Bringing everything to the table: Where do we go from there?

This year I devoted the first session of both my graduate classes to everyone giving extended autobiographical introductions, for the reasons described in an earlier post. E.g., in the Critical Thinking course, we took 4 minutes to explain “How I came to be a person interested in learning more about critical thinking–how to do it myself and teach/foster it in others.” Each introduction was followed by “connections and extensions” feedback using this form, which asks students to give one point of intersection with the listener’s interests and one direction the listener could imagine the speaker’s work being extended.

The stories engaged everyone’s attention; they were rich and varied. In the Critical Thinking course, I commented that the angles raised in the stories could fuel a whole course. But I saw that the introductions were more challenging than that when, over the next day or two, I reviewed and browsed the compiled connections and extensions feedback. What would be entailed to honor and build on this web or fabric of human connections?

This is a challenge that Vivian Paley took up in her kindergarten classes when she said: “I need the intense preoccupation of a group of children and teachers inventing new worlds as they learn to know each other’s dreams” (The Girl with the Brown Crayon, p. 50) (see more quotes from an earlier post).

It is also a challenge that I have introduced in an unfinished essay for a volume in honor of connector and extender-extraordinaire, Iain Boal, “Bringing All to the Table: From the Pumping Station to Project-Based Learning.” Here is how my draft starts:

A few years after the completion of his Baroque Cycle, author Neal Stephenson was the speaker chosen by history of science graduate students for their department’s annual colloquium series. Describing some key incidents in the genesis of his fictional account of the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Europe and elsewhere, Stephenson related a conversation with his editor about the projected length of the book. (As it turned out, it became three volumes, each more than 900 pages.) The editor reassured him: “This book has pirates, right? It can be as long as you like.”

The students were giving Stephenson rapt attention and his pirate story made me wonder about their relationship to their scholarly topics. I could imagine them focused on particular incidents and texts in the history of science, aiming to establish some acceptable interpretation or larger theme. But suppose we inverted that approach to research—after all, Newton (one of the many characters in Stephenson’s book) lived in a world where he was concerned not only with calculus and physics, but also theology, alchemy, the integrity of currency, capital punishment, military and mining technology, speculation in stocks, the bubonic plague, the establishment of scholarly societies, and so on. What would it mean for teaching and research today if, at the start, all these things were on the table—and all the people who shaped and were shaped by them—pirates yes, but state-sanctioned privateers as well?

As one of the children in Vivian Paley’s book would have said: “To be continued ha ha!”

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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).

One Response to Bringing everything to the table: Where do we go from there?

  1. Teryl Cartwright says:

    I have debated about whether people try to put it all on the table (through social media) and why there is so much of it that overwhelms, I believe it is way too easy hide behind all the posts, giving no indication of what is our most valued sharing. My untested assumption is that people will usually only respond to the trivial, easier topics or to connect to the harder or more deep ones like a buffet table, choosing their preferences over even what the giver might prefer.

    Would Newton’s table recipients/researchers use his offerings like an operating table, dissecting him to suit theories? If Newton did willingly put all on the table, is he a gambler, all chips in–what is the expectation of the receiver for such a great gift or is it truly without strings attached? (We may enjoy reading about pirates, but we don’t want to be surrounded by them in real life.)

    I wish sometimes I would share more table talk, it takes time, courage, and trust. I, for instance, would share more of my faith, I fail when I don’t, withholding the greatest struggles and ideas I’ve had. People come to the table whether a meeting or meal to really get to the heart of things. Isn’t it sad about the other use of a table —to block rather than create connections and action? I mean, when something is “tabled”? I shouldn’t resort to word play when I really sincerely do want to get to what I mean. But I guess I have to lay that on the table too.

    I don’t know how.

    How does one share all the important stuff?
    To who, and when and why?
    Or if just using Newton for our analogy, how do we use his laws of motion to examine his process and person that got him there?

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