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!

 

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