Hope or shift to the other side of one of a series of alternations

Time and again she comes running towards you with a bunch of hopes she has found and picked in the undergrowth of the times we are living. And you remember that hope is not a guarantee for tomorrow, but a detonator of energy for action today.

Let’s imagine the “she” referred to in this quote by John Berger, the late English Marxist art critic and social commentator, is oneself and let me moderate the “detonator” metaphor a little bit and make it the stimulus or a reminder of “energy for action today.”

Consider then a heuristic that might help us when we hesitate or deflect instead of reflecting on our practice: Are we hoping in this moment about what lies ahead? If we find ourselves not hoping about what lies ahead—whether it is a meeting, or a relationship, or an activist engagement—then this is the time to shift to the other side of one of a series of alternations that I envisage.

The most obvious alternation is between taking action in the serious, immediate situation one finds oneself in and stepping back to reflect or refract so that we can tease out the possible paths ahead and not simply continue along previous lines.

But there are other alternations I’ll get to. The shared idea is that we inhabit one side of the dualism seriously and with great intent, but we do so always knowing that that the other side exists, that we can move from one to the other when the time is appropriate. The challenge, of course, is to see oneself when to make the shift, not to wait to be forced by some outside forces and developments.

That’s related to a challenge I identified a week ago about reflecting on why we have not stopped to reflect. I undertook to do a little bit of research on what scholars of reflective practice say about how you might research what’s happening for people when, instead of, for example, stopping to write notes on the meeting just ended, they run off to the next meeting. Ironically, after composing an email to the first three people I found when I googled “reflective practice barrier”, I found that didn’t exist on the web or the emails bounced back. So I haven’t got very far in that research.

Nevertheless, I am thinking that it’s possible when, for example, I felt a little bit anxious as I woke early this morning, to reflect using my hope heuristic. Being reminded about hope pushes back against the anxiety that leads me to slip away from reflection. If you try using the heuristic, let me know how it goes.

Back to the series of alternations that I envisage. One is taking action in the present versus reevaluating what we bring to it from our past histories—life, work, families, from the structures we find ourselves in.
Another alternation is between what I call a connecting, probing, and reflecting space—where people come together away from the pressures of the academy and away from the pressures of activism to take stock and plan their engagements back in the home place—that is the other side of the alternation.
As a scholar of science I’m interested in sometimes paying attention to the complexities of the situations that are being studied—the science proper—and the complexities of the situation that the person or people studying them find themselves in.
Another alternation might be the idea of project-based learning when everything’s on the table and the idea of just focusing on, say, six things that we want to develop in students through a particular course, say, in ecology.
The last alternation to mention now is between what I think the critical and creative thinking graduate program is about, namely, producing “slow mode, co-coaches” and a more action learning approach.

The heuristic again then is if we find ourselves not hoping in this moment about what lies ahead, then choose one of these alternations—fielder’s choice, as they would say in baseball—and shift to the other side, inhabiting that for a time.


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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