Designing the Future

Visioning Education for the Environment and Sustainability in the 21st Century at Middlebury

Conversation with David Levy, Professor at the Information School, University of Washington, Seattle, WA


October 8, 2013

In attendance: Cat Ashcraft, Rebecca Gould, Emily Hoyler, Nan Jenks-Jay, Marc Lapin, Diane Munroe, Steve Trombulak, Helen Young

David Levy is connected to the Curriculum for the Bioregion (CFB), which is an outgrowth of the Washington Center at Evergreen State College.  The CFB started with Jean MacGregor, the current director, in 2004.

Marc Lapin (ML):  Role of contemplative education and using other parts of the brain, using other modes.

David Levy (DL) introduced himself saying that his official role is as a technologist.  He’s trained in computer science and worked for Xerox in a corporate think tank in Silicon Valley.  He is now teaching at University of Washington and he critically describes universities as “no think tanks.”

DL’s “shadow CV” includes teaching meditation at the San Francisco Zen Center.  Questions he’s asking and writing about:  what does human sustainability look like in an age of info/tech overload? DL believes that misunderstandings that have led to environmental crises are similar to technology-founded crises.

One goal of the CFB is the creation of learning communities (see handout).  DL’s role is in the “Reflective and Contemplative Practice” sector under “Cultivating Promising Pedagogies for Teaching Sustainability.”  Goals of this group are how to bring contemplative practice into teaching and how to experience and practice it themselves; how to bring sustainability and contemplative practice together.

DL’s learning community has had several large gatherings of higher-educational professionals.

Two other good examples of institutions trying to bring sustainability and contemplative practice together are The Whidbey Institute and The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society at Amherst.

Some working ideas of the “Cultivating Promising Pedagogies for Teaching Sustainability” group:  How do we hold despair/fear/challenging emotions as we contemplate what is happening to the planet? We do have ways through quieting mind and body to hold more and to develop a larger sense of hope and possibility.

How to deal with students – sharing bad news without overwhelming them or pushing them to “quick fix” ideas leads to a greater understanding of life.

An example practice of what this would look like in the classroom:  In her class, Karen Litfin, a UW political scientist who writes about ecovillages, begins by showing students a photo of the thin strip of atmosphere from space and calls this protective band that is essential to well-being “our skin”.  Then she does reflective breathing as a way to demonstrate that the atmosphere is shared – I’m breathing in what others are breathing in and out, and I feel beauty and preciousness of what was once invisible.  The overall goal of the exercise is to feel appreciation and connection.

Steve Trombulak (ST): How do students respond to this?

DL has the sense that student reaction is overwhelmingly positive, but Karen is still an oddball in political science, just as he is in computer science.  There is a need for larger departmental support.

Nan Jenks-Jay (NJJ):  How to integrate across the curriculum & general education so that this kind of practice is not an outlier?  Is the activist mindset of students the “quick and easy response” nowadays? Thinking about the momentum of activism versus the practice of stepping back and taking the time to reflect and contemplate for deeper understanding.

Rebecca Gould (RG): I think contemplative practice is growing and more people are taking it on in various forms.

ML: The common question of newcomers to contemplative practice is “how does it connect to content and disciplines?”  Others want to tie it to content that they are teaching.  For me, it seems easy and that there are so many easy ways to connect it.  For example, the themes of time scales and spatial scales are relevant to any discipline and are good entry frames for contemplative practice exercises.

DL explained how he uses contemplative practice in computer science as part of an information and contemplation class that he teaches.  He does exercises that ask students to be more mindful of uses of technology and how it affects their physiology.  Mindful awareness of their technology use – they chart it over the course of a week and write a reflection paper.  Why he does it in order to teach how to find balance amidst technology, fragmentation and isolation.

The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society is a newish national organization that held a 5th annual conference in Amherst this year that spanned all disciplines.  400 – 500 faculty attended.

Emily Hoyler (EH) & ML:  How to carve out time in the classroom for this and reflecting and putting it into personal and community spheres?  You need to let go of content to leave time for meaning making.

DL: These are the same questions that my group has been working on and discussing over past five years.  You can’t do alone, have to do in a learning community

Cat Ashcraft (CA): How to share pedagogies – what is the process?

ML:  Can’t do solely through workshops, have to sit in on others’ classes.

CA:  But class visits and co-teaching are almost one-offs, how to really learn and build?

DL:  It’s great to have conversations with “local colleagues.”  His group is distributed across multiple institutions. Their main forums: trying exercises on faculty group, bring additional people in for weekend workshops, and they have a website with database of teaching practices.

Various forms of conversation, connection, friendship – out of friendships have come particular bodies of work.

ST:  Are there assessment/metrics to prove this enhances educational outcomes given our learning outcomes focus?

DL said that he’s not active here, not at this point.  But he is interested in exploring what are kinds of real learning we care about versus what universities want to measure.

RG:  There is a ton of literature on the benefits of contemplative practice.

DL would love to get a small grant to think about how to go about measuring and assessing.

ST: A core challenge is the inability of students to stay engaged for long periods of time.

DL:  I have a session on cultivating attention on e-mail – how long can you stay on it before starting to web surf, and another one on multi-tasking – reconstruct your own personal multi-tasking strategy, then we talk about – what does mindful multi-tasking look like?  Learning from other students and learning they are different from each other. Keep level of sustained curiosity together.

Helen Young (HY): Does DL start with technology and then go to more focus on breathing or surroundings?

DL:  My courses are electives, so I’m not imposing contemplative practice on all students in a 101-level class, but I am thinking about starting to introduce it when relevant in lower level classes.  For elective class, I pre-interviews students to let them know what they are getting into and turn away students who have high workloads.  You can’t cram for this kind of class.

ML: I see potentially much greater impact of DL’s work because it’s coming from a non-ES discipline.

DL:  The time scale of dispersion of this type of learning is too long.

ML:  One of the best outcomes is students learning they have conscious choice about everything/all sorts of things.

NJJ:  Jackson property as a place for mindfulness.  Can something like this be embedded early in development of property rather than injecting it into existing structures?

SCT:  Administrative process weeds out those who might favor contemplative practice. Let’s not be naive that students would use such a space – it can’t be done passively.

RKG:  All the more reason we should do it.  Can’t push it, but student-to-student sharing is a great way and she hears a strong thirst for this type of learning from some of her students.

CA:  Environmental humanities a likely magnet for these types of students and conversations, but we don’t want to pigeonhole it here.

ML:  One common ground is that we all have passionate students.  They are receptive to contemplative practice because they feel it in themselves that solutions will take much more.

CA:  It’s still just those students who get it.

ST & CA started to discuss the idea of experimenting with contemplative practice at School of the Environment and then bringing it back to the ES program.

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