“The Art of Attention and a Hope Education”: A Faculty Feature from Alex Mouw (’14)

Alex Mouw (’14)

During the spring of 2014, I’d walk into the south entrance of Lubbers Hall and pass the oil painting of President and Mrs. Lubbers playing a diligent game of chess. I’d round the corner onto the stairs and proceed to the second floor where a cross listed English and philosophy course on Existentialism met each Tuesday and Thursday.

It was this class that introduced me to the 20th century mystic Simone Weil, and one line of hers has remained in my memory ever since: “prayer consists of attention.” Weil wrote this as a defense of “school studies” broadly conceived. According to her, all subjects become inherently prayerful when given sincere attention, whether geometric problems, Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry, or the history of the French Revolution. As a liberal arts student, I took this line as a mantra to remind myself that everything I was learning had inherent value.

Yet attention isn’t about wrinkling your brow in dogged frustration at an impossible homework assignment; instead, it’s about de-cluttering the mind, turning off the email notifications, making sure you are alone with a good novel, then letting that text soak its way into your consciousness. If this sounds fuzzy, I’ll remind you that Weil was a mystic.

What’s so special about a Hope education, and the English major in particular, is that it fosters two kinds of attention. The first we associate with that all-important skill: critical thinking. English majors are good workers in a variety of environments because they know how to pay attention, closely read whatever problem is at hand and find a solution. From English 113 to Literary Theory, English majors are trained in the art of paying attention. As previous alumni blog posts can attest (check out what Sara and Kian have to say), this training yields a more fruitful personal and professional life.

The second form is unique to a small institution like Hope: professors give their students the gift of close, sustained attention. Our student-professor ratio is 11:1, which is top-notch. But what does such a statistic mean in practice? When I was an English major, I could (and did) knock on any door on the third floor of Lubbers Hall with essay, application, or poem in hand, knowing that I’d receive wise and measured counsel. Never did I feel that I, the student, was pulling professors away from their “real work.” Instead, our work was a shared enterprise in earnest human inquiry. That gift has served me well professionally, but more importantly, it has made me a more attentive person. Now, as a faculty member, I try to carry on the tradition and offer all my students the same care that I was given.

As I planned an Introduction to Creative Writing course for this semester, I read a book by Donald Revell about how to write poetry. I figured I could pick up some new teaching ideas to guide students through a poetry unit. To my utter astonishment and joy, I got something much grander. In the opening paragraphs of The Art of Attention, Revell writes: “poetry is a form of attention.” What a marvelous gift of the liberal arts education (which doesn’t really end, even after graduation), to see Simone Weil and Donald Revell collaborate across nearly a century! I took his idea to heart as I planned the course. Since then, the students in my creative writing class have gained hours of experience attending to the world around them, harnessing that energy into strong writing, and then offering one another thoughtful feedback.

My experience with these two authors was facilitated by a Hope education, and it is emblematic of what the liberal arts can provide: Weil’s essay had been assigned to me, but years later I sought out Revell’s book for my own purposes and made an utterly unexpected connection. That connection, in turn, helped fuel my attention to others─in this case, English 253 students. This circular pattern of learning and sharing never needs to end, and it can get a jump start in the Hope English department.

I’m writing this at the end of the semester, and all the faculty members are positively giddy over the accomplishments of our students. So, a hearty congratulations to all those award winners who were honored at the department awards ceremony on April 17; to those participating in Honors Convocation on April 26; to those attending the Senior Dinner on May 3; and to those graduating on May 6. To all our students: we are proud of the diligent attention you gave to your studies this year, and we are eager to see where your learning carries you during and beyond your Hope career. You are always welcome in Lubbers Hall!

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1 Comment

  1. Nicely written, Alex! I’m proud of you and, of course, taking just a little bit of credit for your success! (: Would love to sit in on one of your classes sometime.

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