Higher Ed and the Monastic Space

Lately I’ve been engaged in a conversation in G+ with Laura Gibbs, George Station, Donna Murdoch and Edward O’Neill. We’ve been talking about the current controversies in higher ed in terms of the value of on-site versus online education, in particular the role of the physical classroom, and the extent to which it may no longer be needed. The question of whether the online classroom will/should/can replace the physical classroom is, of course, a very old (what, 14 years?) topic. But I’m seeing different metaphors now.

The most significant, I think, has to do with space in which to think. For example, I personally like a certain amount of clutter. I like to be surrounded by books and objects. But I also find clearing counters and hiding objects create a different kind of work space, one more conducive to contemplation as well as relaxation.

If we accept that when people learn new things, they need space and time for reflection, the question with online learning concerns the environment where reflection can take place.

My classroom on campus

The physical classroom, at least at the college level, is often a fairly sterile space, without much clutter. I recall when I was first hired that I frantically hung posters on the walls and wondered why there weren’t any bookshelves in the room. It seemed like a place that was too clean and bare to learn anything.

Now I look at my computer screen, cluttered with disorganized files. And my browser, with its many tabs open. Emails come in, ads pop up, while I work and try to learn things. Yes, students have grown up with multiple distractions like this. But in many ways I’m actually more accustomed to it than they are, since I grew up hating silence and quiet. I had the TV (not the radio – that’s only one input) blaring while I wrote every paper in college and grad school.

At the same time, I know many students who do very little classwork outside of the physical classroom. On-site students seem to think that everything to do with learning should take place in that space. It’s a challenge I’ve been working with for a number of years. I was “flipping” the class before it had that name, moving more and more analysis into class time, reducing lecture and shifting the delivery of facts to out-of-class time. The result, predictably, is little reading or listening outside of class, which I anticipated. I now aim for balance.

In declaring the end of Higher Ed as we know it, Edward O’Neill writes that we have a Higher Ed system based on mistaken beliefs, such as proximity being necessary for quality, and learning being transmitted by contact with smart people via osmosis. He writes

In short, colleges and universities are to the mind what monasteries once were to the spirit: places where you lock yourself away in close proximity to powerful souls whose vibrations will influence you deeply by a kind of prayerful osmosis.

CC licensed mbac via Flickr

Monasteries were a place for the mind also, as were medieval universities where a great deal of “study” (quiet, independent study) of texts was key to learning. Even today, most of the great intellectuals, whether they are teaching at universities or not, would tell you of many hours spent in contemplative study. I always find it amusing that so many of the techno-utopians and 2.0 educational reformers have degrees and knowledge based on extensive book learning. Deep learning can’t happen without deep reflection.

So, in the online world (by which I mean both online classes and the always-on-electronic world where many of our students live), where is the space for contemplative study? Could it be the physical classroom?

In suggesting a special place for the physical classroom, I risk the wrath of my colleagues in educational technology, MOOCs, and the other wonderfulness that is learning online (maybe Jim Groom will ask me which side I’m on again!). But I have seen students who need the physical classroom to learn, and it isn’t just because of osmosis or time management issues or tradition or industrialized education or Pavlovian training.

They need it because the physical classroom provides the only even partly contemplative space they have, a space where they are supposed to pay single-minded attention even if they choose to watch surfing videos on their laptop instead, a space where they are supposed to think about one subject for over an hour, a space where some of them actually learn better than online. I have students contact me when they’re not doing well in an online class, and they are very apologetic that they just seem to “need the classroom”. Ira Socol noted, in rejecting the flipped classroom for public schools, that a lot of kids do not have a supportive environment for study outside of school. That is still true in college. We’re a commuter campus with limited library hours. I have students who were kicked out of the house when they reached 18, or can’t think at home because they miss their deployed spouse. They need classrooms.

Our exciting “new models” for higher education are models that counter industrialized and standardized education, which is great. They emphasize collaborative work, social learning, and the affordances of the web in achieving greater learning through guided exploration and community, all fabulous things. But in promoting them as a substitute for “old style” learning, they also risk eliminating a place that may have become the last monastic space in which to work with the mind.

5 comments to Higher Ed and the Monastic Space

  • I’m glad you found the “conducive” word 😉

    I’m curious more as to what makes a contemplative space. My own years in higher Ed involved a lot of time in classrooms but really might characterize but a few as contemplative. I found that happened in the library, study lounges, out on the grassy mall.

    The space itself dies not guarantee the contemplation it’s also what we are doing there. What I do agree with us the value of having he proximity of others in contemplation, or whatever you call it when people do this in proximity.

    The isolation of what a lot of online learning is today is a problem. I’m curious to think more of how that can leverage the social proximity effect, that space where people can bounce ideas, riff, sniff the adjacent possibilities.

    It *can* happen in a classroom but that itself is not the sufficient condition.

    • Yes, indeed, not sufficient, just necessary for some (possibly many). Some libraries (especially the ones where computers are separated from the stacks and the study corrals) and common spaces work for this if one already has the intention for mental work. And social proximity can provide that expectation as well, although I’m more focused on the activity of the individual mind when placed in particular spaces. In the classroom the expectation of such work is automatically heightened, not just by fellow students and the instructor but by the space. And although not everything that happens there is conducive (!) to contemplation, there is encouragement for thinking, the idea that thinking on a subject should be occurring in that particular space. I want to use these expectations rather than ignore or try to change them.

      The focus on online learning being isolating may be a bit misguided at this point. Many students today are accustomed to online social interaction. I think the multitasking and non-academic social activity be a bigger pull away from contemplation than social isolation.

  • I wonder if it isn’t just a contemplative space that we are lacking but actually the habit of contemplation. The multi-tasking, fast-paced, frantic-activity life that is becoming more and more accepted as normal, if not essential, if we are to be ‘productive’ is squeezing out much reflective time from our lives. I notice this personally at work – only a few years ago sitting and quietly talking with others in an unstructured way in the staffroom for example was seen as productive reflective work that benefited everyone in both direct and indirect ways. Now, this just doesn’t happen – people have higher teaching loads, larger classes etc etc and are always dashing from one thing to another, to everyone’s detriment. For those moving into tertiary study from school, many have never really experienced contemplation or been given the opportunity to explore their own minds and thinking without the distraction of attention grabbing stimuli – sitting silently, quietly thinking, is an alien space for many.

    • It’s true that contemplation is no longer a habit. If everyone is running around and it’s accepted as normal, then the spaces become even more important. Does a room full of people, most of whom are trying to think, help?

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