Open Spaces between Activism and Academic work

The workshop “Open Spaces for Changing Science and Society” sought applications from “teachers and researchers who are interested in moving beyond their current disciplinary and academic boundaries to explore concepts and practices that help us work in the arena bordered on one side by critical interpretation of the directions taken by scientific and technological research and application and on the other side by organizing social movements so as to influence those directions.  The metaphor of “open spaces” suggests that the issue is not so much to bridge the two sides as it is to acknowledge the value of discussion, reflection, and clarifying one’s identity and affinities with both sides kept in view.  At the start of each day participants undertook daily writing on the theme of the workshop.  My own writing makes up the next few posts.

15 May 2011

The first challenge is to articulate, enact, and embody principles for open spaces that are also conducive to—or even aspirations for—practitioners in the activist and academic realms.

The second challenge is to identify the resistances—structured and individual-emotional—that lead people, including ourselves away from these principles in practice.

The third challenge is to develop engagements and support for those engagements that move others beyond the resistances to enact and embody the principles.

The fourth challenge is to convene open spaces that help us move forward on the first three challenges.

A key principle in such open spaces is “flexible engagement”—“an ideal in which researchers in any knowledge-making situation are able to connect quickly with others who are almost ready—either formally or otherwise—to foster participatory processes and, through the experience such processes provide their participants, contribute to enhancing the capacity of others to do likewise.” (Taylor 2005, p. 225).  In this spirit, tangible products become less important than the process-is-the-product by which I mean that what is learned about processes and the experience of participating in the processes makes it more likely that a participant goes on and put them into practice in future engagements, in turn, nudging those engagements towards open space principles.  (Part of the first challenge is to spell out this loose notion of flexible engagement.)

A fifth challenge is to do all this without seeming cultish, as in “We have all the answers.”  A possible antidote to cultishness is to remember that the product is more than the process—there are particular tasks that we have to do.  (In my case, the tasks are researching, writing, teaching about critical thinking in the life and environmental sciences.)  In those tasks, there is always learning to do, with a spirit of open questions.

A sixth challenge—perhaps one for me personally—is how to balance the facilitation of process (and flexible engagement) with the product orientation.


Taylor, P.J. (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement.  Chicago: U. Chicago Press.

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, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

4 Responses to Open Spaces between Activism and Academic work

  1. Pingback: Tangible & Experiential Objectives for an Open Spaces Workshop « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

  2. Pingback: Distinction between open spaces workshops and open source projects « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

  3. Pingback: Open spaces teaching « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

  4. Pingback: Vertical-unity—a listing of possible elements « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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