The Temporal Belongings project has now been running for three and a half years and I've been involved in organising eight events for the project (often co-organising with amazing colleagues) that have hosted over 200 participants. Throughout we've been experimenting with doing conferences differently. Borrowing ideas from unconferencing and the like we've tried to shift the focus from passive listening to active exploration. So, inspired by Pat Thompson's post on flipping the conference, it seemed about time to reflect on how the initial thinking behind the approach developed.
So first things first, what's wrong with the usual way of doing things? Well....Take a standard workshop. Bring a carefully selected group of interesting people together in one place (often paying for international flights for at least a few of them) and then make sure that they can barely ever speak to each other. Keep tea breaks to 15 minutes, lunch breaks to 30 minutes, run over time constantly so that these breaks get even shorter. Allow presenters to run over time so that the 5-10 minutes allotted for questions also gets squeezed. Apologise to attendees and say ‘well we’ve only got time for one quick question’ and then interrupt the speaker halfway through to say ‘sorry but we really must go to our break now.’ Pay no attention to the levels of energy in a room, the lull after lunch, the fidgeting after sitting too long, but just plough on with the programme with the same two hour blocks, five papers per session, as if listeners were not embodied human beings. Spends weeks, or months, devising your workshop theme, applying for funding, sending out the call and then make sure there is absolutely no time in the programme for participants to synthesise anything they’ve heard or to develop any kind of shared (even if partial and fractured) response to the vital question you’ve proposed. Act as if all the research, from multiple disciplines, which question the idea of the self-contained rational self somehow doesn’t apply within academic meetings. Sit people in rows, facing a single speaker at the front. Direct questions to the speaker only, expect them to have all the answers and recreate all the related hierarchies. Above all, make sure academics can only get funding to go to a meeting if they give a presentation to help ensure that nothing will ever change.
The first academic event I organised, with the lovely title “Responding to the Event: A postgraduate workshop on the ethical and political dimensions of Derrida's work,” was pretty much as described above. Like everyone else, I just thought that was how you did things. It actually wasn't until I became involved in Transition Towns that I even started to have an inkling that there was a whole world of other ways of doing things. In preparing to host an event, myself and other members of Transition Liverpool received facilitation training from Cliodhna Mulhern. We were introduced to World Café, Open Space Technology (OST) and range of other methods that worked with the energy of groups of people rather than trying to control it. For me the spirit of these approaches were nicely captured by Harrison Owen’s reasons for developing OST. He had noticed that during events, the time when people seemed most energetic, involved and interested was during the coffee breaks, and so he wondered how you might develop a structure that could allow the whole event to be more like the breaks. Rather than spending all your time ‘herding cats’ – getting people to quieten down, coaxing them to get back to the sessions at the right time, policing the single question rule so others can have a turn, entreating people to eat and drink quickly so the breaks don’t overrun – his method allows meeting organisers to just get out of the way and let people have the conversations that they need to have.
After seeing how well these approaches worked in our Transition Liverpool event, I wanted to transpose them to the academic context. So when I applied for my first Connected Communities project I was determined to use it as an opportunity to connect academia with the methods I'd learned in my community work. With the programme’s focus on innovating methods of researching community and my own project’s focus on time, it seemed sensible to not keep our topic at a distance by integrate it into the experience of the workshop itself. That is, while talking about time and community why not also experiment with our own ways of being together in time.
The hybrid framework that we ended up with addressed three key issues:
Of course there are some drawbacks to consider. These events can get noisy, especially with 20-40 people talking in groups, sometimes in the same room. So people with hearing difficulties can find it uncomfortable, as well as others who find noise distracting. There are also always one or two people who miss having a Q&A session with the speaker and I’ve yet to develop a good answer to this. Perhaps most importantly, these methods don’t provide a foolproof formula. I’ve been to events that claim to be open space but are run without regard for the underlying ethos that inspired its development. These kinds of events can end up feeling too corporate (or too much like high school). Running one always requires a lot of careful planning. Facilitators need to consider shifts in energy, managing the flow from one activity to another, how to allow for the different stages that groups pass through and also not sticking too rigidly to a plan that isn’t working out in practice. All this suggests a better recognition of the distinct skills and experience needed for facilitation and particularly the worth of paying for this expertise if need be. Even so, seeing groups of people linger after an event, sharing contact details, not quite ready to break the new connections they’ve developed or having people tell me that they didn’t know an academic event could be this interesting, fun, and enlightening make it all worth it.