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Getting the Process Started

Our focus in the blog and in the Summer Institute is on exploring connections between the Interactivity Foundation’s “sanctuary discussion process” and the classroom.  In earlier postings I’ve talked about the character of our approach to collaborative and exploratory discussions and about setting the proper tone for such discussions.  In the next few postings I’ll  focus on the stages in the discussion process, describing how it flows through roughly three stages: generating questions, generating diverse responses to those questions, and then revising those responses by exploring some of their implications or possible consequences.  Today I’ll focus on getting started and the first stage of the discussion process: exploring and developing different ways to frame the basic questions that we might ask about the discussion topic.

Before jumping in, however, I want to emphasize that this discussion process is intended to flow organically, like a natural conversation. Think of a time when you were part of a really good conversation, one that led to a real breakthrough or new insights.  It’s likely that it often changed direction as new perspectives opened up, or it may have circled around to pick up earlier points that seemed to be left behind. There were undoubtedly times when you were stymied and didn’t know what to say.  We think of the sanctuary discussion process as flowing in such a self-directed and non-linear manner.  We don’t see it as marching forward in a mechanical fashion. And while it doesn’t proceed by systematic or logical derivation, there is a definite “logic” to how it unfolds.  You’ll find that the different “stages” of the discussion are not rigidly separated from each other, even while there is a progressive development over time.

  • Prologue: Starting with a Rich Area of Concern

Before the discussions get started, you’ve got to develop a topic. We often refer to this as an “area of social and political concern” or just an “area of concern.”  What we’re trying to convey is that the discussion topics are intended to be complex ones that can’t be readily reduced to a single problem or issue.  You might think of an area of concern as surrounding a whole host of intertwined and intersecting problems and issues.  We want to help people think big–and that means starting with big issues or concerns.  These are the very things that are usually pushed aside because they seem too big or complex for anyone or anyone discipline to deal with.  These are topics that don’t have simple answers. These are topics that are so complex that they really call for people to approach them from a variety of perspectives.  In our projects, we typically choose topics where the facilitator is not an expert, because there an advantage to having a beginner’s mind when approaching the area of concern.  This can be a helpful attitude in the classroom, and with interdisciplinary collaboration, as well.

To get to a broad area of concern, you might find it helpful to step back from more concrete problems to think of the more general issues that surround them. For example, say you were thinking about recent advances in genetic testing. You might initially think of specific problems like whether insurers should cover genetic tests or whether you’d want to have a test for a specific condition. You might wonder what would happen if your insurer or employer required you to undergo genetic testing. You might wonder what could be revealed about you from such testing–and whether others might want to get their hands on this information. Pretty soon you’ll start to see how big questions of social justice, morality, cultural and personal identity, get intertwined with questions of economics and politics.  And you might start to wonder if something could be done to alter your genetics, or to turn genes on or off.  Instead of thinking just about genetic testing, and what we might do about this or that test, you might start to think more broadly about all the things we humans could do regarding our genetics.  If you expand the area of concern to “human genetic technology” you might then explore the interrelated concerns regarding genetic testing, genetic manipulation, or even stem cell therapies or human cloning.

  • Raising Questions, Exploring and Describing the Area of Concern

The first stage of your actual discussions will focus on developing an expanded description of the area of concern. We often talk about this in terms of “describing–not defining.”  You’re not trying to delimit the area of concern. You’re not trying to say definitively what it is all about.  Instead, you’re trying to generate different possible descriptions of what the area of concern might be about.  One way to get at this is by exploring different basic questions we might face regarding the area of concern.  Raising questions is a different kind of mindset from making assertions.  The activity of questioning can open us up to possibilities.  Further, when you explore different ways to frame these basic questions, you might begin to reflect upon the guiding presuppositions or values that inform the different ways to think about the area of concern.  Typically there are untested assumptions or unquestioned principles that guide a lot of our thinking. This is a time to test them out, to reflect upon them, and  to question them.  This can also help you uncover the various dimensions that might make up that area of concern, whether these be moral, social, cultural, economic, psychological, political, etc.  This is a time to explore the different questions that might be asked from these different perspectives.

As you begin to generate these questions, you’ll likely find that at first they are fairly specific. If we go back to the genetic technology example, the early questions might be more along the lines of “should an insurer pay for genetic testing?” or “do I want to know the results of a genetic test?”  As the discussions expand, these might lead to questions like, “what concerns about access to genetic technology services might we have as a society?” or “how might unequal access to genetic services impact our society?”  And you might get to big questions like, “who should get to make the key decisions about using genetic technologies–or not using them?” or “how might human genetic technologies impact my sense of identity as a human, as a parent, as a free individual, or as a member of a distinct cultural or ethnic community?”

The key is to generate an expanding description of the different concerns that make up the area of concern.  You’re not trying to reduce to the one question that should be answered.  You’re trying to explore the different possible questions that might emerge from different perspectives.  You’re trying to explore the different ways to frame the area of concern.  The point is not to create a systematically complete account of the area of concern, since you don’t want to get locked into one particular way of framing the key issues. This is a case where there is a value to discontinuity and where gaps can be useful for provoking divergent insights.  Once you have developed a rich description of the area of concern, it’ll be time to turn to the next step: trying to answer some of the questions you’ve raised.

–Jeff Prudhomme