March 9, 2011 Leave a comment
This post provides an enriching variant of the discussion format used in James Scott’s Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University. (I have heard that the format was borrowed from a feminist discussion group, but I have not tracked down the source.) For the Agrarian Studies Program’s weekly seminars a paper has been precirculated and a primary discussant leads off with a prepared 10 minute response. Participants other than the author then take turns to comment on the paper or follow up on comments others make. Only after the first hour has passed is the author permitted to speak. At that point it’s scarcely possible for the author to respond by addressing each comment from the previous hour. Instead, typically, the author makes a semi-organized, extended contribution to the discussion, which then continues for a second hour with them as a participant.
Some years ago, at the annual New England Workshop on Science and Social Change, we initiated a variation on the Scott-feminist response format. Again a paper has been precirculated and the author has to listen before having a chance to speak. At NewSSC, however, there is no primary respondent. Everyone is given an equal amount of time—10 minutes—to describe how the paper connects with their own work and how it stimulates their own thinking and questioning. The author often does not receive direct comments on their exposition and argument, but is nonetheless enriched by the experience of listening to everyone’s personally centered responses, as is evident in the comments the authors have made when they got their chance to speak. Equally important, the participants are put in a space where they can listen well, for this format eliminates the common pattern of our holding on tight until we get our chance to make an incisive point on, say, the middle paragraph of page 5. Also, by listening to how the other participants connect to one text, everyone gets to know each other in deeper ways, thus enriching the basis for subsequent interactions during the workshop.
At NewSSC, this activity starts the second of four days, where the first day consists mostly of extended autobiographical introductions, but the same format can be used in a 90-minute faculty seminar or a classroom discussion of a reading (where, usually of course, the author is not present to respond at all).
The discussion facilitator’s role is to ask for a volunteer to take first turn responding, make sure everyone takes a turn before a general discussion is opened up, and keeps everyone to the 10 minutes—Quite interesting insights emerge whenever someone who claims after, say, 6 minutes, to have said all they need to say is given the space to be quiet and then continue when ready.
I hope the unidentified feminists who Scott borrowed from would be pleased with this evolutionary descendant of their approach.