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: