“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.

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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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