Threshold Concept: Teaching As Spiritual Practice

(This is Part 3 of a 5 part series about threshold concepts in teaching writing. You can see Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

Teaching can be a spiritual practice.

The last few years I have been on a spiritual journey of better understanding myself and my way(s) of being in the world. I do a lot of reading, meditation, embodied connection work to reintegrate my intellectual aspects with my spiritual, emotional, and physical aspects, and journaling to trace and reflect on this work. I started noticing applications of this kind of self-reflection and mindfulness in other areas of my life, including my friendships, my life as a parent, my decisions as a consumer, and more. So it’s only natural that, as I research the psychological insights and hangups of academic writers, I start to ask how to bring this mindfulness to bear on my professional life in the classroom.

I read Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature with some credulity, yet her (somewhat critical) response to Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach was very helpful to me. Her reference to Palmer’s work led me to track down some of his writing, which, it turns out, speaks to me in deep ways and has altered how I think about my presence in the classroom. I have loved reading about responsible ways I can allow the self-reflection and love for myself and others that I cultivate in my spiritual practice to inform my work as a teacher. So many of the values I bring to bear in my E110 classroom were, in some ways, related to the spiritual convictions I live by, but reading Palmer (as well as bell hooks) helped me think further through those beliefs and link them more explicitly to my spiritual journey.

This threshold concept also relates to my own (not infrequent) teacherly anxiety. In my private life, when I experience a strong reaction to something or someone, particularly when it’s negative, I am learning to pause and investigate that resistance. I’m starting to ask, “What is being activated in me? Why am I taking something personally? What part does my own psyche have in I feel threatened by something or someone else’s idea?” I’m learning to stay with the discomfort and to pay attention to it. Rather than hardening and getting defensive, I’m working on dialoguing with it as a “shadow” part of myself, as Ostrom recommends in his introduction to Colors of a Different Horse. As part of learning to incorporate spiritual lessons and heart-centered mindfulness into my pedagogy, this approach of thinking playfully about discomfort allows shadows to to creep in and enhance my writing and teaching.

Works Cited

Showalter, Elaine. Teaching Literature. Blackwell, 2003.

Ostrom, Hans. “Introduction: Of Radishes and Shadows, Theory and Pedagogy,” Colors of a Different Horse: Rethinking Creative Writing Theory and Pedagogy. Hans Ostrom and Wendy Bishop, editors. NCTE, 1994. pp. xi-xxiii.

Palmer, Parker. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. Jossey-Bass, 1998.


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