Book By: Daniel P. Barbezat and Mirabai Bush
Review By: Elizabeth Maddeaux
formerly of the Department of Sociology
Barbezat and Bush assemble a large amount of student and instructor testimony, as well as formal research, to support their claim that contemplative practices such as meditation, journaling, and mindful breathing have a place in higher education. Contemplative practices, they argue, improve student performance by increasing their personal investment in course material (6; 52-53). Meditation and deep breathing improve concentration and recall (22 – 24). Mindfulness exercises help students regulate responses to stress and the strain of student life (101-103). By practicing Zen-like stillness and attention to breathing and by practicing being “present” in the moment, students are better able to focus, and learn to see themselves as active participants in academia.
Barbezat and Bush argue that recent crises in student engagement, high levels of purported plagiarism and questions of academic rigour mean that adding contemplative practices to more traditional pedagogical approaches is timely – even urgent (7-9). How can students engage with course material, they ask, when instructors don’t make the material personally meaningful for them? Instructors who have trained with, or are associated with, the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society develop exercises specifically designed to make material relevant to students but also to help students better understand who they are in the first place.
For example, Daniel Barbezat has designed an elaborate exercise to illustrate what would otherwise be a dry lesson in an abstract economics term, in his class Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness (51-66). Students are asked to respond to various scenarios which help them examine their desire for happiness and personal gain and the impact of this on others. What would otherwise be a paragraph in a text book for students to memorize in preparation for an exam becomes a rare opportunity for students to closely examine their own behaviours, decisions, and personal goals.
Barbezat and Bush argue that students do want such opportunities. They cite a study conducted by Alexander and Helen Astin at UCLA, which found that “students yearn for support in their search for personal meaning” (16). Many of the students who participated in the study indicated a desire for their university to help them learn about themselves and develop their own values (Ibid). They also indicated that they expected their institutions to “encourage their personal expression of spirituality” (Ibid). By training in contemplative practices and implementing them carefully and mindfully in the classroom, Barbezat and Bush posit that instructors can guide students to self-understanding and improved academic performance.
This text is an interesting an engaging read and I found it to be very personally useful. But it is not very useful to advisors who are not in the classroom. For those advisors who are also instructors, the text could serve as an invitation to revitalize one’s teaching practice. For advisors who are not in the classroom, there is plenty of information about some of the factors impacting student motivation and the exercises demonstrating meditative practices and deep-breathing are very interesting. But there is little practical information that an advisor would be able to use to make positive changes in her or his office.
I was sceptical about whether practices inspired by Buddhist, Christian, and Tibetan traditions could be implemented in universities in North America. But Barbezat and Bush make a case for the careful training of instructors who would use these methods, so that they are implemented with sensitivity both for their original context and students’ existing spiritual orientations. Since reading this book, I have found myself trying some of the exercises in meditation, mindfulness – trying to “be still,” be present, consider my goals, and evaluate whether my behaviours align with those goals. The text is written in a straightforward, accessible way so that any advisor would be able to experiment at home with some of these exercises. But most of the useful professional advice is directed towards instructors and advisors may not therefore find it helpful in their own practice.
Contemplative Practices in Higher Education
. (2014). Book by Daniel P. Barbezat and Mirabai Bush. Review by Elizabeth Maddeaux. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 206 pp. Price $38. ISBN 9781118435274