On writing support

This 17-minute video is an introduction to a set of materials linked to http://bit.ly/WrSupport, which convey the evolution of writing support practices in my courses and graduate program. At the end, two thoughts are left to chew on:

  • It might be investigated, not assumed, that what poor writers need is more teaching of good writing.
  • In this spirit, writing coaches might be drawn from within and across a wide range of programs.

“the hardest work is supporting others to inquire”

At the end of a 4-day workshop on human-nature interactions in 2000, a proposal was made for a “declaration of independence from current practices within the scientific community that restrict research, ways of knowing, citizen inclusion, and respect for nonhumans” (http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/ECOSextras.html) .  Here is the thought-piece I circulated by email soon after the workshop:

1. Have we constituted a group that might effectively promote a new organization of scientists (or inquirers)?
2. What would we need to do to assess this likelihood? What inquiry would we need?
3. How would we support each other to pursue that inquiry?

After a good night’s rest… the sense I have on these questions is that:
1. I wanted us to learn more about each other’s work and thinking, that is, not merely leave with a sense of enthusiasm for the project arrived at on Monday. Without circulation of papers or “learning sessions,” not enough of this learning happened for me to commit confidently to the group and the ongoing project.
2. I wanted to learn more about each other’s inquiry into areas that were unfamiliar to them. I don’t know how many of the group are interested in inquiring into the sociological/political conditions for the project, nor for ideas of nature-human boundary as a metaphor for many other divides that we might confront — we’re not immediately ready to rethink (see…)
3. I am even clearer now than I was when I proposed that the ASF [American Science Foundation] affirms that “the hardest work is supporting others to inquire.”

Y: What do you think of the Declaration of Independence [founding the ASF], Peter?
P: I’m not sure I’m ready to put my energy into promoting it yet.
Y: What would you need for you to become ready to do so?
P: Good question.
Y: Is it the wording? I noticed that you stated-twice I think-that you wanted it to affirm that “the hardest work is supporting others to inquire.” And that wasn’t taken up.
P: No, it wasn’t. Why didn’t you comment on that while we were together as a group?
Y: Hmm. Good question. I think I wanted first to know more about why that phrase was important to you. I should have asked you.
P: I wonder if some of the group were unsure even of what the phrase meant. I should have asked if that were the case.
Y: You would have had a hard time doing so-there were so many voices and lines of thought trying to get addressed.
P: Yes, especially if you include those still below to surface, almost about to emerge. But I would have liked to have a discussion of how a group can address such multi-vocality.
Y: I think we did pretty well over the course of the workshop.
P: You’re right. But I wanted more attention to multi-vocality before we were asked to act in consort.
Y: So it’s not the wording of the Declaration that troubles you?
P: Right-it’s this multi-vocality-unison tension. I wanted us to learn more about each other’s work and thinking. That would have helped me to commit confidently to the group and the Independence project.
Y: I too wanted to learn more, but you can’t do everything in such a short time.
P: True, but have we constituted a group that can effectively promote a new organization of scientists-or inquirers? To have a sense of this, I needed to learn more about each other’s inquiry into areas that were unfamiliar to them.
Y: Such as?
P: For a start, many people talked as if we needed to integrate humans and non-human nature or recognize that the divide is false.
Y: What’s wrong with that?
P: Well, historically ideas about separating humans and nature or overcoming the separation can be interpreted non-literally, as stand-ins for ideas about the social order people favor (http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/nature-culture.html). I don’t know how many of the group are interested in inquiring into the implications of this.
Y: Perhaps more than you think.
P: I didn’t say I knew few of the group were interested-I said I didn’t know how many were. Similarly, I don’t know how many of the group are interested in inquiring into the sociological and political conditions for a new organization to take off.
Y: But, no organization would ever take off if its members waited for everything to be clear in advance of getting their hands dirty.
P: Perhaps, but do we believe that this Declaration will keep us interacting, moreover that it will promote the kind of inquiry that got put on the backburner while we pushed to have a product before we left Santa Barbara?
Y: I don’t know.
P: Neither do I. That’s my point.
Y: Which is?
P: Well, two points. We didn’t learn as much as we needed about each other’s way of working and thinking. And this was especially the case when the issue is each other’s way of working and thinking on how best to support each other’s inquiry into unfamiliar areas.
Y: Unfamiliar areas such as how best to support each other’s inquiry.
P: Right!
Y: OK, but does that answer my question about what you would need to become ready to promote the Declaration?
P: Well, try this. I think campaigns for social change flourish when the campaigners have a strong sense of being supported by each other.
Y: But many campaigns take off that suppress inquiry about people and things that are unfamiliar to the campaigners?
P: Yes, but our campaign is for a Foundation that supports inquiry.
Y: And affirms that “the hardest work is supporting others to inquire.”
P: You got it.
Y: Hmm.
[Some silence]
P: D. asked if I’d read Parker Palmer’s The Courage To Teach.
Y: She recommended it to me as well. But she said she wished it’d had been “The Courage To Learn.”
P: Hmm. Anyway, given that others have mentioned the book to me over the last few years, I thought it was time to take a look.
Y: What did you find?
P: At the end-I often take a peek at the endings of books-Palmer summarizes the dynamics of social movements from their beginnings as “chaotic energy fields”:

“Stage 1: Isolated individuals make an inward decision to live “divided no more,” finding a center for their lives outside institutions. Stage 2: These individuals begin to discover one another and form communities of congruence that offer mutual support and opportunities to develop a shared vision. Stage 3: These communities start going public, learning to convert their private concerns into the public issues they are and receiving vital critiques in the process. Stage 4: A system of alternative rewards emerges to sustain the movement’s vision and to put pressure for change on the standard institutional reward system.” (p. 166)

Y: How does this speak to your concern about supporting each others’s inquiry into unfamiliar areas?
P: Well, if the group has moved to stage 3 and we have our eyes on stage 4, but if we are still unclear or “divided” about the importance of supporting each other’s inquiry, then it’s premature for us to be acting as if we’re at stage 3-especially when the new organization we envisage is meant to move inquiry beyond its current boundaries..
Y: Do you think that’s the situation of our group?
P: Let me speak just for myself. To be honest, I haven’t made Palmer’s inward decision to live “divided no more.”
Y: I wonder what others in the group think about this line of inquiry.
P: I do too.

Support circles: An invitation template

Invitation

I am writing to invite you into an infrastructure-building experiment: forming and participating in small “support circles.”  The specifics of what I would ask of people in my support circle are included at the end.  First, because part of joining a person’s support circle is to commit to forming your own, I present the rationale and mechanics, which you could transmit to those you would invite if you get involved in the experiment.

Rationale

The overall ethic is that people in support circles find ways to support others to do the best work they can given the circumstances (which are often constrained).  The more people who live that ethic the better for us all.  If you are collaborating on a range of projects with a range of people you might choose to form a support circle from these immediate collaborators.  Yet a support circle need not be linked to any given project(s).  You could create a circle to provide space in which supporters appreciatively help you reflect and clarify your own path ahead—where that path includes how and when to collaborate in various projects.  Interactions in such a space would be freed of any expectation that supporters had to chip in on or otherwise share the weight of your problems.  It would be enough—indeed, a rare and longed-for gift—for a supporter to give you attention and think well with you when you consult them.  In fact, you might be more ready to ask for support if you see the support circle as a “container” outside of which there is no reference to what is said and no implied expectations of further support.

Support circles could have a special role in this age of internet-mediated interactions, namely, providing closer, more personal relations that keep us grounded in the face of the possibility of a very wide or distributed reach.  Support circles could influence peer-to-peer networks and crowd-source processes by

  • modeling appreciative feedback and evolving standards or guidelines for these networks and processes;
  • helping you get clear about where you want to put concerted effort into engaging others with your ideas (as against passively expecting your ideas to get published and picked up that way) ;
  • contributing to concatenating support circles that make transparency in feedback safer for you.

Mechanics

  • Support circles arise when you take the initiative to recruit over the course of a year 5-6 people for a one-year, renewable relationship of mutual support, in which these people also agree to establish their own support circles over the course of a year (and so on). (If you have 5 people in your circle there is space for you to be invited into the circle of someone else.)
  • Ideally, you bring into your circle some people who will be more like mentors and others who will be more like advisees—at least at the start of the relationship.
  • The format and frequency of interactions with members of a support circle is proposed by you as you recruit others to your circle, fine-tuned with the invitees before they join, and adjusted by mutual agreement as needs evolve.  You might draw on your supporters in different ways, sometimes collectively or sometimes one-on-one.
  • You can call on your support circle at any time, whether for regular check-ins or when in crisis.  To make such on-call support sustainable, no person has more than 6 support circle relationships and each person in your circle has 4-5 other support circle relationships of their own to help if any one relationship becomes especially challenging or draining.
  • A support circle relationship can be discontinued by either party at any time on a “no-fault” basis.  Preferably, however, the transition occurs at the close of a year and is accompanied by a “plus-delta” evaluation of the experience.
  • In addition to plus-delta evaluations, which can take place after any interaction, support circle relationships use tools and processes such as clearness committee, dialogue hours, supportive listening, and believing and doubting feedback.  Picking up on this last process, one guideline is that criticism and doubting never precedes or overshadows appreciation and amplification of what has been achieved.  (Recall that overall ethic is that people in support circles find ways to support others to do the best work they can given the circumstances.)
  • Google plus might be well suited to sending messages to your support circle and relaying messages, when appropriate, received from members of your circle.
  • When establishing a support circle for the first time, arrange for the first relationship to be up for renewal in 12 months, the second 2 months earlier, and so on unless you get to a point where the renewal date would be less than 2 months away. For that last relationship and from then on any new or renewed relationship is for 12 months. This staggered scheduling should ensure that no more than 2 months goes by without your taking stock of at least one relationship and perhaps your circle as a whole.

Date that circle is initiated =                         [call this X]

Date for 1st renewal or replacement X + 1 year X + 10 months X + 8 months X + 6 months X + 4 months
Date for 2nd renewal or replacement One year after above One year after above One year after above One year after above One year after above One year after above
Supporter’s name            

 

Specifics

TBA

Support circles: A design sketch

If we steer clear of fantasies of going viral or starting something like wikipedia, how do we envisage contributing to new infrastructures that further our work and lives?  This sketch of support circles arose from two recent discussions with colleagues—one face to face; the other via skype—the face to face one addressing crowd sourcing of review of writing for publications; the skype one addressing group process in situations such as Occupy meetings.

  • Support circles arise when a person takes the initiative to recruit 5-6 people for a one-year, renewable relationship of mutual support, in which these people also agree to recruit 4-5 additional other people into their own support circles.  (If a person has 5 people in their circle there is space for the person to be invited into the circle of someone else.)
  • Ideally, people bring into their circles some people who will be more like mentors and others who will be more like advisees—at least at the start of the relationship.
  • The format and frequency of interactions with members of a support circle is proposed by the person recruiting others to their circle and fine-tuned with them before they join.
  • A support circle relationship can be discontinued by either party at any time on a “no-fault” basis.  Preferably, however, the transition occurs at the close of a year and is accompanied by a “plus-delta” evaluation of the experience.
  • In addition to plus-delta evaluations, which can take place after any interaction, support circle relationships use tools and processes such as clearness committee, dialogue hours, supportive listening, and believing and doubting feedback.  Picking up on this last process, one guideline is that criticism and doubting never precedes or overshadows appreciation and amplification of what has been achieved.  The overall ethic is that people work to support others to do the best work they can given the circumstances.
  • Another guideline is that a person can call on their support circle at any time—for regular check-ins and during crises.  To make such support sustainable, no person has more than 6 support circle relationships and each person in their circle has 4-5 other support circle relationships of their own to help if any one relationship becomes especially challenging or draining.
  • When establishing a support circle for the first time, arrange for the first relationship to “expire” in 2 months, the second 2 months later, and so on.  The shorter initial relationships are then renewed for a year (or replaced by a different 1-year relationship).  This scheduling ensures that no more than 2 months goes by without a person having to take stock of at least one relationship and perhaps their circle as a whole.
  • Google plus is well suited to sending messages to one’s support circle and relaying messages, when appropriate, received from members of your circle.
  • Support circles can influence peer-to-peer networks and crowd-source processes by
    • modeling appreciative feedback and evolving standards or guidelines for this
    • helping people get clear about where they want to put concerted effort into engaging others with their ideas (as against passively expecting our ideas to get published and picked up that way)
    • contributing to concatenating support circles that make transparency in feedback safer.

Reports of active support circles welcome.

Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions (Re-engagement)

Re-engagement— Respect, risk, and revelation combine so that participants’ gears are re-engaged (to use a machine metaphor), allowing us to mobilize and sustain quite a high level of energy during the collaboration. But re-engagement goes beyond an individual’s enhanced enthusiasm. It is a collective or emergent result of the activities that bring people who have generative differences into meaningful interactions that can catalyze transformations. In other words, meaningful social engagement and opportunities for personal introspection contribute to participants discovering new possibilities for work with others on ideas they brought to the collaboration.
We:

  • inquire further on the issues that arise in our own projects.
  • select and focus on a subset of the specific plans or knowledge generated during the collaboration in our subsequent work.
  • engage actively with others.
  • inquire further into how we can support the work of others.
  • are reminded of our aspirations to work in supportive communities.
  • make the experiences of the collaboration a basis for subsequent efforts to cultivate collaborators.
  • arrange to assist or apprentice with the facilitator in a future collaboration.

(Of course, what we state in the end-of-collaboration evaluations cannot show that we will follow through on intentions to stay connected or to make shifts in our own projects and work relations. A need or desire for periodic re-charging of our ideas and intentions is evident when past participants return to subsequent collaborations.)
[See Introduction to this series of posts.]

Teacher-Student-Subject interactions (schema)

Teacher-Student-Subject interactions (schema in development in 1997-98)

Student

Collective project

      = “course” or “subject”
    + supporting each other to maximum yield, i.e., the best work in the circumstances

Teacher

  • establishes some parameters
    • assessment & grading system [note]
    • course is a collective project in addition to individual projects
    • core case studies & activities
    • proposes ideal sequence to final paper/ report/ product
    • expectations
    • framing, e.g., courses with PT are high in abstract conceptualization
  • provides resources from experience
    • case studies [note]
    • critical heuristics/ angles of illumination [note]
    • other tools, e.g.,
      • writing
        • freewriting
        • direct writing
      • sharing & responding
      • mapping
    • binders
      • newspaper clippings
      • assignments of previous students
      • previous reports
    • websites
    • bibliographic suggestions, website addresses & contacts
  • reads & listens, i.e., is an audience
  • models
    • critical thinking
    • reciprocal animation
    • heterogeneous re/construction
    • learning, listening, facilitating, providing resources
  • learns, i.e, is a student also
    • current issues include…
    • on-going issues include….
    • conducts course evaluations that are useful for learning
  • facilitates
    • switches hats from teacher role
      to allow student insights to emerge & synergize

last updated 24 june 1998


Endnotes
“a chasm between a world others had built for him and his own not yet formed. It is this gap which mentors often serve to bridge.” Common Fire, p. 89.


Example of assessment scheme from a workshop research course


“Sense-making” to contextualize or to respond to written and spoken work


Brief reasons for experiencing/ experimenting with a structured planning process in a seminar course
Basic propositions of the ICA workshop process


Developing Critical Thinking is Like a Journey

One course I taught for the first time soon after I joined the UMass Graduate Program in Critical and Creative Thinking was “Critical Thinking.” Mid-way through the first semester, when the topic was revising lesson plans, we revisited a demonstration I had done in the first class. The details are not important here, except to say that some students had interpreted the demonstration as a science lesson while the science aspect seemed unimportant to me. Discussion of the discrepancy led me to articulate my primary goal, namely, the students would puzzle over the general conundrum of how questions that retrospectively seem obvious ever occurred to them and to consider their susceptibility to recurrent reconceptualizations.

The image that occurred to me was that development as a critical thinker is like undertaking a personal journey into unfamiliar or unknown areas. Both involve risk, open up questions, create more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, require support, yield personal change, and so on. This journeying metaphor differs markedly from the conventional philosophical view of critical thinking as scrutinizing the reasoning, assumptions, and evidence behind claims (Ennis 1987, Critical Thinking Across The Curriculum Project 1996). Instead of the usual connotations of “critical” with judgement and finding fault according to some standards (Williams 1983, 84ff), journeying draws attention to the inter- and intra-personal dimensions of people developing their thinking and practice.

The image of critical thinking as journeying gave me a hook to make sense of my development as a teacher. In narrating my own journey, I attempted to expose conceptual and practical struggles in learning to decenter pedagogy even as I provided space and support for students’ development as critical thinkers (written circa 2000, published several years later as Taylor 2008). The central challenge I identified was that of helping people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge—something that seems relevant to teaching research and engagement as well as critical thinking. Several related challenges for the teacher or facilitator emerged:

Helping people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge
Teacher-facilitators should:

    a) Help students to generate questions about issues they were not aware they faced.
    b) Acknowledge and mobilize the diversity inherent in any group, including the diversity of mental, emotional, situational, and relational factors that people identify as making re-seeing possible.
    c) Help students clear mental space so that thoughts about an issue in question can emerge that had been below the surface of their attention.
    d) Teach students to listen well. (Listening well seemed to help students tease out alternative views. Without alternatives in mind scrutiny of one’s own evidence, assumptions and logic, or of those of others is difficult to motivate or carry out; see also point i, below. Being listened to, in turn, seems to help students access their intelligence—to bring to the surface, reevaluate, and articulate things they already know in some sense.)
    e) Support students on their journeys into unfamiliar or unknown areas (see paragraph above).
    f) Encourage students to take initiative in and through relationships.
    g) Address fear felt by students and by oneself as their teacher.
    h) Have confidence and patience that students will become more invested in the process and the outcomes when insights emerge from themselves.
    i) Raise alternatives. (Critical thinking depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. People understand things better when they have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives.)
    j) Introduce and motivate “opening up themes,” that is, propositions that are simple to convey, but always point to the greater complexity of particular cases and to further work needed to study those cases (Taylor 2005).
    k) Be patient and persistent about students taking up the alternatives, themes, and other tools and applying them to open up questions in new areas. (Experiment and experience are needed for students—and for teachers—to build up a set of tools that work for them.)
    l) Take seriously the creativity and capacity-building that seems to follow from well-facilitated participation, while still allowing space for researchers to insert the “translocal,” that is, their analysis of changes that arise beyond the local region and span a larger scale than the local.

References

Critical Thinking Across The Curriculum Project (1996). “Definitions of Critical Thinking.”http://www.kcmetro.cc.mo.us/longview/ctac/definitions.htm (viewed 18 Feb 2001)
Ennis, R. H. (1987). A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice. J. B. Baron and R. J. Sternberg. New York, W. H. Freeman: 9-26.
Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Taylor, P. J. (2008). Developing Critical Thinking is Like a Journey. Teachers and Teaching Strategies, Problems and Innovations. G. F. Ollington. Hauppauge, NY, Nova Science Publishers.
Williams, R. (1983). Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York, Oxford University Press.

(Extracted from “Teaching/Learning for Reflective Practice,” a section of a book manuscript, Taking Yourself Seriously: A Fieldbook of Processes of Research and Engagement, also on the web.)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 128 other followers