Saturday, January 24, 2009

How Can We Create a Vibrant, Engaging Semester?

The feminist poet Adrienne Rich once gave an inspiring talk to Women’s Studies students about the vital importance of claiming our education instead of merely presuming to “receive” one. As we begin a new semester, I encourage you to find ways to claim your learning process so that it is the most fulfilling and engaging it can be for you.

What might that look like?

Many of you know that I am an avid yoga practitioner, mostly because yoga has taught me many things that inform how I live off the mat, tools that fit well within my “feminist toolbelt.” You may or may not be interested in yoga. No matter--think of it as a metaphor for learning.

In yoga, we talk of beginner’s mind. No matter how often we come to our mat—daily, weekly, year after year, in pose after pose—we come to our practice with the mind of a beginner, open to learning whatever new lesson might emerge that day. The feminist poet Adrienne Rich calls this claiming our education. She wrote,

I want to suggest that there is a more essential experience that you owe yourselves, one which courses in women's studies can greatly enrich, but which finally depends on you in all your interactions with yourself and your world. This is the experience of taking responsibility toward yourselves….Responsibility to yourself means that you don't fall for shallow and easy solutions….It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short…” (Rich, “Claiming an Education”).

As you begin a new year and another semester, I encourage you to cultivate this kind of openness about your classes, your work, your relationships, and even to broader feminist sociopolitical issues. As you enter new classes, take more advanced classes, or perhaps step into a subject matter that is out of your comfort zone, see if you can bring that genuine inquisitive passion to your learning.

For me, beginner’s mind means that while I practice the precise alignment principles that I have studied, I let go of expectations or presuppositions as I come to my mat. I don’t presume that I know the pose so well that my mind starts to drift off to my next task at hand until I am merely mechanically moving through the routine. I don’t get too cocky in my ability to balance in a handstand (and if I do, I will inevitably fall out if it!) Nor do I bring previous unsuccessful attempts—my “failures”—to my next handstand or arm balance. (If I do, I will inevitably “fail” again.) Each of these prejudgements would rob my current practice of its dynamic, alive quality, lending instead a rote and dull tenor to my practice.

The challenge, of course, is to determine how you can bring the skills you have and the knowledge you have already learned to your life and your studies, while still nurturing that delightful openness that comes when you first begin to learn something new.

Yoga has taught me that when I shed any preconceived expectations I might have and instead come to my practice with a beginner’s mind, I am guaranteed to discover some new insight about myself and the world, even in a pose that I have done hundreds of times. Downward dog looks different when I am exhausted then it does when I am excited, just as it looks different as I celebrate an election or mourn the loss of a friend and colleague.

Each moment offers its own insight if we remain open and aware. Similarly, we can practice our solid critical thinking skills and still be open to the idea that we may not know all the answers—or even the right questions. We can be solid and passionate about our convictions and still open and willingly engage in dialogue with others who believe differently then us. And when we do, we almost always learn something worth knowing, about ourselves, about others, about the society in which we live.

College is generally built on a successive and progressive educational model; you take 201 as a prerequisite to 405; you learn basic concepts and then build more complex ones on that foundation. That is an important model for learning. Simultaneously, we can also meet each educational opportunity with a fresh perspective.

We are in an invigorating time of many new beginnings: a new year, a new semester, a new presidency. This week marks an historic event as Barack Obama took the oath of office and became the 44th President of the United States. The air of hope and community that infused the nation was a much-needed revitalization of our energies as we roll up our sleeves and get to the hard work of producing change. His inauguration speech pointed to the ways we have to strive for greatness, not merely expect it. He told us,

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a
given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling or less. It has not been the path of the faint-hearted—for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things—some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedoms. (Obama inauguration speech transcript, 01/20/09).

I invite you, even challenge you, to embrace your semester in a way that allows you to achieve the great potential that I have seen in every one of you. I challenge you to cultivate a beginner’s mind as you enter this new year and this new semester. Let go of intimidating fears if you are taking that calculus class that you dread, and don’t presume that you can coast through that PESS class that you think will be super easy. Bring fresh insights and energies to those feminist issues about which you feel so passionate. As the student, you have the option of making every class you take an enriching opportunity for learning and growth. No matter how good the teacher or the class is, you are the one who has the power to decide whether and how deeply you will engage each and every learning opportunity.