Group processes not only need skillful and effective facilitators; they also need participants or collaborators who are skilled and effective in contributing to the desired outcomes. To develop skills and dispositions of collaboration requires researchers (and researchers-in-training) to make opportunities for practicing what they have been introduced to and to persist even when they encounter resistance. What moves them to pursue such development?
I have had an opportunity to address this issue since 2004 through an annual series of experimental, interaction-intensive, interdisciplinary workshops “to foster collaboration among those who teach, study, and engage with the public about scientific developments and social change.” The workshops are documented in detail on their websites, but a thumbnail sketch would be: They are small, with international, interdisciplinary participants of mixed “rank” (i.e., from students, to professors). There is no delivery of papers; instead participants lead each other in activities, designed before or developed during the workshops, that can be adapted to college classrooms and other contexts and participate in group processes that are regular features of the workshops. The group processes are also offered as models or tools to be adapted or adopted in other contexts. The themes vary from year to year, but each workshop lasts four days and moves through four broad, overlapping phases—exposing diverse points of potential interaction; focusing on detailed case study; activities to engage participants in each other’s projects; and taking stock. The informal and guided opportunities to reflect on hopes and experiences during the workshop produce feedback that shapes the days ahead as well as changes to the design of subsequent workshops.
The ongoing evolution of the workshops has been stimulated not only by written and spoken evaluations, but also by an extended debriefing immediately following each workshop and advisory group discussions, such as one in 2008 that addressed the question of what moves people develop themselves as collaborators. Our conjecture was that this development happens when participants see an experience or training as transformative. After reviewing the evaluations we identified four “R’s”—respect, risk, revelation, and re-engagement—as conditions that make interactions among participants transformative (see below and Taylor et al. 2010 for elaboration and supporting quotations from the evaluations). A larger set of R’s for personal and professional development will be presented in a later post (indeed, the larger set pre-dated and had some influence on the formulation of these 4R’s).
Four R’s that make interactions among researchers transformative
1. Respect. The small number and mixed composition of the workshop participants means that participants have repeated exchanges with those who differ from them. Many group processes promote listening to others and provide the experience of being listened to. Participation in the activities emphasizes that each participant, regardless of background or previous experience has something valuable to contribute to the process and outcomes. In these and other ways, respect is not simply stated as a ground rule, but is enacted.
2. Risk. Respect creates a space with enough safety for participants to take risks of various kinds, such as, speaking personally during the autobiographical introductions, taking an interest in points of view distant in terms of discipline and experience, participating—sometimes quite playfully—during unfamiliar processes, and staying with the process as the workshop unfolds or “self-organizes” without an explicit agreement on where it is headed and without certainty about how to achieve desired outcomes.
3. Revelation. A space is created by respect and risk in which participants bring thoughts and feelings to the surface that articulate, clarify and complicate their ideas, relationships, and aspirations—in short, their identities. In the words of one participant: “The various activities do not simply build connections with others, but they necessitate the discovery of the identity of others through their own self-articulations. But since those articulations follow their own path, one sees them not as simple reports of some static truth but as new explorations of self, in each case. Then one discovers this has happened to oneself as much as to others-one discovers oneself anew in the surprising revelations that emerge in the process of self-revelation.”
4. Re-engagement. Respect, risk, and revelation combine so that participants’ “gears” engage allowing them to sustain quite a high level of energy during throughout the workshop. The participants engage actively with others, and, equally importantly, are reminded of their aspirations to work in supportive communities. Participants say they discover new possibilities for work with others on ideas they brought to the workshop.
Adapted from Taylor, P., S. Fifield and C. Young (2010) “Cultivating Collaborators: Concepts and Questions Emerging Interactively From An Evolving, Interdisciplinary Workshop,” Science as Culture, forthcoming.