Engaging Controversy with Mindfulness and Empathy

Kirk Anderson, Assistant Professor of Educational Studies

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To all of our new and returning students, welcome back to campus. While there is much to celebrate at the start of the semester, as I consider the year ahead of us I find myself thinking about conflict and controversy. I feel quite certain that at some point this school year, we will find ourselves in the midst of another campus controversy like the one that emerged last year when Leda Fisher published her essay in the Dickinsonian. Given the likelihood of similar controversies in the future, I want to encourage you to take the time now to reflect on how you would like to respond.

If you have not encountered Leda’s original essay or her follow up, I highly recommend reading her deeply vulnerable and personal accounts of feeling silenced and attacked as a woman of color. When the first essay was published, I was struck by the contrast between how people in my professional circles responded and how our campus community reacted. I was speaking with two colleagues at another school and discovered that one was using the essay in her graduate education course and another hoped to include the essay in a book he is writing. Both saw the piece as an opportunity to be curious about Leda’s experience and to question what we could learn from her story. While the reaction at Dickinson was varied, I was struck by the irony of how many people wanted to silence Leda, who herself was sharing how difficult it is to feel silenced by one’s peers. My purpose here is not to relitigate the disagreements surrounding the article, but rather to ask how we as a community want to respond when similar controversies arise in the future. In doing so, I want to offer one tool I use in both my personal life and in my work as a professor.

I begin each and every one of my classes with a few minutes of mindfulness. This is not only because it provides a clear transition, but because meditation practices like mindfulness are powerful tools in helping us understand our thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness seeks to promote non-judgmental awareness: getting in touch with our interior lives without labeling our thoughts and emotions as good or bad. This is a first step toward understanding our emotions rather than either avoiding or being carried away by them.

The power of these practices was nowhere more evident than in my Race and Education seminar this past spring. We regularly engaged in difficult conversations about highly-charged topics and I have never been more impressed with how a group of students tackled those issues. Our conversations were never conflict or problem-free, but I am proud of students’ willingness to be curious and vulnerable with each other. I wish I could chalk this up to my brilliance as an instructor, but the reality is that the students did the hard work of staying in touch with themselves and engaging intentionally with one another. I cannot say whether our classroom always felt safe, but I am confident that we were successful in cultivating a space of empathy, vulnerability, and trust—the kind of space where hard conversations can occur while recognizing our shared right to be present and valued in the classroom.

When the next controversy arises, I encourage you to ask yourself, “What am I feeling and why might I be feeling this way?” This alone will not solve the problems we face as a community. But, I have found that once I become curious about myself, I am much more likely to start from a place of curiosity and empathy towards others. And while we must continue to have larger conversations about how we as a campus respond to controversy, such an approach will allow us to engage in those conversations with greater intention and empathy.

My hope is that curiosity will ultimately lead you to action—whether by attending the many wonderful events hosted by my dear friends at Landis House, taking a course that showcases the voices and perspectives of those different from you, studying abroad, joining a special-interest house, partnering with other student-activists, or simply forming meaningful and caring relationships with someone whose racial, gender, sexual, religious, or national identity is different than your own. Please know that there are staff and faculty who are also taking action on these issues and we are here to support you.

Welcome back, students. I look forward to engaging mindfully with you this school year.