Unsettled by the dialogue process (as used in classroom discussions)

My own thinking is often unsettled by the dialogue process used in classroom discussions—issues get raised that I have not positioned in some framework that I would be able to convey to others.

The dialogue process, in short, involves structured turn-taking so that participants can listen well to each other as well as to their own thoughts that had been below the surface of attention and to their responses to what others say.  In some of the graduate classes I teach I schedule this process to give us—the students and I—an opportunity to express our responses to a reading or a topic, such as, “participatory action research and theory in relation to action” (link).  The themes that emerge are never predictable—even when the topic of discussion is one I’ve assigned for a number of years.  And, as I began by saying, my own thinking is often unsettled by these dialogue process discussions.

My unsettledness and lack of a framework could be attributed to intellectual fuzziness and flakiness—a more disciplined scholar would know how to make sense of the issues relevant to the topics they include in their course syllabi.  Perhaps.  But my experience could also point to the hidden complexities that lurk below the customary frameworks and our performance of them in classrooms and seminars.  We know more, I have often said, than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge.  Knowledge that might be left in an unprepared state includes autobiographical experiences, undigested expeditions into a wider world, and questions we left aside, especially questions about apparent contradictions or tensions between what we write or are able to put into practice.  Might we even keep ourselves as busy as we are so as to avoid delving into such questions?  (This post is the first time that I’ve gone beyond feeling unsettled by a dialogue process and tried to write down my thoughts about that experience.  [In addition to the post, I’ve adjusted the guidelines I use for dialogue so as to include a phase before the closing go-around in which each of us writes for a few minutes to gather the thoughts that have arisen, lest too many of them slip away when the dialogue ends.])

A particular kind of unresolved question unsettles me, namely, the intersection of the biographical and the structural. How can I make sense of the diverse things I’ve done in terms of “biography as a crucible of social forces” (Bob Young‘s words)?  All of us, I think, manage to perform our roles in educational settings most of the time without articulating the intersections and processes and “forces” mixed in the crucible.  The dialogue process, for me, takes the lid off the crucible—do crucibles actually ever have lids?—and shines lights from various angles into the bubbling concoction.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see bit.ly/pjtaylor). He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (bit.ly/tbhblog)

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