Blending mindfulness and other Buddhist practices with four Jane Austen books might sound like an unusual pairing. But Dr. Kathryn Duncan and her students have made a unique class out of this marriage at Saint Leo University this fall.
Duncan, a longtime English professor at Saint Leo, first taught a similar class in the spring of 2016. The idea for the current course came from a book she is on the brink of publishing.
"The timing of this class happens to be perfect because the students are benefiting from these mindfulness activities," Duncan explains.
Duncan can empathize with students and the various stressors they deal with, especially in the midst of a pandemic.
"Students are constantly being evaluated," she says. "That's a big root of social anxiety. Through Saint Leo's core value of personal development, students in this class can take this skill set with them and use it for the rest of their lives to help manage their emotions."
Duncan's Path to a More Mindful Life
According to Duncan, several challenging experiences in her personal life were what ultimately led her toward strengthening her emotions through Buddhist practices.
"My dad gave me a book called Everyday Zen, and reading it was a very eye-opening experience," she recalls. "I started to do yoga and swimming to help me handle my anxiety."
She admits she came to a point where she could no longer read for pleasure because she struggled to connect with the characters in books due to her own anxious mind. But she kept reading Jane Austen's Persuasion over and over again. She later took a quiz on Buzzfeed on which Austen character personified her most.
"I expected to get Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, but I got Ann Elliot, the heroine of Persuasion. Anne really suffers throughout her life, but she has learned the art of suffering and finds a way to manage it."
What is Mindfulness? Learning & Engaging in Mindfulness Activities
A main goal of Duncan's course is to show students the importance of thinking for themselves and being in control of any situation.
"The key concept with Buddhism is thinking for yourself by being mindful," Duncan explains. "Science backs up a lot of the Buddhist practices. Meditation has been shown to change our brains in positive ways as parts of the brain become stronger at handling emotion."
In terms of assignments, the students must engage in regular mindfulness activities and then write a reflection each week on these experiences. The students have done everything from traditional meditation to coloring to yoga to listening to music mindfully.
"Interestingly, research shows that coloring mindfully actually has similar benefits to traditional meditation," Duncan says.
They even had one class session on yoga and another on qigong, a Chinese practice of physical body movements and breathing exercises.
"The commonality among the responses have been how weird it is to do some of these activities at a slow pace," Duncan says. "We have such a fast-paced culture, but this class involves pushing the pause button. Sometimes I will ring a bell during class and we stop doing everything and breathe three times to get back into the present moment. The students have been shocked at how important just breathing is."
Selecting the Four Jane Austen Novels for the Class
The class is covering four Austen books – Emma, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion.Duncan explains how she chose the four books and structured the course based on them.
"Austen wrote six major novels, but that is just too many to cover in a semester. I chose four so we could go at a reasonable pace. We started with Emma because she is the cause of her own suffering. Then we moved on to Northanger Abbey because Catherine is a little more complex as a character. For this one, we studied consumption, and I had the students write down everything they consumed in a given day, anything from watching TV to social media to purchases. We are finishing with Mansfield Park and Persuasion because those stories present more enlightened characters."
Other Class Assignments
In addition to the mindfulness assignments, another project was to design a storyboard or chapbook using a narrative from some aspect of the course.
"The chapbook was very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries," she says. "People would buy these short books that were shrunk down to 10 or 20 pages from longer novels because they couldn't afford the books."
For a creative project, students could write poems or draw pictures based on their readings. A more formal research paper is requiring the students to read literary criticism of Austen's books but formulate their own arguments based on what others have already written about the author's works.
Connecting Jane Austen's Works to Modern-Day Struggles
Duncan describes Austen as quite a unique author of her time.
"While she really didn't know much about Buddhism, she clearly understood suffering and how Buddhism understands and manages suffering," she says. "If you look under the surface of what she wrote, there is a lot of suffering. We can still relate to this concept today because the sources of suffering are daily challenges we all face more so than the major disrupters of our lives. That's why we're reading these novels centuries later."
She has enjoyed seeing how the students have connected the Austen works to present-day society.
"I've been impressed with how they've made connections to contemporary issues. For example, in Emma, Mr. Knightley is the main male character. One student was calling him out on his privilege and connecting this to the Black Lives Matter movement in terms of societal perceptions. They've also tied some of the female characters to Mean Girls."
In addition, she points to the concept of 'bibliotherapy' and how Austen's novels can actually help people through relatability.
"Librarians and even mental health professionals will provide a reading list to someone going through an emotional crisis. When we read, we can recognize we're not alone in our life struggles and can connect with characters who have gone through what we're going through. In fact, MRI scans have shown that when people read a book about characters and their struggles, their brains light up as if they are actually experiencing what a character in a story is going through."
Saint Leo Student Perspectives on the Jane Austen/Mindfulness Class
Jenna Skrelunas, a 21-year-old senior in the course, is majoring in English with a professional writing track and also has a minor in multimedia management. She came from Tarpon Springs, FL and says seeing the campus wooed her to the university in a pinch.
"I wanted to attend a private school," she says. "I loved the location of University Campus because it's not too far from home. After taking a campus tour, I fell in love with the people in the community and the campus as a whole."
She says she has been pleasantly surprised by what she has learned in the Jane Austen class."I didn't think I'd enjoy it as much as I have. I really like how Dr. Duncan has incorporated the Buddhist practices and how she has tied it into the Austen books."
For her mindfulness activities, she has done everything from painting to just sitting quietly by the lake.
"I'm trying to focus on my mental space and am really thinking about whatever activity it is that I'm doing."
This isn't her first class with Dr. Duncan and adds that she is the perfect instructor for this type of curriculum.
"She is very compassionate and has such a soothing voice. She also has kind of a motherly personality which I think we all appreciate."
She says the mindfulness activities have been a huge help in her daily life.
"I feel like my senior year has caused me stress in so many areas," she confides. "I am looking for jobs, trying to find an apartment, need a new car, and of course the schoolwork in my classes. This class has helped me focus so much on my schoolwork. Because of the pandemic, I admit I've gone through depression and loneliness because I'm normally such a social person. Fortunately, the mindfulness activities I've learned in this class have helped me get through all of this so much."
Haley Robinson, who is majoring in both criminal justice and English, says she has thoroughly enjoyed this mindfulness course as well.
"I've enjoyed the integration of the mindfulness reflections into the course. It gives me the opportunity to reflect on my week and get introspective."
Her favorite book in the course so far has been Northanger Abbey.
"The characters in this book are all very real and gritty," she says. "I like the fact that the topic of consumption is brought up and it intersects with modern society and Buddhism."
For her mindfulness activities, Robinson has done gratitude journaling, Zentangle Method of drawing, meditation, and yoga.
She has loved having Dr. Duncan as her professor.
"Dr. Duncan is enthusiastic and really loves what she does. I appreciate how she lets us explore topics with our own lenses."
LEARN MORE: Duncan also runs a mindfulness blog at www.mindfulduncan.com.