Laura Rendón, Sources of Enlightenment: Faculty and Administrators Who Challenge and Inspire Their Students
Laura I. Rendón
Professor & Co-Director, Center for Research and Policy in Education
University of Texas-San Antonio
Ph.D., Higher Education Administration, University of Michigan
Rendón spoke by phone to Pam Crosby, editor, on August 29, 2012. The following article is based on the interview.
As individuals who live in a bustling and dynamic society, we continually make choices, both good and bad, regarding how we spend our cherished time and efforts. Often persons complain that they do not have enough time to do what they want and need to do. While some may not devote enough time to responsibilities and obligations demanded of them concerning work, school, home, and community, others keep themselves perpetually busy with numerous projects that are squeezed into an already full schedule.
Laura Rendón, author, activist, and professor of higher education at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is a person of many accomplishments, and she, too, lives a very busy life. But Rendón points out that although she keeps a full schedule, she has learned the value of setting priorities in order to achieve balance. A major goal for her as teacher and mentor is to help young people achieve a life of balance also. She emphasizes that colleges and universities should not educate young people merely to excel as students or to achieve successful careers—although these are critically important—but also so that they become better human beings. In order to do this, they must learn to choose for themselves how to spend their time wisely.
One of the most fundamental things that students (or any individuals) can do to become better persons, maintains Rendón, is to schedule time for reflection. As both teacher and role model, she sets out to help her students integrate introspective moments with their intellectual and other types of activities.
While students attend college to learn to think and write critically and to acquire advanced skills and knowledge in mathematics, science, history, and other disciplines, they also need to learn skills that help them to get in touch with their innermost thoughts and feelings. Connecting with these “reflective inner processes,” says Rendón, helps to enhance students’ self-awareness, including the quest for meaning and purpose in their lives. In addition to meditation, activities such as poetry, art, free writing, journaling, and communing with nature can be regarded as reflective practice, which involves sustained concentration and deep insight.
Rendón says taking time for contemplative practice is essential for student learning for many reasons. One reason is that if students concentrate only on those aspects of their “outer” lives, such as school work and other tasks, they often neglect to attend to fundamental questions—such as how they view their place in the world and what things in their lives they value most.
Second, reflection/contemplative studies can help students find deeper meaning in course content and thus aid in mastering concepts. Reflective activities provide ways for students to become more actively engaged with the material.
Third, reflection adds a profound dimension to community service, civic engagement, social justice, and other types of service learning activities in which students can be involved. In turn, social activism adds a profound dimension to the reflective process. For Rendón, the two go closely together: reflection allows students to examine closely how the experiences influence them; social action helps students connect purpose and meaning with recognition of the need to serve others.
Consequently, student affairs and faculty, says Rendón, should develop a clear framework that connects contemplative education with intellectual development. This requires a new way of looking at educating students in order that colleges and universities focus more attention to holistic student development that includes “inner knowing,” which helps to balance the intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the whole person. While one of the goals of the college experience should be to educate a deeply reflective and socially responsible person, the model that is often followed is one that focuses exclusively on conceptual knowing, intense individualism, and monoculturalism.
Rendón provides some sage advice for faculty to help achieve this important balance of student learning and experience. The goal is to build a community within the classroom that is reflective of students’ backgrounds and needs and focuses on personal growth and voice, care for the other, and diverse ways of knowing.
First, before teachers lead students in various forms of reflection, they need to learn to adopt some form of contemplative practice in their lives so that they can authentically position themselves as reflective leaders and teachers.
Second, they should also offer many different types of instructional activities that emphasize students’ active engagement, while balancing reflective practice, group work, and service learning.
Rendón describes a specific assignment that she has found to help build a reflective and caring classroom community. This activity was first introduced by University of San Diego professor Alberto Pulido. In this activity, students create a box called a cajita that contains artifacts representative of significant aspects of their lives. These aspects include their perceived identity, persons who have influenced them, and their hopes in making a difference in others’ lives. The cajitas are displayed in the classroom so that students may observe them in a quiet “gallery” walk. Those students who want to share and describe the meaning of their cajita symbols present their project to the class. In her course for student affairs professionals, students display in their boxes representations of what type of student affairs professionals they want to be.
Often students recount lives of pain, says Rendón, but also of resilience. This class assignment is always the students’ favorite, she explains, and helps to create a bonding community that grows out of balancing the personal and social experiences of her students.
Rendón realizes that such an assignment would be difficult in a large class environment made up of hundreds of students. That is why it is very important that smaller communities be created within classes as well as in student organizations on campus, she explains. In addition, she notes that with more and more online courses being added to the college curriculum, teachers must be more inventive in trying to create time for face-to-face interaction among students and instructor.
Although Rendón knows that many faculty and student affairs professionals are not yet ready (or will never be ready) to integrate contemplative practice into their teaching and leading, she is hopeful that a major shift in thinking in the higher education setting will occur. Meanwhile, she diligently works to influence and educate her colleagues, as well as political, business, and social leaders, about the value of social justice and the benefits of contemplative practice.
For example, from 1999-2012 she served as chair of the Board of Directors for the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP). She was also a member of the Board of Trustees for Naropa University. More recently, she was appointed to the Contemplative Teaching and Learning Leadership Council at the Garrison Institute and the Board of the Center for Contemplative Mind and Society. She is past president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE). These are just a few of the examples of service to her profession and educational community—all performed while producing ground-breaking research. This research includes the theory of validation, a framework used for working with and affirming students of color; and Sentipensante Pedagogy a sensing/thinking teaching and learning model of holistic education that emphasizes intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual student development.
In a recent article in the Journal of College & Character, Rendón (2011) described the educated person or una persona educada who exhibits a life in balance—the kind of life that all educators should want for their students as well as themselves:
We need to educate a new breed of personas educadas—well educated, thoughtful individuals possessing a good measure of internal and external equity. These individuals are intelligent in a broad sense of the word. They are book smart, yet reflective and discerning; good critical thinkers and problem solvers, yet intuitive and perceptive; good decision makers who can act swiftly when necessary, yet keenly aware of taking risks that carry unforeseen consequences. These personas educadas possess habits of the mind and heart. They embrace reasoned thinking as well as emotional intelligence and diverse ways of knowing. They know when to act slowly as well as spontaneously. They are deeply perceptive and judicious in their actions, respect all forms of life, and are concerned about matters of equity and social justice. (p. 2)
We who have noted her many achievements over the years as leader, teacher, author, and activist can easily see that Laura Rendón embodies this worthy ideal of the educated person in her personal and professional life. As she strives to achieve balance in her life while serving, leading, and educating others, she herself is una persona educada.
Rendón, L. I. Cultivating una persona educada: A sentipensante (sensing/thinking) vision of education. Journal of College & Character, 12(2), 1-9.
Rendón-Linares, L. I. ,& Munoz, S.M. (2011). Revisiting validation theory: Theoretical applications, foundations and extensions. Enrollment Management Journal, 5(2), 12-33.
Rendón, L.I. (2009). Sentipensante (Sensing/Thinking) pedagogy. Educating for wholeness, social justice and liberation. Sterling, VA: Stylus Press.
Rendón, L. I., Garcia, M., & Person, D. (Eds.) (2004) Transforming the first year of college for students of color. Columbia, SC: Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
Kanagala, V. & Rendón, L.I. (forthcoming). Birthing internal images. Employing the Cajita project as a contemplative activity in a college classroom. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. Special Issue on Contemplative Studies in Higher Education.