Guided tour of my service and institutional development work VIII: New England Workshop on Science and Social Change

VIII. New England Workshop on Science and Social Change

(completing a guided tour of my work presented in the spirit that service and institutional development can also be practically and theoretically coherent)
“Most workshops are dysfunctional—this one wasn’t!” read one evaluation of the first New England Workshop on Science and Social Change (NewSSC) in 2004. As mentioned earlier, NewSSC has become a primary focus of my recent efforts in promoting “innovative, transdisciplinary sessions” and “fostering informal, co-operative exchanges and on-going collaborations.” The following excerpt from a recent blog post (based on a forthcoming article written with ISHPSSB’ers Chris Young and Steve Fifield) conveys the flavor of these workshops:

  • Group processes not only need skillful and effective facilitators; they also need participants or collaborators who are skilled and effective in contributing to the desired outcomes. To develop skills and dispositions of collaboration requires researchers (and researchers-in-training) to make opportunities for practicing what they have been introduced to and to persist even when they encounter resistance. What moves them to pursue such development?
  • I have had an opportunity to address this issue since 2004 through an annual series of experimental, interaction-intensive, interdisciplinary workshops “to foster collaboration among those who teach, study, and engage with the public about scientific developments and social change.” The workshops are documented in detail on their websites, but a thumbnail sketch would be: They are small, with international, interdisciplinary participants of mixed “rank” (i.e., from students, to professors). There is no delivery of papers; instead participants lead each other in activities, designed before or developed during the workshops, that can be adapted to college classrooms and other contexts and participate in group processes that are regular features of the workshops. The group processes are also offered as models or tools to be adapted or adopted in other contexts. The themes vary from year to year [see note], but each workshop lasts four days and moves through four broad, overlapping phases—exposing diverse points of potential interaction; focusing on detailed case study; activities to engage participants in each other’s projects; and taking stock. The informal and guided opportunities to reflect on hopes and experiences during the workshop produce feedback that shapes the days ahead as well as changes to the design of subsequent workshops.
  • The ongoing evolution of the workshops has been stimulated not only by written and spoken evaluations, but also by an extended debriefing immediately following each workshop and advisory group discussions, such as one in 2008 that addressed the question of what moves people develop themselves as collaborators. Our conjecture was that this development happens when participants see an experience or training as transformative. After reviewing the evaluations we identified four “R’s”—respect, risk, revelation, and re-engagement—as conditions that make interactions among participants transformative (see Taylor et al. 2010 for elaboration and supporting quotations from the evaluations).

Through paired NewSSC workshops in Woods Hole and Portugal in May and June 2011, I look forward to continuing collaborations that help “articulate and develop the role [of NewSSC] as a valued open space for participants, some of whom return many times for a recharge and affirmation of aspirations that are not well supported in home institutions and day-to-day interactions.”

—–

Note: Themes span science and technology studies (STS), science, and educational innovation: social shaping of the use of genetic knowledge; complexities of genes-environment-development; social implications of ecological restoration; collaborative generation of environmental knowledge and inquiry; teaching and public engagement beyond disciplinary boundaries; heterogeneity and development; social theory and critical engagement; and problem-based learning.

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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