Cultivating Collaborators (Day 19 of Learning road trip)

At Cornell University on October 7, hosted by the Public Service Center, a large group of faculty and staff service learning faculty shared their work in a discussion that bounced off the “Cultivating Collaborators” paper .

Cultivating Collaborators
How do people become skilled and effective in contributing to collaborations (including participatory action research)? How do we lead others to develop their interest and skills in collaboration? Implicit in these questions is the idea that being able to contribute to collaborations is not something that can be taken for granted. Instead, people need to learn, practice, and improve at it. “People” includes each of us. In this spirit, the session will introduce a format that participants may not be familiar with for a discussion around a recent paper that addresses the questions. Participants read the paper in advance of the session. At the session the author provides a brief introduction if there is something not obvious from the paper then stays quiet until everyone else has taken a turn relating how the paper intersects with or stimulates their own thinking. Such a discussion builds a web of connections among participants in place of the typical set of spokes with author in the center.

Some relevant background from the presenter, Peter Taylor, University of Massachusetts Boston: In 1996 I attended several sessions in a Participatory Action Research series at Cornell. One of the presenters-Ken (“Mac”) Brown, a forester from Lakehead University-got the audience involved in participatory activities. I followed up with him and soon followed his footsteps, which involved interactive sessions at the International Society for Exploring Teaching Alternatives ( and facilitation training with the Institute of Cultural Affairs in Toronto ( Since 1998 I have had the opportunity to continue developing participatory approaches in teaching-or in fostering the reflective practice of-the diverse adults who come through the Critical and Creative Thinking Graduate Program at UMass Boston,, which now has a new and Science in a Changing World graduate track, This work gave me sufficient experience and confidence to initiate an ongoing series of innovative, interaction-intensive workshops designed to facilitate discussion, teaching innovation, and longer-term collaboration among faculty and graduate students who teach and write about interactions between scientific developments and social change ( This workshop led me to begin exploring the questions for this session, as evident in the paper to be pre-read for the session. This pathway also intersects with my studies of complexity in ecology and of equivalent ecological-like complexity in the influences that shape scientific research. My 2005 book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement, ends by opening up a related question about collaboration, namely, how to “bring into interaction not only a wider range of researchers, but a wider range of social agents, and keep them working through differences and tensions until plans and practices are developed in which all the participants are invested.” As the session’s participants respond to the paper, perhaps they will keep in mind ways they have used to develop collaborations with diverse parties.

In the brief introduction I referred to this summer’s exploration of the relationship between 4Rs and avid learning, the question of whether facilitators can rely on the structure of their facilitation to get participants to behave well versus spending time to cultivate collaborators, and cultivation or training of collaborators in general or focused around/motivated by a specific issue.

The contributions from participants were diverse, which was valuable in itself for many participants did not know about each other’s work.  In my response, I mentioned: Parker Palmer‘s model of a series of retreats as a way to enhance the uptake of any tools or insights introduced in a participatory session; and Barry Fishman‘s model of “scaling up” by going in deep.

(back to Start of road trip — Day 20 saw us returning home to Boston)

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,

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