Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mindfulness and Doing More with Less

I know I am in trouble when Time Magazine offers me an antidote to my mood.  Standing in line in the grocery store on Saturday, I picked up an issue of Time whose lead article was about the mindfulness movement.  According to the writer, who opens her essay with a description of her careful, mindful exploration of a raisin getting stickier with each mindful, meditative moment, we do too many things at once and our attention to the world suffers.

We know that universities across the continent are struggling financially; we also know that one of their biggest expenses is salaries. Hence it's not difficult to conclude that one of the way universities are dealing with their financial difficulties is by not hiring replacements when people retire.  The obvious result of those decisions (or non-decisions in some cases--all too often the administration is simply letting this happen, which means that older faculties like Science and Arts take more of a hit than the younger "professional" faculties) is that there will be less variety of classes offered and that those classes will probably be larger. A perhaps unintended consequence is that all of the things the academy does to run and regulate itself are done by fewer and fewer people.  

I'm senior faculty; I have seven more weeks (and a bit for marking and a single exam) left of the term, so it's my job to do what I can.  When I told my department head to put me where he needed me (we have four people on well-deserved sabbaticals), he took me seriously.  Hence I am teaching two new classes this term. When  no one from the humanities volunteered for the Faculty of Arts Performance Review Committee, I stepped up.  I'm on the English Department's Advisory Committee, so I also read all the files that will ultimately go forward to the Faculty's Review.  As well, I'm Graduate Chair, and spent nearly a week of "spare time" reading eleven applications to our M.A. program from Nigeria and China, as well as from Ontario and Saskatchewan. 

Reading files:  it's not as awful as it sounds.  In both the English Department and the Faculty of Arts, reading files is often inspiring.   I need perhaps to say that again:  it's inspiring to see your colleagues being reflective about their teaching, to see them considering ways of framing their discipline that will catch students' imaginations, to see the fruits of their scholarship, to know that they have fresh new insights into the world we struggle every day to make and remake.  Reading student files, particularly from abroad, is certainly challenging.  We sometimes don't know what to make of student transcripts; just as often we are surprised by the classes students in Nigeria and China take--on cultural traditions and peaceful social transformation. Ultimately, we need to create a past narrative that might predict the future.  I can imagine the life of a student studying in Ontario; I have no idea about the life of a student studying in Saudi Arabia.  It takes time and a certain kind of mindfulness. 

As usual, it's not the work I need to do that is the problem; it is the time I have to do it in. The two new classes alone are more than a full time job. Let it also be said: I'm not an automaton.  If I don't have some down time to simply be, to have conversations with friends, cuddle with a cat, knit some complicated lace, start a new quilt, I lose my sense of self. I'm not sure I teach particularly well when I walk into a classroom with no reserves, with a dwindled sense of self.  I am not my job.  I don't think that any professor who is just their job can do the important work of reaching beyond the text or the discipline that is in front of us to make those crucial connections between the academy and the world beyond.  These aren't something we plan:  they come out of our mindful, imaginative engagement with the faces in front of us, our sense of who our students are and how they view their world.  We know a "teachable moment" when we see one, but only if we're not on automatic pilot.

When people asked me what I wanted to do with "Reading Week," I said "Walk, play lots,and think deeply."  We might laugh at Kate Pickert's exploration of the raisin in the palm of her hand, but that's what I mean to do. I am starting a new quilt; the wonderful thing about any craft is that it requires a mindfulness that is half zen and half intensely engaged. You can't do things by rote, though their familiarity creates a kind of zone in which you move comfortably.  I need to finish my conference paper on Woolf's early use of experimental form for the "1914:  A Turning Point in History and Culture" lecture series at the University. I'm reading Pierre Bourdieu's The Rules of Art, which hasn't netted any profound moments yet, but I'm willing to hang in with his critique of nineteenth-century French art and all the wondrous and venial institutions that supported it so that I have a context for what he says about the making of art.  I'm nearly done with Molly Peacock's splendid The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delaney Begins Her Life's Work at 72--an irresistible title for someone on the eve of retirement.   Next comes Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, a real door-stopper that clocks in at nearly 800 pages.

Even this soon, I can see something that I'd lost sight of among the piles of files and paperwork and meetings:  it's the University's job to teach mindfulness. What we really try to do, particularly in the Faculty of Arts, is to offer students myriad ways of being mindful, being attentive to their world. We teach them to see things that have been invisible, like ideology. We teach them to reframe and reconsider what is all too visible:  inequality, unkindness, lack of empathy and compassion.  We teach the mindfulness required to read a poem or watch a film or to unravel the threads of cause and effect that lead to homelessness or despair We teach them ways first to observe carefully and then to create the world they want that isn't here yet.

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