Short film explores game-changing CCS sociology course that helps students tap creative potential

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“Consciousness, Creativity and Identity”

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If you walked into Molly Beauregard’s classroom toward the end of each session, you’d find the room swathed in stillness and calm. You’d see every student sitting face forward, eyes closed, deep in silent meditation. The scene wouldn’t strike you as particularly unusual if this were a wellness room or a yoga class, but it’s not. It may well be, however, the first academic course of its kind at an American college.

For more than 15 years, Beauregard has taught sociology — mostly, and happily, at the College for Creative Studies. But a few years ago she noticed that her students weren’t showing much interest in the material. They seemed not only disengaged and preoccupied but also exhausted. It is a troubling commonplace in U.S. college classrooms.

“I can’t tell you exactly when it happened,” said Beauregard, “but I started to have this awareness that there was a struggle going on with my students, and I wondered why they didn’t seem to like sociology and why it wasn’t resonating. Semester to semester, it felt like it was getting worse. What’s going on here?”

This question formed the basis of what would become, in 2011, an innovative sociology course incorporating transcendental meditation.

Rooted in consciousness-based education models, the course, “Consciousness, Creativity and Identity,” helps students discover and explore their own creative potential by examining the impact of contemporary culture on individual identity development. How does society influence and define personal identity?

Beauregard, a longtime practitioner of transcendental meditation (TM), wanted to integrate the technique into a CCS course. For years, TM’s benefits were unknown to the general public and the practice was mistakenly assumed to be religious in nature. Steadily, however, scientific research has helped to illuminate the benefits of TM. Free of any belief system, transcendental meditation can help the mind-body system achieve a state of “restful alertness” that relieves stress, results in higher work efficiency, improves intelligence and cognitive performance, improves relationships and can even lower blood pressure.

“I put together what I thought was a really good syllabus, based on my favorite readings from sociology. I wanted to help students think about identity in a self-reflective way,” Beauregard explained.

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“Sociology has gotten very good at helping people define who they are. But all of those definitions, by their very nature, are narrow. We get tied to these definitions of ‘self’ and what we think they mean. I started to think, ‘how can I get students to think about identity with the available cultural literature and get a fuller sense of what our authentic self wants to be — not what the world tells us we should be but what we really feel we are.’”

So Beauregard created a course in which students could make an objective, scientific search for knowledge assisted by the subjective and experiential technique of meditation. Students examine theoretical debates in the field while reflecting on how these conversations help construct their individual selves.

“Money, of course, was the first huge hurtle,” said Beauregard, whose course required guest teachers to teach the meditation component, one student at a time, over the course of one weekend. “The second big hurtle was finding support on campus for a course like this, which would be unique.”

The late Imre Molnar, former CCS Provost, was an early champion of the course, as was former chair of Entertainment Arts, Scott Bogoniewski, and Valerie Weiss, current Director of Wellness and Counseling Services in the CCS Office of Student Affairs. The David Lynch Foundation and former CCS board member Julie Taubman provided financial support. Yet even after the first semester filled up — which usually enables a course to enter permanent rotation in the curriculum — Beauregard understood that she needed approval from the CCS curriculum committee, which she accomplished.

The payoff is evident. The demand for the course is such that Beauregard now teaches two sections of “Consciousness, Creativity and Identity.” More than 400 students over eight semesters have completed the course, and in Winter 2016, the students practice Primordial Sound Meditation, another mantra-based meditation technique rooted in Vedic tradition.

The landscape around meditation has changed since Beauregard started teaching the course. She has been invited to speak about her work at other colleges and conferences. CCS took a risk that only now is catching on at campuses across the country.

 

“Tuning the Student Mind”

Another early advocate of Beauregard’s course was her former student, alumna Chelsea Richer (’11, Entertainment Arts), who took up meditation while at CCS and did her senior thesis film on meditation programs.

“Meditation served as a turning point in my life,” said Richer. “It was the start of greater confidence and a much improved experience for the remainder of college. Before long I found myself fighting for more students to receive a fair introduction to meditation.”

Indeed, Richer’s interest in meditation and consciousness education continued to expand after leaving CCS. She and Beauregard maintained a blog about such topics for a short time until Beauregard had a fortuitous chance encounter with Una Jackman, a well-known local documentary film producer, who believed there just might be a movie in her story.

Jackman donated $5,000 toward a film and invited them to Telluride, Colorado, a place whose name is synonymous with a number of film festivals.

At first, Beauregard and Richer wanted to do a film about meditation programs in colleges around the country. But those programs are typically housed within wellness programs, not as an integral part of an academic course. After much research, Beauregard couldn’t, in fact, find similar examples of the CCS course at other institutions.

“I still wanted to help students gain access to what I was able to experience,” Richer explained. “So I turned to the medium I studied and liked best: documentary film. By pointing my camera on my former sociology professor Molly Beauregard and her students, I felt like I could continue the fight to destigmatize meditation and consciousness studies in the classroom.”

One three-minute trailer, which the pair showed at Telluride, a Kickstarter campaign and many long hours later, the short film documenting the CCS course, “Tuning the Student Mind” (2015, 31 min), directed by Richer, was picked up in 2013 by Creative Visions and premiered at the 2015 Detroit FREEP Film Festival.

In April 2016, the film aired on the Detroit PBS affiliate and was named a finalist for Creative Vision’s Social Impact Media Award (SIMA), which celebrates social-documentary storytelling.

Beauregard is completing a school discussion guide for the film, which is now a permanent part of the SIMA Collection, and can be downloaded for a nominal fee for viewing in high schools.

 

For more information on the CCS course and film, visit tuningthestudentmind.com.
To watch “Tuning the Student Mind,” visit vimeo.com/ondemand/tuningthestudentmind/.
For access to the SIMA Collection for downloading, visit simacollection.com.
For information on the benefits of meditation, visit the Mayo Clinic at mayocl.in/1tf78WK.