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U. approves new concentration in contemplative studies

Program will combine science and humanities courses to explore human contemplative experience

The College Curriculum Council approved contemplative studies as Brown’s newest concentration at its meeting last week.

The concentration will become the University’s 79th field of study, excluding independent concentrations.

Contemplative studies will be among the first college majors of its kind in North America.

“It’s not just a new concentration,” said Harold Roth P’17, professor of religious studies and director of the Contemplative Studies Initiative, who has spearheaded the effort to make contemplative studies a regular concentration. “We’re really attempting to build a whole new academic field.”

The concentration “looks at how we think about the world and how we think about thinking,” said Chloe Zimmerman ’15, an independent concentrator in contemplative studies.

The field addresses the “underlying philosophy, psychology and phenomenology of contemplative experience, across time, cultures and traditions,” according to the Contemplative Studies Initiative’s website.

The concentration will comprise two tracks, one focused on humanities and another on sciences, Roth said. Both tracks require varying courses in neuroscience, cognitive science, philosophy and religion.

Originally included was a third track focusing on the arts, but “in the end, we were unable to include the arts track” when pitching the concentration to the CCC, Roth said. Students will still be able to pursue this area of contemplative studies through additional coursework, an independent concentration or a double concentration, he added.

A 2005 graduate created the first independent concentration in contemplative studies, and a total of 16 students have since pursued independent concentrations in the subject, he added.

One proposal to make the concentration official failed to gain approval from the CCC a few years ago, wrote Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services and acting dean of the College, in an email to The Herald.

The recently approved proposal included a stronger spread of courses and more faculty involvement, she wrote, adding that the field of contemplative studies has grown since the initial proposal was rejected.

Increased student and faculty interest also contributed to the CCC’s decision to approve the new concentration, as evidenced by the high number of independent concentrators as well as teaching and advising positions that have grown from contemplative studies over the past few years, Klawunn wrote.

With the University’s increasing investment in neuroscience and a larger number of scientists at Brown looking into contemplative studies in recent years, the field’s popularity has grown, said Monica Linden, lecturer in neuroscience.

Affiliated faculty members pushed to make the concentration official so “we don’t have to reinvent the wheel” each time another student wishes to concentrate in the field, she added.

Zimmerman said contemplative studies can be much more accessible now that the concentration is official. Students will no longer be discouraged by the daunting amount of work needed to create an independent concentration, she said.

Contemplative studies incorporates an “integrated contemplative pedagogy,” which entails learning subjectively through the critical first-person perspective as well as the purely academic and objective third-person view, according to the initiative’s webpage.

Students can take a step back from analyzing empirical evidence and “subjectively engage with the material,” Roth said, referencing how some courses incorporate labs that analyze meditative practices, such as noticing breath on the tip of the nostrils, he said.

“This allows students to discuss how their experience relates to what they have studied, instead of uncritically accepting the truth of normative claims,” Roth said.

The concentration also encourages second-person work, through group projects and person-to-person communication, Roth said.

The integrated contemplative pedagogy lends insight to scientists’ attempts to understand contemplative traditions of religions, Linden said. Scientists can study why meditation reduces stress through both quantitative research and personal experience of meditating, she said.

Many students in the science track have gone on to medical school or graduate programs in psychology or neuroscience, while some students in the humanities track have gone to graduate school for education or to become academics, Roth said.

Contemplative studies proves especially useful in education fields, as concentrators can truly understand what others are experiencing, Zimmerman said.

Linden said some concentrators even choose to become monks after graduating. “There’s no real trend in what people have done.”

Roth said the benefits of concentrating in contemplative studies also lie outside the classroom, as the field stimulates both intellectual and personal growth. Students have reported that their attention spans improve significantly, and they can experience drops in anxiety and depression levels and feel more compassion for themselves and others, he said.


A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed information that the concentration would be the first of its kind in North America to Margaret Klawunn. The Herald regrets the error.


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