Saturday, November 28, 2009

The heart of library research

At Naropa University, students wholeheartedly engage in mindfulness awareness practices in order to cultivate being present in the moment and to deepen their academic study… Through such a focused self-exploration, students…acquire the ability to be present in the classroom and in their lives; to engage in active listening with an open mind; to analyze a subject; and to integrate what has been learned with personal experience. (Naropa University, paras. 4-6)

I am the Director of Library and Archives at Naropa University, which “has offered mission-based contemplative education…for more than thirty years” (Naropa University, para. 3). I have the privilege of observing and occasionally participating in the ongoing debate about the precise nature of contemplative education. Is it education in a particular contemplative practice which is grafted onto a traditional academic discipline (e.g., “contemplative psychology”), or is it teaching and learning about a traditional academic discipline through the vehicle of a contemplative pedagogy? At this time, I lean more towards the latter position. I believe it imposes fewer constraints on the subjects of study and the methods of teaching and learning. My main professional stake in this debate is that, as yet, I have not encountered anyone working on the concept of contemplative library research.

My favored theoretical framework for library research is Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process (ISP). In Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Science, Kuhlthau outlines the ISP, presents the empirical evidence for its validity, and suggests practical applications. The ISP “incorporates three realms: the affective (feelings), the cognitive (thoughts), and the physical (actions)” (Kuhlthau 44); it comprises six stages: Task Initiation, Topic Selection, Prefocus Exploration, Focus Formulation, Information Collection, and Search Closure. At each stage, learners exhibit characteristic thoughts, feelings and actions. These phenomena “indicate the need for considering uncertainty as a natural, essential characteristic of information seeking…the goal of library and information services shifts from reducing uncertainty to supporting the user’s constructive process” (Kuhlthau 200-201).

This talk of a constructive process is a good fit with contemplative education, where students construct learning through presence, listening, analysis, and integration. An introduction to contemplative education that is often used at Naropa is the anthology The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education, which includes contributions from notables such as Parker Palmer, bell hooks, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In “The Grace of Great Things,” Palmer highlights the need for education to cultivate in learners a “sense of the precious otherness of the things of the world” (Palmer 23), a “sense of community with each other and with all of creation” (Palmer 27), and a “capacity for wonder and surprise” (Palmer 29). These capacities all critically depend on increasing learners’ tolerance for uncertainty. They must move from an emphasis on being right to an emphasis on adding value to their knowledge (Kuhlthau 174). They must move from unreflective anxiety in the face of uncertainty to a patient and genuine openness (Palmer 30).

In contemplative education, teachers mediate and model this learning process for their students. What kind of mediating role can librarians play in contemplative library research? Kuhlthau introduces the concept of a zone of intervention, “that area in which an information user can do with advice and assistance what he or she cannot do alone or can only do with great difficulty” (Kuhlthau 129). Within these zones, librarians can help learners through the prior organization of a collection, locating a single reference source or identifying of a group of sources, giving advice about the research process, or engaging in “holistic interaction over time through guidance in identifying and interpreting information” (Kuhlthau 131). An important part of this holistic interaction is encouraging learners to remain mindful of their thoughts, feelings and actions. For example, I remind Naropa students that anxiety is a natural part of life in an unpredictable world and that they are learning in other contexts how to sit with their anxiety without getting overwhelmed. I also remind them that the information sources they use in their projects are not lifeless objects but the recorded thoughts of other people who, though perhaps distant in time and space, are still available for conversation. In Palmer’s terminology, they are precious others with whom one may join in community.

I am far from being able to propose a distinctively contemplative Information Search Process. However, the resonance between Kuhlthau’s model of library research and Naropa’s model of education encourages me to continue this line of inquiry. In time, perhaps I and others will be able to speak coherently and convincingly of “the heart of library research.”


Naropa University. “Contemplative Education: The Spark of East and West Working
Within.” (accessed November 25, 2009).

Palmer, Parker J. “The Grace of Great Things: Reclaiming the Sacred in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning.” In The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education, edited by Steven Glazer, 15-32.
A New Consciousness Reader. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999.

Kuhlthau, Carol Collier. Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and
Information Services. Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited, 2004.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Finally, some professional links...

Without much in the way of commentary, though.

Glazer, Steven, and Huston Smith. The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education. A new consciousness reader. New York: J.P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999.

Denton, Diana, and Will Ashton. Spirituality, Action, & Pedagogy: Teaching from the Heart. Studies in education and spirituality, v. 8. New York: P. Lang, 2004.

Miller, John P. Holistic Learning and Spirituality in Education: Breaking New Ground. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.

Teachers College Record, Volume 108, Number 9, 2006. You may or may not need to access these articles through a library's online research database or interlibrary loan.

Naropa University's Center for the Advancement of Contemplative Education.

I will also throw in Carol Kuhlthau, because I think her Information Search Process model is the obvious point of entry for contemplative pedagogy into library and information studies.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An unintended sidenote about contemplative education.

So, over a week ago, I said, "Next week there will be links." And have said links appeared on this esteemed blog? Indeed, they have not.

There are a variety of reasons for this lack, both domestic and professional. The temptation is to give those reasons (or at least allude to their seriousness), apologize, and promise to do better in the future. But why is this the temptation? Why are there so many blogs with posts about how the author feels bad that they haven't posted so long, and really, truly they will soon have something brilliant and/or funny and/or meaningful up for whatever audience they may have?

Imagine a classroom. A teacher walks in, says a few words, and invites a response from the students. Mostly there's silence. Occasionally someone will start to say something and kind of ramble off. Let's say this goes on for, oh, 20 minutes. Has any learning happened?

By traditional criteria: no. By contemplative criteria: maybe. Students may have learned that a particular topic is hard to talk about, or that they wish some of their classmates would have developed their ideas more because there was some interesting stuff there, or that when left to sit with a topic for while all kinds of unexpected connections with other classes pop up, or that silent teachers really cheese them off. Who knows? The teacher, too, may have learned something--about the students, individually and collectively, and about their own engagement with and investment in the teaching/learning process.

The point being, when learning is set in the context of personal formation, everything is a potential learning experience. Even actual not-learning is potentially educational. The two obvious complications in contemplative education, then, are time (contact hours and credit totals) and expected measurable results.

The analogy to this blog is obviously not direct. I'm not teaching here, and whatever readers I do have, aren't students. Any lessons from this missed self-imposed deadline are my own to learn. But looking at my own reaction to it, and realizing how much contemplative practice has moved me over the years towards being relaxed and accepting of unmet expectations instead of anxious, suggested that it might be worth a post.

Friday, September 11, 2009

What is contemplative education?

I've realized I should probably start with some explanation of the concept of "contemplative education." I'll give my own personal understanding first, then next week I'll give some links to people who know a lot more about it than I do.

The standard educational model in contemporary American society is the consumer model. There are manufacturers of knowledge (researchers and creators), vendors of knowledge (schools and instructors), and consumers of knowledge (students). Learning is the process of getting the desired or needed knowledge products "off the shelf" and safely "into the cart." There is no real link between where the knowledge came from, how it is delivered, and how it will be used.

The contemplative model takes a more holistic approach. (There is also a movement advocating "holistic education," which I haven't studied enough to know how different it is from contemplative education). Learning is the process of individuals bringing their experiences into conversation with one or, more typically, multiple traditions. In this model, Western academia and scientific consensus are important traditions--but so are wisdom traditions, such as Buddhism or one of the Abrahamic faiths. Lineage is an important concept (one variant being Kenneth Burke's "unending conversation" metaphor). Learning is not just knowledge acquisition, but personal formation.

Because of this holistic approach, an emphasis on mindfulness is one of the key distinctives of contemplative education. Students are encouraged to fully engage with their studies--to not only use their intellects, but to be aware of their emotional and physical responses. This awareness can be caricatured as "and how does that make you feeeeel?" navel-gazing (just as the standard model can be caricatured as "factory education"), but at its best, mindfulness involves self-criticism as much or more than self-indulgence. Intellectual resistance to emotionally threatening facts, after all, is a well-known but remarkably persistent problem, and often our bodies tell us things our conscious minds can't or won't.

So, that's my brief and possibly idiosyncratic introduction to contemplative education. Next week: professional literature.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Whys and wherefores.

So the immediate motivation for starting this blog was to have a spiffy Online Librarian Identity for commenting at the AskColorado Staff News blog. (AskColorado, if you didn't know, is a free and excellent 24/7 online chat reference service that's a collaboration between libraries of all types in Colorado, plus at least one from a neighboring state). The less immediate but more lasting motivation is to publicly explore the relationship between contemplative education, library research, and the services, structures and policies that enable that research. After 10 years of professional librarianship in public, special, and academic libraries, I find that I have, y'know, opinions. Which may or may not be of interest or value to anybody else, but who knows? Besides, it is an inherent good to try to be more orderly in one's thoughts, and to have some accountability for them, however limited or theoretical. And so, one might start a blog.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Would you believe... was already taken? I'm not 100% sure on the script/language there, either. Oh well.