Dr Susan Johnson has been a lecturer in International Development at the University of Bath for almost 20 years. She has introduced a “bring your minds not your machines” policy along with mindfulness exercises in some of her units. She is a strong proponent of meditation, a practice which she says has greatly benefited her at a time when digital distractions increase.
What made you decide to implement the “bring your minds not your machines” policy and offer mindfulness exercises in some of your lectures?
Dr Susan Johnson: I first introduced the “bring your minds not your machines” policy in a second year Social Science of Climate Change unit three years ago. That unit covers a topic that is emotional and which affects people and I particularly felt the need to create some boundaries around the classroom, an environment where we could all engage with each other in a supportive way. It went well, students seemed to appreciate it!
This year I moved a little bit further and decided to add mindfulness. It was partly due to a concern for the increasing mental health problems that we are hearing about in universities, and also a desire to give students the opportunity to have a couple hours when they do not feel the need to check their screens.
How do students generally respond to the no-machine policy?
Dr Susan Johnson: In the Social Science of Climate Change unit, I would say everybody was okay with it. Some really appreciated it and there was probably just one person in the feedback saying they didn’t like it because it meant they had to write out their notes again. I took it as strong evidence that there was a need for this approach.
It was in this unit I spoke to some students which made me realise how impulsive the behaviour around technology is. I remember a student telling me that if her neighbour reached for their phone, she would almost automatically do the same. And it wasn’t because she was expecting a message, it was simply a peer induced effect. The evidence for the fact students distract other students is there: it seems to me that it is a challenge to us as staff to create an environment where students – in particular those with learning difficulties, high stress or anxiety – can have an opportunity to concentrate.
Have you discussed your methods with your colleagues, and are they encouraging?
Dr Susan Johnson: I shared that I was going to do these mindfulness exercises with my head of department and a number of other colleagues. Everybody kind of said “go for it!” and were encouraging, saying that they thought students were ready for different experiences. However, while I have discussed the “no machines” policy with others, I do not know if anyone else has decided to implement it.
According to our survey 56% of students said they had used their phone in a seminar or tutorial for learning purposes. Do you acknowledge that phones can have learning benefits?
Dr Susan Johnson: I know students may be taking notes, looking at slides, using Moodle: all these are possible, but I wonder if what they often mean by learning benefits is that there is a lot of googling of questions. I would like those questions to be brought into the room, rather than into Google. This has the advantages of giving me feedback and creating a learning community.
We have to share what we know, and what we don’t know and a question from one student is probably shared by another. Readily available technology can disrupt the circular flow of information, by preventing us from having a dialogue. As much as you may think that we stand there to preach we actually don’t, we want feedback, to know where the students are at and how they are engaging with it.
In a sense, I think Google and the internet has also increased the sense of vulnerability of students. They think “I can look it up on Google, I should know it” rather than just asking and sharing in front of others that they don’t follow or understand some terminology or an argument.
What is the role of practises like meditation and mindfulness in the academic life of students?
Dr Susan Johnson: Mindfulness is about being aware of what is going on for you at this moment, internally and externally, bringing your attention to the present moment continuously. Our minds naturally drift away, and we have to keep bringing them back to what we want them to focus on. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, in an age where these have gone through the roof.
My understanding is that the digital world is part of this growing problem. People are always concerned about what is going on somewhere else rather than being in the present moment where they actually are. The only place you can live your life is where you are now.
The first purpose of mindfulness is cultivating calm, and the second is insight. First, you create calm to decompress the nervous system, and then by noticing what your mind is doing you can gain insight into how it operates. So in lectures I explain that eliminating machines helps eliminate distractors, then a couple of minutes of mindfulness is intended to create calm and bring everyone’s focus into the room.
Bath Time: How do you deal with technology in your work?
Dr Susan Johnson: If I am trying to concentrate fully on writing or reading, I try not to look at anything before I start work, not even reading the paper online. Nothing on a screen. I have a little notice right by the Outlook icon which says “don’t look at email”! It is about building boundaries for myself which obviously also depends on what my priorities are and how pressured I am on a particular task. Of course I may need to go into my email or look something up online or download a paper but I try to ensure I go in and out again and not get diverted. I have noticed that If I start the day with my email, my ability to concentrate for any longer task that requires more sustained attention is already compromised. Meditation practice has made me much more aware of these effects.