Scenarios for an on-going studio

This post presents the scenarios for a series of 4-week online collaborative explorations (CEs) (and one 4-day workshop) with continuing participation from alums of the graduate program in Critical & Creative Thinking.  The actual process and products of the CEs are private to the group.

Initial invitation

May 23, 2016
I am returning to an idea I floated 20 months ago about convening a “studio” for mutual support of our separate work related to Critical, Creative, and Reflective Practice or to Science in a Changing World (*). This time, however, I am thinking that its orientation would be for each of you to produce the kinds of research, writing, and proposals for funding that you might be doing if you had been admitted to a doctoral program that you found suitable for your intellectual development. I would support and advise you as much as I can while making sure I get support (from you all and others) for making progress on my own inquiries and writing.

This idea derives in part from the doctoral proposal with MassArt being in limbo and in part from my experience riding shotgun with Gonzalo Bacigalupe and his doctoral students this last week in Santiago—with the obvious difference that they are regular students and Gonzalo’s paid work includes being their advisor. I suggest we think of ourselves as “Research Associates” (RAs), not students and professor. As RAs we’d take turns to convene and host Collaborative Explorations (CEs) and assemble documentation from the CEs with a view to a) bringing in new RAs when appropriate and b) serving as a model for us to adopt, adapt, and foster in other situations. The topic of the CEs would be framed to help RAs to further projects that extend beyond the CEs (into publications, new/revised course syllabi, applications for finding or to PhD programs…) and into productivity that is externally visible or tangible.

To get us going, I would be prepared to convene and host the first CE around the general topic of creating a sustainable studio for us as RAs with quite diverse work and life projects. (Perhaps this CE or reflection at the end of future CEs will lead to different models of our meeting together, but, to get us going, I’d like to propose that we adopt this default format.) This first CE might, as one product, see us arrive at guidelines for how often we meet and minimum fraction of CEs an RA would be expected to participate in.   Please let me know if you are interested to join, give or take some tweaking of the studio idea. Then we can seek dates and time for the first CE and get going.

Thanks, Peter

* From posts at that time: “Studios” ( range from: i. a space for the practitioner or artist or professional to be focused on one’s own creative or generative work; to ii. a space where the practitioner or artist or professional works with apprentices; to iii. a space where teams work together on a project. Good use of studios includes
a) drawing on new knowledge provided by courses, for example, about creativity [the loop of arrows on the left of the schema below],
b) exploring possibilities for taking their projects out to engage in the wider world, which includes building a constituency around projects and conducting evaluations of their engagements in the wider community in ways from which they can learn to improve [the loop of arrows on the right of the schema], and
c) most importantly, allowing time and space to take stock, shift direction, and possibly return to old projects with new insights.

Helping each other not to “take the wrong turn 30 years ago”

June 2, 2016
The quote in the title comes from near the end of a 4.5 hour workshop I ran a few years ago on “creative thinking in epidemiology.” After a just a few hours of activities familiar to CCT students and associates, a senior researcher aired his thinking about not having pursued the path that he would’ve preferred. The theme of this CE, then, is that we develop structure and processes to help each other move forward in ways that minimize the chance that, near the end of our working lives, we would look back and say “I think I took the wrong turn 30 years ago.”

This theme means that the CE is not focusing directly on designing the format of the studio, but that each of us uses the CE to clarify tensions in the work we are doing (or desire to do) and clarify what is hidden by us – and from us. The premise is that finding ourselves doing this in the container of the CE will, as a by-product, end up exposing or clarifying guidelines to make the group support in a studio sustainable. Let me sketch tensions and what is hidden for me, thus modeling what the CE intends each participant will do.

First, my proclivity is to delve, puzzle, probe – not being satisfied until I can piece together a coherent foundation for any field, project, or institutional practice that I encounter. But something gets in the way of simply pursuing that proclivity: I also want to feel part of a community. (The strongest release of emotions happens for me when I see or read of people stepping in – putting aside their own concerns – to support someone, to show that they have thought well for them without being asked. Such as in the movie Apollo 13 or the novel Delicious!.)
Yet, to question foundations is to open up, most times, a gap between myself and others who are more comfortable holding on to the way things have been done.
Yet, it is interaction in suitable communities—such as, I hope, this studio—that expands perspectives and support, thus allowing more exploration of what’s hidden by us—and from us.
Reciprocally, the delving mode informs the way I get involved in process experiments such as forming this studio, and the way I document or archive the process and outcomes with a view to others coming after building on what has been built.
Yet, I could benefit from minimizing time spent in community-building activities given how much work there is to do to turn my delving into well-articulated formulations that might influence others.

Some possible partial resolutions of the tensions: Decenter the studio so its continuation doesn’t depend on my taking the initiative. For the same reason, keep the studio limited in size—it is not so much a secret group as a pilot, fashioning approaches that others may then adapt or adopt.

But the tensions above are long-standing and not so readily resolved. That is evident in a “definitional celebration” for me that the CCT Network in 2008. It is also evident in the autobiographical account in a recent book chapter, “Bringing All to the Table: From the Pumping Station to Project-Based Learning.”

As I look back at this sketch, it hasn’t pinned down what I tend to hide, or what is hidden from me that makes the tensions harder to resolve. I’m not asking you all to solve my problems or be my counselors. But I am curious about what will emerge on this front for me—and for the rest of you.

Intended outcomes for participants of this CE are of two kinds:
a) tangible: a compilation of structure and processes to help each other move forward in ways that minimize the chance that, near the end of our working lives, we would look back and say “I think I took the wrong turn 30 years ago.”; and
b) experiential: being impressed at how much can be learned with a small commitment of time using the CE structure to motivate and connect participants.

Design for living complexities

July 10, 2016
One idea for the studio is for the next CE to be the one around the course I start teaching next week, Design for Living Complexities, which is accompanied by an open-to-the-public CE and a MOOC-ish option, I am teaching the course so that I can refine and extend my thinking about the relationship between CCT and design–In a sense CCT is about critical, creative, and reflective design. The engagement of the studio group would be a support for that project of mine. I think that the CE around the course themes would provide opportunities for members of the group to development their formulations of their own projects.I’m thinking the CE participants will each latch onto one topic or case after skimming what’s offered in the 12 sessions of the course. The studio members could connect the topic they choose with the project of advancing their projects.

Engaging The Reluctant

August 26, 2016 by Kaylea Champion
As we identify projects and tasks of interest, we’re bound to find people who are less engaged than others; maybe the reluctant participant is ourselves! Perhaps this manifests as foot-dragging or naysaying, or just plain checking out. Yet we need cooperation in order to move forward. What is this reluctance about? What are our own barriers to progress? Is there a kernel of dissent to be explored? How might we counter or work within that reluctance so that positive progress emerges?

Impossible to Simply Continue Along Previous Lines: Changing Life in Times of Crisis

New England Workshop on Science and Social Change
October 2016, Sat 8th to Tuesday 11th
In this four-day workshop participants will create spaces, interactions, and support in formulating plans to extend our own projects of inquiry and engagement around “changing life in times of crisis.” As indicated below, a wide range of projects might fit under this intentionally broad topic; these need not directly related to science and society. Activities will, as they have at NewSSC since 2004, build on what the particular group of participants contribute and employ a range of tools and processes for “connecting, probing, and reflecting” so as to support and learn from each others’ inquiries. The intended outcomes include: a) products that reflect our inquiries and plans, conveyed in work-in-progress presentations or activities (15 minutes) and revised in response to feedback so as to be shared outside the workshop, b) experiences that motivate us to take our individual projects beyond their current scope or level of activity, and c) stock-taking towards developing the workshop format. This format, in brief, includes an activity together as a group each morning and again for an hour at the end of the day. In between, time is spent in independent research related to this scenario, in conversations, and in other pursuits that participants find helpful for advancing our projects.

The workshop, as a space for reciprocal “scaffolding,” can accommodate participants with diverse projects. “Changing life in times of crisis” would fit if you were exploring what direction to pursue in your work and life, clarifying tensions in what you are doing (or desire to do) and clarifying what is hidden by you – and from you. It would also fit if you were studying the changes in agro-ecology that followed the population collapse in the New World after the Spanish invasion. Or teaching about the massive famines of the late C19 under British free-trade policies that ruled out disaster aid. Or analyzing the effect of victory gardens during WWII or helping build urban community gardens in the current Great Recession. Or looking at demographic changes and care of the elderly in expansive or impoverished settings. Or at the environmental and social impacts of fracking and renewables as alternative responses to energy demand and climate change. Or engaging in some quite different project that addresses some kind of change during current or impending crises.
(more details)

Re-membering and gardening

November 10, 2016
Three incompletely developed images to stimulate our personal explorations in the container of a CE for November-December.
1. Crises expose the actual social relations or something to that effect the cultural analyst Raymond Williams remarked in his 1983 book, Towards 2000.  In that sense, the Republican electoral victories can be seen as a continuation of the already existing political economics (*), which Democratic victories might have deflected our attention from.  Indeed, regarding deflected attention on a personal level, my despondency after the election outcomes showed me that my sense of competence as a teacher, a parent, a writer had been dependent on getting by without being asked to confront those social relations every day…

2. Remembering conversations–a tool of narrative therapy and community work— evoke “life” as a club with many members. They promote a sense of identity that emphasizes the contributions that others make to our lives and to our understandings of self.  The previous CEs of our studio and the October face2face workshop provided a wonderful experience of support for taking our personal projects seriously.  I hope the CE can recoup some of that sense of being supported, of living in a club with many members.

3. Gardening–A metaphor for cultivation that requires us not only to plant seeds and tend to the growth, but also to prune, clear away debris, relocate, remove, or thin growth that is out of balance, develop a vision for what that balanced growth is, adjust to the predictable and the unpredictable shifts in weather, and more.  For the CE to help us recover from despondency, it may have to do more than re-evoke a sense of being supported.

I look forward to what emerges during the CE from these images—these seeds.

* Political economics that limits the resources (cultural a well as financial) of governments to foster the welfare of the populace and expands the capacity of large corporations to evade responsibility for that welfare.

“Entangled bank” proposal for a February CE

February 1, 2017
To continue the gardening metaphor, this CE might explore the “entangled bank”—a play on Darwin’s “tangled bank” metaphor, with which he ended On the Origin of Species. In his final paragraph, which speaks of “the grandeur in this view of life,” he tried to deflect criticism from readers who might, correctly I think, see his work as doing away with a Creator and thus with recourse for us to some system of ethics that this Creator mandates (albeit variously interpreted and strongly contested).

If we are gardeners, faced with a tangled bank, can we shift our view to one of being entangled on that bank, in the gardening? Entangled in two opposing senses: as in having vines or even snakes wrapping around us to constrain our movements and freak us out at the same time as we are entangled like quantum particles in the fate of others and thus, mutualistically, can draw on others to help us garden.

As usual , CEs participants will explore our own particular take on this image in the company of others, enrich each other’s perspectives, and deepen our own imagination and conception of what can be thought and done.


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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