Professor of Chemistry at Bryn Mawr University, Dr. Michelle Francl led a workshop at the University on Thursday, Feb. 19 titled “Practically Impractical: Contemplative Practices in the Classroom.” The workshop intended to provide both STEM faculty and graduate students with advice and a chance to practice using contemplative techniques such as mindful body awareness to improve the quality of teaching and learning.
Francl discussed the motivations for the workshop, noting that while most current teaching methods may appear adequate, upon closer inspection, certain aspects of contemplation and mindfulness will benefit a learning environment.
“It’s not so much as what is lacking in current methods,” Francl said. “[It is] a way of looking at teaching as a whole, how you might choose what methods to use in a particular class. I would argue for intentional simplicity in the classroom, which might look like a syllabus that feels less like a forced march, and offers more time for reflection, or it might be one that eschews the ‘vaccination’ model of instruction, presenting material ‘just so you will have seen it.’ Or it might be a commitment to not ending each class by racing through the last bits of material.”
She added that there is research data that suggests that cramming too much into a class actually results in students mastering less material, including a study done with medical students in a biochemistry course.
Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the College of East Asian Studies, Stephen Angle attended the workshop and found it to be both interesting and helpful.
“Professor Francl discussed a wide range of strategies, and we tried out a few during the workshop,” Angle said. “I was intrigued to realize that her scope was much broader than I had expected: the kinds of writing, drawing, reflection, and other pedagogical techniques that she discussed can be applied to pretty much any type of course, anywhere across the curriculum.”
The workshop not only provided strategies but inspiration, Angle said.
“It was both thought-provoking and inspiring,” Angle said. “I think that all of us present were inspired to think more about how the ways we interact with one another and [how] students might benefit from some of the approaches Professor Francl discussed.”
In addition to the workshop on contemplative pedagogy, Francl also led a student-based discussion on the intersection of faith and secular life, particularly in the context of the University. The discussion was coupled with a workshop on mindfulness led by Director of Religious and Spiritual Life, Rabbi David Leipziger Teva. Francl, a devout Catholic who blogs about both religious and scientific matters for CatholicPhilly.com, discussed her experiences with balancing religion and science and fielded questions from students in attendance.
University Protestant Chaplain Tracy Mehr-Muska detailed the essence of the discussion, which was centered around Francl’s experience with being a religious scientist.
“Professor Francl spoke about her professional, spiritual, personal, and religious identities and how they are each essential pieces of who she is as a person,” Mehr-Muska said. “She then answered questions from students about her journey and experiences and how she has worked to balance those identities in various contexts. We discussed issues of reason, evolution, identity, vocation, faith, spiritual practices, and professionalism, among many other topics.”
As a former scientist, Mehr-Muska expressed her enjoyment of Francl’s narrative.
“Having majored in Marine/Environmental Science and working in marine science prior to seminary, I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion and truly related to the named reality that religious people are sometimes suspicious of scientists, and scientists are sometimes suspicious of religious people,” Mehr-Muska said. “Those of us who have identified both as religious people and as scientists have often had to navigate this challenging territory.”
Both the discussion and the workshop were aimed at giving religious students guidance in balancing their respective religious lives with their academic ones. Francl further introduced these students to mindfulness, which is closely related to the contemplative strategies she advocated using to foster both better teaching and learning.
Teva, a proponent of mindful living, discussed the reason for this emphasis on contemplation and mindfulness, stating that such techniques are beneficial to both physical and mental health.
“What mindfulness does [is] it’s a way of brainhacking,” Teva said. “It’s a way of understanding your mind and your body, and a way of being attuned to this moment, and being aware of distractions and your thought pattern, but always to come back to this reality. The benefits are many. Studies have shown positive effects of mindfulness practice on depression, anxiety, stress, attention, immune function.”
Francl further expounded on contemplation and the intersection of religion and science in her life, stating that there is no necessary tension between the two.
“Walter Burghardt SJ, a Jesuit priest and theologian, once called contemplation ‘a long loving look at the real,’ which is as good a definition of scientific research as any I have heard,” Francl said. “For me, science and the practice of my faith don’t sit at opposite poles from each, they are not in tension with each other. I agree with St. Augustine of Hippo…that it would be an embarrassment for a Christian to stand in opposition [of] what is evident about the created world.”
While Francl thinks that there is no need for conflict, she did state that the University setting is the proper place for such big questions; seeing the big picture, she said, is an integral part of learning.
“I think there are conflicts, real and perceived, but I hold out hope for universities as places that can step back and consider thoughtfully—mindfully—what each approach to grappling with the big questions [is], such as ‘why is there something, rather than nothing?’ might have to offer,” Francl said.
However, regardless of faith or creed, Angle thought that Francl’s message about big picture thinking and contemplation, rather than memorization, was a message that hit home.
“Her own exploration into these issues has been sparked in part by her personal religious practices, but the implications go well beyond any specific religion, or indeed, beyond religion itself,” Angle said. “This is quite generally about how we can be the best teachers and learners we can be.”