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The gift of concentration - Jenni Carr

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Preliminary activity for workshop, 'Lacunae of enchantments: unfolding spaces ‘in which it is once more possible to think’…and act', presented at 'Re-enchanting the Academy' conference, Canterbury, 25-27 September 2015.

Mind, an unassuming fairy who thought about everything a lot, brought nothing and said nothing, but offered the rarest gift of all: silence. Quieting the noise of the world, Mind gave the gift of concentration.

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The gift of concentration - Jenni Carr

  1. 1. In this presentation I want to explore how the notion of generative activities, as part of contemplative practices, can be used to support students transitioning through liminal spaces and coming to grips with threshold concepts. I chose the quote from Carl Sagan because it articulates the notion that any space (including ‘Space’) should not be viewed simply as an emptiness that surrounds the objects or subjects that we can observe and ‘know’ at any given time. Rather, the space has generative potential. 1
  2. 2. In the slides that follow I will outline, briefly, the notion of threshold concepts, situating this notion within my learning and teaching practice. I will focus in particular on how interactions within learning and teaching can be interpreted as repeated journeys into, through and out of liminal spaces. I will then move on to outline a particular contemplative practice, the foundations of which is based in an approach to close study of texts known as lectio divina. Next, I provide details of the activity that we will be doing as part of the workshop. Finally I will explain how I believe this kind of activity can be used to scaffold learners’ understanding of threshold concepts - in this instance concept relating to Foucauldian discourse analysis. 2
  3. 3. The features of threshold concepts are outlined below, but for further discussion of each of these features, please see: http://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html#features • Transformative - once understood, a threshold concept changes the way in which the student views the discipline. • Irreversible - as they are transformative, they are difficult to ‘unlearn’. • Integrative - they help students see the links between different aspects of the subject that previously did not appear to be related. • Bounded - illustrated by the use of specialist language/terminology that acquires a meaning in one subject that clashes with everyday usage. • Troublesome - the concepts may seem to the student to be counter- intuitive, alien or seemingly incoherent. • Reconstitutive - a shift in the students’ subjectivity – often noticed first by others. • Discursive - students incorporate an enhanced use of language (related to the discipline/profession), which is free from ‘mimicry’. • Liminality - an ethnographic concept - a transitional (liminal) space – the journey through this space is a ‘messy’ one 3
  4. 4. I teach on an OU module ‘Personal lives and social policy’. The module is required study for a number of different undergraduate degree programmes. Some students may have studied social science modules before and have some familiarity with the theoretical frameworks that they must draw on in their written work. Others, who may be studying the OU’s Open programme (http://www.open.ac.uk/courses/qualifications/qd) or for degrees in early years education or social work, will be less familiar. The module itself is quite unusual in that it explores the relationship between ‘the personal’ and social policy, arguing not only that social policy shapes our lived experiences, but that our personal lives shape social policy practices. The module themes seek to unsettle and challenge students’ understanding of sexualities, care, work and citizenship. Students are also required to critically analyse sources of data that may feel unfamiliar to them when conceptualised as ‘evidence’ – personal narratives, newspaper articles, film and semi-structured qualitative interviews. The word most often used by students to describe the module is ‘challenging’! Fortunately, another word frequently used is ‘rewarding’. Students’ journeys through the module require them to spend a lot of time transitioning repeatedly through 4
  5. 5. liminal spaces. Those transitions are often linked to periods when they have to articulate the connections between the focus on ‘the personal’ and theoretical frameworks such as Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism, psychoanalytical theory, and the weird and wonderful world of post-structuralist theory. So how can we support students in these liminal spaces when they haven’t as yet learned how to hold anxiety, live with ambiguity and entrust and wait? One way, I suggest, is that we can encourage them to bring their own ‘personal’ into their understanding of theory and trust their instincts about what ‘makes sense’ in terms of ways of explaining the social world. 4
  6. 6. “The tree of contemplative practices” produced by the Centre for Contemplative Mind in Society http://www.contemplativemind.org/ . For further details of the origins of Lectio divina see http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree/lectiodivina In their book ‘Contemplative practices in higher education’ Barbezat and Bush (2014) outline a number of ways that contemplative reading can be used in the classroom. The activity I have developed for this workshop builds on the work of David G. Haskell (associate professor of biology and environmental science at the University of the South). Haskell describes his approach as “Lectio without too much Divina”. He uses short readings about food and hunger to make links between academic work on food distribution and possibilities for compassionate social action. My approach is to use a text that uses relatively simple, if provocative, language to talk about social policy and how it impacts on our lives – both personal and professional. The text is about how and why we both ‘care about’ and ‘care for’. 5
  7. 7. Activity adapted from Haskell’s model for “Lectio without too much Divina”. 6
  8. 8. The text for the activity uses relatively simple, if provocative, language to talk about social policy and how it impacts on our lives – both personal and professional. It speaks to the notion of ‘the personal is political’. Most importantly, in terms of understanding the Foucauldian concepts that the students will have to grapple with, it disputes the notion that power is a ‘thing’ – an object that is deployed in a top-down manner. Power is not an object in itself - power circulates, and power is embodied only in sets of relationships. These are complex ideas, and when presented in the form of a theoretical framework, students often find it difficult to grasp to the degree that they must in order to use the framework to analyse and then deploy as an explanation. At the same time, almost instinctively, they ‘get’ that this alternative explanation of power reflects their everyday experiences of the lived world. The text that I use is designed to encourage the students to immerse themselves in, and drawing on their own personal experiences react to, this understanding of power. Once they travel though this messy liminal space, supported by mapping the theory back to their experience of the reading, and step over this ‘threshold’, concepts such 7
  9. 9. discourses, counter-discourses, discursive formations, subject positions, resistance and excess become more readily available to them. Understanding can be reinforced by using the experience of reading the text (or repeating the activity) as a focus point that can be referred back to. 7

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