The Peaceable Classroom (cover of book)

I’m a big advocate of clearly defined goals and goal achievement. To my surprise, I think I may have been misplacing some of the emphasis. It’s not always about the goal. It might be about the practice.

September will soon be here and with it the return to our classrooms for students and faculty. I have been preparing for my graduate course with some reading. The course is a doctoral seminar on university teaching, so my reading has included a favorite author, Mary Rose O’Reilley, and her book The Peaceable Classroom.

If you’re a teacher, I recommend this book and another of O’Reilley’s, Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice. Both are thoughtful and thought-provoking. My re-reading of The Peaceable Classroom proved to be thought-provoking once again in an unexpected way. I moved from thinking about my teaching to my research.

To summarize her book is difficult. She is the first professor that I have read who explains how she tries to answer this question with her classroom practice: “Is it possible to teach English so that people stop killing each other.” However, as she explains (p. 130), “I am certainly not the first to link feminism, nonviolence, and classroom teaching.” She may not be the first, but she is one of the best.

In the Foreword, written by Peter Elbow, I learn that I’m not the only person so deeply affected by O’Reilley’s writing. Elbow writes, “. . . now in this book – in which enormous idealism and optimism and equally enormous pessimism and anger have had a chance to cook together . . . I find [something] rich, deep and powerful” (p. ix). So did I. Here is one unexpected powerful idea.

Some things that we conceive of as goals may be better seen as, in the Zen sense, a practice. It’s not that we ever achieve the goal per se. It’s that we engage ourselves in “it” – whatever that it may be. O’Reilley in drawing on this “Zen sense” of practice provides a concrete example.

“At a Zen sitting, one doesn’t (theoretically) worry about whether it goes well or badly, one simply tries to ‘practice.’ In daily life, one attempts to cultivate a similar attitude of nonjudgmental presence” (p. 74).

Nonjudgmental presence. A simple engagement with the next thing in the day, with the next task. It’s not about the task as a goal, it’s about the practice we cultivate in our lives. For many of us, this is a route out of the motivation morass we call procrastination.

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