Hi and welcome to the updated AEPL blog!

Stay a while, browse around and join in on the conversations on this site.

Please check this blog often for announcements, member news and events. In addition to posting announcements on an “as-needed” basis, check back on the last Sunday of each month for a new “Sunday Meditation,” a longer, topical exploration written by a member and/or interested guest blogger.

We are always looking for guest bloggers, so please email cwenger@shepherd.edu if you are interested in contributing!

Meditating on The Move: Can Cardio Exercise become Part of Contemplative Writing Pedagogy?

Nota bene: At the end of this blog post, I’d appreciate readers “voting,” or chiming in with commentary, on the potential of cardio to be contemplative in nature. Doing so would benefit my dissertation research greatly.

When my Zyn22 spin instructor yells, “This is your time! Time to meditate on the move!” I can’t help but feel a little frustrated.

Maybe I’m frustrated because the next command that often follows usually sounds like this: “Time to dig deep! Time to leave no gas in your tank!”

Or maybe I’m frustrated because the act of meditation is being seen as chasing a euphoric state of sweaty bliss or objectifying the practice in front of gentrified fitness junkies. Maybe the McMindfulness thoughts I expect them to have aren’t fair assumptions though.

Screen Shot 2016

Thinking back to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s widely-accepted definition of meditation, I understand meditation as an “awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” My fellow spin students could be meditating as they push up and down on their bike pedals, but if they’re like me then they’re wiping away beads of sweat, taking sips of water every five minutes, or occasionally wondering if Lululemon advertisement on the left is noticing when they miss a beat.

On the other hand, part of me believes that cardio can be contemplative, even meditative, for some practitioners. For me, running is much more contemplative than spinning–less equipment to adjust and more nature around me makes running the easier activity for clearing my mind. I’ve good reason to believe other scholars think running could be contemplative.

Most recently, I interviewed Dr. Pat Okker for my dissertation research project, and I had the privilege of asking this University of Missouri English Professor turned Senior Associate Provost, Marathoner, and Competitive Women’s Powerlifter all about her thoughts on the relationship between writing activity and physical activity. Dr. Okker teaches an honors course that explores running in relation to writing. The running activity supports the writing activity of her students in new and insightful ways.

In another exchange with Dr. Christy Wenger at Shepherd University, I learned that some of her students have suggested that cardio exercise could be contemplative. For these reasons, I can give more credence to what my spin instructor is yelling to me.

Wait, there’s more in other research fields. We’ve seen a surge of research exploring the mental-intellectual benefits of cardio. In psychology, a meta-analysis of research overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that cardio exercise improves memory, creative processing, and decreases stress inevitably experienced by most individuals engaging in the creative process (Tomporowski).

Journalists are another group jumping on the contemplative-cardio cart. Twice now New York Magazine, Melissa Dahl made readers privvy to the stacks of new research on writing,
running, and meditating as mind-clearing activities. Dahl cites examples of prolific writers who united these activities for the sake of their writing processes. As Atlantic
writer Nick Ripatrozone hypothesizes, for Joyce Carol Oates, Louis May Alcott, Jonathan Swift and many other writers, running feels like a “natural extension of writing,” in that the cardiovascular demands of running feel cathartic to “cloistered” writers doing “intensive work.”

It is at this point that my research trail tapers off. The aforementioned examples give composition researchers and pedagogues some ideas about where to take our research in the future if others in the field want to pursue this question. However, we’re still left wondering how compositionists might answer the question: can cardio exercise become part of contemplative writing pedagogy?

I’m wondering what other scholars think. I’m wondering what other researchers know or what research they care to share with our AEPL community. All comments and insights are welcome.

-Jackie Hoermann
E: j.hoermann@tcu.edu

Works Cited

Dahl, Melissa. “How Running and Meditation Change the Brains of the Depressed.”
NY MAG Online (24 March 2016). Web. 24 May 2016.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon.Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming The Present Moment–And Your
Life. Louisville, CO: Sounds True, Incorporated, 2011. Print.

Ripatrazone, Nick. “Why Writers Run.”The Atlantic (11 Nov 2015). Web. 25 May 2016.

Tomporowski, Phillip D. “Effects of Acute Bouts of Exercise on Cognition.”
Acta Psychologica 112.3. (2003): 297-324. Print.


Cultivating Reading’s Possibilities

I was an English major in college. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the experience taught me to read in a particular way: to approach texts as if each one had a singular, internally consistent meaning I could discover through close attention to details and the relationships between them. Like a good New Critic, I applied this lesson to everything I read, including the poetry I was assigned for my major and the articles on public health and American history that were assigned in other classes. No matter what I was reading, I was reading for the “argument,” a central idea I could bring up in discussion or respond to in my papers and exams. My professors encouraged me to believe my work as a reader was to decipher, interpret, and respond to these arguments. Explication was paramount. As a result of this training, my reading muscles are strong. After four years of full-time teaching, however, I’m starting to wonder about the limits of my argument-seeking approach to reading and how it might be playing out in my classroom. And I’m starting to doubt that I’m the sensitive, all-around reader I imagine myself to be. Perhaps I’m more like an athlete who spends so much time building up his biceps that his leg muscles have started to atrophy.


My purpose in this essay is to explore two styles of reading, the argument-focused approach I describe above and a more open-ended, “transactional” style I’m trying to cultivate. In order to show the styles in action, I will describe a reading experience that frustrated me and three approaches I am experimenting with in the classroom. I would appreciate hearing your stories about reading’s possibilities, as well, so please check-in in the comments section below.


Struggling with Scalapino

After defending my dissertation in October 2015, I turned to a new project: co-chairing a seminar on poetry and poetics at the American Comparative Literature Association annual conference. My contribution to the seminar was to be an analysis of New Time, a book-length poem by the experimental American writer Leslie Scalapino. Here’s a section of the poem I planned to discuss:

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 7.10.37 PM

for Joanne de Phillips, playing Frank Martin’s Irish Trio

As you can see, the poem is difficult. It starts in the middle and shifts unexpectedly from idea to idea. Reading the poem out loud feels like meditating or/and like being challenged to attend to something important that is happening just beyond the possibility of conscious understanding. (You can listen to Scalapino reading a related poem, “bum series,” in a video project created with the artist Konrad Steiner here: https://vimeo.com/36815960.) In the weeks before the conference, I started to worry I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything intelligible to say. I read and reread the poem, dog-earing pages and taking notes, and thought through what other scholars had written about Scalapino and other poets in her circle. When I sat down to write, though, I found myself stuck. I didn’t understand what I was reading. The poem made no sense, or else it made too much sense to explain. I felt confused, defeated, and ashamed.

Charles Bernstein, a poet, critic, and teacher who was a friend of Scalapino’s in the 1980s, has long advocated for an approach to experiencing and interpreting difficult texts that he calls “creative wreading.” The practice involves transforming texts by translating, erasing, and disrupting them through a set of procedures. As Bernstein explains in Attack of the Difficult Poems, the purposes of “wreading” are twofold. First, the practice enables readers to “investigate the recombinant structure[s]” of texts and the degree to which a text “retains its identity through modification of its constituent elements.” Second, it encourages “more intuitive, even visceral, contact” with textual materials. The principle underlying Bernstein’s approach is the idea that “you can’t interpret what you don’t experience.” (Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann demonstrate a similar approach in their article “Deformance and Interpretation.”)

Reading New Time with Bernstein’s “wreading” in mind made me slow down. Rather than trying to organize the poem’s references into some composite meaning or argument, I paused to absorb its many possibilities. For example, I thought about the relationships between the waste collection scene at the beginning of the passage above and the concert scene at the end. Where I had been asking, “what does a performance of Frank Martin’s ‘Irish Trio’ have to do with entrepreneurial garbage pickers?” I wondered, instead, “what if we put cellos out for recycling and played music on empty bottles?” and “what if the ‘destitute men’ were attending a cello performance instead of collecting bottles?”

While I’m not sure these questions are useful, I’m also not sure they are pointless. Whatever their merits, they helped me finish my talk and left me more interested in New Time and in Scalapino’s larger body of work than I had been when I started reading. I concluded my talk with a description of how it felt when I stopped reading for the poem’s argument and started allowing meanings to emerge:

If my reading of New Time is inconclusive, which it is, my experience of reading the poem is less so. Pursuing the poem’s possibilities rather than pressing against its frustrations forces me to take responsibility for the kinds of meanings that ‘register’ in my encounter with the text and to recognize that each meaning I create with the poem is different from the meanings Scalapino experienced and from the meanings other readers experience.


Experimenting in Class

As a result of my struggle with New Time, I have started to experiment with different kinds of reading activities in my first-year writing classes. Modelled on Bernstein’s “creative wreading” approach, the activities encourage students to experience the texts we are reading more fully and to persevere when they feel like they are missing something. Some of the activities have worked well and others have failed. I describe three of them below. My hope in introducing the activities has been that they will help students build confidence in the insights they have as they read. By doing that, I also hope that they will enable students to construct more dynamic understandings of our course materials. More than anything else, I want my students to trust their responses to the texts we read, not because their responses are correct or comprehensive, but because, as Rosenblatt theorizes, their responses are integral parts of the “transaction” that comprises the text’s meaning.


Reading by association: The first activity builds directly on Bernstein’s “creative wreading” strategies (a complete list of Bernstein’s strategies is available here: http://writing.upenn.edu/bernstein/wreading-experiments.html). I ask students to read a section of the text and copy down 5-10 words or two-word phrases that seem important. For each word or phrase, they draw an arrow and add the next word or phrase that comes to mind and then a second arrow and the next word or phrase. Applying this strategy to Scalapino’s poem might look something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 7.12.52 PM

The matrix of associations becomes a new text. Some of the associations point back to the poem, for example, “homelessness,” “poverty,” and “escape,” while others point elsewhere, “dew,” “Christmas tree,” and “construction crew.” The point of the activity is to experience all of these possibilities and to recognize which ones seem helpful, which ones seem provocative, which ones seem like dead ends. When the activity works, several things happen: students laugh at the wilder associations, come up with more than two columns of new ideas, and get upset when someone else’s associations take our discussion too far from a meaning they have invested in. The activity fails when I can’t stop myself from pushing for singular arguments or when students aren’t willing to risk coming up with interpretations that float away from the words on the page. As in Bernstein’s “creative wreading,” the associations serve as a beginning point for further discussion, writing, and research.

Reading by believing: The second activity draws on the practical wisdom of Peter Elbow’s “Believing Game.” Elbow describes the “believing” method in an essay appended to Writing Without Teachers. The essence of the method is to entertain multiple possibilities of meaning while reading and to continue to believe as many as possible until one starts to seem like the most likely meaning. He elaborates on how the method works by contrasting it with another method, “doubting,” which he explains as a practice that aims to protect readers from errors by probing for inconsistencies. “Believing” reorients this process of suspicious interpretation. Rather than reading for details and identifying and “doubting” patterns among them, a reader who “believes,” in Elbow’s sense, starts from a sense of the text’s overall meaning—its “gestalt”—and then considers how well that meaning accommodates the text’s many details. When new meanings emerge, the reader adds them a list of possible meanings rather than seeking to disprove them or reconcile them with a previous understanding.

Like Bernstein, Elbow prioritizes the experience of reading over the results of interpretation. “Because words are full of redundancy and ambiguity,” he explains, “you’ve got to hold up in the air countless possible meanings of parts—and even meanings of the whole—and then find the whole that makes the most sense. While “believing” in the meanings that emerge as we read might seem simple, the practice is actually quite challenging. Scroll back to the passage from Scalapino’s New Time above. Believe, for a moment, that the poem really means to tell us about a crisp winter morning in the city. How well do the details of the text align with that interpretation? Still imagining that meaning to be true, believe that the poem shows us the truth about humanity’s relation to the objects it creates. How well do the details of the text align with that interpretation? How has believing both meanings simultaneously changed the way you think about the poem?

To put Elbow’s “believing” method into practice, I ask students to read a text and trust their gut instincts about what it means overall rather than worrying about what they don’t understand. After they write a sentence or two summarizing their sense of the overall meaning or purpose of the text, I ask them to identify one or two details they don’t immediately understand. For a poem, these details might be lines or phrases. For prose, the details might be paragraphs or whole sections of the text. Once they’ve identified the details that still seem hard to understand, I ask them to freewrite using the following template: “Since I know the text means ______________________, the detail about ____________________ must mean ______________________.” I encourage them to write as many different versions of this sentence as they can for each of the confusing details they identified. The purpose of the activity is not for students to come up with correct interpretations of the text or of any one of the details. Instead, what I hope happens is that the activity helps students recognize that some of the meanings they construct are more believable than others. My sense from Elbow is that recognizing the possibility that some meanings are more or less likely than others is a first step toward recognizing that meanings (plural) rather than meaning (singular) are the more attractive outcome of reading.

Reading with pictures: The third activity combines Bernstein’s principles of “creative wreading” with Elbow’s strategy of “believing” and transfers the activity of reading from interpreting texts to creating images. Reading with pictures follows the same general steps as reading by association and reading by believing. Students read a text then respond. Their task in this activity is to draw a picture or diagram that helps them understand some aspect of the text. I generally allow 10 minutes for drawing and then ask for volunteers to show and explain what they’ve drawn. I think the instruction to draw one aspect of the text induces “believing” in two ways. First, drawing takes almost everyone out of their comfort zone, especially since most of us end up drawing on lined notebook paper with whatever pen or pencil we brought to class. Second, focusing on one aspect of the text rather than all of it at once clears our minds of doubts that might creep in if we had to account for everything. To put it another way, my students are much more likely to draw something they understand than something they don’t, and they are much less concerned with how their drawings look—even if I’ve told them I plan to collect them for a grade—than they are with the quality of their written work. I’ve also noticed that writing assignments that start with pictures and then proceed to arguments often focus more closely on specific details than those that start with words alone.

The first time I tried to read Scapalino’s poem with pictures, I drew stick figures kneeling in the snow. I thought of prayer when I saw what I had drawn. The idea of prayer transformed the sound I heard when I reached “Frank Martin’s Irish Trio” from the jig I had been imagining into a church choir. I wondered if the poet had heard the piece at a funeral, or if perhaps one of the “destitute men” had frozen to death. I thought about the relationships between death and recycling and between the routines we follow in disposing of bodies and plastic bottles. While my guess is that most of these ideas would not be useful for explaining the poem, the stick figures I drew gave me a way to organize at least some of what had confused me on a first reading. Similar things happen in class when we work through the activity. It is exciting to listen as students compare what they have drawn and realize that they are developing completely different readings of the same text.


Writing teachers have been asking questions about how their students read for decades. As Mariolina Salvatori and Patricia Donahue observe in a recent special issue of Pedagogy, attention to reading spiked in the early 1980s with the emergence of reader response theory, ebbed during the canon wars of the 1990s and the rise of accountability regimes in the 2000s, and is returning to the center of writing studies scholarship today. I share Salvatori and Donahue’s sense of the importance of reading to writing and thinking and agree with them that becoming a better reader is central to becoming a more effective writer. Like many writing teachers, in fact, I have long included a statement on my syllabi to this effect: “Because good writing starts with good reading, attention will also be paid to critical reading strategies.” As I hope you can see from the experiences and activities I describe in this post, believing in a principle—such as the idea that attentive, open-ended reading leads to better writing—and putting that principle into practice are two different things. I’m at the beginning of what I hope will be a longer engagement with questions about reading and how I can best use the reading muscles I have developed in becoming one of Foster’s “professional” readers to enrich the “transactions” my students experience when they encounter difficult texts. More importantly, I hope that the reflective awareness I am developing about my own reading and writing practices will help me discover more of the possibilities of meaning available in and through the next text I choose to read.


Bernstein, Charles. Attack of the Difficult Poems. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2011. Print.

Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. 1973. Twenty-fifth Anniversary Ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

Foster, Thomas. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.

Rosenblatt, Louise. The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. 1978. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1994. Print.

Salvatori, Mariolina, and Patricia Donahue. “Guest Editors’ Introduction: Guest Editing as a Form of Disciplinary Probing.” Pedagogy 16.1 (2016): 1–8. Print.

Samuels, Lisa, and Jerome J. McGann. “Deformance and Interpretation.” New Literary History 30.1 (1999): 25–56. muse.jhu.edu. Web.

Scalapino, Leslie. New Time. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2001. Print.


Contributor Biography

Nate Mickelson is Assistant Professor of English at Stella and Charles Guttman Community College, CUNY. He earned his PhD in English from The Graduate Center, CUNY, and holds an MA from Hunter College, CUNY, and a BA from Yale University. Nate’s research focuses on twentieth and twenty-first century American poetry and poetics and its relationship to social practice. His current book project, City Poems and Urban Crisis, analyzes responses to urban problems from poets, city planners, and critical urban theorists. Nate also writes and presents on reading and writing pedagogy and learning communities. He serves on the board of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning.


Thank you…and let’s keep it up!

As the managing editor of our blog, I want to thank those of you who have submitted posts in the past and have helped to make this space flourish with insight and new ideas we can all apply to our thinking, teaching and writing. I also want to thank the loyal readers and blog followers who come to this space every month to expand your viewpoints and to see what others are saying.


There is no official post this month because I have a very empty 2016 calendar of posters who have indicated they’d like to write for us. I hope the “radio silence” this month will encourage many of you regular readers to email me at cwenger@shepherd.edu and to sign up to write!! Our blog is dependent on YOU!! We’ve really built up some writing steam the past two years, so let’s keep it going!

Remember, guest blogging is a great chance to air an idea, motivate yourself to
reflect on a class/ conference/ professional event, or write your way through a research topic. In turn, you should certainly include the blog as an online publication on your CV,
etc. As editor, I can be as little or as heavily involved as you wish: sometimes all writers need from me is a deadline and final reviewing, other times I help brainstorm topics and provide extensive revision feedback. Ideally, at the turn of each new year, I’d have a month-to-month list of posters all lined up.🙂


Thanks to you for where we are today–and help me keep this blog going strong through 2016 and beyond!



The “Other” Student: From Disruption to Generosity

From an outside perspective, everything appears normal. Malik, a first-year, African-American student from Brooklyn, is sitting in the front row as usual. Today in our composition class before our workshop begins, I’m presenting a 15-minute lecturette on using signal phrases to introduce sources in a documented essay. As he listens, Malik’s piercing eyes are trained in my direction; he almost imperceptibly nods his head as I speak.

But everything is not what it appears. In the chilly classroom this January morning, Malik has his hoodie pulled over his small afro, hiding much of his face. And though he is pointed squarely in my direction only six feet away, I notice he’s not actually looking at me at all; instead, Malik is looking through me, past me. He doesn’t seem to be here in the room. Then I notice the nodding of his head is oddly rhythmic in nature—more like head-bobbing. It’s then I realize that underneath his hood, Malik is jamming to some Drake or Kendrick Lamar track on his iPhone, microscopic earbuds blasting 85 decibels of sound and turning my carefully constructed presentation into a C-grade pantomime. Don’t get me wrong: I like Malik tremendously, and he’s damn clever—after all, I can’t actually hear that music he’s listening to, and he knows it.

Now what I’m going to say next may seem anathema (or, at least, counterintuitive) to warm, welcoming literacy teachers like us. After all, my doctoral classes in post-secondary composition have taught me a wide array of student-centric, soul-sensitive, teachable-moment approaches to situations like these. And I’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice those approaches over the last 20 years. As I’m sure you’ve discovered yourself, sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Personally, I’ve always been suspicious of prepackaged, highly marketed pedagogical “solutions” to “enhance student engagement” and “increase retention.” Blech. More typically, I’m attracted to willingly being in problems as much as humanly possible when they arise, purposely swimming through them though I feel like I’m drowning, carefully breathing them in although it burns—some of my colleagues even call me masochistic in this way. But I’ve learned that reactionary responses to solve problems or fix brokenness—in other words, rolling out some pedagogical panacea simply to make my life easier—hasn’t really enriched me or my practice in any way over the last couple decades. In fact, I might say that doing so has actually short-circuited learning and growth in some cases.

So, my anathematic suggestion is that maybe, just maybe, not every classroom issue needs to be immediately solved. Ask yourself this: Although an entire industry has arguably been created to help teachers eradicate problems and remove barriers so we can “get on with the important task of teaching and learning,” what might happen if we decide to loiter in the messiness of our teacherly lives for a while? How might we grow, teachers and students as human beings, if we refused to rush headlong into salving our wounds, however big or small? What could we learn from welcoming the inevitable, painful shortcomings inherent in any complex, dynamic environment like a classroom? Might we even be able to somehow mindfully honor these problems and the suffering they bring—like my heart sinking and my anger rising as I realize, in a flash, that Malik is enjoying his concert-for-one, confident he is slick enough (and that I am gullible enough) to pull it off. What would such a classroom look like?


Oh, there is one thing you should know: Although I talk a good game, ultimately I’m president-elect of the Cowardly Teachers Association of America. Nevertheless, when contemplating this student’s questionable decision to rock out during class, I tried my best to adopt a humble position—to become willing to be in the problem regardless of how much it might hurt my feelings, regardless of how angry or depressed I might get, regardless of how much I just wanted to yell out loud in front of everyone: “Enjoying the music, Malik?”

So instead, I decided to revisit Jerome Miller’s book The Way of Suffering: A Geography of Crisis. Miller’s book is a meditation on the role suffering plays as a spiritual teacher. The most important concept in Miller’s philosophy, and the one I hope to apply to this classroom situation, is the existence of the Other. Central to Miller’s world view, the Other is a person, force, or circumstance that, wholly separate and different from us, enters our lives to painfully interrupt our routines. The Other exists solely to abandon us to crisis, which, ultimately, might transform the way we live and think (and in this case, teach). The Other is “something foreign and strange, an alien reality intruding upon the settled time and bounded space of everyday life” (14). The Other can appear in the form of a critical tragedy resulting in great personal upheaval, or it may be experienced in the form of a spiritual presence. Likewise, the Other may take the form of a revelation, a sudden and deep understanding, or an entirely different perception that lays our previous worldview to waste. The goal of the Other is to leave us untethered, wandering in a new landscape without a compass. Essentially, the Other is an interloper who rips into our tightly controlled lives and cannot be wrestled to the ground. Also important: The question is not whether the Other will visit you; the Other will befriend every single human being eventually. The real question is: How will you respond when it comes knocking?

If you’ve been following my argument, you won’t be surprised who I’ve cast in the role of the Other. That’s right: Malik. I realize that it may seem disingenuous to characterize one student’s slightly annoying behavior as a perception-warping, life-changing event. And again, branding a student as “Other” justifiably seems anathema to literacy teachers who do everything humanly possible to create positive learning communities that embrace others—not potentially ostracize or reduce them with a label. I understand how pretty awful this might sound. But that is precisely what I’d like you to consider for a moment (not ostracizing students, of course, but viewing them through the powerful lens of Miller’s disruptive Other and how this perspective might positively transform teaching practice). The role of the Other (this week, played by Malik) is singular in purpose: to breach our boundaries, to radically adjust (and maybe even shatter) expectations, to interrupt the safe routines of our lives. And the point of that disruption is to transform us—personally and professionally.



I guess if I were an optimist, I’d end my discussion basking in this “Dead Poet’s Society” moment. Unfortunately, since I am still a card carrying member of the Cowardly Teachers Association of America, you can probably guess my gut reaction when faced with the Other and what it means to me as a teacher. I am fearful of what transformation might come, and I will do whatever I can to avoid, suppress, domesticate, or marginalize the Other and its power. You may not have this kind of reaction when staring into potential radical transformation. But for me? I see this rupture, I see Malik’s behavior, as painful and treacherous, and I willfully question if pondering it really has any worth. Why not just nip it in the bud, publicly ask him to leave, give him a zero on class participation, and enjoy my weekend? Sure, I’ve taken this purely reasonable approach in the past to punish students for texting their friends under the desk (or for disregarding any other classroom policy); maybe you have too. But when I take the time to sit gingerly in the middle of the problem, something very different happens. Strikingly, I hear Miller’s argument: When faced by the disruptive Other, our first instinct is to purposely build powerful routines into our lives that act as barriers against suffering and radical transformation. Anything can become a buffer that protects us from transformation, especially as teachers–the predictable and familiar way we structure our relationships with students, our nearly-legalistic classroom policies as stated on syllabi, the way we carry out our endless cycle of work: “(T)he very process of work itself makes it possible for me to impose a direction, a sequence, and thus a pattern, on my life. It is really the process of work itself which gives me the sense of being in control.  To be ‘liberated’ from work would be to rupture the order which keeps chaos at bay” (11). Needless to say, any safe routine we follow in our teaching practice, or any predetermined pedagogy we use, might apply. Think about it: How many of your highly controlled, repeated, safe classroom practices exist to help you maintain the illusion that you are in control by pre-emptively disarming the Other? I’m not arguing that classroom policies aren’t needed, or that order isn’t necessary for learning to occur. But I am asking us to pay attention to what role these forces may also be playing in stunting our evolution as literacy teachers.

Beyond my teaching routines, there are other ways I avoid suffering that the Other might visit upon me. For example, I regularly “domesticate” the disruptions caused by the Other through sheer will. The easiest way to accomplish this is by labeling the Other as a “problem to be solved” and, as I mentioned earlier, I apply a quick, smartly marketed, painless remedy of some sort. As Miller says, “(W)e live in dread of being upset. At the basis of our ordinary world is an unwillingness to be disrupted. The very fact that we cannot bear to think of losing control shows how determined we are to avert that possibility” (14).  When an Other, such as Malik, makes his or her presence known, “We cope with this by defining the Other as a ‘problem.’ A ‘problem’ is an interruption which, in principle, can be managed, an intruder which can be disarmed. Even if I never find a solution, even if I spend the rest of my life figuring out how to deal with ‘it,’ I have already robbed the ‘it’ of its power to rupture my life by imposing on it the role of a problem” (15).

In this case, once I am able to disarm the Other (by reducing Malik to a mere problem), I can fool myself into thinking that nothing can ever upset me again—the illusion of control is re-established. Conversely, I might simply avoid contact with the Other altogether; for example, I could decide to not welcome Malik into my tightly controlled existence at all. This could be materially accomplished in a few easy ways: For instance, I could tell him to drop the course, or allow him to remain while wholly ignoring him and his behavior the entire semester. If I opt for this approach, Miller says I’ve become the God of my own, constantly shrinking universe: “Insofar as I want everything to be manageable, I want there to be nothing infinite in my life, nothing that surpasses or exceeds my power to cope and handle. If by the divine is meant something radically Other, infinitely beyond my capacity to control, then I will exclude everything divine from my life” (20).

Suffice to say, there are many other, completely understandable approaches teachers might take when faced by the disruptive power of the Other. As I mentioned previously, it’s not if you’ll find the Other sitting in the front row of your class one day, but how you’ll react when you do. (Actually, if you are currently teaching, you’ve likely already established relationships with many Others; all you need to do is critically recollect how you reacted and in what ways this encounter or relationship enriched—or diminished–your practice.) Obviously, the approaches I’ve mentioned here—using routines to avoid the Other, labeling the Other as an easily solvable problem, denying the Other entrance into a carefully controlled existence–would not be labeled as “best practices” by a long shot. And, as someone who is leery of solutions in general, I’m not offering one.

But I’ve found that pondering the Other does present me with an interesting lens to view my practice—a lens that, I think, really wouldn’t exist otherwise. For Miller, avoiding the Other or attempting to make our lives more manageable when confronted by the Other is our worst possible response; we may as well be committing spiritual suicide. Conversely, Miller suggests that welcoming the Other (or the whole student) into our lives allows us to become fully human; welcoming the Other is an opportunity for us to relinquish our attempts at control. As teachers, we like to think we are in complete control; but in reality, we control very little. Usually, it is our tendency to control every aspect of our lives that keeps the Other at bay. However, by letting go of control, by not responding to the Other in reductionist ways, we submit to the reshaping process that the Other visits upon us, and we are transformed. A thoroughly scary proposition? For me, a resounding yes! But Miller says that this visitation of the Other is an opportunity for us to practice generosity. If we are to live and participate fully in the world, especially as people who want to help students grow, we must be willing to welcome the stranger, to welcome the suffering the Other might bring as a disruptive—but evolutionary–force. And just to make this entire prospect more formidable, Miller argues that there is no guarantee this process will be necessarily beneficial; assuming a positive outcome would simply be another way of plying our will-to-control. No, Miller argues that the Other is an “emissary from the wilderness” that brings with it an opportunity for us to experience the “true, freeing uncertainty of our very existence” (15).


I can’t leave Malik’s story unfinished. I apologize, but the ending is quite ordinary, which shouldn’t be surprising really. In the final hour, I didn’t say anything to Malik about listening to music during the lecture. After all, he was only disrupting his own learning, and no one else was being distracted. Seeing my dilemma this way helped me put the matter into perspective; generosity materialized as no action on my part, I guess. Maybe he was having a bad day; maybe he was able to understand the lecture anyway; maybe “showing up” was all he was capable of that day. In short, Malik passed the class, which was his immediate goal. Ultimately, I only know that I have gained much from contemplating his behavior and choices.

Maybe you, too, have gained something from reading about Malik’s presence in my life. Have you had an Other teach you a difficult lesson about your practice? Feel free to let me and other readers know about it below.

Keith Duffy is Associate Professor of English, Penn State. His research often examines how spirituality, broadly defined, might enhance post-secondary writing pedagogy.

Work Cited

Miller, Jerome A. The Way of Suffering: A Geography of Crisis. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1988.


Coming Up for Air from Binge Writing: Research to Support The Role of Rhythm in Writing Performance

“Now hiss out a deep breath,” says my meditation group leader, “And feel your expanded diaphragm relax back to where it should be.”

Much to my surprise, I feel instantly comfortable hissing out breath in front of the other meditation students. As I repeat this diaphragmatic breathing exercise, I float in and out of a meditative focus. At the end of each exhale, I usually fall out of focus. Every time I fall out, though, is because I’m noticing this wildly relaxing feeling of my work-tensed shoulders sinking down to the floor, lifting up the same thought, in the same rhythm, over and over again: “This is how my good writing days feel.”


Coming Up for Air from Binge Writing

I am a binge writer. I live for and dread the days when my schedule is free enough to claim a 6- to 8-hour space for myself to write. Dr. Carrie Leverenz first introduced me to the concept of binge writing through Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers.

Boice touches on issues of rhythm and repetition as early as his introduction when he stakes this claim: “When writers remain productive, they learn to make writing painless, efficient, and successful” (2). Later in that text, he refers to rhythm as an “automacity” that occurs most frequently when writers consistently control distracting stimuli and hold themselves accountable to a writing group or program to establish a habit of practice (76, 94).

Binge writing sessions, try as I might, never feel rhythmic. No matter what starting ritual I ease into the session with or how many times my fitness tracker tells me to stand and stretch, the end result is a depleted, baggy-eyed, aching body. At some point in my session I’m sure to fall so deeply into the flow of my writing that I stop noticing when my breath becomes short or when I hold my breath as I try to build to the next thought. Only when I remember to stop and breathe do I see how constricted my breathing has become.

Moving Positive Psychology into Writing Practice

For the long run (or write), Boice and other positive psychologists, especially those specializing in flow or the study of optimal performance like Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, have shown that creative professionals perform best when they feel there is a rhythm to their performances, a consistent habit of practice that becomes so familiar that one flows, almost floats through the practice in a rhythmic way. For as many creative and athletic professionals as they’ve studied, positive psychologist haven’t spent much time with writers–neither creative nor academic ones–leaving me to wonder what rhythmic performances or actions writers can enact to optimize our writing performance.

I’ve spent months reading and researching to answer this question, finding only that answers to this question are hard to find. Yet I have good reason to believe that breath awareness meditations provide an answer to the question so few are willing to pursue with research. I am of the belief that careerist writers–those for whom writing is part of their professional identity or work practice–may benefit from introducing rhythmic breathing practices that help them flow through their writing practices with comfort and ease.

Writing scholars have broached the concept of rhythm’s relationship to writing in differing ways, but my dissertation research seeks to develop a clearer image of the relationship between physical activity and writing activity.

For advanced athletes, consistent rhythm of movements and repetition of practice optimizes performance, pacing the athlete to endure extended periods of physical performance during games, events, or competitions. My meditation group leader, who happens to be a sports psychologist at Texas Christian University, reminds us of how integral breathing is to physical performance. “We know that runner’s high comes from that rhythm of breathing.”  he says, adding that the same high can be experienced in certain meditation practices. If rhythmic breathing sustains the mind and the body through deep meditation practices and intense physical performances, then those of us writing with mind and body engaged stand to benefit in some sort of way.

Ergo, we must begin to ask questions: how does rhythm play out in writing? How might writers breathe more rhythmically?

Rhythm and Repetition

In writing practice, rhythm and repetition are related but not synonymous, and this reality extends far back into earliest years of literate practice in ancient Greece, where gymnasiums supported both physical and intellectual development. Sophistic pedagogy delivered rhetoric and composition instruction using the 3 R’s—rhythm, repetition, and response—for which music was often used to enhance the three together as habit and to make learning more powerful (Hawhee 135, 141). Repetition as it supports rhythm, or rhythmos in Greek, is a relationship best understood as “any regular recurring motion” or “measured motion or time” from which “regulated repetition produces disposition” (Hawhee 141). Rhetorical performances by early Greek orators and writers relied firmly on physical performance, conditioning the body in gymnasiums where written and oral communication practice took place and was often related to the physical development activities occurring in adjoining rooms. Physically strong speakers might project their voices louder and clearer, helped even more by practicing one’s cadence through exercises of rhythm and repetition.

In The Sense of Learning, Berthoff offers a more contemporary account of physical activity as relevant to even the less physically inclined, speaking from a personal experience as a “profoundly unathletic person” when she received a cross-country skiing lesson from a friend:

Her instruction was to do thus and do so with my knees, to hold my arms this way and not that way, etc. All      that happened was that I continually pitched forward and fell in the snow. But suddenly across the meadows, I      saw a figure going like the wind—a young man in shorts and a tee shirt, obviously a serious skier! And as I          watched I suddenly saw the whole shape of the act of skiing; I saw the Gestalt; I got the rhythm, the allatonceness     of the action. I did what I saw and I shot across the snow! What I needed was not a model, which could show me     how the various gestures and stances and operations fitted together, but an image of how cross-country skiing     looks, and kinesthetically, how it feels. The image of the skier gave me the whole process; it represented the allatonceness of cross-country skiing. (89)

Allatonceness is a term still featured in Bruce Ballenger’s The Curious Writer, a first-year composition textbook, but in a way that does not invite physical activity into consideration with writing activity (8). Ballenger uses the term to explain how the activity of writing requires attention to multiple aspects of the composition all at the same time, such as balancing organizational patterns while re-crafting sentences and adhering to one’s rhetorical claims. The best writers, then, attend to all these aspects almost rhythmically, with ease, as one might once one becomes familiar with any activity, including physical activities. Just as shooting a lay-up in basketball or performing a dance routine repeatedly primes the physical body to perform optimally with rhythmic attention to multiple movements, scholars might learn more about how the body’s achievement of allatonceness helps us understand writers’ achievement of rhythm through allatonceness.

Through these writing scholars I find reason to believe that writing is sustained with rhythm, a relationship exists and seeks to be better understood, better utilized. For me, breathing is becoming a way of sustaining my writing rhythm.

Applying Rhythm Research to My Own Breath Practice

Particularly on those days when I know I must binge write or on days when I write in my car or else the writing time won’t happen, I use breathing meditations to fall into a comfortable rhythm. In the “Yoga-Zen Writing” course I taught last spring, Sondra Perl’s concept of felt sense writing helped my students and I see breathing and rhythm as more connected than we previously thought. In her book, Felt Sense: Writing with the Body, Perl claims that some writers can tap into what calls “a creative rhythm” through rhythmic breathing practices she presents on the companion CD-ROM that accompanies her book (57). Several years later, Christy Wenger’s “Writing Yogis: Breathing Our Way to Mindfulness and Balance in Embodied Writing Pedagogy” would also discuss how the mindful breathing practices of yoga provided balance to the mind as the mind creates and writes, letting the writer become “emotionally flexible” so that she or he is able to “pair the movements of extension and expansion” (28). There is a natural rhythm to deep, unadulterated breathing that can help the writer control external stimuli or distractions. When we allow ourselves to experience this rhythm of breath, we allow our bodies and minds to sink into a healthy writing practice that feels as wildly relaxing as my work-tensed shoulders sinking down to the floor.

The ease of rhythmic writing, especially when supported by rhythmic breathing , does not mean the writing practice becomes easier or that rhythmic breathing can guarantee highly-productive writing sessions at any time. Breathing our way to rhythmic writing takes diligent concentration and commitment to the practice.

In Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing, Bradbury advises writers to commit to finding this rhythmic practice. Bradbury advocates for “repetitious exercise” achieved through “work” because it is “work itself, after a while, [that] takes on a rhythm. The mechanical begins to fall away. The body begins to take over. The guard goes down. What happens then? Relaxation” (139, 143). With the promise of such relaxation, I am breathing more. When my mind wanders away from the writing project before me or when my mind seizes with so many thoughts that the writing halts, a deep breath or two returns me to the page. I may have strayed because the next word did not come to me or because the idea I wrote was unclear to me for a moment, but repetition of my breathing habit always returns me to awareness of the writing as it unfolds, moving me back to a productive, breath-filled rhythm. Hours pass before I realize how much time I’ve spent writing or just how much I’ve written, but the pain of binge writing doesn’t twist peel apart my brain in quite the same way.

As I press forward with related research, I’m looking to interview careerist writers (academic or non-academic) who engage in both physical activity and writing activity on a regular basis (once a week or more). For anyone reading this blog post who is interested in talking to me about this research, I would welcome emails from you as well as recommendations of other interview participants who might be willing to talk with me about the connections between writing practice and physical practices. Email me at jacquelynehoermann@gmail.com or j.hoermann@tcu.edu. Find me on Twitter (@jackiehoermann) or follow my blog, All The Write Moves, at www.writemovesblog.com

Works Cited

Ballenger, Bruce. The Curious Writer. New York: Pearson, 2012. Print.

Berth, Ann E. The Sense of Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1990. Print.

Boice, Robert. Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing., 1990. Print.

Bradbury, Ray. Zen and the Art of Writing: And, the Joy of Writing; Two Essays [by] Ray Bradbury. [Cover Art by Peter Wolf]. no. 13 Vol. Santa Barbara [Calif.]: Capra Press, 1973. Print.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997. Print.

Hawhee, Debra. Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. Print.

Perl, Sondra. Felt Sense: Writing with the Body. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004. Print.

Wenger, Christy I. “Writing Yogis: Breathing Our Way to Mindfulness and Balance in Embodied Writing Pedagogy,” The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning 18.1 (2012): 24-39. Print.

What Contemplative Practice Offers Administrators: A Dialogue

INTRODUCTION: The following dialogue is prompted by the ideas offered in Christy Wenger’s articleFeminism, Mindfulness, and the Small University jWPA”, published in the Spring 2014 WPA Journal.  Much of the recent attention on mindfulness in the context of education addresses issues related to pedagogy, social-emotional learning, and overall well-being; in contrast, Christy uses the lens and practice of mindfulness to better understand and implement effective writing program leadership, based on interrogating and, when appropriate, integrating aspects of established leadership models, in connection with her particular positionality/ies.  Christy’s nuanced analysis of viable leadership options is substantial, immediately useful, and inspiring; I wanted to learn more about her thinking and subsequent leadership experiences in light of her substantial scholarly and administrative connections, and I thought others might find both her original article and our follow-up discussion to be of use as well.  I’d like to thank Christy for both—her thoughtful discernment about mindfulness-based leadership, and our dialogue about it.

Sheila: Christy, I enjoyed and learned so much from reading your spring 2014 WPA article entitled “Feminism, Mindfulness, and the Small University jWPA”.  It inspired me to interrogate my own leadership desires, practices, and limitations for my medium-sized WPA context.  I’m confident others who have yet to read your piece would be just as inspired; and so, for this blog dialogue, I’d like to share a few ideas and passages from your writing that especially resonated with me. I’d then like to ask you a few questions, questions that I’m genuinely interested in as I continue to better understand how to cultivate responsive and responsible WPA leadership practices grounded in mindfulness.

Some highlights for me from the article include: the way you describe your experience of what so many of us have experienced as WPAs, i.e. as the primary campus ‘caretaker’ or ‘fixer’ of students’ writing; your useful analysis of the differences among leadership practices and ethos based in an ethic of care, servant leadership, and contemplative administration; and your modeling of mindfully interrupting unrealistic or undesired expectations and power dynamics.  I especially appreciate your emphasis on cultivating “productive stillness and slowness in our administrative conceptions of agency” (134) and the affordances (and misconceptions) of “slow movement.”  Some favorite/useful passages: “Conscious of the ways my referent power will develop from the ethos I cultivate and embody as director, I have intentionally sought to manage through mindful presence.”  And, “As with any approach, contemplative administration is best received when we are clear about our intentions and goals” (134).

In the spirit of an update of sorts to your article, I’d like to ask you a few questions about your continuing development as a contemplative administrator….

Christy: Thanks for the interest in my article, Sheila! I wrote that piece so I could figure out my own positionality as a WPA, though it means a great deal that it has helped others like you come to terms with their own administrative identities in fresh ways. In the article, I explore how I imported a feminist administrative model based on an ethic of care, which was a model that worked really well for me as a graduate WPA, to my first position as a tenure-track Assistant Professor and Writing Director. When I began that job (where I remain today), I found myself overwhelmed with the demands of care that my university and program placed on me, not to mention the additional responsibilities of caretaking that I identified as worthy of my time. I discovered fairly quickly that caretaking just wasn’t a sustainable feminist practice to create an administrative ethos that was responsible to my changed local context, one invested in healthy, long-term relationships. The goal of that article is less, then, to critique care and more to offer alternatives for myself and others who may find themselves at schools or within contexts where the limits of care have us searching for alternate methods that are still consistent with feminist practices and relational ideologies. While I continue to work through what feminist administration means to me and find it challenging to practice my feminism within certain rigid and hierarchical structures of the university, contemplative practice and mindfulness remain not only key parts of my personal identity but also useful strategies for the workplace.

Sheila: How or in what ways has your contemplative leadership continued to evolve?

Christy: One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned by bringing contemplative practice to bear on my actions and attitudes as an administrator is seeing my growth and development as a lifelong and not overnight process. Maybe that sounds less than revolutionary to some, but when I first took on writing program administration (WPA) duties as a newly-hired junior faculty member, I felt great pressure to solve all the problems of my instructors, mediate the writing concerns of my university and build an amazing program… immediately. Accordingly, I felt the stress of my position as an overwhelming burden. I’m an untenured WPA, so a great deal of this stress is built into my job, since administration positions junior faculty, in particular, in awkward ways as we strive to build simultaneously a professional identity and tenure file alongside an administrative ethos, entangling all three in confusing and sometimes contradictory ways. This is where the lessons of mindfulness helpfully come to bear on administration: the mindfulness I practice in yoga and meditation reminds me that instead of reacting to my situation, I can instead choose to respond consciously by inserting a pause between the stimulus and the response. This doesn’t necessarily change the demands my university places on me, but it does change my actions in response.

My practice of yoga teaches me that the quest for a perfect pose is a misguided goal; what matters more is the awareness I develop as I go deeper into my practice and how I consciously apply this awareness to my practice of various poses, as well as within the context of my life as a whole. Often, simply being in a pose is enough since continuous striving forward can take me out of this moment and make me more past- or future-centered when the present is all I really have to work with at any given time.

Applying these insights to my administration has several practical consequences. First, I’ve come to appreciate an ethic of slow and mindful movement, as I discuss in my article. WPAing tends to valorize swift action and forward movement but that can be unhealthy and irresponsible to maintain, especially if you are the sole writing administrator on campus as I am. Next, I’ve made self-care a priority. As a young mom, self-care means I must set both time limits and emotional boundaries on my administrative work. As anyone with administrative duties knows, WPA work will take as much of your time and energy as you allow it to. At the end of my workday, I want to be available both in terms of having the emotional stamina and energy as well as free time to devote to my family. Of course, I also find solace in my practice of yoga and meditation as well as exercise, all of which I make sure I carve time out for. I’ve found that rather than getting less accomplished by choosing to move more slowly and consciously and setting boundaries for my work, I get more done because I am less frazzled and more deliberate about my actions, saving my energy for what really matters. That doesn’t mean I don’t ever stress or let my workplace worries get the best of me, but I have become increasingly better at noting those times and purposefully disrupting them before they submerge me!

Sheila:  I so appreciate your wisdom around intentions for moving more slowly—“an ethic of slow and mindful movement” and setting boundaries for your work.  In terms of moving more slowly, I fear that many in our communities feel that we already move too slowly—that programs take too long to develop, that decisions take too long, that too many committees exist, and too many votes need to be taken.  For some, this kind of slowness is frustrating.  However, the way I understand your description of “slow movement” would likely contribute to a more effective outcome, and seemingly paradoxically, a swifter one after all!  That is, if we spent more time at the outset on slowly, mindfully, moving through our work, we’d spend less time suffering and mending reactive rifts.

You also mention intentionally setting boundaries around your work.  This is excellent modeling for jWPAs and newer academics in general.  The work really is boundless, isn’t it?  We need to demonstrate a healthy relationship with the boundlessness of it—offering permission to set boundaries, for the benefit of both the individual and the community.

Sheila: What ways or to what extent has your program and the university’s writing culture been affected by your particular contemplative leadership?

It’s hard to answer this question myself, since my response may be biased by the outcomes I am hoping to achieve. Even so, I’ve had a number of writing instructors comment that in the time I’ve been leading it, our program’s commitment to creating healthy relationships and collaboration has increased. The focus on the community among and within our instructors is probably one of my greatest sources of pride as a director to date. To illustrate this focus, I can point to a number of “big” initiatives, including an updated mentor program I’ve regenerated to help support adjuncts by pairing them with a full-time faculty member who can act as a support system and an updated writing committee structure that makes programmatic decisions collaborative and visible to all, including our adjunct faculty. But there are also smaller initiatives, including more quick chats in the hallways and a more inclusive, communal environment at our professional development activities. I feel one of my greatest responsibilities and challenges is cultivating a program that insists on well-being and healthy relationships. I believe that mindfulness helps me to do that better than many alternatives and positively impacts me in the process. By applying mindfulness to my work spaces, I’ve given myself more opportunities to learn from others and to not get things right on the first try. I’m trying to take these lessons of collaboration to heart.

Sheila: “…cultivating a program that insists on well-being and healthy relationships…”  That aim, if realized even a little, can make a powerful difference in the culture of the workplace.  Here’s a way I relate to that: Like so many writing instructors, I value matters of process for writing instruction, and am increasingly focusing on the quality of experience of writing: a writing experience that is meaningful to the writer—worthwhile—as an experience, beyond what might be used in the actual written product.

I increasingly view the workplace through that same lens: quality of experience, or meaningfulness—the ways we can improve the quality of our experience working together.  Perhaps your emphasis on truly seeking to learn from others, in the context of well-being and healthy relationships, may speak to my own interest in enhancing “quality of experience” in terms of “meaningfulness.”

Sheila: Can you say something about the challenges of cultivating a contemplative leadership ethos and practice when others around you may not value it or respond favorably?

Christy: I often think about the ways university culture cultivates and rewards a Chicken Little “the sky is falling” mentality. I’m extremely lucky to work with so many people who value their jobs and take their responsibilities seriously. But, putting that many perfectionists and “type-As” under one roof can create that pressure-cooker environment where one derailment has us looking upward, convinced that disaster is imminent.

At best, taking on a contemplative leadership ethos can be comforting to my instructors because I do consciously try to stay mindful of the small pleasures of teaching and working with others in my program and find perspective on what is within our immediate control. Here’s a small example just from the other day: One of my writing instructors had planned on completing student project presentations in her classroom and with the end of the semester drawing near, she didn’t have a lot of wiggle room to reschedule these presentations. She bounded into my office at 8am and could barely keep the terror out of her voice as she explained her plans and the current offline state of the internet on campus. I assured her that we would find a solution together before her class started in thirty-five minutes. In the end, the main terminal computer in her lab worked, so she was able to work around the spotty WiFi and connectivity problems that plagued many other office and personal computers that morning. I left her still frazzled but with a plan. After a successful class, that teacher came back to me to apologize for being so frantic and to thank me for listening and responding to her with good humor and a solution that worked out.

While a small example, it’s an important one because just a few years ago, I would have been more likely to respond to this teacher with more stress and anxiety, likely compounding her own. This time, however, I found myself saying things like, “It will work out” and, “Why don’t we pause first?” Because so much of our administrative ethos is built in small moments like this, it is essential that I model the mindfulness I want my instructors to follow when making even bigger decisions about pedagogy and practice in their classrooms.

In a larger context, some of my colleagues may think of me as eccentric because of my contemplative background (I do yoga with students! And encourage my instructors to get students physically moving in their writing classes!) and may find my methods too slow and collaborative to be effective, but I do think it is easier to build a program around a specific ethos when you are the sole person in charge of it. In my article, I talk about the risks of being the only writing administrator on campus and the single person identified not only with but as the program. That identification can have some serious drawbacks, but the benefits are that many expect my program to be an extension of me, so they are perhaps more accommodating to my specific contemplative administrative practices.

Sheila: I’m especially interested in helping to cultivate “slowness” in both our teaching and administration demands, and campus wide.  Can you say more about how we might actually move our academic culture to more fully embrace a “slowness” mindset?

Christy: Well, I think we need to start with our expectations of others first. If we bring expectations for speedy action and forward movement as the primary indicator that we’ve been heard and that our demands are being met, then we’re just contributing to the system as it is. I may not always want to be given space to think or asked by someone else for an equal measure of space to contemplate before making a decision regarding something important to me, but that may be necessary for mindful action. It’s always harder to accept change when we are dishing it out rather than receiving it. So, I think just being open to others asking for space to make more deliberate decisions is important.

I also think that building university-wide awareness of the impacts of mindfulness for our well-being and our students’ learning is key to really gaining acceptance of these kinds of practices on our campuses—whether that means having a quiet/ meditation room on campus, instituting a policy to have a moment for contemplative silence before department meetings or starting a meditation group for students and/or faculty and staff—or something else entirely depending on your context. As I connect with others within university culture who also practice the contemplative arts, I see how much resonance our thoughts have, whether applied to the classroom, administration or our own teaching. If more of us are exposed to these practices and share them openly in our work spaces, our culture will shift to accommodate different ways of being, in much the same way that feminism has helped to reshape some university structures away from the strictly hierarchical. Change the people and change the place.

Sheila: Yes, living these practices out loud, with others, and through “official” or sponsored programs and campus sites: all are key to providing the possibility for others to experience, as you say, “the impacts of mindfulness for our well-being and our students’ learning.”  My own sense is that once people experience a shift, they will be eager to apply and share their insights and practices in truly collaborative and useful ways.

Thanks, Christy, for the dialogue about your writing and your work.  Your practice and use of mindfulness is useful for so many contexts.  I appreciate your sharing it with us.

Christy: Thanks, Shelia, for your interest in my ideas and your insights. I hope our readers will chime in and expand our dialogue in the comments below!


Wrap Yourself in the Warmth of My Love: Blankets, Meaning, and Memories

As a little girl, I had a favorite blanket. It had Winnie the Pooh characters on it. I remember that one corner was slightly frayed, and I loved rubbing my fingers over this worn patch. I slept with this blanket every night. It wasn’t big enough to cover my body, but that didn’t matter. I didn’t want this blanket for warmth. Instead, I would hold this blanket close to my chest, wrapping my arms around the soft, faded material, finding comfort in the familiar scent and feel.

Years later, I no longer sleep with this Winnie the Pooh blanket. But I still find myself drawn to blankets – to their comforting presence and the ways in which they carry and communicate meanings beyond their intended function of covering and warming my body. For instance, right now I am sitting with a purple and pink striped blanket on my lap. This was a gift from my Nana, a feisty, Italian woman who has made her living as a seamstress. Nana made this blanket for me several years ago. In the bottom left corner of the blanket is a patch that reads, “Wrap yourself in the warmth of my love. Nana.”


When I use this blanket, I recall my Nana’s capable, strong hands skillfully moving material in and around the sewing machine, up and through the needles. I see the spools of thread sitting on display in her sewing room: various shades of red, green, blue, and brown. I remember the times in which I would quietly creep into that room as a child, always in awe of the ways in which she could create a lovely dress or shirt out of what seemed to me to be random pieces of fabric.

This is not all. I look across the room and see another blanket. This one an eclectic arrangement of various patterns and colors, strips of fabric arranged in rows. I see maroon plaid, green vertical stripes, red polka dots, and small green diamonds. The word “Lou” is sewn into one of the corners, underlined by a simple blue thread.


This blanket was sewn together by a woman named Libby, a woman who outlived her husband Lou by several years. After Lou passed away, Libby cut Lou’s pants into small strips. She sewed these strips together, repurposing them into a 5×7 foot blanket that now finds it home within a wicker chest in my living room. When I use this blanket, I cannot help but recognize the ways in which this blanket offers a visual testament to Lou. Each strip offers a memory, a piece of Lou’s life. I wonder about the times in which Lou wore each pant. What was he doing? Where was he going? Who was he with? I think about how Libby might have felt as she turned her husband’s pants into this keepsake. Which of the pant strips made her smile? Invited a laugh? Brought tears to her eyes? It is also not lost on me that Lou had an incredibly diverse sense of fashion – the various patterns and colors of his pants are nothing short of a rainbow – and I recognize how very boring this blanket (and his life with Libby?) would have been had Lou only worn brown and black pants.

There is more. Laying across the side of my couch is yet another blanket. This blanket is also made from pieces of clothing; but this time, it is my clothing – fronts and backs of shirts I received as markers of specific activities in which I participated.


When I use this blanket, I am transported back to the swim meets – the pungent smell of chlorine water and the unmistakable beep of the buzzer that marked the start of each race. I remember the cool, fall air of my cross country races. I can once again feel a bit of the nervousness buried in the pit of my stomach as I stepped up to the start line and the sense of relief that washed over me as I lunged across the finish, legs shaking and unstable. I smile when I think about the Turkey Trots my family and I did together: the chilly Thanksgiving mornings we layered on warm clothes, pinned racing bibs to the front of our jackets, and joined the rest of our town in a 5 mile jog before heading home for turkey and stuffing.

So, why this trip down blanket memory lane? What insights do these blankets suggest that we can apply to our lives as educators and researchers? Here, I’d like to offer three specific suggestions.

  1. These blankets invite us to adopt expanded notions of what counts as a text. Texts come in many shapes, sizes, forms, and materials. Jody Shipka defines a text as “any coherent constellation of signs that constitute a structure of meaning for some audience” (Ch. 2). This “constellation of signs” can be comprised of words, images, paper, fabric, shirts, pants, or something else. When something communicates a message – even if this something is a blanket – it is a text. This has exciting potential for our pedagogy and our research. What might it mean to invite students to rhetorically analyze a blanket? What if we focus our research on the messages communicated by regular household items such as blankets, shirts, and pants? How do repurposed texts facilitate mourning and remembrance?
  2. Material artifacts often carry multiple layers of shifting meaning. The blanket my Nana made for me, for instance, offers me warmth. This is one layer of meaning. It also represents her talent as a seamstress – an additional layer of meaning. It further reminds me of her sewing room and the spools of colorful thread I can find there. And, when the sad day comes that Nana is no longer with us, the blanket will take on a new layer of meaning. The meaning of this text-that-is-a-blanket will shift and come to symbolize the woman I will miss and the special times we have shared. As a researcher, this invites me to recognize that the texts with which I work are rarely stable or finished. Rather, they are in flux – and my research methods and approaches must recognize and account for this potential fluidity.
  3. The blankets gesture to the creative ways we record and share memories. We have many ways of doing so: photo albums, video recordings, and written journals are several of the most common. Yet, if we look around, we might begin to recognize other forms of memory preservation in the everyday items that make up our worlds – the blankets that adorn our beds, the recipe cards tucked away in our kitchens, the student evaluations we receive at the end of every semester. As a researcher, I am interested in what these texts allow us to remember. What do the blankets, for instance, allow me to recognize about myself – who I currently am, who I once was, and who I will one day be? As an educator, I want to consider how I might use this perspective to promote my student’s growth as writers. That is, what sorts of pedagogies can I enact that invite my students to recognize their potential to use discourse in creative ways as a means of recording and sharing their ideas and memories?

Perhaps next time we reach for a blanket, we will do so with an increased awareness that we are doing more than covering ourselves in fabric. Rather, we are immersing ourselves, quite literally, in a text – one that communicates a message, shifts in meaning, and creatively preserves memories. My hope is that this awareness will extend into other parts of our lives, positively impacting the ways in which we approach our teaching and our research.

By Christine Martorana


Work Cited

Shipka, Jody. Toward a Composition Made Whole. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, Kindle file.


On Lions, Listening, and the Limits of Empathy

The email notification I get tells me that there is still no justice for Cecil, and I am transported back to the summer when I felt the outrage that so many people experienced over what seemed like wanton, unfathomable cruelty to wound a protected animal and cause him to suffer for nearly two days before finally “finishing” him.

I minimize the details that most of us know so well, because I suppose there is nothing more to say about Cecil and the thrill-seeking dentist, whose news cycle ran its course back in July.  (It appears that the most hated man of the moment resumed his dental practice and presumably his life.)  Even at the time, despite the overwhelming empathy for the slaughtered lion, there were those who had had enough of the liberal sentimentality that maybe I am guilty of.  There were of course the hunters (and despite my love of animals, I am not as anti-hunting as I might be—certainly hunting for meat is better than factory farming it—but what kind of “hunting” was this?) and those who wanted to know why the mistreatment of an innocent animal should raise more feelings of outrage than the murder of innocent African Americans.  Both a good question and not so good, since the two scenarios are not equivalent.  Innocence in each case means two different things.  In the latter, we are talking about blamelessness, but the lion is innocent in the sense that, lacking human consciousness, he stands outside of any ethical system.  But I don’t mean to be pedantic.  The important point that must never be obscured is that black people are killed and white people don’t care enough to do something about it.  Empathy is not always a reliable guide or catalyst to correct moral action as it is steeped, in this case, in the racism that still defines America.



 In “Shooting an Elephant” George Orwell raises a similar question, whether consciously or not, when he inspires in the reader more pity for the senseless slaughter of the benign elephant than for the death of the hapless dark-skinned worker who was a casualty of the elephant’s rampage.  By essay’s end, we have forgotten about the corpse (whatever happened to the dead man’s body?  Was he left there in the street?  Did his family collect his remains and mourn him?), except that Orwell reminds us for the sole purpose to reveal the unpleasant truth about his youthful self, that he “was very glad that the coolie had been killed” because it gave him the legally “sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant” and a means of covering up his cowardice.

I can see the killing of Cecil as part of a bigger picture that extends beyond my initial feelings of disgust and compassion: lions are big predators that don’t mix with the colonial legacy of ranching and farming that has been bequeathed to Zimbabwe, the same essential conflict we’ve seen in the western U.S. between ranchers and wolves.  And big game hunting supplements the decimated farming industry and the people who struggle to survive. This greater ecological context matters deeply, but frankly it is disingenuous of me to bring it up.  For in truth, outrage wasn’t what I felt when I heard about Cecil.  What I felt was more basic: nausea, a feeling that Julia Kristeva might identify with a “most elementary and most archaic form of abjection” (2).  A physical sensation that I could not be reasoned or chastised out of by any number of facts or good arguments as to why I should care about bigger things than one lion.  I remember closing out screens and turning down sound as I strenuously tried to avoid receiving the gory details as they trickled in, until finally I was numb enough through habituation to read and hear about the abomination that was one man’s indulgence.

For in some ways it is really the story of the man rather than the lion, and, for me, my reaction to him.   What I felt for this man was hatred so strong that nothing else could creep in—that kind of hatred–the kind that would not allow me to entertain any context beyond the physical repulsion I felt upon seeing the ghoulish photographic spectacle of his grinning face hovering above the severed head of the lion. Lila Abu-Lughod and Catherine Lutz have taught us that emotions don’t just simply exist, that they are culturally produced and transmitted. But they feel like us, they feel, dare I say, authentic, like the real us. My hatred evolved to incomprehension.  What kind of person, who walks among us and carries on the fraternal daily activities of other fellow humans, engages in this?  I share no bond with this man.  It’s impossible for me to recognize him.  I cannot bring myself to call him by his name.  To say that there is an empathy break is an understatement.

The rhetorical principle of kairos might suggest to me that the time to write about this dentist has come and gone, that I’ve missed the moment, it’s passé.  But in truth, it is after some months that I am finally able to entertain the greater contexts that reinsert the frozen moment of disgust back into a fluid timeline that allows a healing process to begin for me.  It is only now that I can write about it, and in so doing bring me to something beyond the revulsion. This is an idea that informs my teaching on writing and healing, something I tell my students and something that we might remember when we bring current events into our classroom.  For the idea of timeliness that kairos implies doesn’t merely mean current—it implies also when we can and can not do something.  It is only now that I can begin to ask myself why, for example, a man posing with a gaffed fish might destroy me less than this picture of the slaughtered lion.  (I’m reminded of Orwell again when he makes the statement that somehow the destruction of a big animal seems a worse crime.)  It is only now that this event can become part of a conversation for me.  That I can write about it.

Kairos is an elusive concept but suggests the powerful ideas of timeliness and appropriateness as guiding concepts in responding to context and audience and implies the improvisational as well as ethical nature of communication.  It involves, then, a sense of flexibility and what we might call an “openness” to circumstances and contingencies.  Not just a tool for the rhetor, kairos is a principle that can guide us as listeners, and the implications for witnessing, when we hear others’ stories, are important, because the concept can suggest a model of receptivity that we can use in the moment when we hear stories that push the bounds of our empathy.  Can I, for a moment in time, adjust my response to hear rather than shut out another’s narrative? Debra Hawhee in her discussion of rhetoric as a bodily art, references a meaning of kairos as the vulnerable opening on a body that archers should aim at: “the fatal spot, that is, is more precisely an opening in the body—a gap or softening in the otherwise protective skeleton, where the arrow can penetrate” (66-67).  Hawhee speaks of this in terms of the agon—the struggle that defines the athletic contest and, as she argues, rhetoric itself.  It is an aggressive, masculinist image, one that requires a victim be part of the scenario, and perhaps an ironic one for me to use in the context of my despair over Cecil, who was hunted with a bow by men seeking this fatal spot.

It is, then, not just an image of precise location but one of vulnerability for the “victim,” this kairotic softening in the protective skeleton.  But a less gruesome picture of the concept might be the archer Cupid, who hunts not to wreak death but desire, in which the violence is mitigated by an openness that produces connection: the opening where we let others in, for better or worse.



For me, this is the bodily essence of kairotic listening, when with our whole selves we open up to another’s words for a moment in time to hear the story we might otherwise exclude.

But at what cost?  No matter the potential benefits, the image of the hunt or battle always contains the core of violence.  Can we afford the vulnerability of the kairotic gap?  I think we can maybe more than we realize, which is what I try to cultivate in students when I train them to listen.  But sometimes we cannot afford it, and that is part of the idea of kairos, too—when and what we can and cannot do.  If the dentist who slaughtered Cecil asked me to hear him, could I allow him to hunt my vulnerability?  If I create a classroom space for people to tell their stories, what happens when I cannot hear without doing harm to myself?

The dilemma isn’t new.  It’s a version of: can we empathize with the perpetrator, the bully, the prison guard, the torturer and to what end?  Is there something to be gained by granting humanity to the monster?  There is, but that still provides no answer.  The dentist remains for me the dentist.  I won’t use his name.  There’s no space in me for him.

The problem extends beyond a narrative writing class.  Our students are always presenting us with stories that we may or may not recognize, that we may be able to afford to recognize, or not.  But it is the writing class where the question of vulnerability resurfaces again and again.  Even our most business-like, rhetoric-steeped courses can produce sites of vulnerability where the selves, and bodies, of students and teachers are at stake.  One of Christopher Harper-Mercer’s victims at Umpqua Community College in Oregon was Professor Levine, the young man’s writing teacher, who, as witnesses remember, “corrected” the troubled student days before the massacre ensued.  For writing teachers, this is the stuff of nightmares.  Perhaps Harper-Mercer’s selection of the writing class was arbitrary, but I find myself speculating about the connection between the word and the body and the self.  Texts are texts, they are not us, as we know, but they bear important and sometimes peculiar relationships to our selves and our lives, and, as with our emotions, they often feel like us.  Intervening in those words is never a simple matter, because regardless of the subject matter, words that we produce that mean something to us are always personal, are always, for all intents and purposes, “us.”

-Wendy Ryden


Works Cited

Abu-Lughod, L. and Catherine Lutz. Eds. Language and the Politics of Emotion.

Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Hawhee, Debra. Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.





Get Up and Dance: AEPL 2015 Conference Reflection

Only five minutes into the opening plenary and my body is rejoicing. Dick Graves and Sherry Swain have coaxed AEPL members to their feet, first to participate in a freestyle dance and then to join a partner dance to Janis Joplin’s soulful singing of “Bobby McGee.” There is neither talking nor formal introduction. Just full body participation.

“Yes,” my own body sings along with Janis, “Feeling good is good enough for me too!”

What a way to open a conference. What other academic conference recognizes and engages bodies on their own terms, frees them from verbally argumentative minds, opens them to childlike encounter with other bodies, and gives them the time, space, and permission to feel good for a moment? What other academic conference invites members from the outset to fully inhabit their bodies?

An AEPL conference is never about sitting long hours on one’s bum listening to talking heads with overactive brains holding forth from session to session. How quickly the bones and muscles weary of the mental toil, clever arguments, and ceaseless talking and sitting. How stiff the body grows from neglect, a stiffness that begins quietly in the hamstrings, spreads like a poison to the lower back, grips the neck and shoulders, and culminates in a full-body protest. And the body is right to protest its marginalization and non-participation. At AEPL, though, the body in all of its mammalian glory is unashamedly welcome. At what other conference can one feel perfectly natural about appearing in yoga attire before colleagues for two full conference days in order to explore the pedagogical possibilities of breath and movement for the writing classroom? At what other conference in our discipline does body/heart matter as much as mind/intellect, doing as much as thinking?

Each morning, before the scheduled sessions, Carly Sachs and D’vorah Kost led yoga practice in the Fireside Room at Deer Ridge Lodge. Standing in mountain pose in the early morning hours amid the peaks of the Rockies, I relished the effortlessness of finding the pose and embodying the qualities of the mountain: stability, majesty and rootedness. The gifts of this pose do not come as freely when I practice it on the great rolling plains of Kansas where I make my home. It was as if a special grace were upon us in that mountain place.

One description in the conference schedule that captured my eye was D’vorah Kost’s HeartBrain workshop. It promised, through sound, story, movement, and play, to lead participants to a “deeper embodiment and expression of self and community.” A tall promise indeed and one that did not disappoint. By the end of the workshop, I had descended into a depth where emotional life, spirit, and bodily being run together. Under D’vorah’s guidance, words like “trust” and “letting go,” “connection” and “nonresistance to what is,” became lived experiences in the body. And while I cannot speak for others, I sense that some of them felt this too.

I offer the following snapshot: The afternoon is warm. A dozen or so of us abandon our sandals and sneakers to the perimeter of the Fireside Room and throw open the windows to allow the breeze to stream through. (We could not know then that we were abandoning more than our shoes—we were abandoning the goal-seeking self, the ceaseless mind, and the limits these impose on what we can experience.) D’vorah begins by easing our awareness back into the body, inviting us to stretch, shake, walk, twist, breathe, bend, and self-massage. Within minutes, my own body is awake to its life. My jaw is soft, hips open, shoulders relaxed, and my breathing slow and deep. Sometimes in pairs, other times in a group, we create body movements and sculptures suggested by words like “HeartBrain” or “green.” At one point, we even build a 12-person body sculpture. It is our task to discover through the body what the term “HeartBrain” means. Nobody shrinks from the touch of the other, as D’vorah has opened a free and friendly space for connection and is tending it. Everyone in the room seems to be absorbed in the present moment with the intensity and focus of a child at play.

One activity involves arranging ourselves in pairs, with one person assuming the role of the sighted partner and the other the role of the non-sighted. We are to walk around the room and after some moments exchange roles. At first, everyone clumps together in the middle of the space. We are stiff and tentative, the sighted person steering the wrist or lower back of the blind person like a tugboat pushing a barge down a narrow channel crowded with other barges. Very clumsy we appear in this navigation as we squeeze by one another. Then we exchange roles, then partners, and do it again, each time easing up on the tightness, all the while unaware of the trust that swells silently beneath us and that will carry us out to sea.

And out to sea we go. At some point, we slip through the cramped channel and whirl out into the deeps. Gone are the barges and tugboats, replaced by nimble human bodies. The bodily movements and expressions become as countless as the waves. What a thing of beauty it is to observe bodies cresting in rhythm and diversity. D’vorah instructs us to choose a role and remain in it for several cycles. I choose the role of not seeing, so I stop and stand, alone and vulnerable, waiting for a guide to appear, my hands thrust out and palms stretched open. The helplessness and uncertainty I feel ignites a surprising memory, an ancient fear recorded in the cells of my body. Am I all alone? Will I be forsaken here? A guide appears— Man? Woman? Other? (I cannot tell)–grazing his/her fingertips across my palms and down the length of my fingers until all fingertips kiss and hands fold together. Warm that touch feels. Whose is it? I wonder. And then the one with warm touch presses my hands to sides and sweeps them high above both of our heads, as if tracing the arcing path of the moon. It feels liberating to allow this stretch, so I consent to be led in dance, and the wondrous gliding and twirling begins, my arms, hands, and fingertips, following my guide’s swirling movements, the long arcs, the proliferating circles and spirals. Then feet consent and join in the dance too, waltzing along down a winding staircase around the fixed center of my trustworthy guide. And he or she (who is this anyways?) is dipping and turning, and I follow, pirouetting. Where did I learn to pirouette like this? And who is this artist holding me? And why do I feel myself falling into a reassuring vastness where everything is perfectly and deliciously out of my control?

It is a sweet mystery this mountain dancing with friends. They too appear to be absorbed in the concrete immediacy of the moment, and later I would wonder if they found the dance to be full of everything they needed: love, trust, connection, and the full body awareness of being held and supported in a sweet mystery. Later I would recollect in tranquility the bodily sensations of being chosen, led, and held in dance by a Beloved, stripped free of the compulsion to interfere with or control. Whatever neurons were firing together during that dance, I knew I wanted them, needed them, to wire together permanently, so I sat in silence remembering and soaking in those bodily feelings, lingering in the aura of the awareness they brought.

D’vorah handed us an unexpected gift that afternoon, a full body awareness, a grounded intuitive knowledge of trust and letting go, of being done unto, an enlarging encounter with life. I may never again meet the partner with whom I shared that dance (or the other partners who came and went), but the twelve of us know we shared an intimate and childlike hour. As for myself, I know that something wondrous found and held me in that hour and showed me who I am and what life is. And that does not happen at just any conference.

Fittingly, the conference ended as it had begun: in dance. Yvonne Siu-Runyan led us in the hula, but by this time, I had drunk the sangria and my higher faculties were sufficiently dulled. I do remember the energy of the hula though, the celebration and the friendship, and how we carried these energies off to the local cowboy bar where we drank and laughed and danced some more …and how Bruce bought me a glass of sweet red wine… and how D’vorah and I sat shoulder to shoulder in a parked car talking into the night about the things that matter to a woman in the second half of life. But I won’t tell here of these moments of old friendships resumed and new ones begun, for they are too numerous to report. This too is what happens at AEPL.

It feels good to begin an academic conference in the body and to stay in it clear through to the end. I could have written here of the many intellectual takeaways from the conference, but I will leave that to others. Instead I offer this snapshot of one deeply gratified body.

Dance much. Love much.

Marguerite Regan, Newman University

Student Resistance: Why We Should Embrace It


Source: http://funnyjunk.com/funny_pictures/2710579/Resistance/

I have just finished teaching an advanced writing class during the summer session.  In some ways, the class was magical.  I had four students, so the grading was a breeze.  I was able to give solid feedback to each student on all their assignments, big and small.  We had some lively discussions, and the students got to know each other well enough that they spoke more honestly and openly than they might have otherwise.

On the plus side, this comfort helped them talk productively about the writing process as they gave frequent feedback to each other on rough drafts.  They more readily engaged with the readings, talking back to the authors or admitting that they became energized by new ideas.  In the end, they all became more proficient writers and thinkers, as evidenced by their final revisions. The flip side is that, because they were more comfortable being open and honest about their experience with the course, they felt empowered to voice their disagreement and frustration with the readings, my grading scale, or the whole endeavor of the class itself.

It may sound like the pros and the cons are the same here, and to some extent they are.  I long ago realized that my teaching style encourages students to speak out and take risks, and I take care to establish a classroom of respect at the beginning of the semester.  As inevitably happens in many humanities classrooms, this means we accept the inevitable tangents and overly personal confessions or reactions to class topics.  Someone admits drinking too much over the weekend; someone else acknowledges she wrote the essay in the two hours before class; someone attacks the assigned reading because he disagrees with the author’s value system.

These moments of honesty are often generative.  They provide the professor with a way in to meaningful discussions about time management, revision, reading without bias, and viewing situations from multiple perspectives.  And many times, these honest confessions become moments of engaging with student resistance to the very ethos of the classroom.  They can feel like challenges to our authority … but that’s only because they are. And if we’re doing our job right, we should be encountering this kind of resistance frequently. Here’s why:

The educational process fundamentally changes the very identity of the learner. By being exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking, students must let go of the person they were before, that version of self that is less informed, more naïve, and possibly more innocent and happier. Carolyn A. Martin, President of Amherst College, sees this process as fundamental to the purpose of higher education. College, she says, “is for the hard work of experimentation, failure, reflection, and growth. It is about the gains we make and the losses that come with them.” For traditional college students, aged somewhere between 18 and 25, they must let go of a smaller, more certain version of the world in which they live in order to gain an understanding of the complex realities that have been hiding in plain sight. For older (aka non-traditional) students, this letting-go process is especially hard because they’ve gotten pretty attached not only to the world but the sense of self they’ve been living with for a few decades.

Faced with the challenges of taking on a new worldview and a concomitant new identity, choosing resistance over transformation seems pretty understandable. As the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron succinctly puts it, “We have a lot of resistance to just being here.”  After all, Chodron explains, “This very moment actually does not provide us with that kind of certainty or predictability” – the kind we tend to find reassuring, that feels like home. Chodron and other practitioners of mindfulness emphasize the enormous challenge of remaining focused in the present moment, not only for students but for everyone. It is human nature to wiggle away from – or attack – perceived threats to oneself. Any perceived threat to one’s identity tends to provoke defensive behavior.

Writing about the composition classroom, Karen Kopelson confirms the logic behind this instinctive flight-or-fight response: “resistance serves to shield us from uncomfortable shifts or all-out upheavals in perception and understanding–shifts in perception which, if honored, force us to inhabit the world in fundamentally new and different ways.” (119). Faced with an authority figure asking the student to transform in this way, “‘[r]esistance’ in this context thus occurs when students are asked to shift not only their perspectives but also their subjectivities as they accept or reject assumptions that contribute to the pedagogical arguments being constructed.” (Seas 427).  From the front of the classroom, professors make numerous assumptions about the value of assigned readings and writings. Sometimes those assumptions get communicated to students, but often they do not.

While I do not think we can (or want to) get rid of student resistance, it is important to acknowledge it when it occurs and to allow everyone – students and professors – to inhabit that liminal space of not-yet-accepting. Learning is a process that evolves over time, and it requires patience and compassion. It also requires clearly communicating the assumptions that educators have about how they expect students to navigate the challenges they will encounter during the semester.

When I witness my students resisting some aspect of the educational process, it’s embarrassing how often I struggle to see it for what it is — a natural reaction to encountering something challenging or unfamiliar. The educational process requires trusting the authority figure who is asking the student to leap into the unknown. As enlightened as I might pretend to be, it’s hard for me not to take it personally when that resistance gets aimed at me directly. It still smarts a little when I walk into class the day after the first graded paper has been returned and one of my students feels comfortable enough to admit that they’ve all been talking about their grades, and they aren’t happy. The natives are restless, and they may be considering a coup.

That exact scenario played out this summer. If I were to travel back in time, my response would have been a simple acknowledgement: “okay.” Instead, I tried to turn it into a teaching moment. That’s not true: I went on the defensive, even though it was only four against one. I said, “Good. That means you have things to learn; you need this class.” The student wasn’t having it; she wanted her A. And perhaps more importantly, she wanted the version of herself that she prefers: being an A student.

How do we professional educators negotiate these moments?  Despite my own instinctual defensiveness, I want my students to think and advocate for themselves, to practice taking on their own authority, something that has been denied them in many academic settings.  In my composition classes, I emphasize that I’m teaching standard American English, which is one dialect among many, and not necessarily superior to whatever they speak at home.  I encourage them to find their voice, a mixture of academic-ese and their native language.  I teach them to annotate texts by marking points of agreement and disagreement, reminding them that critical readers employ a healthy dose of skepticism.

But they are new at many of these ways of thinking, so their version of skepticism often looks more like vigorous disagreement and resistance, evidence that we have hit up against some deeply entrenched belief that the student is unwilling to modify or relinquish. They are experiencing a profound moment of cognitive dissonance, another concept I lecture about at some point in the first few weeks of class.  Every day, I tell my students, you are being exposed to some new fact or idea that doesn’t fit into your worldview.  You have two options: do you enlarge your worldview to make room for this new way of thinking? Or do you hold onto the current size and shape of your worldview and refuse to process those things that don’t fit into it?  Those are the two options. Allow your world to get bigger, I tell them. Allow yourself to grow.

By acknowledging this moment of psychological distress, it is possible for educators to take a mindful approach and inhabit that uncomfortable moment with them, as non-judgmentally as possible. To do so, consider a useful process taken from the theory of transformative learning, which defines learning as a shift in perspective. This theory was developed by Jack Mezirow in response to his study of challenges particular to adult learners in the 1970s who, as discussed above, have compelling reasons for holding on to their established beliefs and identities.

Referring to Mezirow’s theory, Patricia Cranton lists the ten phases involved in the student’s transformation of perspective:

  • Experiencing a disorienting dilemma
  • Undergoing self-examination
  • Conducting a critical assessment of internalized assumptions and feeling a sense of alienation from traditional social expectations
  • Relating discontent to the similar experiences of others — recognizing that the problem is shared
  • Exploring options for new ways of acting
  • Building competence and self-confidence in new roles
  • Planning a course of action
  • Acquiring the knowledge and skills for implementing a new course of action
  • Trying out new roles and assessing them
  • Reintegrating into society with the other perspective.   (Cranton 23)

This process highlights the transformation in identity that comes from true learning, and provides a clear end goal. If educators are expecting students to let go of a previous version of self, they need to provide them with a compelling vision of what their new role or identity will look like. Getting there requires a great deal of intentionality, opportunity for critical self-reflection, and space for experimentation. It requires getting comfortable with lots of moments that we might prefer to wiggle away from.

I am at the beginning stages of creating a vision for what that looks like in my classroom, although I’m pretty sure I know what I want my students to look like when they emerge from one of my courses: thoughtful, confident, respectful, and the kind of people who value well-reasoned arguments over ungrounded or fallacious theories, and who value meaningful, complicated human communication over just about anything else.  So far, one of the techniques that has worked for me has been mindfulness, as I’ve discussed in previous posts. Staying in the present moment with feelings of discomfort is the first step to being able to reflect critically and then move forward — true for the students, and true for those of us who educate them. I am working on acknowledging my instinctive reactions before acting on them – saying “okay” and letting it go at that. If I can model a little more patience and acceptance for my students, I am optimistic that they will become more skilled at those qualities as well. And those are the first steps to transformation.

My goal for this semester is to keep in mind the need to give my students a vision of who they are becoming. For now, I plan to emphasize the process itself and tie it in to the easy analogy – just like the writing process, the learning process is recursive and never-ending. And that’s a good thing.

How about you? What new roles do you expect your students to play as they work through their natural resistance to change?

-Michelle Veenstra, PhD
Assistant Professor of English
Francis Marion University

Works Cited

Cranton, Patricia. Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide for Educators of Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994. Print.

Kopelson, Karen. “Rhetoric on the Edge of Cunning; Or, The Performance of Neutrality (Re)Considered As a Composition Pedagogy for Student Resistance.” College Composition and Communication 55:1 (September 2003): 115-146. Web.

Martin, Carolyn A. “What Is College For?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 22 April 2013. Web.

Seas, Kristen. “Enthymematic Rhetoric and Student Resistance to Critical Pedagogies.” Rhetoric Review 25.4 (2006): 427-43. Web.