I’m now two weeks into my IF sponsored course, which is a senior capstone seminar called “Facilitating Public Conversations about the Environment.” There are 21 students, about half of whom have had me for a previous class. They are a good group– very talkative and (at least so far) engaged in what we are doing. They are all senior communication studies majors, so they have done a LOT of working in groups for other classes and they have also thought a lot about things like listening, giving feedback, providing arguments, weighing pros and cons of issues, etc. So, my whole focus in these first two weeks has been to tell them that they have important skills and knowledge that positions them well to lead public conversations. What I’m trying to do with this class, I’ve told them, is to give them a framework for their knowledge and give them real experience facilitating and working through policy possibilities about a particular issue. So far they seem to be into it… we’ll see how it goes.
I spent the first two weeks of class introducing them to the wacky idea that citizens could engage in fruitful conversations about important public issues and giving them some examples of citizen deliberation, discussion, and dialogue projects. We spent some time discussing Jeff’s issue book “Helping America Talk,” which went ok. I needed to leave more time for it, I think. Although it was really helpful to get them thinking about the issue of public conversation, we didn’t have the time to give each of the policy options a fair shake. So, I ended up asking them to work in smaller groups to look at one of the policy options and that worked ok. I may return to this near the end of the class when they have more context and more time.
One thing that I have been pleased with so far is that last Tuesday I did what I was calling a “fishbowl facilitation” demonstration. We spent time in class talking about what facilitators do. In addition to asking questions that guide the group’s discussion of the content, facilitators also need to keep an eye on the group process. One way to think about that is that facilitators need to (a) observe behavior, (b) interpret what that behavior might mean (taking into account who the group is, how long they’ve known each other, what they are trying to do, etc.), and (c) decide whether or not to intervene in the group to help shape the process. As an example, we talked about how if one person is doing all the talking in a group, a facilitator ought to NOTICE that dynamic, figure out what is probably going on (is this problematic? why aren’t others talking? is this one person being helpful for the group or taking time away from others? do other people in the group seem to notice or care? etc.), and decide whether to intervene or not (probably so in this example). It’s not always that linear, but this is a starting point.
So… after that conversation as a class, I had four students volunteer to be in a group, facilitated by me, while the other students watched. I gave the observing students a handout that asked them to write down a behavior/pattern they notice, interpret what they thought it meant, and then what they would say as a facilitator in this situation. I facilitated the conversation with my small group –we talked about the qualities of a good group and what groundrules they would want to put in place for their work together. After about 15 minutes I asked the observing students to tell us what they saw. It went really well. They noticed things like “Jody always spoke first and I think that was probably because of the way Laura was standing when she facilitated. She looked at Jody a lot, so maybe Jody felt pressured to talk.” Another said “Matt was really agreeable. He said ‘yes’ and ‘I agree’ a lot. Since the group is just getting started, I think that is ok and I wouldn’t intervene. But, if this agreeableness kept going all the time when the group was trying to make a decision then I’d remind them that disagreeing is useful to help analyze pros and cons.” Good stuff.
Tomorrow we start talking about environmental communication. It will be the first day that they work in the groups they’ll be in for the rest of the term. One of the first things I’m asking them to do is to have a conversation about what makes a good group and what groundrules they can put in place for their own group to use throughout the quarter. Hopefully the conversation last week will help with this. They start their facilitation on Thursday. So far I’m pleased with how it is going. I’m nervous about being able to give them good feedback about their facilitation in class, but we’ll see how it goes.