Project Update Blog #1 – Mindful Classics: Using An Ancient Approach To Wellbeing to Support Modern Learners

This is the first in a series of project update blogs written by Dr Caitlin Kight. Caitlin is involved with the Incubator through a number of avenues, most prominently, her work on the LEGO Serious Play project. Caitlin has volunteered to write these blogs, to help the Incubator better communicate how our fellow’s projects are developing this year and to give you a sense of what is left for them to achieve before July 2021.

In this blog, you will get a insight into the project ‘Mindful Classics: Embedding Contemplative Pedagogy into the Study of Antiquity

As the Covid-19 pandemic has progressed, mental health has become almost as much of a concern as physical health. Uncertainty and long-term isolation have been identified as particular threats to overall wellbeing – with mindfulness often touted as a useful antidote.

As it happens, mindfulness is a core element of the Education Incubator project led by Dr Irene Salvo (Classics and Ancient History). When Salvo first applied for a fellowship to support her work, she had no way of knowing that a pandemic was just around the corner. It was just a coincidence, then, that she was in a unique position to support Classics and Ancient History students through her project ‘Mindful Classics: Embedding Contemplative Pedagogy Into the Study of Antiquity.’

Contemplative pedagogy is an educational philosophy that values each student’s embodied, lived experience. It falls within the broad camp of humanism, an approach that overtly acknowledges that students are human beings with a range of basic needs (things like health, security, a feeling of belonging, and self-esteem) that need to be addressed before learners can properly focus on their studies.

Teachers who take a contemplative pedagogic approach encourage students to connect with their own inner selves and recognise the subjective expertise they have amassed through lived experience; this can be achieved by actively being more aware, attentive, and reflective. While this may not sound like the typical (more objective) approach to learning that typically characterises higher education, research shows that it can be a powerful way to foster equanimity, promote interpersonal skills, support inclusivity, and facilitate deep learning.

Through Salvo’s project, Classics and Ancient History undergraduates are welcomed into a focus group that meets weekly. There, they read ancient texts – particularly those written by Stoics such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius – and consider how these millennias-old ideas are relevant in modern times.

These ancient philosophers strove to answer the basic question, ‘What is a good life – and how can I live one?’ To do this, they explored issues such as managing interpersonal relationships, tackling challenging emotions, and, yes, dealing with poor health and even mortality. Unsurprisingly, these musings still strike a chord today.

To support students in undertaking these contemplations, Salvo also weaves mindfulness activities through the sessions. Classics and Ancient History at Exeter has an expertise on this theme since it hosts the Modern Stoicism project, a unique collaboration between psychotherapists and academic experts on ancient philosophy.

Salvo has also partnered with mindfulness experts from across the University of Exeter – including Jerry Fox, Emma Thom, and Kay Octigan of the Mood Disorders Centre’s AccEPT Clinic, Sarah Lane at the Wellbeing Services, and Buddhist Chaplain John Danvers from the Multifaith Chaplaincy – to provide special guest sessions at which students could hear about different approaches to mindfulness. These techniques are pitched as being useful not just within focus group meetings, but in everyday life, as well, and students are encouraged to practice them as a sort of informal ‘homework’ assignment.

During this third lockdown, additional activities have included The Classic Life of Pets – Staff & students pet meet and greet, a monthly pet therapy session to take advantage of students living with household pets, a book club on self-help readings, and a Netflix-Headspace Watch Party on how to start meditating.

In the future, Salvo looks forward to hosting mindfulness events for colleagues from other Departments, both to introduce them to the concept of contemplative pedagogy and to present suggestions for accessible mindfulness techniques in the classroom that can more easily be incorporated into a busy academic schedule. She is also hoping to expand her focus to other types of inspirational text, including poetry.

Supporting her in these endeavours, and integral to the project as a whole, are student co-collaborators Hannah Biddle, Róisín Roye, and Sara Vazquez Garcia, and members of the Advisory Commitee Dr Katherine Earnshaw, Dr Gabriele Galluzzo, Dr Sharon Marshall, Prof Chris Gill, Prof Louise Lawrence, Prof Giovanna Colombetti, Dr Inmaculada Adarves-Yorno, Prof Barney Dunn, Emma Thom, and Sarah Lane.

Education Higher Education Incubator Project Project Updates Student Success for All

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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