Our guest blogger today is Jonathan Miller-Lane, associate professor of education studies and head of Wonnacott Commons. His post explores a challenge of trying to live “mindfully.”
If there is a reason why it is worth coming together at a residential liberal arts college in the Champlain Valley of Vermont, rather than, say, staying home and taking all your courses online, it might have something to do with the intellectual community that is made possible when we come together to learn, listen, talk, and share meals. However, at this time of year, in the heart of fall semester midterms, it is so easy to slip into the “Just let me get through this midterm / this day / this week and I’ll be fine” mind-set. Line ’em up, knock ’em down. Two weeks to break. Then one month, and Thanksgiving; two weeks, then winter break. Line ’em up, knock ’em down. We come all this distance, spend all this money, spend huge amounts of human energy to prepare and maintain an extraordinary physical environment and organize a complex series of courses and events, so that we can all say how little time we have for each other because we are all so busy, busy, busy. Huh? Yes, we live in a fast-paced digital world. But, as an educational community, do we have nothing to say regarding how we might reflect upon, interrogate, and engage this 24/7 lithium-battery-charged life?
We sometimes seem to be overly focused on performance at the expense of valuing the power of practice. Students perform papers, exams, presentations, etc. Professors perform lectures, office hours, etc. The idea that by coming together we might be practicing something sometimes seems to get lost in our communal efforts to demonstrate normative forms of academic competency. What would things look like if we were to value practice over performance? By practice, I mean something like when we say, “Doctors practice medicine.” Generally, hopefully, the idea that doctors “practice” medicine does not mean that when doctors see their morning patients they are practicing for the big game patients in the afternoon. We do not say that doctors “perform” medicine any more than teachers “perform” teaching.
I think when we say lawyers practice the law, or doctors practice medicine, we mean that there are a set of principles, a body of knowledge, prior experiences, and other elements that an individual brings to bear when addressing any individual case. Each moment is a moment when all these elements come together uniquely. Practice seems to emphasize engagement with another. Practice suggests a sense of reciprocity—there is listening involved. Performance, on the other hand, seems to emphasize presentation for another—listening is done primarily by the receiver.
Maybe, one reason we are too busy for each other is because we see no need for reciprocity. I mean, really, who has time for that? I have my normative academic performance in five minutes, tomorrow, next week. I have no time to be in this thing here, because I have to get ready for that next performance over there…
If the value of coming together lies in the potential that our communal engagement offers, can we imagine embodying practice? Would we allow ourselves greater intellectual risk-taking as a result? Is there a Way of being a student or a professor that is different from the mere performance of those roles?
Footnote: The title for this reflection was, like practically every other good thing in my life, my wife Karen’s idea.