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When process is the content…

My class is almost over and overall I’ve been really pleased with how much the students have taken to facilitating and how easily they now talk about things like possibilities, consequences, and facilitation skills.  They are all comfortable preparing for and leading group discussions now, and I’ve seen remarkable improvement in their ability to work together in groups over the past ten weeks.  I wish I had these same students for the next quarter so we could implement some of the learnings they have about facilitating and public conversation into a more public forum.  I may try to get a few who are interested in pursuing discussions on campus, but most of them are starting to show signs of senior-itis and spring fever… alas.

I think my biggest challenge has actually been managing the relationship between IF process and course content.  My students had two facilitation assignments: the first was leading a group discussion about a chapter from the environmental communication textbook.  In that case, really all they were doing (in IF language) would be exploring the issues related to course content.  The lessons for them as facilitators were about asking exploratory questions, capturing group input in some way, and learning to think about process.  I think these were a huge success in terms of student learning and skill development, but they were just one small piece of the IF process.

The second facilitation has been much more involved, and is also where I think the link to course content has been a struggle.  In this project they are going through the IF process, taking turns facilitating, and creating a discussion guide about a local environmental issue that could be used in a citizen discussion.  Our readings, have been about public dialogue, citizen discussion, and deliberative democracy.  Although I see clear links between the conceptual and empirical work we are reading and the process they are going through, the “content” of the course at this point has been very much about facilitation process and how facilitation is linked to public engagement and democracy– not environmental communication.  As communication students (not political theorists), my students really pick up on the process aspects of the readings.  So, from their perspective, the content and process are one and the same.  In that sense, they start to feel like the readings and ideas are redundant and not linked to the content of their actual projects.

In retrospect, I would design this course differently to embed the environmental communication content throughout (instead of as one distinct unit of the course) and do more of the public engagement process early, I think.  In some ways I think it’s much easier or more straightforward to separate content from process (by using IF process to talk about some other issue) than it is to have process and content tangled up together.  I know other communication folks (Tim, Allen, Windy, Pixie, etc.)  have participated in the IF summer institute and done some of this stuff in their courses and I wonder how that has worked out. I’m also curious to hear about other folks’ management of content/process with IF courses.

Of course, I’m always my own worst critic and it’s not clear to me yet what the students think.  Next week they are doing final presentations about their issue and their group process, and also turning in their major paper in which they reflect on their experience facilitating and being part of the IF process.  I’ll have a much better sense about their perspective after that.

I’m also at a point now where I’m re-thinking the design of the course on organizational communication that I’m teaching next quarter (April-June) and plan to use more of an IF approach.  I’ve learned a lot reading the blog entries here, I’m very glad to have this forum for continued conversation.