August 26, 2009

Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer speaks to HES faculty, staff and students.
Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer speaks to HES faculty, staff and students.
Ellen Langer, an internationally renowned psychology professor at Harvard University, recently talked with faculty, staff and graduate students in the University of Kentucky School of Human Environmental Sciences about mindfulness and how it can enhance their careers, teaching skills and personal life.

Mindfulness, which Langer has studied for more than 30 years, is the simple process of noticing new things. This kind of noticing makes people aware of uncertainty, keeps them in the present, sensitive to others' perspectives, actively engaged in learning and helps them enjoy the moment. In contrast, mindless individuals respond to others and make decisions based on past experiences without updating them.

"If we're mindless, what we're doing is what we've done before, even if it no longer makes sense," she said. "To be rewarded in big ways, you have to in some way engage in a paradigm shift, even if it's a small one. And if you're not there to notice, you won't be able to do this."

Mindfulness is applicable for everyone, no matter one's profession. In the daylong workshop, Langer discussed with the group a variety of topics including pursuing research that is meaningful and interesting to the researcher, ways to enhance the classroom experience and quality family time.

"One of the things our faculty prides themselves on is that they are strong teachers," said Ann Vail, director of the School of Human Environmental Sciences. "So we wanted to do something to reward the strong teaching in the school but to also give faculty and our graduate students something to think about that could impact and enhance their teaching."

Langer said it is easy for individuals to become more mindful.

"The way to make the switch is to recognize how pervasive our mindlessness is as a function of our thinking we know. Once you recognize that you don't know, you more naturally put yourself in a position to find out," she said.

Ronald-Werner Wilson, chair of the Department of Family Studies, said much of Langer's presentation could help UK faculty enhance their students' educational experience and prepare them for life after college.

"Employers tell us what they need are critical thinkers," he said. "They need college graduates who come into the profession and are able to do jobs that may not even exist right now."

After the workshop, Vail planned to discuss with faculty different avenues in which they could pursue mindfulness in research and the classroom.

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