Beginning

One false start down, I’m taking a second try here to get this blog rolling. The fact is, there is so much to talk about with regards to teaching that I never really know where to start.

So, I’ll start here, with the idea of “beginner’s mind.” This concept, brought to us through Buddhism (and proliferated through self-help books, writing workshops, and couple’s seminars), reminds us to come at every old task as though we’d never undertaken it before. Simply put, it means to pretend you haven’t done this one thing – giving a lecture, grading a paper, monitoring a group activity – time and time again, and are instead approaching it for the first, very exciting time.

Beginner’s mind allows for a few different things. As beginners, we generally have more open-minded expectations of ourselves and others. We don’t necessarily know how a thing will work out, whether or not it will go according to our decidedly amateur plan. Also, beginner’s mind frees us from thinking about a task as monotonous; if we sink into beginner’s mind each time we approach an exercise or an assignment, the task looks new, original, and it invites more engagement.

This is, by nature of the fact that I’m covering it in a blog, a summary description of a pretty complicated idea. You can put on beginner’s mind when you cook, when you approach your in-laws, when you kiss. You can consider yourself a beginner when you sit down to write, enter the classroom to teach, or decide what to wear each morning. In the classroom, or in the less visceral world of pedagogy, beginner’s mind can (I hope) free us to rethink ideas we pretty much assume to be truth.

I’m the chair of an online English department. I have something like 25 or 30 adjunct faculty I work with, several folks I report to in various ways, and on average between 75 and 100 students in a given term. Each day I report to “work” (also known as my downstairs office), I am tasked with any number of unsurprising jobs for the day: reading and responding to e-mail from students; reading and responding to discussion threads; planning course design; answering questions from faculty; corresponding about any number of bureaucratic issues and decisions with the directors of the college; and more.

I could, and sometimes try to, dust off my teacherly mantle and sink into beginner’s mind each morning when I approach my downstairs desk. Sometimes, I don’t succeed, and I spend what could be very good, productive time tied up in knots about why these tasks I have to do are so relentlessly redundant. Sometimes, it works, and I find that those days, I am much more interested in my students, much more interested in running my department, much more interested in this whole endeavor of higher education.

I bring up beginner’s mind, though, not as a perky tip for helping teachers manage their daily stress; I bring it up because of its broader applications. Think about how beginner’s mind might affect our attitudes toward persistent issues like plagiarism and academic integrity. As a beginner, can we back away from our assumptions – so many of them deeply ingrained from years of training – thereby getting a good look at them? How might beginner’s mind affect the popular concept that teaching both is and is not rewarding work? How might a beginner look at online learning? Standards? Rubrics? Would a beginner be inclined to issue grades without first at least thinking about what grades are, how they’re used, and what they represent to folks on either side of the chalk?

I would like to start this blog, as much as I am able, with a beginner’s mind. No assumptions, no prejudices. Just the excitement of the new – the same excitement, really, that brought me to teaching in the first place.

Some links to consider:

Learner as Beginner

Beginner’s Mind

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5 thoughts on “Beginning

  1. You’re asking some excellent questions.

    I wrote recently about this concept, and wondered if it is difficult for teachers to approach things as beginners because we’re so often cast in the role of expert in the traditional classroom arrangement.

    But I think it is a refreshing way to consider looking at things we do daily anew.

    In regards to your question about plagiarism, sometimes we think we know why students do it, but I often wonder if we stop to ask them or sort out what the reasons are. If we understood that better, then perhaps we could help students better with the issue.

    Enjoyed your post. Here’s my thoughts… http://futura.edublogs.org/2007/11/23/beginners-mind/

  2. Carolyn,
    Thank you for your comment. Actually, there was a sort of confluence of moments that led me to write this post. I’d been reminded, in another context, about beginner’s mind, and had been thinking and rethinking the idea of this blog. Then, in exploring Beyond-School.org, I ran across your post about beginner’s mind. These several reminders of what’s become a valuable principle in my life led me to begin again on Slam Teaching. So, thank you for your contribution to that process.

    Regarding your comment about plagiarism: I have actually only ever approached this subject in my classroom by asking students about why it occurs, why *they do it, and how it might be avoided. I rarely put any emphasis on proper citation during this discussion, nor on the penalties for plagiarism. What I find is that students generally respond by telling *me about proper citation, telling *me about the penalties; and, invariably, they mention laziness and general corruption as the reasons why plagiarism occurs.

    What strikes me about students’ responses is that they are, to a great degree, the opinions of teachers before me. They are the responses the students themselves have been trained to give. It seems that students, even when given the opportunity, have a hard time coming at certain subjects (plagiarism, authority, classroom dynamics, grades, to name a few) with beginner’s mind.

    So, it would seem the challenge then is to help both faculty and students feel comfortable with the idea of beginner’s mind; or at least with the idea that education is evolutionary, that sometimes we should inspect and possibly disassemble the notions of the past rather than rely on or build upon them.

    What do you think?
    Sean

  3. Okay, my second comment (and I haven’t settled in yet, because I decided to follow your posts rather than unpack my suitcase – glad I did).

    So you’re Sean, you teach web-based college English classes, and you’re as interested, apparently, in the psychology of schooliness as I am. And you’ve discovered Carolyn (or she discovered you), who has a knack for finding things.

    Interesting. If you want to play with any ideas for getting past schooliness more, and doing so collaboratively, I have some AP Literature students I’d love to introduce to your students. Perhaps they can read the same books together and your students can quasi-“teach” mine, peer to peer. I dunno. Anything you come up with would interest me too. Always (try to be) open.

    I have 27 of them. Second semester, we’ll do probably some Keats and/or Blake, Austen, Wilde, Beckett, and maybe John Barth’s On with the Story (an obscure top-ten favorite of mine).

    If you’re interested, you know where I am.

    Very good to read you, again. Please stick with it.

    Clay

  4. Clay,
    Thank you very much for the kind words about my blog. I’m glad you enjoyed it and that it gathered up your attention even after an eventful trip. Thank you also for the post on Beyond-School.org about Slam Teaching. I really do hope to engage with folks through commentary; so, the more viewers the merrier.

    I am indeed interested in breaking out a little beyond the “schooliness” of the academy. I’ve always been a bit of an insurrectionist in my classroom… and now as the chair of a department, I’m faced with some very different challenges to my freedom fighter mentality. Part of what I’m getting at with this blog, I think, is the attempt to define what I do when I teach, what’s valuable to me, and whether or not teaching truly can be an evolutionary undertaking (evolutionary in the surprising ways – evolution like giraffes and platypuses).

    So, thank you again. I’ll stick with it. And I’ll be in touch.
    Sean

  5. Hey Sean,
    I missed this first post somehow when I read a later one–nice start.
    Have you read The Art of Learning?
    As you mentioned, a lot of books tackle this topic of the beginners mind, but this one is written by Josh Waitzkin, the chess-kid genius that Meeting Bobby Fisher was based on. He also went on to become a world master in push-hands Tai Chi. (I didn’t know you can compete at Tai Chi…but I guess you can…)

    I feel more comfortable starting new things:if things don’t go well that is accepted, and if they go well I have exceeded all expectations.
    But how can we maintain that openness when it is expected that we are an “old hat” at such things?

    Thanks for your comments on flinttospark
    by the way,
    -Laura

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