us. Foreign Policy.
Kreider, Tim. (June 30, 2012). The “busy” trap. New York Times.
Sandberg, Sheryl. (2013). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. NY: Knopf.


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Opening Our Eyes

In the rhythm of academia, right as we began this semester, we also selected our courses for next year. I decided to revisit my course on monsters.  Soon after, a friend gave me a book of original Grimm’s fairy tales–a gruesome treasure! I didn’t expect to stumble onto mindfulness while reading through it, but I seem to find it in unexpected places almost daily.

A certain addition to the monsters course will be the story and history of what we now call “Little Red Riding Hood.” First told in the rural French countryside when the belief in werewolves was “a masculine counterpart to the witch hysteria” of the 15th through 17th centuries, it was written down and published in 1697 by Charles Perrault and then revised by the Grimm brothers just over a century later (Windling, 2004).

Epigraph to the introduction of The Power of Mindful Learning

Before my friend gave me this book, I most recently encountered the story in Ellen J. Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learning (1997). No, really! The book’s introduction begins with a brief version of the story.  (Click the image to the left.) Langer revisits the familiar fairy tale to show us that the consequences of mindlessness are already well woven into our stories, our unconscious, our culture: “Certain myths and fairy tales help advance a culture by passing on a profound and complex wisdom to succeeding generations” (p. 1).

What hungry //affectionate// eyes they have!

The monsters course is one of my favorites, largely because it urges us to ask some important societal questions, including (according to my course description)

“Why do we seek out the monstrous and horrifying?  What do our monsters reveal about us?  What’s the relationship between our monsters and our times?  How (and why) do we pass on stories of things that terrify us?”

What sharp //soft// claws they have!

Framed this way, mindlessness becomes deadly, and we’re devoured because we fail to recognize what’s in our immediate presence. The wolf is our mistaken priorities, our distractions, or our busyness. “What big rewards this 60-hour-a-week job gives me!”

In the years before I began a mindful practice, I mistook many wolves for grandmothers. Now, I work on keeping my eyes clear enough to notice the fur.

What fierce //ticklish// snouts they have!

When I started to write this post, I was flanked by my cats, Grendel and Jack, pictured right. I was thinking about seeing what’s right in front of me with new and clear eyes. This brought me to contemplative photography, which would make a lovely practice this week. As you walk to your office, your classroom, your car, look beyond the objects you see and instead see color or texture. Andy Karr, author of The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes (2011a), describes it as

a method for seeing and photographing the world in fresh ways, to reveal richness and beauty that is normally hidden from view. Instead of emphasizing subject matter or the technical aspects of photography, the contemplative approach teaches you to see clearly, and make images based on fresh perceptions. (Karr, 2011b)

His instructions are simply “pretend that your eyes have fingertips” (2013, p. 341). So live your day as you live your days, but notice colors in a new way, and let your eyes feel the textures. Snap a photo or two, and see what you notice through the photographs.

I’d love to see some examples!

Karr, Andy. (2011b). The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes. Boston: Shambhala.
—. (2011a). Seeing Fresh: The Practice of Contemplative Photography
—.  (2013). Stop, look…& see. Mindfulness. 341-343.
Langer, Ellen J. (1997). The Power of Mindful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
Windling, Terri. (2004). The path of needs or pins: Little red riding hood. Journal of Magical Arts.


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Daydream Believer

I’ve previously written about the specific kind of meditation that leads to “Inspiration, Creativity, & New Ideas,” but I want to return to this issue. Creativity is a necessary skill in all disciplines, yet it’s among the most difficult to teach. The research on mindfulness offers a few different strategies.

In a recent New York Times article, Dan Hurley (2014) wrote about some “unwanted side effects” of mindfulness, including inhibiting the mind-wandering that leads to creativity. It’s worth noting that the mindfulness he’s talking about is very specific: “attentiveness” or “staying focused on a task” (Schooler, et al., 2014, p. 11).  The companion studies he cites measure the difference between working on a “demanding task” that requires focused attention and working on an “undemanding task” that allows the minder to wander (Baird, et al., 2012, p. 1118).  All participants completed “a classic creativity task,” and then–before repeating this task–some were given an “incubation” break (p. 1117), and some were given no break at all.  Among those who took a break, a third sat quietly for 12 minutes, a third did an activity that requires concentration, and a third did an activity that allows the mind to wander.*  This last group scored highest on the repeated creativity test.

The implications of these two studies are useful. The title of the second study captures the lesson, “The Middle Way: Finding the Balance Between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering.”  Hurley concludes, “The trick is knowing when mindfulness [focused attention] is called for and when it’s not.” So one way to inspire creativity is by allowing students to “incubate,” not by assigning rest or a different task but instead by giving them something simple to do that allows them to daydream.

Notice that these studies address mindful attention to a present task. They mention meditation only in relation to the benefits found in their own research and others’, such as improvements in working memory, reading comprehension, and other “cognitive skills that were until recently viewed as immutable” (Schooler, et al., 2014, p. 13). Recall that different ways of meditating have different results. The type used in many of these cognitive studies is “focused attention” meditation, but if the goal is creative thinking, “open monitoring” meditation is most effective:

“the individual is open to perceive and observe any sensation or thought without focusing on a concept in the mind or a fixed item; therefore attention is flexible and unrestricted.” (Colzato, Ozturk, & Hommel, 2012, p. 1)

The next time I want my students to do something creative, I’m going to double the effort by guiding them in a little open-monitoring meditation and encouraging them to let their minds wander as part of the activity.


For an open-monitoring meditation, return to this practice from my previous post.

For a mind-wandering activity (or, in the parlance of these studies, an incubation break involving an undemanding task), I think again of my topic a few weeks ago: doodling or knitting. As I mentioned, I’ve never really been a doodler, so I needed some ideas.  Judy West’s site has some good prompts, and I especially like the Ornate Scrolled Alphabet. (Click the image to the right, and scroll down.)

* The tasks in the study involved watching numbers appear on a screen. The easier task was determining whether a number that appeared in colored font was odd or even; the harder task was determining whether the previous number shown was odd or even (Baird, et al., 2012, p. 1119).

Benjamin Baird, Jonathan Smallwood, Michael D. Mrazek, Julia W. Y. Kam, Michael S. Franklin and Jonathan W. Schooler. (2012). Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation. Psychological Science, 23(10). 1117-1122.
Colzato, Lorenza S., Ozturk, Ayca, & Hommel, Bernhard.  (April, 2012). Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Frontiers in Psychology, 3. 1-5.
Schooler, Jonathan W., Mrazek, Michael D., Franklin, Michael S., Baird, Benjamin, Mooneyham, Benjamin W., Zedelius, Claire, & Broadway, James M. (2014 ). The Middle Way: Finding the Balance between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 60. 1-33.
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Time, the Superbowl, & Bandwagons

This past week brought a kind of harmonic convergence of mindfulness in popular culture.  First, Time magazine featured “The Mindful Revolution” on the cover. Then, or perhaps simultaneously, word spread (from ESPN to the blogosphere) that the Seattle Seahawks–then heading for the Superbowl, now winners of the Superbowl–regularly practice mindfulness and yoga. This publicity is a double-edged sword: the Time article is pretty good, and I love the image of meditating football players, but I’m often reminded that my colleagues in academia resist anything that seems suddenly popular.

This resistance is admirable and necessary.  A healthy skepticism about new ideas comes from our expectation for evidence, proof, documentation. Innovation for innovation’s sake rarely leads to intended results, much less positive ones.  Innovation for the wrong reasons is even worse.  We see both far too often, and significant portions of diminishing budgets are devoted to these unproven but “sexy” trends, so our skepticism grows and even becomes cynicism.  I fear this rejection of bandwagons is the lens through which some of my colleagues view mindfulness.

Don’t.  And don’t let them, if you hear it.  There is an abundance of evidence documenting the physiological, behavioral, mental, emotional, and educational benefits of mindfulness.* Browse my previous blog postings.  Search your science and social science databases.  Browse through the archives and new releases of the Mindfulness Research Guide.  Follow this article’s links to the original studies. Don’t consider mindfulness because it’s popular or cool or hip–or the secret behind a Superbowl win.  Look at the evidence.

Seattle Seahawks Quarterback Russell Wilson

Before I leave the Seahawks too quickly, I have to applaud the motivating force behind the practice. Their coach Pete Carroll has said, “I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?” What a wonderful alternative to the “culture of the locker room” espoused by Miami Dolphin Richie Incognito and his supporters. Imagine adapting Carroll’s curiosity to our work:  “We want to find out if we went to the university and really took care of students, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?” Parker Palmer would be so proud.


15 Minute Awareness of Breath Meditation guided by Lois Howland

This week, let’s do a simple, seated meditation guided by Lois Howland of UC San Diego’s Center for Mindfulness.  Here, she’ll lead us in a 15-minute awareness of breath meditation.  Just click the link and follow her instructions.


* K-12 has been the primary focus in the education research thus far.  Quite a few studies address mindfulness in higher education, and it’ll keep coming, but it’s one of the relatively newer areas of mindfulness research. Here’s my post about one of my favorite higher-ed studies.

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After the Honeymoon

My class is still in the “honeymoon phase,” those carefree weeks in the beginning of the semester when students and instructor alike enjoy each other’s company and insights, before any major papers or exams complicate the dynamic. Smaller, low-stakes assessments have given me a chance to provide early feedback and have documented the their good thinking thus far, but the high pressure of the semester is just around the corner.

We see that shift soon enough. The students’ questions become simultaneously more global (“what are you looking for?”) and more pointed (“how exactly did I answer that test question incorrectly?”). With four or five different classes and professors, their attempt to resolve some of these uncertainties is understandable.  It’s written in the lines and shadows of their faces, the tensing of their shoulders, the increased companionship of coffee cups and energy drinks.

Most campuses offer academic support to help students study more effectively, navigate their challenges with math, or work through the final revisions of an essay.  Most also offer psychological counseling services to help students manage both school-related and personal anxieties. But I’m interested in how some schools have brought mindfulness to campus. Below are a few examples, ranging from quick and easy resources to more immersive training via a formal curriculum:

  • MIT has three-minute guided meditations-on-the-go for students, faculty, and staff at 617-253-CALM and longer meditations on their website.
  • The University of New Hampshire not only features a page of meditations for easy access; it also offers individual training and even a regular weekly practice for its campus community.

    Syracuse University's Free MBSR Program for Students

  • The University of Vermont also has a page of online practices in addition to a mindfulness listserv, Facebook group, two weekly meditation practices on campus, a variety of workshops, and a day-long retreat.
  • Syracuse University offers students a free, six-week mindfulness-based stress reduction  (MBSR) program, the Cadillac of mindfulness programs–for free!
  • Brown University‘s mindfulness FAQ is directly linked to their list of “common college health issues,” as well as a Contemplative Studies Initiative offering students a formal concentration with courses in the sciences, humanities, and creative arts.

    Eydie Cloyd, Vanderbilt University School of Nursing

  • Vanderbilt University‘s School of Nursing is incorporating mindfulness into its formal curriculum. (No links are available yet: our mindfulness-teacher training group is supporting fellow member/nursing faculty Eydie Cloyd in developing this multi-year project.)

What does your campus offer? Is anything available to all students? Do any of the models above fit the abilities and resources of your campus?  Find out, and make suggestions–for your students.

10 minutes of Breathing for Relaxation (University of Vermont)


If you’re a regular reader of The Mindful PhD, you’ve probably figured out that mindful practices aren’t complicated. They don’t get terribly fancy or ramp up to greater difficulty. (The only increases involve longer “sits” for greater benefits and varied breathing patterns to improve attention to the breath.)

A 3-minute "breathing space" (University of Oxford's Mindfulness Centre)

To the right are two simple breathing practices that will feel familiar.  If you’re able, try the ten-minute practice. If not, the three-minute session is good as well.

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Doodling & Knitting

Last week, I had a great conversation about class participation with SoTL Scholar Hasina Mohyuddin and my Graduate-Teaching-Fellow partner in teaching the SoTL Scholars Program Andrew Greer (both PhD candidates in the Department of Human & Organizational Development).  I also serendipitously asked my students to work together to create a class rubric for assessing participation.  Since then, I’ve been thinking about the body language of paying attention. I’ve always wanted my students to–at the very least–make eye contact with their classmates and me when one of us is talking. But this conversation led by Hasina and a few things my students pointed out remind me that active listening isn’t monolithic, and eye contact isn’t the best way to gauge attention in class.*

Click to watch "The Higher Purpose of Doodling" (7:00)

Then, the most recent CBS Sunday Morning aired a story called “The Higher Purpose of Doodling” in which an asset manager describes his reasons for doodling in meetings:  it was “a way of staying engaged in the meeting,” rather than “checking out.”  Interviewer Lee Cowan cites the study “What Does Doodling Do?” (Andrade, 2010) in which doodlers demonstrated 29% greater recall than those who just took notes on lined paper. Andrade concludes that doodling is different from other “dual task situations” in which attention is divided and thus diminished (p. 100); in other words, the research on multitasking** doesn’t apply here.  Cowan then asks CUNY philosophy-of-psychology professor Jesse Prinz, “Do you want kids to be doodling while you’re lecturing?” Prinz answers, “Absolutely. Absolutely.” He describes it as “a way to take all those things that distract you, all those subjects that you ruminate on, and [clear] them away and [open] the space where information can get in…. Doodling is the attentional sweet spot.”

I’ve never been a doodler, but I love knitting for precisely the reasons described above. My skills are questionable, and that’s okay:  for me, it’s all about the process, more than the product. (See some of my products in the picture below.)  In fact, I sometimes knit a simple square pattern, unravel it, and start over. I sometimes knit while sitting in meetings, watching TV or movies (if it’s not essential that I watch), participating in book clubs, and the like. I sometimes just sit on my couch and knit, which is even more meditative less relevant to attentive listening.  In Mindful Knitting, Tara Jon Manning says the activity can afford knitters the

quality of deliberate focus–also referred to as bare attention…an intense form for paying attention…. These motions become automatic, drawing attention to the next level. You can start to incorporate a wider perspective, including the drape of the fabric you are making, the interaction of the colors and textures within the yarn, and the essence of what or for whom you are knitting. (2004, p. 17).

I suggest adding to her list of “wider perspectives” you can “incorporate” while knitting that of  keen attention to what’s going on around you at the present moment–like the classroom.


This week’s practice?  Doodling. Or knitting.

  • If you teach, encourage your students to doodle during class.
  • If you’re a student, doodle during class this week.

Caveat! To avoid giving the wrong impression, teachers should explain to students [and perhaps even more importantly, vice versa] why they’re doodling, citing the study above.

If you’re a knitter and in a context where you need to listen but not take notes, try knitting–but again, inform other participants as appropriate because meeting-knitters can be misinterpreted as bored, checking out, or expressing resistance.  While I love the notion of knitters-as-protestors, it’s better to educate those around you that the act is helping you listen more effectively.

* There’s also the complexity of eye contact norms in different cultures, which makes our unspoken expectation problematic.  I should also clarify that, during class discussions, I still want my students to make eye contact with each other as much as they can, or offer some other clear gesture of recognition and listening. Students deserve the most explicit gestures of attention when they risk speaking up. I still worry that classmates looking down and not at the student speaking may inhibit participation for some.  Such interactive discussion requires a very different dynamic from true lecturing, which seems more appropriate for doodling with the goals of active listening and note-taking.

** Oops, I realize I had mentioned multitasking in a previous post with the note that I’d “write more about multitasking soon, but in the meantime, this NPR story and this brief summary of the research will explain how it doesn’t serve us well in most situations.”  I’ll add multitasking to my list of upcoming posts.

Andrade, Jackie. (2010). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24. 100-106.
Manning, Tara Jon. (2004). Mindful Knitting: Inviting Contemplative Practice into the Craft. Boston: Tuttle.


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Enduring Effects

This is Marnie. I love this photo of her.

I recently announced on Facebook that I take requests. My friend and former colleague Marnie Bullock Dresser asked the following question:

“I can already tell there are fewer monkeys when I’m in serious monkey mind mode. I can tell my brain is different; I’m just wanting to trust that I’m making permanent changes–so that’s a request. Long term, maintained change–how likely?

What a great question, similar to what we ask about our teaching. Students may dazzle us during the semester and on the final exam, but what about months later?  A year later? Beyond that?  Does the learning last?

Most of the mindfulness studies I’ve read measure the immediate effects of a specific experience, most often an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) class. More recent studies have added an additional follow-up assessment ranging from a few months to two years after the class (e.g., Anderson et al. [2013] followed up after 6 and then 12 months; Davidson et al. [2003], 4 months; Fortney et al. [2013], 8 weeks and 9 months; Gonzalez-Garcia et al. [2013], 20 weeks; Henderson et al. [2013], 4 months and 2 years; Roeser et al. [2013], 3 months; Tan & Martin [2012], 3 months; Weijer-Bergsma et al. [2012], 7 weeks). If there are studies that look at the impact beyond two years, I haven’t come across them yet.* (If you know of any, please let me know!)

Generally, these studies have found that many of the psychological effects are maintained during this time period.  Even further, in their study of long-term HIV-positive patients, Gonzalez-Garcia et al. (2013) found positive psychological and physiological effects over time.  In fact, both actually improved between the immediate post-tests after the 8-week class and the 20-week follow-up (i.e., reduced anxiety, stress, depression with scores like 25 at baseline, 10 at 8 weeks, and 7 at 20 weeks; increased CD4 immune cell counts from 555 cells/mL to 614 to 681). In contrast, the control group’s psychological scores were unchanged during this time, and their immune cell counts declined. I also just read an article coming out next month that documents changes in the expression of the genes associated with decreasing inflammation, reducing pain, and lowering the stress hormone cortisol after stressful events (Kaliman, 2014). What’s more, these effects occurred after a single, eight-hour day of intense mindful practice. Changes in gene expression? Maybe it’s the literary-scholar-who-loves-a-metaphor in me, but that strikes me as a profoundly “long-lasting” change.

What about measurements of our students’ learning over time? Institutional research and assessment offices may do such longitudinal retention and impact studies, but we instructors rarely conduct our own class- or discipline-specific follow-ups, and we’re often unaware of these institutional studies, or they’re fairly generic related to what we teach.  We cherish our anecdotal examples of impact, though.  I will always keep my copy of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi gifted to me by a former student, who inscribed the book with the most wonderful note about her love of reading since my literature class years ago.  And I’m so grateful to have kept in touch with a women’s studies student from long ago, because I know that she went on to earn a degree in legal studies and is now a domestic violence victim advocate.

Characteristics of Enduring Understandings (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998, p. 23)

Ultimately, we’re wondering about what Wiggins and McTighe (1998) call “enduring understandings” (p. 10), characterized by the qualities in the graphic to the right.  I think about them as what I want students to remember, do, and value five years after the class has ended.  Wiggins and McTighe encourage course design with enduring understandings as the goal, not simply performances on tests and papers. Because the planning begins with the end goals in mind, this well-known course development process is called “backward design” (p. 23).

What are the enduring understandings for your classes? How do you communicate them?  How do your students practice them?


When I think of this notion of enduring understandings, the image in my mind is a tree, especially the layers of meaning and memory embedded in concentric circles deep inside. Trees are also all around us (to some degree, depending on context), keeping us company, though rarely in the forefront of our minds.  This week’s practice will be tree-centric.  If you can see a tree, look at the tree. Otherwise, you’ll imagine a tree, a specific tree.

  • Close your eyes, and take three slow, deep breaths to arrive here and now.
  • Once your mind is calm and present, open your eyes and look at the tree. (If you’re imagining your tree, you may keep your eyes closed.)
  • Now, breathe normally.  Observe every detail of the tree.
  • Pause and notice the light falling on the tree.
  • Pause and notice the tree’s varied textures.
  • Pause and notice the tree’s movements and/or stillness.
  • Pause and picture the inside of the tree, the concentric circles of age and experience of this tree. Are there many?  Pause and visualize them.
  • How long might it have been here? Years?  Decades?  A century? Pause and experience that expanse of time.
    • What physical sensations does this experience stimulate?
  • Picture what it  looked like as a sapling, and then as it grew to its current age and size.  Pause and notice the tree as it is now. Pause here for as long as you’re comfortable.
  • Take three slow, deep breaths, and bring your awareness back to your body, where it is, as it is.

* This is a good time for a disclaimer again that I am not a mindfulness expert or any kind of “-ist,” but I do enjoy reading these studies.

Andersen SR, Würtzen H, Steding-Jessen M, Christensen J, Andersen KK, Flyger H, Mitchelmore C, Johansen C, & Dalton SO. Effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction on sleep quality: results of a randomized trial among Danish breast cancer patients. Acta Oncologica, 52(2), 336-344.
Davidson Richard J., Kabat-Zinn Jon, Schumacher J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli S.F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., & Sheridan, J.F. (2003).  Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine 65(4). 564-70.
Fortney L, Luchterhand C, Zakletskaia L, Zgierska A, & Rakel D. (2013). Abbreviated mindfulness intervention for job satisfaction, quality of life, and compassion in primary care clinicians: a pilot study. The Annals of Family Medicine, 11(5). 412-420.
Gonzalez-Garcia M, Ferrer MJ, Borras X, Muñoz-Moreno JA, Miranda C, Puig J, Perez-Alvarez N, Soler J, Feliu-Soler A, Clotet B, & Fumaz CR. (2013). Effectiveness of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy on the Quality of Life, Emotional Status, and CD4 Cell Count of Patients Aging with HIV Infection. AIDS and Behavior.
Henderson VP, Massion AO, Clemow L, Hurley TG, Druker S, & Hébert JR. (2013). A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness-based stress reduction for women with early-stage breast cancer receiving radiotherapy. Integrative Cancer Therapy. 12(5). 404-413.
Kaliman, Perla, Jesús Álvarez-López, María, Cosín-Tomás, Marta, Rosenkranz, Melissa A., Lutz, Antoine, & Davidson, Richard J. (Feb. 2014). Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 40, 96-107.
Tan, L. & Martin, G. (2012). Taming the adolescent mind: Preliminary report of a mindfulness based psychological intervention for adolescents with clinical heterogeneous mental health diagnoses. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 18(2). 300-312.
Roeser, Robert W., Schonert-Reichl, Kimberly A., Jha, Amishi, Cullen, Margaret, Wallace, Linda, Wilensky, Rona, Oberle, Eva, Thomson, Kimberly, Taylor, Cynthia, & Harrison, Jessica. (Aug 2013). Mindfulness training and reductions in teacher stress and burnout: Results from two randomized, waitlist-control field trials. Journal of Educational Psychology. 105(3). 787-804.
Wiggins, Grant, & McTighe, Jay. (1998). Understanding by Design. Columbus, OH: Prentice Hall.
Weijer-Bergsman, E. Langenberg, G., Brandsma, R., Bögels, S. M. (2012). The effectiveness of a school based mindfulness training as a program to prevent stress in elementary school children. Mindfulness. 1-11.
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Support for Stressed Students

I love this painting by Isabella Merrill. offered it when I searched "stressed student."

The new semester started yesterday here at Vanderbilt. My students were bright-eyed and enthusiastic, though I know they were experiencing those first-day uncertainties about their new classes, professors, and classmates. Soon enough, these early jitters will turn to a more significant set of stresses as assignments come due, exams are scheduled, graduation approaches, and life unfolds.

Knowing this rhythm of the semester and being familiar with the anxieties experienced by students at a variety of institutions, I was surprised by a recent study by Lin and Huang (2013) on “Life Stress and Academic Burnout.”  They surveyed 2,640 Taiwanese students, 71% of whom were juniors and seniors. They assessed the levels and types of stress, as well as if the stress was contributing to burnout (the combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization or detachment from others, and a decreased sense of achievement and competence). The students rated most highly “self-identity stress, interpersonal stress, future development stress [concerns about post-graduation life and employment], and academic stress” (p. 8), but the actual ratings were apparently quite low. Lin and Huang concluded that “both the level of students’ burnout and stress are in general not serious among these students” (p. 10). Cultures and institutions absolutely differ, but I’m still surprised.

Nevertheless, Lin and Huang offer some strategies for supporting anxious students and mitigating these experiences, such as integrating more material that appeals to student interests, using “authentic assessment” rather than traditional exams, redesigning orientation activities to include stress management, offering a course to provide more in-depth and ongoing stress management, or integrating strategies of stress management into all courses (p. 11). Notice the potential for mindfulness on campus here.

I can imagine orientations (undergraduate and graduate) and first-year experience programs (like Vanderbilt Visions) introducing students to mindfulness practices. I can see the university offering a one-credit course on mindfulness. I hope for increased integration of mindfulness, tailored to individual classrooms.  Just one (of many) possibilities responds specifically to this issue of depersonalization: we can begin to minimize students’ feelings of detachment from each other, from the course work, from the university by establishing study partners and study groups in our classes. We know the academic benefits are there, but having these kinds of connections with peers–connections based on the work itself–may encourage them to support each other when stressed and develop a network grounded in, rather than escaping from, academics.

A loving kindness practice in the Meditations for College Students from the University of New Hampshire's Health Services.


A common mindful practice is called “loving kindness,” a meditation that encourages connectedness. One of many meditations to mitigate stress, it specifically addresses the sense of depersonalization and disconnectedness that comes with burnout–and that we see in some students toward the end of the semester.  However “serious,” we don’t want our students to experience it at all.  May they be well.  May they be happy. May they be peaceful. May they be loved.

Lin, Shu-Hui, & Huang, Yun-Chen. (27 Dec. 2013). Life stress and academic burnout. Active Learning in Higher Education. 1-14. 

Photo Credit: bella tait. via Compfight cc

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