Toxic Engagements at the End of Summer School

By Eva Giraud (Lecturer, MCC)

Despite the post’s title, this blog isn’t addressing the dramatic question of what to do ‘when public engagement turns toxic’! Instead it’s a reflection on a workshop that I was involved with at Nottingham Contemporary gallery as part of their public programme, which – though having toxicity as its theme – was designed to create a convivial rather than a poisonous environment.

The invasive species table

The workshop was part of a three-day event, the End of Summer School (which I’ve blogged about in more detail here). I facilitated day two of the event, with Lynne Pettinger (Warwick) and Greg Hollin (Nottingham), that involved a workshop and a panel discussion oriented around environmental questions (the latter of which MCC’s Pawas Bisht also made an excellent contribution to). Although the three days were organised around themes that took inspiration from Guattari’s Three Ecologies – mental ecologies, environmental issues, and formal institutions – the purpose was not just to have a philosophical discussion about these issues. Instead the event involved academics from a range of disciplines, including sociology, science and technology studies, critical theory, media and cultural studies, in order to ask questions about institutions and environments that shape our everyday lives. The Summer School, however, was not just about bringing academics together, but about bringing different publics and creative practitioners together, in order to share knowledge and – ultimately – produce research collaboratively.

The three days raised a number of questions about how we could facilitate conversations that were both interdisciplinary and engaged with people coming from a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds. There were some obvious practical things that we could do, such as make sure we had at least one evening event every day that people who worked during the daytime could attend. We also worked hard to ensure the evening events were accessible and appealed to broad audiences, day 1 included an entertaining map (re-) making activity, for instance, which helped link theory to practice, and the final day had a talk by Andrew McGettigan about some of the analyses of HE that he’d published in the Guardian. For the day we co-facilitated, we all spent time making it clear to speakers on our panel how they needed to pitch their work as well as selecting people whose research would have broad appeal. In addition, rather than following the panel with a standard Q & A, where only a few people would have the opportunity to ask questions, we broke out into smaller groups who were joined by the speakers. This allowed a greater number of people to be involved in talking about issues that had been raised in an informal way, before moving to a larger group discussion. While group discussions might be standard practice in university seminars, it was helpful thinking though how this sort of structure could translate to the context of a public talk.

In contrast with the evening sessions, the afternoons were designed to have fewer participants (with numbers capped at 30) and this allowed us to experiment with alternative formats, in order to encourage debate and dialogue. On our day, for instance, we wanted to ensure was that informal hierarchies didn’t emerge between people who came from an academic background and those who didn’t, or between those who happened to know a lot about a topic and those who were new to it. Despite my best efforts, when I’ve convened public reading and discussion groups in the past, I’ve sometimes struggled to create a dynamic where everyone feels confident speaking and where people with technical knowledge don’t leave others feeling lost. Although an easy way of resolving these issues could be to draw on my own authority and shut down people who are talking ‘too much’ or encourage ‘quieter’ people to speak, this strategy has problems of its own. Trying to chair informal discussions too firmly, for instance, can reinstate the expert/non-expert binary that this sort of format is aiming to break down, as well as introducing value judgements about people’s contributions.

The Territory Grab

The Territory Grab

When we were discussing how to avoid these pitfalls in our workshop, Lynne suggested a format – World Café – that provided a different take on knowledge-exchange. A more detailed outline of how we implemented this approach is available here, but the way we structured things was to have four facilitators (myself and Lynne were joined by the fantastic Rebecca Beinart and Des Fitzgerald for this), who instigated conversation about a topic within four small groups. After about 20 minutes some participants would ‘group swap’, while others remained where they were, and an exchange of knowledge took place, before the new groups focused in again on their given topic. We’d tried to make the subjects accessible, covering everything from toxic toy production to decidedly un-charismatic animals, and most groups began with tasks to generate discussion. Rebecca got people to ‘rank’ invasive species according to criteria such as ‘usefulness’ or ‘beauty’, for instance, whilst Des asked people to discuss sources of urban stress. The aim of all of the swapping around was to identify some of the key barriers to addressing problems raised by the discussions, about how to intervene in different ‘toxic environments’.

While this structure might sound complex, I was impressed and (very pleasantly) surprised with how well it worked. Everyone seemed to really enjoy discussing issues from different angles and making connections between topics that – on first glance – didn’t seem to have an obvious relation to one another. The format provided a helpful means of exploring issues from different angles and, because we maximised opportunities for speaking, a greater number of people could participate in the production of knowledge. I certainly left with new insights about how conservation could be conceptualised, and with a clearer sense of what my own work could contribute to key debates. I felt, therefore, that this approach was helpful in meeting the aims of the Summer School, acting as a starting point for more collaborative forms of research.

In addition to being a good opportunity to experiment with formats for public events, the workshop also made me reflect on my own teaching practice; I’ve discussed issues about informal hierarchies in university contexts before, and the World Café made me wonder if I could tailor the format for seminars or workshops. This is certainly something I will attempt to do over the next year.

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