Friday, August 31, 2012

On the Power of Reflection

Although I am a blogger (of sorts), I limit myself to following a very short list of other blogs (generally no more than five).  Rather than emerging from some kind of elitist view that there are only five blogs worth following, it is a rule I've put in place for myself to (a) avoid being overwhelmed with information and (b) to make sure I don't spend inordinate amounts of time reading posts.  So, I was a bit surprised this week when two of the blogs I follow, both addressed a theme that has been on my mind a great deal as of late--the value of reflection.

I have long been a reflector and appreciated the benefits of taking time to step back from the busyness of life and spend time with my thoughts.  My earliest memories of reflecting are as a teenager, delivering papers to my neighbors in the early morning hours.  It was dark, quiet, and I was generally the only person out on the street.  Even as a dense teenage boy, I realized how much good thinking I could get done as I rollerbladed from house to house with a bag of that day's Salt Lake Tribune on my back.  Although my problems and concerns were relatively minor then, I appreciated having time to work things through each morning.  I always felt settled and grounded by the time I delivered the last paper to Paul and Helen Hansen and headed for home.

It was in high school that I came to appreciate the value of written reflection when Mr. Gates (who we all called "Master Gates" for some reason), my senior English teacher, asked us to keep a daily journal and write for at least 10 minutes each day.  It was Mr. Gates who I credit with helping me establish my habit of writing in a journal each evening before I go to bed.  This act of writing each night has, maybe more than anything else I do, impacted my development as a learner and a person.  It is a time where I can grapple with questions, articulate insights and ideas I've had, and reflect on my experiences and how they are shaping me.

This blog has become another reflective tool.  And, my sentiments about blogging and how it has changed me were echoed in a post I read on John Gardner's blog just this morning:

Since I became a blogger, albeit an occasional one at that, that status has affected the way I "look" literally at whatever I am seeing. . . .  Being a blogger has turned me into a reporter of sorts.  I find I am constantly vigilant to things I might want to report on.

I think it would be a good idea if more of my fellow higher ed change agents were bloggers.  It might make them more observant of their higher ed settings, force them to try to be more objective and somewhat more detached from what they are observing.

Like John, I find that I am always looking for something interesting, frustrating, or inspiring to write about on this blog.  And, I also second his call for more of us to blog, not necessarily because of how what we write might impact others, but because of what happens to us as we write.  Writing is a process of thinking and rethinking.  Meaningful patterns of words, sentences, and paragraphs do not exist until they are constructed by a human mind.  And, the process of writing creates a space in which the writer can reflect upon and clarify her own ideas.  That is one powerful benefit of reflection--it makes us better thinkers and positions us to make meaning from our sometimes disparate and fragmented experiences.  In some sense, reflection can bring wholeness and integration to our lives.

It is this wholeness, integration, and sense of purpose that is often missing from our professional lives.  In his most recent blog post, my friend Gary Daynes makes this connection and cites a failure to be reflective as one of the things which can erode one's sense of vocation in their work.  This has been my experience as well.  It is at those times when I become wrapped up in the busyness of my everyday/everyweek/everymonth cycles that I begin to lose my sense of purpose.

So, how can one stay reflective and, in turn, maintain a sense of wholeness?

1.  Find a regular time to reflect.  Frequency might be less important than consistency here.  The key, I have found, is to schedule this time and protect it.  When I'm doing my reflective writing, I close my office door, drop the blinds, and close down my email account.  I've found that if I don't, I'll be interrupted (usually by myself and my own distractions).

2.  Read often and read broadly.  This is something I learned from good mentors.  I am much more thoughtful, creative, and reflective when I am exposing myself to new ideas, particularly those that challenge my current thinking.  My reflections are much deeper and more meaningful when I am trying to connect ideas from my reading or asking new questions that my reading has raised.

3.  Find a place that inspires you.  Although much of my reflection takes place in my office, occasionally it is helpful for me to leave and go somewhere that helps me reconnect with my purpose.  For me this place is the Education in Zion gallery on my campus.  It is quiet, the seating is comfortable, and the gallery tells a story that has always been inspiring to me.

4.  Write.  This is painful for most of us.  Typically, we would just rather "think," but as I argued earlier in this post, something happens to our thinking when we try and articulate those thoughts in clear ways.  I have even adopted a reflection model to guide me in my writing because it helps me remember to look for connections to things I'm reading, reflect on meaningful experiences I have had, and ask new questions that help drive new learning.

5.  Review past reflections.  There is something very meaningful and uplifting about looking back at past reflections, be it blog posts, journal entries, or whatever format reflections might take.  In fact, I often learn as much by re-reading my journal entries as I do in writing them.  In looking back at where I've been, I notice growth that I hadn't before, themes that weren't apparent to me at the time of my writing, and experiences which seemed insignificant at the time, but which have proved to be incredibly important and impactful.  It some sense, looking to past reflections might be a form of "meta-reflection" in which we take an even deeper look at our experiences.

So, at the beginning of another busy academic year.  Don't forget to step back and do a bit of reflecting.  Even better, look for ways to start new habits of regular reflection.  You'll be grateful you did.

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