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Yes-And: Setting the Tone for the Summer Institute

This posting is the first of series of weekly postings I’ll make in preparation for our 2009 Summer Institute. I’ll be sending similar comments via weekly email–but thought this might be a useful site to encourage more interactive discussion among us all.  In future postings I’ll share some of our thinking about what we do–and why–and about possible connections to the changing world of  higher education.  I’ll also talk about the general program for the Summer Institute.  In this posting I’d like to focus on setting the tone for our interactions.  I’d like to offer some guidance about the kind of attitude that should permeate our work together with the Summer Institute.  This should also be useful guidance to share with your students when they engage in student-centered discussions.

In our work together, it’s vital to adopt an attitude of  “yes-and,” a spirit of creative generosity and innovation.  This is one way to embody generosity of spirit, a core aspect of our approach to discussions.  Let me share a snippet from Stephen Colbert, who offered this as general advice to the 2006 graduates of Knox College; it is particularly good advice when it comes to thinking about how you should approach our discussions:

So, say “yes.” In fact, say “yes” as often as you can. When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the “-and.” And then hopefully they “yes-and” you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.

(Colbert’s 2006 Knox Commencement Speech )

This attitude lies at the heart of our approach to exploratory and collaborative discussions.  It’ll shape what we do together in the Summer Institute, and it’ll shape what your students do when they engage in student-centered discussions.  When we engage in this kind of generative discussion, we don’t really have a script.  Sure, there is a general structure and an overall arc of development, but we don’t know exactly how things are going to develop or what insights will emerge along the way.  We’ll likely end up at places that are a surprise to us.  Places we’d never likely have found on our own.  We won’t know in advance whether some lines of discussion may lead us astray or whether, by such meandering, we’ll actually come upon important discoveries, discoveries we might never have found without such a detour.  Adopting an attitude of saying “yes-and” will do much to boost the creative potential of our discussions.

In my email I mentioned a section from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, where he gives a quick illustration of the importance of the attitude of “yes-and.”  It is from a part of the book on “the Structure of Spontaneity” (pp. 111-117) that is particularly apt for what we’re doing (actually, the whole book sheds a lot of light on the kind of social cognition and thinking that is vital to discussion facilitation).  The section on the Structure of Spontaneity  is quite applicable to what we’ll be doing together.  It might help you in thinking about your approach to our discussions.

–Jeff Prudhomme