Writing Professor Amy Dunkle (right) begins each class with a breathing exercise for students to relax and get in a good headspace. Photo by Anna Meassick.

For two minutes at the beginning of each class, some professors ask students to meditate

Professor Amy Dunkle has been teaching writing courses at the University of Rhode Island since 2017, and since this past fall semester, she has begun incorporating a practice called mindfulness into her classroom environment.

Before becoming a professor, Dunkle was a reporter, news editor, freelance writer and yoga instructor. Although she has long used mindfulness in her own life, she was initially hesitant to relay this practice into her teaching.

After attending a workshop for the URI Office for Advancement of Teaching and Learning, she felt more encouraged to bring it into the classroom.

“I was nervous about introducing it,” Dunkle said.

However, at the same time she felt confident that the benefits would be strong.

“I knew intuitively that this would be useful for my students,” Dunkle said.   

Dunkle defines mindfulness to be, “Having awareness in the present moment, not being caught up in the past with all the stresses and the worries.” The practice calls on one to prioritize what is happening in that moment as well as being aware and focusing on current mind.

Achieving mindfulness could be as simple as walking across campus to class without headphones or technology and enjoying your surroundings while not obsessing over the past or future.

In terms of how Dunkle integrates this form of thinking into her role as a professor, she said, “I am just providing this space to get your bearings.”

Dunkle offers this time to her students, although no one is required to participate. For Dunkle’s classes, WRT 106 and WRT 334, your first two minutes of class will be a chance to focus internally on present thought and prepare your mind to learn before class work commences.

Dunkle asks for phones to be put away, computers dimmed and eyes relaxed while mindfulness begins. Whether lightly opened or closed, students are encouraged to soften their gaze. In addition, to reach a state of mindfulness, feet should be flat on the floor and posture altered. The main goal is to focus on inhalation and exhalation of each breath, allowing your mind to target the present.

While practicing mindfulness, one should attempt to get rid of what is called “monkey mind.” This is a name for the thoughts from your past that may taunt or tease your mind and prevent you from achieving mindfulness.

Dunkle feels that often there is intimidation associated with meditation or practices of the mind.

“People think it takes an extra effort to do meditation or that they are not doing it right,” she said.

However, a lot of students have responded well to the two minutes at the beginning of class where they can clear their mind.

It is not uncommon for the human mind to wonder towards thoughts of the past with worry or obsession. The goal is to release your worries and not focus on any doubts or anxieties.

“As a teacher my job is to serve my students and help them in this case be better writers,” Dunkle said. “I think of this as a tool in my tool kit.”

Dunkle said that mindfulness can improve mood, writing skills or even overall focus on tasks.

Rachel Leveillee, assistant director of the Academic Testing Center at URI, is also interested in the practice of mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is a tool I use every day,” Leveille said. “Sometimes I actually sit to meditate, but mostly I incorporate it into what I’m already doing– driving, walking, talking to people. Focusing on my breath helps me be more present in the moment so my mind doesn’t create too much drama and I can experience life more fully. In the Academic Testing Center, I work with many students who experience severe anxiety. I have seen how quickly mindfulness techniques can help a student move from panic to productive. Bringing awareness to the experience of the body can have a very calming effect on the mind.”

If you are interested in practicing mindfulness and are not enrolled in professor Dunkle’s class you can still consider incorporating the benefits into your life. By putting down your phone, relaxing your gaze and body and focusing on the present, you too can achieve this.

More professors and students on campus are also learning to utilize this way of thinking to achieve awareness, focus and a sense of calm.