Reading/Writing Assignment #1: Writing as Theory, Reflection, and Practice
In this week’s assigned readings, I was particularly interested in James Dubinsky’s mention of Zen Buddhist tradition of “mindfulness” as a “broader approach to ‘reflection.’” Mindfulness, or the art of paying attention, is a concept that I have been investigating both explicitly and implicitly for the last four years, as a yoga practitioner and a teacher. I’d like to talk a little more about what mindfulness might mean in a class setting.
This past spring I was approached by a student in my technical writing class who asked me to speak at her sorority’s symposium on education. The guidelines for this talk were rather vague and I was told that I can talk on any topic. Even though this was an informal appearance, it still required me to sit down and seriously reflect on my role as a teacher (and how I, a non-native speaker of English, might be perceived by my students). Taking that as a point of departure, I surprised myself with writing a talk entitled “The Yoga of Teaching: Expectations, Empathy, and Creative Tension in a Classroom,” in which I explored the connection between yogic philosophy and learning about writing. In particular, I advocated a classroom environment where both teacher and student make a commitment to meet the following three challenges: letting go of certain pre-wired expectations of what a writing course will be like; remaining empathetic and sensitive to the fact that many students come from different cultural backgrounds; and maintaining creative tension in a classroom through engaged participation and discussion. I was surprised, while writing up my talk, by how effortlessly I made the connection between yoga and teaching, and by the idea that I must have been unconsciously teaching according to these principles without explicitly formulating them for years. In other words, even though I never considered that I was favoring a particular theory in my teaching, it turned out that I was.
Similarly, even though I never mentioned “mindfulness” in my talk at the sorority symposium, reading Dubinsky’s article highlighted several other reflective practices in my teaching. On a linguistic level, I always tried to communicate to the students that word choice is of paramount importance when trying to express an idea in writing. “Omit needless words,” one of the cardinal rules in Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, was quoted repeatedly in lectures, peer reviews, and conferences. In case students wondered why it was all so necessary, I incorporated George Orwell’s “The Politics and the English Language” and Doris Lessing’s “Group Minds” essays in class discussions, even though many students found them tough going. If anything, the underlying slogan in my classes was: “Be attentive and vigilant in your use of language! Be aware of how powerful the language can be, for the good and for the bad.” In other words, be mindful. The other part of this was, of course, the admonition to know your audience, to tailor the message to a specific purpose, to recognize (and apply) certain rhetorical devices to persuade, convince, and occasionally bully. Practicing the rhetorical aspects of language, although not very Zen, still called for mindfulness and reflection.
Another aspect of teaching that I can qualify as being inspired by the East can be traced in James Berlin’s discussion of authentic self in the social-epistemic rhetoric: “There is no universal, eternal, and authentic self that beneath all appearances is at one with all other selves. The self is always a creation of a particular historical and cultural moment.” Or, translating this into the yogic philosophy, the egotistic attachment to one’s idea of what a self should be, the holding on to a specific situation and refusal to relinquish control of it, is what makes us suffer and prevents us from living fully and freely. This is a fascinating and disturbing concept, both for personal and classroom reflection. To ask the students stop and consider how and to what end they construct their own selves, how they are carrying forth this idea of the self in a world increasingly more interconnected by professional and social networks, and how they are continuously reevaluating this idea, are all topics that can be pursued in a classroom through writing. This, of course, leads back to the language, and our mindful attention in it use.