Contemplative Pedagogy, Enchantment, and the Medieval Past /Karolyn Kinane


Contemplative Pedagogy, Enchantment, and the Medieval Past

Karolyn Kinane, Department of English, Plymouth State University, Plymouth, NH

At my regional, comprehensive, rural university featuring strong Business, Nursing, Meteorology, and Criminal Justice programs, I neither groom students to be professional medievalists nor do I bemoan my outcast state as the sole medievalist on my campus.  Instead, inspired by the works of Jane Bennett (2001), Nicholas Watson (1999), Tobin Hart (2005), and Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc (2010), I devote time to creating ways for myself and other teachers across my university to engage students’ affect, provoke their curiosity, and help them to develop a compassionately curious attitude towards their own feelings and those of others.

Pedagogy and assessment at my university tend to focus on information acquisition and skill mastery: we teach and test for knowledge and skills. I sense that this is a common trend and find that my medievalist colleagues at other institutions can, with relative ease and confidence, speak to how knowing about the Middle Ages is useful and relevant in those paradigms. As Eliza Garrison does in her essay here, faculty from a variety of disciplines can attest to ways that the particular skills required for engaging with medieval texts and culture are in line with such projects as ‘critical thinking.’ However, I suggest that we shift the conversation a bit. I’ve found more satisfaction and success as a teacher and colleague by tending to the often ignored third leg of education: disposition.

Given my university’s motto, Ut Prosim (that I may serve), it seems particularly pressing that my colleagues and I inquire into the ways we can help students feel a sense of agency and compassion, independence and interdependence, so that they may serve their own communities in whatever ways they find meaningful and relevant. For that to happen, we need to explore the obvious and ignored ‘text’ in the class—the students’ inner landscape—and to balance critical thinking, deconstruction of meaning, and hermeneutics of suspicion (Ricoeur, 1970) with the notion the world is capable of inspiring attachments among people, ideas, and objects. As Jane Bennett notes, ‘one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others’ (Bennett, 2001, 4). Wonder leads to intelligibility; enchantment, Bennett says, can lead to generosity. Our teaching can draw upon the sense of wonder elicited by Medieval Studies, allow for reflection upon that feeling, and move towards intelligibility with respectful playfulness. By infusing the processes of teaching and learning with joy, we have the potential to promote self-awareness and stimulate ethical action among all our students.

A few years ago, a colleague of mine in Education gave a presentation wherein she showed a photograph of young children—first graders, perhaps—laughing, smiling, and eager to get on a school bus. She then showed another photograph of sullen teenagers dejectedly and dutifully climbing onto a school bus. The juxtaposition struck me powerfully, and my colleague went on to explore what happens between those ages to reduce the enjoyment and excitement around going to school. I’ve seen a similar deflation happen in college between freshman and junior years and often ask students individually and in classes what they think of my observations. From such self-selected and anecdotal evidence, I’ve gathered that these students suffer from disenchantment. They had come to college expecting it to be different from high school and it’s not; they became English majors because they loved reading and writing and now they don’t. Bennett describes enchantment as ‘a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life’ (Bennett, 2001, 5), and I suggest that our teaching in medieval studies can aim to evoke a ‘return to childlike excitement’ about learning.

In the past, my pedagogical approaches had allowed for a kind of reader-response process while privileging New Historicism. In class discussions, students did air their personal responses to texts, but I actually felt we simply needed to get that ‘personal stuff’ out of the way in order to move quickly to the ‘real work’ of deconstructing and historicizing. I dismissed any sense of enchantment they may have felt with the text rather than encouraging, highlighting and probing that sense. I prioritized the discipline over my students’ disposition, the content over their curiosity. My teaching made my own expertise more precious than the people in the room (or online). My enthusiasm for the material was in some instances ‘contagious’ and perhaps it facilitated learning, but lately I’ve been experimenting with ways to turn my own joy, curiosity, and enthusiasm away from the material and towards the students, so they may find their own joy of discovery, curiosity about the past, and enthusiasm for ideas.1

Of course this change means we don’t always have time to ‘cover’ all of the content I have worked so dutifully to master; my own self-worth is tied up in the value of my expertise and it’s difficult to let that go. But when students get caught up in a class activity such as our mead hall celebration, or a discussion about their experiences of manipulation and love, or the stories expressed through their peers’ deeply personal creative projects, I simply cannot bring myself to think that Beowulf, or Paradise Lost, or Le Morte D’Arthur is more important than that moment.  Bennett describes such moments thusly:

Occasions during which one’s critical faculties are suspended and one is caught up in the moment can produce a kind of enjoyment—a sense of adequacy or fullness—that temporarily eclipses the anxiety endemic to critical awareness of the world’s often tragic complexity. . . . Under fortuitous conditions, the good humor of enchantment spills over into critical consciousness and tempers it, thus rendering its judgments more generous and its claims less dogmatic. (Bennett, 2001, 10)

I now can’t practice a pedagogy that dismisses or rushes these moments, that moves students from love to apathy or antipathy for a text, themselves, or each other. These days, as I instead encourage enchantment, promote thinking with the past rather than simply about it, and adopt contemplative pedagogies, my teaching tacks between the hermeneutics of faith and hermeneutics of suspicion.2 Bennett states that she pursues ‘a life with moments of enchantment rather than an enchanted way of life’ (Bennett, 2001, 10). Similarly, we can cultivate a classroom with moments of enchantment rather than an enchanted classroom. Attention to the types and levels of the affective domain, which include receiving, responding, and valuing, as classified in the Krathwohl taxonomy, can create space for such moments of enchantment, enhancing student-engagement with course material and creating vivid memories (Miller, 2005).

Watson suggests that we ‘devise historiographic models that are self-conscious about their incorporation of affect, rather than seeking to exclude it’ (Watson, 1999, 72). I would add that we must devise pedagogical models that probe affective responses. When students are moved by a text, they are often excited by the prospect that connection can happen, that there is resonance, that a text can speak to them, laden as that encounter is with linguistic, temporal, and cultural divides as well as the notion that we are only really knowing ourselves as we attempt to know the Other/text. But I wonder, is that really such a bad thing, knowing oneself more deeply through engagement with a text, a culture, or a starfish? Watson explains:

. . . those of us who work in historical disciplines often see ourselves—rightly or wrongly—as members of an endangered profession whose role is to reaffirm the urgency of the past to an indifferent or hostile present. Especially if we work outside the geographical region we study, we have in our teaching and our scholarship to represent the past in the present, straddling the centuries in the intense but usually undefined belief that we enrich the self-understanding of our communities the process. Since this self-conception is such an emotional one—and since the task we assign ourselves, if we do view ourselves like this, largely depends on our ability to arouse emotion in others—it matters that historical scholars learn to theorize the affective component of their projects: or, to translate this, that we discuss whether we are right to care for or about the past, what this caring is, and what impact our feelings legitimately have on our scholarship. (Watson, 1999, 61)

I’m interested in this ‘undefined belief that we enrich the self-understanding of our communities.’ Contemplative pedagogy and attention to the affective domain have helped me define this belief a little more sharply and advocate on its behalf to my colleagues. Epistemologies that are intuitive, affective, imaginative, ‘shamanic,’ or even ‘mystical’ can complement rather than compete against reverence for the scholarly process and attention to difference. That is, we can cultivate enthusiasm for the process of deepening a sense of self through transformative encounters with the Other; at the same time, we can cultivate humility when faced with the prospect that we may never really know the Other. The ‘trinitarian hermeneutic’ Watson identifies in the work of Julian of Norwich can guide our teaching as we invite students to consider ‘textual evidence, the rational pursuit of its implications, and the passionate intuition of its meaning,’ which join together ‘in a single, but still self-reflexive, mode of understanding’ (Watson, 1999, 90). The challenge and the pleasure for us as teachers is in developing courses that encourage ‘the passionate intuition’ of a text’s meaning, engage with the complexity of the past, and resist urges to impose the present upon the past.

As medievalists, we can certainly demonstrate how our discipline teaches critical thinking skills, but we should also help our learning communities create new understandings of the present. I suggest that we consider medieval ideas, expressions, and ways of knowing as viable alternatives to contemporary modes and devise assignments that encourage experiences of and with the medieval past. Morgan’s On Becoming God: Late medieval mysticism and the modern Western self (2013) is just one example of how medieval concepts can usefully interrogate contemporary ones. And we would not be alone: many of our colleagues in other disciplines encourage students to reflect on the significance of their experiences and use their discipline’s content and skills as vehicles for the construction of new meaning. A university-wide culture that values self-knowledge and reflection can help students retain information and master skills but can also promote transformative education that aims to graduate curious, motivated, self-aware, empathetic citizens. We don’t have such a culture at my university at the moment, but some of us are doing our small part to establish it.

In 2011 I sent out an all-faculty email inviting people to join me in reading and discussing Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc’s The Heart of Higher Education (2010).  Imagine my surprise when twenty colleagues from across the university, including the president, showed up for conversation to a BYO breakfast on a winter Sunday morning. A group coalesced and has grown over the past two years to over seventy faculty and staff. We read books on contemplative pedagogy over winter and summer, hold reflective practice group once a month, host retreats, and maintain a multi-author blog ( Some of us are interested in contemplative pedagogy, some in mindfulness learning, and some in integral education. We are joined by an interest in questions of meaning, respect for students’ inner lives, and a commitment to balance higher education’s emphasis on cognitive and behavioral domains with the affective. We all agree that hyper-specialization and a mood of fearful survivalism will kill us. In this context, cross-disciplinary conversations are less divisive and competitive, more collegial, productive, and inspiring.

When we’re caught up in defending the importance of our field’s content or the significance of our discipline’s methodologies, we further fragment our learning communities and impede cross-disciplinary work and conversations. Similarly, when universities equate ‘relevance’ to practical, utilitarian, and immediate job application, faculty race to demonstrate their discipline’s relevance and (therefore) value. We cling to our expertise, our discipline, at the expense of the very human people before us, both colleagues and students. Medievalists make our own claims for how our field is relevant in that way, but I’d prefer we modify that notion of relevance and instead invite students to find and create meaning and relevance for themselves. After all, if we’re preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, and if we recognize the dazzling diversity among our students’ interests and passions, teachers cannot be expected to anticipate and teach to relevance nor can students be expected to appreciate or understand it. And, who couldn’t use a little enchantment?


1. I discuss specific examples of such activities and assignments in “Arthurian Legends in General Education: An Example of Student-Centered Pedagogy” forthcoming in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching and “Teaching Early English Literature for Experience, Contemplation and Relevance” in Creating the Premodern in the Postmodern Classroom, eds. Anna Bertolet and Carole Levin, forthcoming from Palgrave.

2. The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University describes contemplative pedagogy thusly on their website: “Contemplative pedagogy involves teaching methods designed to cultivate deepened awareness, concentration, and insight. Contemplation fosters additional ways of knowing that complement the rational methods of traditional liberal arts education. As Tobin Hart states, ‘Inviting the contemplative simply includes the natural human capacity for knowing through silence, looking inward, pondering deeply, beholding, witnessing the contents of our consciousness. . . . These approaches cultivate an inner technology of knowing.’ This cultivation is the aim of contemplative pedagogy, teaching that includes methods ‘designed to quiet and shift the habitual chatter of the mind to cultivate a capacity for deepened awareness, concentration, and insight.’ Such methods include journals, music, art, poetry, dialogue, questions, and guided meditation” (Contemplative Pedagogy, 2013). For resources on contemplative pedagogy, visit the website for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, the parent group of the Association for the Contemplative Mind in Higher Education:



Bennett, J. 2001. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Contemplative Pedagogy. 2013. The Center for Teaching. Vanderbilt University.

Hart, T. 2009. From Information to Transformation: Education for the Evolution of Consciousness. Studies in the Postmodern Theory of Education. New York: Peter Lang.

Miller, M. 2005. Teaching and Learning in Affective Domain. In Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology, ed. M. Orley.

Morgan, B. 2013. On Becoming God: Late medieval mysticism and the modern Western self. New York: Fordham University Press.

Palmer, P., and A. Zajonc. 2010. The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ricoeur, P. 1970. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. D. Savage. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

Watson, Nicholas. 1999. Desire for the Past. Studies in the Age of Chaucer 21: 59–97.

One Response to Contemplative Pedagogy, Enchantment, and the Medieval Past /Karolyn Kinane

  1. kk says:

    The article “Arthurian Legends in General Education: An Example of Student-Centered Pedagogy,” listed as “forthcoming” in _Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching_ is available in the Fall 2013 issue of Volume 20.

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