Minding the Body: Towards a Pedagogy of Enactment

By Catherine Fox

Although unable to theorize it at the time, I dropped out of college when I was nineteen because the disconnect had become intolerable. To be a disembodied mind, taking in the “knowledge” of the professor and regurgitating it in the form of papers and exams, was severing me from the interconnectivity that, I now believe, is essential to a purposeful life. Driven by a passion to teach, I eventually found my way back to credentialed education, and like many in alternative educational circles, I have spent the better part of my career as an academic resisting the expectation that both professors and students be disembodied minds, talking heads divorced from our physical bodies as we engage in meaning-making processes.

It has become common within Composition Studies to situate discourse as embodied; however, actual bodies and their relationship to learning in general, and literacy practices in particular, are often curiously absent from these discussions.[1] As Kristie Fleckenstein argues, “[B]odies as sites of and participants in meaning-making have been elided” (“Writing Bodies” 281). Severing connection to our bodies and yet expecting fully engaged teachers and learners is one of the more egregious failures of higher education. Moved by my own battle with disconnection in education and Fleckenstein’s argument to bring bodies to bear on transformative pedagogies in ways that join them with the mind, I designed an experimental Honors first-year composition course named “Embodied Discourse” that thematically explores the mind/body relationship. Most importantly, I was committed to not reproducing the mind/body split of intellectual exploration that is devoid of attending to the material bodies in the classroom. Having practiced vinyassa yoga for nearly fifteen years and benefited from the ways in which attunement between body, mind, and breath allows for greater presence and mindfulness, I organized the course to begin with fifteen or twenty minutes of yoga practice, which was then followed by a more traditional discussion-oriented pedagogy. We would not just be talking heads discussing and composing texts that explored mind/body; we would be bodies and minds together, yoked through practices of yoga, listening, discussing, reading, and writing.

Often, we design classes out of an unnamed exigency, and what motivated the urgency to create a new learning experience for students gets fleshed out over time, sometimes after the class has ended. Although it challenged me, unnerved me, inspired me, and renewed my passion for teaching, learning, and writing, a nagging question persisted in the back of my mind: what does yoga have to do with writing? In this article, I explore this question in light of recent scholarship around issues of embodiment, agency, and responsibility. As a launching point, I use Marilyn Cooper’s conceptualization of rhetorical agency because she explicitly places embodiment at the center of her definition: “[A]gency is an emergent property of embodied individuals” (421). Central to Cooper’s theory of “responsible rhetorical agency” is the contention that students are already agents (entities that act and bring about change); thus, she argues that we need a pedagogy of responsibility, not a pedagogy of empowerment, in helping students better understand rhetorical agency. Disappointingly, although Cooper’s theory relies heavily on the idea of embodiment, her primary illustration draws almost exclusively on traditional textual analysis (a speech by President Obama). Equally important, her advocacy for a responsible pedagogy makes little mention of actual student bodies; embodiment is treated more as a neuroscientific concept in her theory of agency rather than a material reality to which we should attend.

In agreement with Cooper, I believe students are already agents; indeed, it is presumptuous to situate our roles within a framework of “empowerment.” However, devoid of material enactment and retreating into traditional textual analysis that solidifies the classic mind/body split, Cooper’s argument becomes a pedagogy of exhortation (Berthoff). Through an examination of my first-year composition course thematically designed to explore the relationship between mind and body, I offer to extend Cooper’s theory. Rather than a pedagogy of responsibility or empowerment, I advocate a pedagogy of enactment through which material engagement with bodies in the classroom can create the conditions whereby students are able to situate themselves as interconnected, meaning-making individuals. Yoga provides one means of achieving a pedagogy of enactment. I am not suggesting that daily yoga practice gives students explicit conceptual awareness of Cooper’s theory of agency, nor do I plan to prove that my students’ writing was more rhetorically responsible after sixteen weeks of a pedagogy of enactment. However, I contend that if we wish to develop responsible rhetorical agency in students, we need more holistic pedagogical enactments that engage both minds and bodies. Yoga is one such practice, and a powerful one, I argue, because it fosters a sense of mindful awareness and interconnectivity that can enable students to both understand and experience themselves as individuals within the context of a larger collective, a foundational premise for the practice of rhetorical responsibility.

Materiality of Moving Bodies in the Classroom

The materiality of the classroom, class size, and time within which we work significantly shape the degree to which we can meaningfully engage a pedagogy of enactment, particularly if we seek to integrate bodies and minds. Fortunately, I taught Embodied Discourse in 100-minute blocks twice weekly and had relatively low enrollment (13 students the first year, 19 students the second year). Before I offer a brief background on yoga and illustrate how the practice of yoga impacted students’ sense of interconnectivity and responsibility, I describe how yoga was incorporated into our daily routine. I offer this not as a recipe for a pedagogy of enactment, but as a backdrop for how we negotiated the material barriers in enacting a pedagogy that aimed to yoke mind with body.

I seek creative ways of helping students physically experience and reflect on how the material conditions of the classroom affect us. Classrooms in my department generally have four rows of long tables with eight students seated in each row, all facing the “smart” technology at the front of the room where the professor can literally hide behind a tall desk occupied by a large computer monitor, document camera, and several other pieces of equipment for commanding the technology. On the first day of Embodied Discourse, we begin in the departmentally sanctioned arrangement of desks with the typical first-day introductions.[2] I then ask students to bring awareness to how their bodies felt during the introductions and we free-write for a few minutes. After a brief discussion of their writing, I have students push all the desks together to create one large table with everyone sitting around the perimeter. We do another set of introductions (adding something new to our previous introductions), followed by the same free-write prompt, and another brief discussion. Finally, I have students move all the desks and chairs to the perimeter of the room, leaving the middle of the room entirely open. Sitting on the floor in a loose circle, we introduce ourselves a third time (again, adding something new) followed by the free-write prompt and discussion.

Materially experimenting with different arrangements and asking students to bring awareness to the physical experience of how classroom design and body arrangement affects them sets the framework for my pedagogy of enactment. This also allows me to introduce the theme and structure of the course: we would be exploring embodied discourse for the semester, but we would not just be intellectually discussing the mind/body relationship; instead, we would be both bodies and minds together each day, dedicating the first fifteen to twenty minutes to some sort of yoga practice and the remainder of each session to intellectual exploration. Another key element of a pedagogy of enactment for this course was explicitly introducing it as experimental.  Following in the tradition of écriture féminine from Helene Cixous, the purpose of “writing the body” is to move away from strict discursive forms and rules and instead engage a sense of play that opens fresh possibilities for writing. Thus, embodied discourse always retains a spirit of the ineffable. Enacting the spirit of the “unknown,” I explicitly frame the course as one in which we explore together; I don’t have any certain answers as to what “embodied discourse” might mean, nor where we might arrive at the end.[3]

There were many sideways glances and nervous facial expressions on the first day. Despite their clear hesitation, they were all willing to give the idea and practice of “being bodies and minds together” their best effort.[4] Beginning the second day of class, students stopped by my office, where they picked up a yoga mat; I gave them the key to the classroom and instructed them to move tables and chairs in any way they wished so that we would have room for moving bodies.[5] This became our daily routine: students arriving early to rearrange the classroom so that we had open floor space available for our mats and freedom of movement.

Even with my awareness of how classroom design orders bodies (and thus learning), I had no idea just how much of an impact this would have on students. Throughout both semesters that I taught Embodied Discourse, various students emphasized how “cool” it was that they got to move the tables and decide how to arrange their bodies. They had no problem moving the tables back to the sanctioned arrangement after class (I move the desks in each of my classes into different arrangements, and there are always a few in these other classes who get quite curmudgeonly about moving the desks each day). In retrospect, I also believe that the sensory experience of sitting on the floor together with our shoes off on multicolored mats in hues of purple, pink, yellow, and green contributed to students’ positive reception of the course. Thus, part of the success of Embodied Discourse was not only a pedagogy of enactment in which we were both thinking and doing beings, but also the materiality of making the classroom our own by moving desks and sitting on multi-colored mats in various arrangements that helped create a greater sense of collective ownership and control of the class. As mentioned above, I do believe that our students are already agents, but when forced to occupy space in pre-determined arrangements, their experience of being actors in their own processes of learning is diminished. Thus, a pedagogy of enactment sometimes requires literally turning the keys to the classroom over to the students to embody it in ways that reinforce that they are agents in their learning.

Yoking the Doing and Being Modes of Mind through Yoga

My choice of yoga for a pedagogy of enactment in Embodied Discourse was informed by Eastern philosophies of mindfulness and more recent scientific studies that integration of mind/body/breath leads not only to health and well-being, but also to greater meta-cognitive awareness.[6] Yoga is a contemplative art, where contemplation is understood as “cutting out” or marking out space for observation. It is a practice intended to bring about mindfulness, which Jon Kabat-Zinn defines as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are” (Mindful 47). In Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, Daniel P. Barbezat and Mirabai Bush explain, “The word yoga, from the Sanskrit word yuj, means to yoke or bind and is often interpreted as ‘union,’ or a method of discipline…Yoga is different from stretching or other kinds of fitness because it explicitly connects the movement of the body and the fluctuations of the mind to the rhythm of the breath…to direct attention inward to the cultivation of awareness” (168).

This cultivation of awareness acts as a vehicle for activating the “being” mode of mind, as opposed to the “doing” mode of mind. Centuries of mindfulness practices as well as contemporary research in neuroscience associate the being mode of mind with remaining present and open in the midst of the ebb and flow of reality (Kabat-Zinn Mindful). It recruits our capacity for curiosity, compassion, interconnection, and larger awareness. The doing mode of mind is generally associated with problem solving and critical thinking, skills foregrounded in higher education. This mode recruits our judgment, comparison, problem-solving, analysis, and evaluation capacities. As Kabat-Zinn points out, the being mode is not better than the doing mode, but it provides a “whole other way of living our lives and relating to our emotions, our stress, our thoughts, and our bodies” (Mindful 46). It is an often neglected, but inherent, human capacity. Yoga provides one such means of attending to and developing the being mode of mind.

Not insignificantly, the body plays an important part in these modes of mind through hormone production and activation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In other words, these two modes of mind are not simply cognitive dispositions; we have to actually work with the body to develop them. Neuroscientist Alex Korb explains that yoga is not a “relaxing” activity in and of itself; instead, yoga poses intentionally produce discomfort and disorientation to essentially retrain the autopilot stress mode of the brain:

Your brain tends to react to discomfort and disorientation in an automatic way, by triggering the physiological stress response and activating anxious neural chatter between the prefrontal cortex and the more emotional limbic system. The stress response itself increases the likelihood of anxious thoughts, like “Oh god, I’m going to pull something,” or “I can’t hold this pushup any longer”…The twisting of your spine, the lactic acid building up in your straining muscles, the uneasy feeling of being upside down, the inability to breathe, are all different forms of discomfort and disorientation, and tend to lead reflexively to anxious thinking and activation of the stress response in the entire nervous system. However, just because this response is automatic, does not mean it is necessary. It is, in fact, just a habit of the brain. One of the main purposes of yoga is to retrain this habit so that your brain stops automatically invoking the stress response.

The brain (as part of the body) is an evolving, changing organ, not a static one. Brain imaging technologies support long-held philosophical beliefs that yoga can alter mind-body interactions to create greater calm and presence, which are key elements to the being mode of mind. Yoking body, mind, and breath, Korb explains, mediates the “anxious neural chatter between the prefrontal cortex and the more emotional limbic system.” Re-routing the autopilot stress mode of the brain through minding the body opens empathetic pathways and creates greater cognitive presence and sense of inter-connectivity.

In Embodied Discourse, our daily yoga practice was generally focused on some variation of Sun Salutation coupled with a few balancing poses, such as tree or eagle pose.[7] We began by standing still at the front of our mats, and I invited everyone to bring their minds and bodies to the present moment. Coaching students as we moved through the poses, I also iterated elements of the philosophy undergirding the practice. Of particular importance, each day I reminded students that yoga is a practice; it is not goal-oriented nor is it about achieving the perfect pose. We don’t focus on mastering a pose or increasing flexibility or even perfecting a sequence of movements. Instead, yoga is rooted in the assumption that a sense of balanced, calm, and connected awareness arises naturally when we approach the practice regularly with non-violence and non-judgment.[8] We work with the strengths and limitations of our individual bodies, which are ever-changing. One day we may find ourselves totally unable to do a pose we did the day before—this is particularly true with balancing poses. Flexible response to the fluidity of the changing body can translate, over time, into how we relate to ourselves and the world around us. The arc of our energy and attention in yoga is quieting the doing mode of mind and engaging the being mode of mind: opening the body through movement and observing sensations and changes in both mind and body with non-judgment.

As I guided students through the practice, I also consistently reminded them that we practice with ahimsa (non-violence), and this non-violence begins with the self. Practitioners of yoga push against their edges of comfort but not beyond them into the realm of pain; likewise, we do not push our bodies to do the poses that a practitioner on an adjacent mat may be doing. Ultimately, it was not my aim to turn students into yogis; yoga was a vehicle to engage a pedagogy of enactment in which we could slow down, develop a sense of curiosity, and see what would arise from yoking minds and bodies in the process of exploring embodied discourse.[9]

Although I taught Embodied Discourse twice, each year I remained committed to an intention of surrendering to the unknown. Suspending the will to know in order to see what would emerge from combining yoga with writing instruction is in keeping with the curiosity and openness of the being mode of mind that is central to yoga practice.[10] One specific form of surrender in this course was carving out space for students to engage in weekly writing in a meaning-making journal that was not read by me. I wanted them to write a lot, and I wanted to make sure that their writing was not always subjected to the “gaze” of the teacher so that their intellectual processes could emerge more organically. I divided writing assignments into two categories: writing to learn (to engage the being mode of mind) and learning to write (to engage the doing mode of mind). The writing-to-learn assignment was a standard weekly journal entry: write three full pages, front and back, in a (paper) notebook of their choosing for each class meeting (six pages per week). Their task was to “meet their mind” on the page; the focal point was our weekly text (a reading, a TED talk, a podcast, etc.). They could write about anything related to the texts we used in class as long as they were engaging their curiosity to observe and explore their mind. I promised them I would never read their writing nor require them to read it out-loud (although I often asked if volunteers wished to share passages of their writing to initiate a conversation, to which almost all the students responded with enthusiasm once they developed a sense of connection to one another).[11]

Students asked if they could use a laptop or digital notebook for their meaning-making journal, but I did not want digital screens creating a barrier between bodies because they also used their meaning-making journals for note-taking and workshop activities. If the given text for the week was a video or podcast, we listened to/watched it together in order to create a collective listening/viewing experience and we discussed it immediately afterwards or during the following class meeting. When we listened to a podcast or TED talk together, students would sprawl out on the floor, some seated cross-legged with their meaning-making journals propped in their laps, others lying either belly-down or belly-up on their yoga mats with their meaning-making journals at hand to take notes. Although there was some resistance to this older writing technology, it was part of the experimental nature of the course to remove barriers between bodies, to surrender to the unknown, and to create a vehicle for “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment.” Digital writing technologies have too many distractions to achieve these goals, which students seemed to understand after a few weeks of writing and note-taking in paper notebooks.

Yoking writing to learn (the being mode of mind) with learning to write (the doing mode of mind) was another way to engage students more holistically. The meaning-making journal entries and notes became the foundation for their formal papers.[12] I wanted to illustrate several things with this writing-to-learn assignment: good writing comes from writing regularly; good writing comes from observing, questioning, and exploring; and writing is an intellectual process that occurs over time and space, not a rigid formula or set a rules. Using writing as an additional contemplative art that cut out space for “meeting the mind” on the page, I wanted them to see that writing a ten-page paper could be a far less painful experience than the last-minute, all-night writing marathons many of them had experienced.

Our daily yoga practice was intended to complement their development as writers in three ways. First, yoga was a way to engage the primary “content” of the course (exploring the mind/body relationship). Our practice of yoga (reflecting on it, writing about it, and talking about it) became one of the “texts” for the course that complemented more traditional texts. Second, yoga served as an implicit metaphor for the kinds of writing practices I wanted to teach students, such as engaging in the process rather than focusing on the goal, embracing curiosity through observation, suspending judgment, creating spaciousness through learning to be more flexible, and most generally, trying to slow down and go deeper into thinking and writing. Finally, yoga served as a method of yoking the being and doing modes of mind so that daily discussions and workshop were framed with a lived practice of cultivating mindfulness and the interconnection of body/mind.

Yoga and other mindfulness practices often have been targeted specifically to help with stress reduction and emotional turmoil; however, in what follows, I argue that the presence and connectivity developed through activating the “being mode of mind” in yoga are a precursor to rhetorical responsibility that Cooper advocates. Instructing students only through the “doing mode of mind” to enact responsible rhetorical agency will fall short if we are not also cultivating the being mode of mind in which students can experience connectedness to themselves, their learning, the course material, their peers, and the professor. Engagement of both modes of mind is crucial in a pedagogy of enactment.

Connectivity: A Foundation for Open Responsiveness and Meaning Making

As discussed in the introduction, Cooper’s new model of agency holds much promise because it brings embodiment to long-held debates over agency. She contends that “agents are defined neither by mastery, nor by determination, nor by fragmentation. They are unique, embodied, and autonomous individuals in that they are self-organizing, but by virtue of that fact, they, as well as the surround with which they interact, are always changing” (425). Cooper’s use of embodiment draws largely on neuroscientific research and systems theory through which she illustrates that minds are meaning-making organisms rather than merely information-processing organs in which “neurons interact to create a pattern…that is unique to each sensing individual, shaped by each individual organism’s history and shaped anew in every iteration” (427). It is this dynamic process of unique meaning making in interaction with one’s surround where intentionality (and thus agency) can be located in a series of stages that Cooper maps out as a continuous loop of both conscious and non-conscious processes of the nervous system (429). Within her model of agency, intent (to make making) is central, and conscious awareness is not. And perhaps most importantly, agency is effected through circular causation rather than linear causation: “[C]hange arises not as the effect of a discrete cause, but from the dance of perturbation and response as agents interact” (421).

In many respects, Cooper’s theory echoes central tenets of yoga: that we are emergent beings in continual processes of becoming and that we are simultaneously individuals and participants in a larger collectivity. Drawing on Bruno Latour’s work that rejects the idea of mastery and orderliness at the heart of the subject/object split, Cooper instead uses his notion of the “collective” to situate agency as an emergent property. The agent (or actor, as Latour calls it), is defined as “what interrupts the closure and the composition of the collective. To put it crudely, human and nonhuman actors appear first of all as troublemakers” (Latour, quoted in Cooper 425). Agents are “entities that act; by virtue of their action they necessarily bring about changes” (424). However, this notion of action is undergirded by the changing and ephemeral nature of the collective. In Latour’s words, the collective “is not a thing in the world, a being with fixed and definitive borders, but a movement of establishing provisional cohesion that will have to be started all over again every single day” (quoted in Cooper 425).[13]

A pedagogy of responsibility, according to Cooper, would help students hold in one hand the individuality of each organism’s complex nervous system and life history in the meaning-making process and in the other hand an understanding of how rhetorical actions can effect change through the interplay of complex systems and circular causation. As mentioned earlier, central to Cooper’s theory is the contention that students are already agents:

[W]e need to help students understand that writing and speaking (rhetoric) are always serious actions…What they write or argue, as with all other actions they perform, makes them who they are. And though their actions do not directly cause anything to happen, their rhetorical actions, even if they are embedded in the confines of a college class, always have effects: they perturb anyone who reads or hears their words. They need to understand that thus their rhetoric can contribute to the effort to construct a good common world only to the extent that they recognize their audience as concrete others with their own spaces of meaning.If they are not to negate others in this effort, they need to understand that their own persuasive acts as invitations, not as affirmations of absolute truth: they need to recognize that they might be wrong. Rhetorical agency is a big responsibility. (443; emphasis mine)

Cooper’s assertion that students’ rhetoric can “contribute to the effort to construct a good common world” certainly begs further interrogation given that common good rests on an unexamined assumption of shared values which has historically been an issue with critical pedagogies. However, if one of our goals in educating students (no matter what the subject) is to help them become more responsible (for their acts as agents already), and this responsibility is based on recognizing their audience as concrete others with their own spaces of meanings, then we must find ways to help students engage in processes of recognition.

To recognize is to find and feel some sort of connection, and there are layers of connectivity that are necessary in order for a sense of responsibility to arise. Such an understanding of responsibility is not just accountability for the effect of one’s actions; it also entails an open, responsive/response-able stance. I borrow the term response-ability from the work of Michael Hassett who, following Kenneth Burke, argues that creating spaces in writing and writing pedagogies for audience response is a central element in an ethic of communication where dialectical meaning making is the goal: Working in conjunction with the other, we are able to mitigate our own blindnesses and achieve together something more than we might have achieved separately. This occurs only as we affect one another, as we both respond, and it becomes mutually enhancing—together we make meaning in a dialectical relationship of response” (191). “Responsibility” holds a dual meaning of accountability as well as an ability to be responsive/response-able (rather than reactive) in one’s meaning making process. This kind of accountable, open responsiveness is contingent on the degree to which there is connectivity to the self as well as the world outside the self.

As mentioned above, in our practice of yoga I encouraged students to meet their bodies each day with ahimsa, responding flexibility and non-competitively to its fluidity with a spirit of non-violence. Through informal class conversation as well as a focus group interview,[14] students explained that they had spent much of their academic careers very grade-oriented and in competition with their peers, but the emphasis on ahimsa and doing their practice without competition with the person on a neighboring mat helped them feel more calm and connected to their learning. “There are some things that can’t be taught,” explained Angela.“They have to be experienced. And it’s one thing for us to read about how the body affects the mind, but it’s another to experience it firsthand…and doing it the way the class is set up, by being a body in the first part, allows the mind to be stronger in the second part.” She went on to describe how she had been so focused on competition and getting the best grade that she never really thought about ideas and learning in her education. Yoga practice and the emphasis on working with the body’s limitations had made her begin to develop a different attitude  (less aggressive, less goal-focused) towards herself as a learner. A spirit of non-competition and non-aggression towards self opens what I contend is the first layer of connectivity: connection to self.

For their final paper, I asked students to explore what they believed embodied discourse might be and to make an attempt to actually embody their writing. Carlin described embodied discourse as awareness and integration:

Embodied discourse is being aware and conscious of your mind and body and unifying them as one. They are no longer two separate parts of a function, but one whole. Apart, they can do only as much as they allow themselves, but together, a whole new creation evolves…Embodied discourse is similar to creating music. You have a harmony and a melody, a chorus and a bridge. A treble clef and a bass clef. Countless measures of individual notes that intertwine together and create a beautiful symphony. Isolate each piece and you have the start of something great, a resounding “g” on the bass staff or a gorgeous triad in the harmony, but put them together and you have created the final piece as a whole with layering tones. You’ve interlaced the product with a substance like that of magic. It’s captivating.

The metaphor of music and creating something more magical and captivating through integration suggests a beautiful connection to self, one that I have found rare in traditional undergraduates. Similarly, Sondra came to define embodied discourse as a sense of wholeness that gives meaning to life:

It [yoga] was a fun thing to do at first, but I gradually realized that the yoga helped to slow down my mind and allowed me to listen and notice others more…To me embodied discourse is being present in both the body and mind; operating as a full person rather than just a body or just a mind…we are often not creating mind/body connections as college students, which puts us in a perpetual state of disconnection. Disconnection leads to non-attachment to the experiences that form our identities and create a meaningful life. Ultimately without the integration of mind and body we are living less meaningful lives…. I struggled at first to understand why we need to be present and aware. I thought that should be a personal choice and who cares if someone chooses to coast through life. I realized how much you actually miss out on without being a body and a mind. I realized that relationships will be much harder to form and your self-esteem will not be where it should. I realized the meaning of life and the reasons I enjoy living come from my experiences.

As she indicated in her paper, Sondra struggled immensely in the course. She could not connect meaningfully with some of the texts, and she was far more comfortable with a product-oriented approach to school writing in which she could fulfill the expectations of a course and, as she puts it, “coast through” in a non-attached, non-present mode. I fully expected a more traditional paper from Sondra in which she simply captured main ideas from texts we had discussed and delivered them in a tidy paper with an introduction, three supporting paragraphs and a conclusion. However, she had a breakthrough during a brainstorming activity in which was able to focus more on what the yoga practice did for her (rather than ideas from texts) and how that was connected to what was most important to her in life: meaningful interpersonal experiences (school learning was not a meaningful experience for Sondra). For her, yoga became more than just a fun experience; it created the presence that she could then link to experience and make the argument that without presence and awareness, living life is less meaningful. College is a time when many students are exploring who they are and how to give purpose and meaning to their lives as the passages from Sondra and Carlin illustrate. The use of yoga proved to be one method that helped to create a sense of connectivity to themselves that is the first layer of connectivity necessary for responsiveness/response-ability.

Students repeatedly emphasized that yoga was challenging not only because of the physical stress it puts on the body, but also because it was difficult to express to their peers outside of the class why they were doing yoga in a composition course. However, they also noticed early in the semester that it actually helped them feel more grounded and present in themselves for the more traditional intellectual activities of reading, writing, and discussing ideas. Thus, a second layer of connectivity was greater attachment to writing. Erin, who had taken it upon herself to practice sun salutations before writing outside of class, explained:

I feel like being a body…really helps you concentrate and focus on the next activity…just yesterday I went to work on the paper, like doing final revisions, and it was just so nice. I was able to get right into the paper more easily and…my mind was flowing already. At first I didn’t think it [yoga] would affect it that much but it was kind of cool…I’m usually not able to start [writing] this quickly. And that’s how it is in class too, you’re able to focus and start talking more quickly.

Much like Sondra did not initially connect yoga to a larger purpose beyond being fun, Erin also found that yoga served a greater function of metacognitive awareness and focus. In their respective arguments, Geraldine DeLuca and Christy Wenger both contend that yoga practices develop metacognitive skills such as thinking about thinking, awareness of writing as a process, and self-awareness. These metacognitive benefits, along with the sense of connectivity to self and learning, help shift the emphasis away from creating better texts and towards creating better writers—writers invested in the meaning-making process with a spirit of curiosity and openness.

The theme of greater presence and engagement as agents in their learning (as opposed to focusing on grades and fulfilling course requirements) as a result of opening class with yoga was echoed by several other students. Angela explained that the non-competitive embodiment in yoga had changed her relationship to her learning: “What we take [from this course] is not career lessons, it’s life lessons…like getting outside of your ego can make you more successful…and that you can actually be in charge of your own learning.” Referencing a TED talk by Sugata Mitra on self-organized learning we had listened to and discussed earlier in the semester, Rebecca commented, “We come here and we’re experiencing our own things and it’s like you are teaching us, but in a way you are allowing us to kind of teach ourselves what we are learning…instead of you saying this is what you have to learn.”

For other students, a larger purpose in education was solidified through the sense of presence and engagement that yoga provided. The third layer of connectivity I identify is in relation to their learning. Nolan, who was already an excellent writer and probably could have tested out of a First-Year Composition requirement, came to me with questions about a research project after he had completed Embodied Discourse. In the course of the conversation, he explained that the yoga had been challenging because he is not very physically active and much more comfortable residing in his mind. The daily yoga practice pushed him to feel more connected to his writing because he never knew the point of writing papers in school. The emphasis on ahimsa during yoga and not proving himself coupled with the first paper instructions to “make a contribution” to the conversation that we had entered over the course of the semester created an “ah-ha” moment for Nolan. “I never understood that part of writing papers,” he said. “It was all just finishing the assignment, but now I get it, I write to make a contribution. That was huge for me. How come nobody ever said that? Papers were just proving ourselves, not actually participating.” I never would have suspected this was so powerful for Nolan because he was already a very good writer, astutely analytical in class conversations, and seemingly uninhibited during yoga. His comment (and his enthusiasm) strike me as another instance of how enacting the union of body and mind can create a foundation of connectivity that can lead to a greater sense of ownership in learning and writing. Nolan ended our conversation telling me, “My writing is so much better because of that class. I’ve written a lot of papers in school, but the ones I wrote in your class I am most proud of.” Given his disposition, Nolan could have easily engaged the course material that explored the relationship between mind and body on a purely intellectual level. However, materially joining body and mind produced the conditions in which he was able to have that “ah-ha” moment that helped him connect to the larger purpose of education and learning to write: joining the conversation as an agent with voice and influence.

Student feedback and examples from their embodied discourse papers capture how yoga in the first fifteen minutes of class engaged the “being mode” of mind in such a way that it complemented the “doing mode” of mind: cultivating of awareness and presence created greater connection that enabled more meaningful engagement with the discussions and writing. Rather than simply going through the motions of “schooling,” they are agents who act, influencing their education as well as the education of their peers through the meaning-making process. It was not enough to raise cognitive awareness of their agency; material engagement with both modes of mind were necessary to genuinely uncover connectivity to themselves, their writing, and their learning in a manner that exceeded the competitive, goal-oriented, grade-oriented emphasis that had framed much of their previous education. As a caveat, I also want to mention it was not always easy to begin the class with yoga; there were days when students were just tired and didn’t want to move their bodies and I had to put forth more energy to motivate them, which had its own tax on me and sometimes caused me to question my approach. There were other days when I felt that we had so much to cover that perhaps we should just skip the embodied practice and get to the more cognitive aspects of the class. Had I allowed these things to override my original goal to be more than talking heads, I would have abandoned a pedagogy of enactment and thus not laid the groundwork for students to experience a sense of interconnectivity, which I believe is another kind of connection essential to responsible agency.

Interconnectivity: A Foundation for Recognition and the “Dance of Perturbation”

The second tier, interconnectivity, entails a sense of connection with elements outside themselves such as other students, course materials, larger philosophical and social questions, etc. In both semesters that I taught Embodied Discourse, students described themselves as more willing to take the risk of meaning making, digging deeper into ideas with curious and more spacious minds, and more open to being challenged and pushed by others. Todd, a relatively reserved participant, commented, “I’d never do yoga on my own, but stepping outside my box is easier because everyone else is doing it. And then in discussion it’s almost easier to go deeper with our own views because I feel more connected.” Of particular importance to the students was a combined sense of being individuals situated within a larger community (which they attributed not only to yoga but to my daily reminders to practice yoga with ahimsa).They experienced not only a sense of greater attachment to themselves and their learning through minding the body, but also a greater sense of interconnection to others.[15] Lisa explained, “Yes, we get freedom from traditional education, from desks…and it gives us the idea that we are one mind and one body, we are in one boat together.” Drawing on a piece by Paulo Freire, Erin opined, “We all read the information differently and we come to discuss it and while we come to some of the same claims we have our own personal experiences and opinions tied to it…it’s what Freire teaches, we need to come together to find truths but also maintain our own personal truths.”

Connectivity to themselves as individual learners and interconnectivity to the group are the foundation for engagement in genuine meaning making as well as a sense of responsibility to a larger collective. Perhaps most powerfully, Anna, who was generally very quiet, explained:

In this class I don’t just feel like a student, I feel like a person that’s actually got worth, almost…like what I say towards the class is meaningful and I also feel like yoga helps with that because it’s not like we go to class, you sit, you take your notes. You get to go and do some yoga, relax, and get into the conversation. And we get to sit on the floor. I love that. I love sitting on the floor.

Although there is a bit of a hedge with the use of “almost,” Anna captured some of my own impressions of how being bodies and minds together disrupted our habitual (and often static) modes of being disembodied minds in the classroom. Yoking the being and doing modes of mind allowed students to feel not only more like agents in their learning, but also co-agents in their education.

As Cooper points out in her theory of agency, our minds are meaning-making organs, not information processing organs. Much like others have argued (Kroll; DeLuca; Fishman et al.), we need to provide students with more multimodal opportunities so that they are not just “thinking” together—they are also experiencing a sense of being together that can create the interconnectivity necessary to “recognize…concrete others with their own spaces of meaning” (Cooper 443). My students’ excitement about practicing yoga and sitting on the floor instead of at desks might not seem to evoke the kind of seriousness in understanding rhetorical agency that Cooper explicates, but I firmly believe that engaging students’ bodies can open avenues for precisely the kind of responsibility she calls us to foster in our classrooms because it enacts the connectivity necessary for recognizing the individual within the collective. In yoga, we each did our own practice as was right for us and yet we also did it together. We refused the disconnected approach learning. This yoking created the connection for greater risk in the more traditional classroom activities like discussion, offering genuine feedback and critique of peer writing, etc.

Interconnectivity was illustrated most explicitly in a workshop I conducted when students were struggling with thesis statements in their first formal paper. Mid-semester, I gave students their first formal assignment: synthesize relevant ideas presented thus far in order to identify a problem and make a contribution to the conversation in the form of a deliberative argument. Students had a great deal of difficulty offering more complex and nuanced thesis statements that met the expectations of a deliberative argument. Our discussions had been engaged and thoughtful, but when it came time to write a formal paper, their thesis statements were typical of flat, disengaged product-oriented school writing. With such a small class, I decided to slow down the writing process and workshop each person’s thesis using the “smart” technology. The author stood at the front of the room behind the computer while projecting his or her thesis statement on the screen. Scattered about the floor on their multi-colored yoga mats in various degrees of recline, the rest of the class read and responded to the thesis statement with questions and suggestions while the author responded and typed revisions so that the class could see the development of the thesis.[16] With little hesitation, students began asking questions for clarification about the author’s primary claims, genuinely challenging the author to think about the impact of those claims on potential readers. They also offered suggestions to make connections to texts we had read (or re-consider their interpretations of those texts) as well as suggestions about how to re-word or organize the thesis statement. Although each author clearly was unnerved when she or he first stood at the front of the class with a thesis to be critiqued, as the workshop progressed (it took two weeks to workshop everyone’s thesis statement) the momentum of the collective effort eased some of the tension, particularly as we could all see their arguments becoming more fine-tuned and both true to what the author was genuinely invested in arguing and responsive to the disparate ideas shared by individual class members.[17]

I share this particular workshop because it was no “desultory,” “half-hearted” discussion, as Fishman et al. point out so often happens as a result of disembodiment in our composition classrooms (244). The conversation around each student’s thesis statement was focused, deeply engaged, and had moments of edginess wherein each participant was forced to think more expansively and flexibly through the process of being challenged. In many respects their negotiation of making meaning and asserting claims reflects the circular “dance of perturbation” through which Cooper’s model of agency arises (421). Although I had a sense that this was a particularly successful workshop prior to student feedback, I had no idea just how powerful it was for students, not only as an opportunity to strengthen their papers, but as an opportunity to genuinely think about meaning making as a complex process influenced by the interactions between the individual and the collective. Several students drew a parallel between the yoga practice (being a collective of individual bodies) and the thesis workshop. Anna explained that she had always struggled with making interesting thesis statements, but the workshop was an example of “being in one boat together” because “I felt like I had a voice with this larger whole and doing yoga helped with that because I had my own ideas but people pushed me to think about other things and I still got to have my ideas but then there were these other ideas and it made mine more interesting.” Todd shared, “The hard part of the major paper was really going deep, the workshop pushed me and made my paper deeper.” Responding flexibly and openly to their peers’ challenges and suggestions, they were able to maintain their sense of individual agency in the meaning-making process even as they were open to modifying their viewpoints based on interconnectivity to the larger collective of their classmates and the larger conversation (framed by the texts we read and discussed). Student comments during the focus group interview about the thesis workshop as well as my own interpretations point to how material enactment of embodiment in the classroom helped them feel more connected and interconnected such that they had greater awareness that concrete others have their own spaces of meaning. Cooper describes the dance of perturbation of rhetorical responsibility:

Respect for listeners’ opinions, being open even to “unreasonable” opinions, to “troublemakers,” means being open to them as responsive beings who, like the speaker, will understand or assimilate meanings in their own way. It means recognizing both speakers and listeners as agents in persuasion, as people who are free to change their minds. It is this recognition that I argue defines responsible rhetorical agency. (441)

As a final example of how connectivity and interconnectivity are a necessary foundation for responsible rhetorical agency, I offer a passage from Nolan’s final paper exploring embodied discourse. Drawing on Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Nolan connects language to agency:

Renowned novelist, professor and political commentator Toni Morrison once described the capacity of language as agency, not in the sense of measuring a human capacity, but rather in the sense of language itself being an agent: alive, volatile, being able to act of its own volition and fully capable of producing consequences, as any proper agent should.

He continues, linking agency to both the individual body/mind and collective social body:

If the student’s body is an expression of the student’s mind; if the student is the embodiment of the discourse of the mind, and our conscious minds express themselves through the independent agency of language, we must be the embodiment of our own capacities for language. Our minds, bodies, and, therefore, our identities, formulate and define our interactions with not only one another, but all in the world around, through our embodiment of language, which has its own agency and capacity for consequences, as previously described. Meaning, the definitions we use to describe the world around us are composed of the linguistic manifestations of the enactment of our personal will, which is, in turn, the outward projection of our conscious minds, of the embodiment of our capacity for language. Our language, our action, carries forth consequences of their own machinations, completely outside of the control of the individual they originated from. Furthermore, the individual consciousness does not operate within a vacuum, which means that the consequences that follow our embodied language affect not only the personal human body of their originator, but the collective “Human Body” of all of society.

In the remainder of his paper, Nolan reflects on the ethics of language use, urging readers “to understand ourselves in such a way as to leave the world a better place than we entered it…through our uniquely human capacity for language.” As mentioned above, Nolan was an exceptional student and an already well-read intellectual and analytical writer. In his paper, I read a level of connectivity to self and language and interconnectivity to others through language that I find rare. While I would not hold this out as an illustration of responsible rhetorical agency because he is theorizing agency and language, I am struck by how his discussion of embodied writing parallels key elements of Cooper’s theory: student writing makes them who they are and their rhetorical actions have influence in the “dance of perturbation” such that they can contribute to the larger collective of humans and should do so in a manner that is rhetorically responsible.

Cultivating What We Honor

In this paper I have attempted to extend Cooper’s theory by advocating a pedagogy of enactment in which material engagement of bodies and minds activates the being and doing modes of mind to create the conditions of connectivity necessary for rhetorical responsibility. Where disconnection flourishes, our sense of responsibility diminishes. To be responsible entails responsiveness, openness, accountability, a degree of flexibility and above all, a sense of connectivity. The yoking of mind and body that I sought early in my own education and now later in my career as a professor is both exhilarating and terrifying. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the latter. I was completely invested in the idea of joining minds and bodies in the classroom when it was an idea, an abstraction. However, both semesters that I taught Embodied Discourse, when it came down to actually being a body with my students, I literally broke out in a cold sweat. Over time I grew more comfortable in being a body with my students, but it always carried an edginess to it that I attribute to vulnerability.[18]

The risk of vulnerability is the heart of a pedagogy of enactment because it requires that we genuinely bring to the classroom all that motivates our desire to teach. In a word, it requires integrity. A pedagogy of enactment will be different for each one of us because it demands that we individually determine what defines our integrity and make that central in our classrooms. We cultivate that which we honor in our classrooms; when we honor our integrity through enactment, our professional lives can be infused with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning.

Notes

  1. When bodies do appear in our scholarship about writing pedagogy they tend to be focused on our embodied experiences as educators (Banks; Freedman and Holmes; Hindman; Kirsch; Moss; Royster) or on embodiment in texts (Alexander; Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson; Fleckenstein). We give some attention to the fact that students are situated within particular kinds of bodies whose lived experiences affect their literacy practices, as Jenn Fishman, Andrea Lunsford, Beth McGregor, and Mark Otuteye do in “Performing Writing, Performing Literacy” when they argue that multi-modal performance in the class can “bring purposeful talk back to the center of the classroom” (244). However, we do little to bring the art of embodiment to the center of pedagogical practices.
  2. The students in these classes were relatively homogenous. They were primarily white Minnesotans who had fairly privileged academic backgrounds that had “tracked” them in college-preparatory classes in high school, which then led to their admittance to the Honors program. These students had experienced their bodies as relatively “unmarked” (in terms of race, class, gender-identification, and size) up until this course. Had the course been more heterogeneous, our conversations about the relationship between bodies and mind and bodies and learning would have shifted dramatically.
  3. Each semester I gave students the choice of returning to the chairs and desks after we finished the yoga practice as well as the option of choosing not to do the yoga practice if they didn’t feel up to it on any particular day. I also assured them that we could abandon the yoga if it became problematic or a hindrance to their learning.
  4. I received similar sideways glances from colleagues who often saw me walking to class with yoga mat in one hand and notebook in the other, which is part of what evoked that nagging question, “What does yoga have to do with writing?” Although unnerving to feel that I was operating under a cloud of doubt from both students and colleagues, it created an edginess that regularly renewed my commitment to enacting my belief that bodies and minds needed to be joined in the classroom. Interestingly, one of my colleagues approached me mid-semester and asked what I was doing in the class because he taught across the hall and regularly saw students arriving with their mats. He said, “They are always so excited and talkative; it’s exactly the kind of thing we dream of.”
  5. I purchased the yoga mats the first semester and students stored them in my office; the second semester I asked students to buy their own mats and bring them each day. Interestingly, the second time I taught “Embodied Discourse” students were often stopped on their walk across campus with inquiries about where they were doing yoga and how they might be able to get in the class. Whereas students the first semester wanted to store their mats in my office because it was “uncool” to carry a yoga mat on campus, the second semester students eventually became quite prideful in carrying their mats because of the positive feedback they received from other students.
  6. Wenger offers an extensive discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of yoga, particularly as it relates to a feminist pedagogy.
  7. All of the poses and movements we practiced were basic. I also always showed students how to modify poses to work with their particular limitations (knee-injuries, for example).
  8. DeLuca and Wenger echo this in their respective articles. DeLuca argues that presence in mind/body offers both a material and metaphorical reminder for writing instructors to return writing to a meaning-making process based in meta-cognitive awareness that cannot be reduced to a set of skills or formulas. Wenger argues that the use of pranayama (a form of focused, regulated breathing often practice in yoga) enables students to approach writing with greater physical ease, develops their meta-cognitive awareness of the writing process, and makes them more conscious of the ways bodies affect meaning making.
  9. I did not explicitly connect yoga philosophy or practices to writing, as Barry Kroll does in his use of aikido to teach particular rhetorical moves in deliberative writing. As mentioned above, I approached “Embodied Discourse” with a spirit of the ineffable. Rather than pre-defined objectives, I incorporated yoga into our daily routine simply as a means for getting curious about what might arise from enacting union of minds and bodies in the context of learning about writing. This open and curious approach also parallels a basic tenet of yoga. Although based in a set of guidelines, yoga is not designed to change people (make us stronger, more flexible); it is designed to allow a natural state of integration to emerge in us.
  10. Gesa Kirsch writes of a similar surrender to the unknown in her essay that explores how to create spaces of nurturance in the classroom where students are encouraged to bring their whole selves to the learning process (mind, body, heart). She describes it as a “risk of being vulnerable” (2) and encourages more experimental and experiential teaching and learning (8). However, where Kirsch emphasizes assignments that encourage reflective realization in her essay, I focus on how practices of embodiment through yoga can create the conditions for a sense of responsible rhetorical agency.
  11. Periodically throughout the semester when students were working with one another, I circulated around the room and asked them to flip through their journal to show me that they had completed the required “meaning-making writes” up to that point, thus they were still subject to a some form of the “gaze,” but I did not read their writing. Writing six pages, front and back, was the bulk of work assigned outside of class and I needed some way to keep them accountable. Additionally, I wanted them to take seriously the habit and discipline of using writing as a form of intellectual processing, so there was no partial credit for short or missed entries. I also wanted to remove some of the worry about grades and the ways in which students get caught up in writing as performance for what they believe the teacher wants them to write about, so I graded the journals as pass/fail—if they did of all the entries they received an A for this portion of their final grade.There were students who struggled at the beginning of the semester to completely fill three sheets of paper front and back because they didn’t have a familiarity with observing their minds in writing. I was able to work with these students through email exchanges, prompting them with questions and concepts they might explore from our course texts. Ultimately, I had to back off of the pass/fail approach a bit and I gave students one freebie week, which would drop their grade to a B instead of an A.
  12. The learning to write assignments were two deliberative arguments (spaced at the mid-term and the final) in which they synthesized material from course texts and conversations, proposed claims to identify a problem or set of problems, and offered conclusions about those problems. Other learning to write activities included fairly standard generative maps, flow charts, tree-maps, thesis statements, reverse outlines, and peer responses that all led up to the formal papers.
  13. Although often overlooked, Michel Foucault also articulated the space of impermanence and fluidity rather than stability as a place of hope in power relations whereby resistance to domination is possible through insubordination: “Every power relationship implies, at least in potentia, a strategy of struggle, in which the two forces are not superimposed, do not lose their specific nature, or do not finally become confused. Each constitutes for the other a kind of permanent limit, a point of possible reversal. A relationship of confrontation reaches its term, its final moment…when stable mechanisms replace the free play of antagonist reactions…It would not be possible for power relations to exist without points of insubordination which, by definition, are means of escape” (225).
  14. All students gave written consent to use their feedback and their writing. All names are pseudonyms. I conducted the focus group interview midway through the first semester I taught “Embodied Discourse” and the conversation was framed around the question, “What has it been like to be bodies and minds together in the classroom?”
  15. Interestingly, it was the fact that they didn’t know each other at the start that set the backdrop for their sense of greater connection as a collective, which Steve explained, “helped us take the risk of embarrassment together.”
  16. Most interesting to me about this particular workshop prior to the focus group interview was what the students did with their bodies. Normally in a peer workshop students’ bodies are huddled around a desk with their bodies closing in on either printed copies on their papers or laptops. In this particular workshop some were seated with notebooks in front of them, some were lying on their sides or their backs focused on the screen, and a few were leaning against the wall. Throughout the workshop they moved about freely, adjusting their positions or their vantage point in relation to the screen. Thecombination of their open, relaxed bodies and their engaged minds struck me as a wonderful visual representation of some of thephilosophical underpinnings of yoga practice I emphasized daily: flexibility and strength in the body opens avenues for greater flexibility and strength in being more present and open to the fluid nature of being in the world in connection to, and responsible to, others.
  17. By in large, I stayed out of the conversation. This was also a bit unnerving because there were times when it felt like chaos. Sometimes different members would push the author in different directions, but with small gestures on my part guiding them back to the author’s stated interests, they were able to stay relatively focused on the author’s primary standpoint.
  18. Gesa Kirsch also argues that teaching as whole beings (mind, body, spirit) involves the risk of vulnerability, but is far more professionally rewarding than teaching as partial beings.

 

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