Formats for community building and dialogue
Jobs, careers, employment, vocation, occupation, business: call work what you will, each profession comes with its own prescribed, limited, and limiting formats. Mine come because I am a professor who inhabits two workday worlds, one as a bee biologist and the other as director of SFU’s Centre for Dialogue. These are two quite different callings, similar in being potentially creative but in practice often stifling imagination and expression.
Take science, where a typical presentation has a tightly controlled layout, whether it’s a written paper or a lecture. The introduction reviews the field and justifies the work, the methods tell readers or viewers what you did, and the results are tense with data and statistics. The ending conclusions are meant to impress with the tiny bit of new knowledge you’ve discovered and the inevitable next steps to justify a future grant application.
Emotion? Passion? What about the joy of discovery and the flashes of insight that are supposed to characterize science and reveal the great mysteries of the universe? Largely absent, subdued by the emotionless language of rationality that our scientific culture insists on.
My second life, dialogue, claims different customs but can be no less rigid and passion-free in its formats and practice. The typical dialogue, unfortunately, is not actually dialogue but subtly veiled and cleverly expressed opinions disguised as audience-friendly.
Pardon my cynicism, but I’ve seen way too many “dialogues with Canadians” held by governments, businesses, and non-profits that start with a long-winded lecture, include a few minutes of Q & A, and conclude by thanking the audience for a wonderful exchange of views that confirmed what the organizers already believed when they walked into the room.
But I had two experiences last week that broke out of these rigid structures. The first was a science-inspired dance performance that premiered in Vancouver at the end of November and the second a student-run dialogue with citizens about conservation. These events revealed the creativity locked up beneath the usual formats, and both were telling reminders of the powerful emotions underlying my dual disciplines of science and dialogue.
The dance was Experiments: where logic and emotion collide, a collaboration between scientists and dancers that explores the boundaries of creativity and experimentation. This was a project of the LINK Dance Foundation , together with the Centre for Dialogue and the Scotiabank Dance Centre.
It evolved from conversations that began about three years ago between behavioural ecologists and dancers. These conversations initially consisted of the scientists talking and the dancers dancing their responses to the scientists’ words.
But then Gail Lotenberg, the artistic director of LINK, did an interesting thing with us science nerds. She made videos of us talking, then turned the natural hand movements we made as we talked into phrases for the dancers to perform. She began choreographing parts for scientists, and also asking dancers to say a few words as they danced.
The performance that emerged was a synthesis of fact and emotion, addressing and then breaking the boundaries between data and passion. The performance demolished the statistics-based, graph-oriented, fact-heavy and overly detached culture that science propagates. Feeling, fluidity and the artistic creativity that underlie dry data became our touchstones, as the numbers we work with literally began to dance.
I can’t speak for the dancers, but I recall early conversations in which several of them mentioned that they don’t really like to talk, believing that their points are best made through movement rather than conversation. Yet I noticed how verbally articulate they were about science by the time we premiered Experiments, both off stage and on.
Their internal ability to analyze and express concepts broke into language, just as we scientists broke through the cultural barriers in our own discipline to express ourselves through movement. Together we rewrote the formats prescribed for our disciplines, and in doing so we came to understand our work in the fullest sense. Intellectually, yes, but also with the passion and spiritual curiosity that were hidden at the deepest core of our scientific and choreographic personas.
Before Experiments we scientists did science. During and after, we felt science.
The second format-breaker was at a public dialogue put on by my students in SFU’s Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue , and the miracle happened because the students ignored my overly cautious advice.
The dialogue semester is an intensive, full-time program in which 20 students from diverse disciplines engage with a public issue. The fall 2010 issue is Energy. As one class project, the students decided to conduct a public dialogue in North Burnaby about conservation, which they titled ConservAction to encourage an active approach to conserving energy and resources.
It was an amazing evening, with over 100 citizens working together to develop personal change and public policies around energy ConservAction. The middle section of this dialogue engaged small groups of about 10-12 participants, each focused on a different aspect of energy: food, transportation, waste management, personal energy use, green technologies, and electricity, among others.
In a typical dialogue like this, a representative from each table would report the group’s findings to the large group, and this is what I recommended. But the students had a more lively format in mind. They asked groups to report their visions through creative media: poetry, theatre, collage, murals, movement, songs and others. Further, they provided only the last 15 minutes for groups to develop their creative approaches.
I didn’t think it would work. But the presentations were electrifying, each of them inventive, high-energy, passionate and succinct. In only a minute or two for each group, we saw plays, murals, poems, collages and dances that expressed the ideas with considerably more precision, accuracy, brevity and clarity than any speechified reporting system could have done.
Again, freed from the constraints of traditional format, participants had broken through the creative barrier. They seamlessly crossed boundaries between intellect and emotion, rigor and creativity, verbal and visceral, and they did it superbly well. In the students’ words: “The use of creative media inspired creative ways to make change.”
Experiments and ConservAction were stunning reminders of how profoundly our business-as-usual formats limit insights into our activities and ideas. For some of us it was seeing science through the lens of a dancer. Others saw dance through a scientist’s eyes. Citizens expressed ways to conserve electricity in a poem, and were inspired by creating a two-minute play about why kids should walk to school rather than be driven.
This is what I learned last week. Formats work best when they expand and intensify our perspectives, taking us from the shallow waters of fact and argument into deeper waters where passion, emotion and creativity provide the richest of experiences.
Mark L. Winston is Academic Director and a Fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue. He is also a bee biologist and a member of the Experiments team.