Quiet Noticing: Reflective Activities for Environmental Ethics

Michael Gillespie, University of Washington (ret.), Professor emeritus, University of Nebraska Omaha
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During the last few years of my teaching I found it fruitful to engage students through activities, most of which involve observation and writing, which I hoped would aid us in sharing aspects of learning that tend to get played down in many university settings. Generally speaking, these activities, to my way of thinking, invite students to reflect on their own experience in relation to the themes of the class and, for some of them, reflection leads to contemplation. Consequently, I want to make them available to the Contemplative Practice component of the Curriculum for the Bioregion initiative. My idea is not that others will simply take them up (though that would be ok with me too), but that this offering will stir others' thinking about how they might do something similar in their own courses and thinking about teaching.

The notion I am working with is that we need ways to connect reflection and contemplation to "ordinary" classes. By ordinary, I mean classes regularly offered in a university program, perhaps required for some students, perhaps large (in my case, forty to forty-five students), and in which contemplative practices are not necessarily mentioned in the course description. Often in such courses there is a need, I think, for intellectually essential activities that are relevant to the course content, but alternative to the usual emphasis on analysis and criticism alone.

I did not come up with these sorts of activities all at once. Rather I made attempts in different courses over the years, many of them false starts but some relatively successful, through which I came to think such activities should be a regular part of my teaching. In those I deemed most useful, the emphasis tended to be low-key, something students could readily explore in their own experiences. In addition, the activities often involved doing something, and they asked for a sort of writing that was different from the other writing in the class.

Even though the activities were not devised at one time of specifically designed originally for a specific course, I did hit upon the idea of a sequence of reflective assignments in a specific course (such as Ethics and Environment), calling the series "Quiet Noticing" assignments. This sequencing and naming seemed to have an effect over and above the assignments themselves and soon students began to refer to quiet noticing papers as distinguishable from other types of assignments.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

My main goal for students is to experience and describe in writing their own observations as they personally engage their surroundings. The ultimate goal (that we all do our own thinking) can only be encouraged by indirectly evincing other capacities. One of those is a certain regard for one's own inner process as a component in the development of intelligence. Many students, it seems, have low regard for their own thinking either because they have come to think their own observation is not relevant to what needs to be learned in school or because, perhaps, they have been taught that all that is not "objective" course content is not relevant ("subjective" in the dismissive sense in which it is often used in education). For philosophy, a shared inquiry into how to live our lives well, such framing will not do. If this assessment is correct, some of the function of quiet noticing is permissive or invitational; beckoning persons to bring into the discussion what is often left at the door. Through such activities, I hope, students may come to understand more fully that taking care of their own habits of mind is significant.

This is especially important in courses where direct observation, place, and our perceptions of place might play a significant role in relation to course content, such as the Ethics and Environment course where connections to the bioregion are emphasized. So another goal is to enhance students' abilities to perceive and communicate about circumstances and situations they experience.

Writing about the observations can enhance students' abilities as writers. Though, as they often say, this is a "different kind" of writing, the challenges inherent in articulating well first person description tends to make one conscious of metaphor, tone, and word choice in ways different from analytic writing.

Context for Use

As I suggested, I have use parts of what I'll describe in several courses, but employed them in the most sustained way in an Ethics and Environment course. But what I am hoping is that others will be encouraged to try out something similar in other contexts. Generally, any course, I would think, that touches upon way of life, principles, values, choices, and change (all components of ethics in my perspective) would find these sorts of activities will enhance the sense of involvement and trust among the students. But one is not limited to this sort of course. Some of the teachers who seem to me to be quite helpful in stirring my thinking (such as Chris Uhl and Mitchell Thomashow) are teaching courses very different from mine (for instance Uhl teaching ecology)

Description and Teaching Materials

Here is a description of the sorts of activities that I've used in connection with the above characterization. I've added a few observations based on my experience that, I hope will stir thinking about how such activities might be adapted to other settings, or might spur others to invent new ones.

Arriving fully to the classroom. Most of my university teaching has been with commuter students. The schedule and pace of their lives is often highly influenced by factors other than their higher education aspirations. Yet we know intellectual work requires attention, including careful listening and considered responding. This activity is simply to sit quietly, making sure your attention catches up with your bodily presence. At the beginning of the quarter, I provide minimal instruction, claiming it works best if you sit with unsupported back and allow your hands and eyes to rest peacefully, noticing your breath. I always sit with them and we sit quietly for 5-6 minutes. At the conclusion of the quiet time, we proceed without comment to work of the day. I believe this activity enhances initial attentiveness to conceptually difficult and emotionally challenging material, helps in the process of listening to others, and encourages students to care for their own thought processes. In addition, it seems to set a tone for the other "quiet noticing" activities and assignments.

Discussion: Many students at first find five minutes to be a long time, just as they find it unsettling to silently observe an image or listen to music in, say, a philosophy of art class. But none have objected to the general idea, and all know what you mean when you say we need to fully arrive in the classroom. Over time, many have said they came to appreciate the opportunity to become less dispersed, especially when tensions, such as mid-terms, have their minds buzzing and anxieties rising. In some contexts, though (such as a seminar on Buddhism) I advise students that if they find that assuming a meditative posture seems spiritually inappropriate, they may simply rest while the rest participate.

A walk without a destination: This one can be linked to reading (for instance, "seeing" from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Thoreau's "Walking," though there are many (see Solnit)), but I always emphasize that the readings are to be interpreted as providing inspiration to do one's own observation and description. I encourage the students not to refer to these readings in their own writing. The written instructions are brief, such as, "Go for a walk without a destination. As you walk carefully observe both the surrounding world and your ways of perceiving. Describe your observations in a 1-2 page paper." In-class discussion includes what is meant by "walk without a destination:" it cannot be between the parking garage and an on-campus location, on one's way to work, or other walking on the way to something else or some goal. In the in in-class set up I talk a little about phenomenology and how in that perspective one thinks of consciousness as always "of" some object of awareness, the two inextricably linked-so they might want to notice their modes of consciousness (including awareness of their own bodies) and how those vary along with what they are aware of as they walk. I emphasize really noticing what is going on through the senses as one perceives the world. What do you see? what do you hear? what do you smell? What do you feel on your skin? How about your muscles as you walk? I also often talk about Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh's recommendations that we do "walking meditation," using this to suggest noticing one's breath as a means to be attentive and to reinforce the notion of a walk without a destination.

Discussion: Many students are initially incredulous that they'll "get credit" for such an assignment. But they tend to take it seriously anyway. I've learned over time that I need to recommend ahead of time that they make sure they walk in a safe place, during daylight hours if possible (our students live in many circumstances). "Going for a walk" seems to be an adequate description: for instance, I've had a number of people who were confined to wheel chairs take up the assignment without a comment. Let me mention three issues that I've noticed over time that might be relevant for someone adapting the activity.

1. It is really important to encourage paying attention to the senses and modes of awareness of perceptual experience. That provides plenty to write about. But some students inevitably write something like, "The sky is above, the ground is below, other things are by my sides..." so returning papers is a good opportunity to reinforce the idea of rich description.

2. This is often, it seems, related to a second issue for some students. They are so used to what they call "work sheets" that, just as they do with "group work," they bring an anticipatory mind set to brief writing assignments: the best approach is minimal compliance, and even though the instructor says he/she wants to see our own thinking, I've learned that is not true....

3. A third pattern is that I usually have a number of students who think they know what they are "supposed" to come up with: metaphorically expressed feelings about the love of nature, perhaps; or a righteous indignation at the degradation of the earth at human hands. But of course these get in the way of accessing one's own perceptual experiences and states of consciousness, so this provides an occasion for suggesting a difference between observation and description on one hand and argument and position-taking on the other.

The upshot of these is that I spend time reading and commenting upon these writing efforts and responding to their individual personal observations. The effort is usually rewarded because often a significant number of students will comment that they should do something like this more often, or that this assignment has gotten them back into walking, which activity they had let pass out of their daily lives, and many, as would be expected, remark on how much they have noticed because of their shift of consciousness. Finally, a large number will have begun, in their papers making connections in memory to other places, earlier experiences; I usually let these stand, just observing in my comments what is occurring-recollection is essential to reflection, and this, in any case, leads into the next assignment.

A special place. This one I commonly think of in three parts. The first part is assigned in a very brief way (I'm trying to avoid saying too much): Describe for me what is for you a special place. It can be a place you have visited at the time of the assignment, but it does not have to be. It can be a place in memory. Describe the place and what it is like to be in that place (perceptual, like the previous assignment). Then describe what, for you makes it a special place. Again, write a couple pages.

I think it is important not to "steer" the response here too much because what I'm hoping is that this sort of activity opens up the questions of place and what makes some situation or location special relatively distinct from claims about nature or ecological issues that are a theme of the class.

Discussion: Utilizing this assignment in several classes, the results have been rich. The following are some examples of places that students described:

A grandmother's lap in India before we migrated.

My car.

A room in a house. My room at home growing up. A room in a grandparent's house....

My grandparents' farm in Poland when I was young.

Where our family camped, vacationed, travelled in summers when I was growing up.

A building; a church....

A woods where I go to connect with the natural world as a respite from my hectic work/school/family life.

A beach where I walk when life gets to be too much.

The descriptions of these places was often some of the best writing during the quarter in terms of detail and specificity of emotional tone. Some students write poems included in their papers.

Extension: Sometimes I then had a follow up assignment that was a response to a place the students would go to (not a place in memory). This one is closer to the themes of the course, since many people will pick a place in the region that they have affection for, that they have visited again and again, and/or that they might be concerned about. Go there, do a "without a destination" walk there, or sit quietly for at least twenty minutes as you take up a quiet frame of mind. It is at this point, usually, that one begins to get a more personal sense of concern for place, or a sense of loss. Always I had a few students who would decide to visit a place they remembered as a place of connection only to find that the place no longer exists (usually it had been "developed" - this is getting to be a common experience, even for people in their twenties and thirties). A good occasion for exploring the difference between a location and a place, and (if appropriate) for reconnecting with readings about place, such as the Thayer "Life-Place" chapter.

Discussion: Requiring out of class travel to another location is sometimes touchy. Some students don't have transportation readily available. Some work most of the time when they are not at school, etc., etc.

Second extension: Sometimes I also extended the place activity in line with an activity in one of the Northwest Earth Institute course manuals (old series, "Discovering a Sense of Place," no longer available). In that activity, students are asked to notice some simple features of where they live, providing descriptions in note form of features like: which direction does the water flow where you live? Where does the water flow after it leaves you; is there a creek nearby? Which way does the wind usually blow? What are the soils like? What about some other features of the terrain? What plants grow where you live? Which ones are native to this region? What is going on in the area that you find most affirmative? What is going on that you find most troubling? Then, when students bring their notes to class, I supply large sheets of paper and crayons and ask them to visually depict their place where they live. In order to head off anxiety about artistic rendering, I suggest that drawing can be schematic and contain labels-as long as you can explain it to the class. We then report out on what we have each discovered.

Discussion: This one usually gets a good response. Students like the drawing and reporting out as a break in the continual writing assignments; plus they find out something about their own neighborhoods-including that urban/suburban settings have features describable in terms similar to mountainsides. But they also begin to recognize what they don't know. Where is the water going if not into a stream? How do I know whether the plants in my area are native or not? These can be connected to other concerns in the course whether increasing knowledge of the region and its ecological problems, or exploring what forms of concern people have about what is going on (most people, at some level, care about where they live). The latter, in most cases leads to some exploration of connections of more usual neighborhood concerns (social, political, educational, economic) and urban ecology.

Animals: one theme in this course is human relations with the more than human world, including other animals (the last two times I taught the course, we focused on local agriculture). I sometimes had students, first write out (in class) a list of the ways humans use or, interact with, other animals. Then, we discussed that list and ended up with a huge array on the board, and then tried to come up with some general categories. The assignment has to do with describing way(s) animals are significant in one's life, and why that is so. There is a very strong tendency for pets, and affection for them, to be described here with plenty of expressive feeling. In this particular class, we were able to use these descriptions as a counter point to how animals are treated in industrial agriculture and various testing regimes (pharmaceutical, cosmetic, etc.)

Food/Eating: This is one I was working on when I retired. The idea is to focus on mindfulness about eating and how stopping and recognizing one's own thoughts, feelings, and actions around cooking and eating might be needed in order to effect change-either in oneself or in the food system. Students were interested in this because they find they'd like to change some of their own behavior in response to the class, but they find it a lot harder than they anticipate, partly because they run up against a lot of family practices, cultural traditions, peer pressure, patterns of accessibility, and so on (in addition to the sheer "will power" many imagine as the locus of choice when they first imagine effecting a change. This one also connected well with a theme in the course having to do with local agriculture, which usually included visits to local CSAs and in-class reports by groups investigating local food production.

Discussion. In some ways the food and animals themes are good ones for getting pretty deeply into environmental issues and also what local people are doing to respond effectively: consequently I recommend study of food systems as a component of relevant courses. I also discovered early on, though, that one must use caution in soliciting reflective responses and carrying through in-class discussions. Affections for other living beings and food (including eating customs), can quickly get into areas where people have strong identifications and deeply held convictions. Plus, this is an area where some people have already settled views while others have not given any of this much thought. One can be caught off guard by a sudden stand off in which one person believes his grandfather's hunting deer is being publicly attacked while another feels criticized for her families eating habits while a trenchant vegan witheringly attacks someone who hasn't much considered these issues before.

Teaching Notes and Tips


As I said earlier, I think of these "quiet noticing" activities and writing assignments as inviting students to engage in an aspect of their thinking that often has lain fallow. So I do not mark the papers harshly. At first, I thought that it would be easy to just think of them all as doing well and not worry about it too much. But (of course) as one reads through a group of papers it quickly becomes evident that some people have really tried to carefully articulate feelings and perceptions in ways that others can grasp while others have been much more casual in their attempts. So I do end up with a range of grades. Unfortunately, at the UW we have a mandated grading system (which each student 'getting' a numerical score at the end of the quarter (2.6, 2.7, 2.8. 2.9....3.3, 3.4....etc); a system that creates a lot of back pressure for maximum points on each assignment. This can be a problem, especially since, to my way of thinking, part of what can be done with these sorts of assignments is to foster trust. I do think that having a significant number of these assignments relative to other components (exams; critical responses to readings, final projects, etc.) of a course will raise grades for some students who respond well to the challenge of this sort of observation and writing.

References and Resources

Bays, Jan Chozen. Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food. (Shambala 2009)

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. (Harper Perennial 2007)

Nhat Hanh, Thich. Peace is Every Step. (Bantam 1992)

Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. (Penguin 2001)

Thomashow, Mitchell. Bringing the Biosphere Home: Learning to Perceive Global Environmental Change. (MIT Press 2003)

Thayer, Robert L. LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Action. (University of California Press 2003)

Thoreau, H. D. "Walking." Readily available online.

Uhl, Chris. Developing Ecological Consciousness: Path to a Sustainable World. (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004)

Chris Uhl's web site contains lots of suggestions and generously shares many teaching activities, both reflective and contemplative, as well as other thoughtful teaching suggestions. http://www.personal.psu.edu/cfu1/CUhlpersonalwebsite/chrisuhl.shtml