interdisciplinary dialogues - what is research?

The Interdisciplinary Dialogues 2009/10 series I am organizing in the PhD in Humanities at Concordia Universty, took place for the first time this term with the opening session entitled “Art as Research.” The overall theme for this year focuses on the question of “What is Research?” As part of the annually curriculum the PhD in Humanities is having the Interdisciplinary Dialogues as a platform for PhD students in the program to share ideas with their peers and faculty and to get their work discussed in light of particular topics.

The emphasis of the conceptual framework lies in the notion of “dialogues.” From last year’s experience and due to a general discomfort with terms like panel or paper presentations, this year’s series aims at creating an environment of mutual exchange of ideas in relation to a specific theme. Thus, the PhD students were asked to give 10 minute insights into their work in conjunction with the session’s theme. Once the presentations are over, a discussion with the audience is generated by a faculty member. In our case Owen Chapman from Concordia’s Communication Department took on the role of the discussant.

What follows are some remarks that are based on the experience of this first panel and the experiment it comprised. The presentations were all exercised in perfect idiosyncratic and thoughtful ways. I think the audience received insights into five very different projects that have very different angles around the problematic field of art as research. From preceding discussions the presenters knew each other which turned out to be very beneficial for the session as such. Hence, the challenge of proposing a problematic field instead of a bold statement or a mere provocation played not really in favour of the creative collaboration I envisioned for the session. Once the floor was opened for the audience, people (in reference to one individual in the audience that unfolded the problematic in a more than determinstic mode of thought [à la art vs. science vs. philosophy]) often fell back in defending academic disciplines, their value for dialogues, and their strengths in adressing the issue of art as research.

During the course of the discussion it turned out that the setting of an interesting theme, great presentations, and a discussant, are not necessarily enough, if it is not possible to divert deterministic lines of thought in favour of more productive forces. The techniques at stake need to be more refined without cutting the proces of actual collaborative thought. Hence, and this is the curicial question here, what is needed for a collective thought to emerge? I actually think, that the potential for such a collective process was immanently present but did not actualize due to particular circumstances. This is in its core a very political problem. On the one hand, we have to warrant a certain openness for a process to freely develop in its unpredictability. On the other hand we need a political commitment that is able to cut creatively and therefore to generate new openings. The political act resides not in the selective mode of amplification of a preferred line over others (always the problem of a positioning such as “right” or “left”). On the contrary, the political act here lies in the very attentiveness towards a process that need to be maintained open for new modes of collective expression. In other words, not a strategy or tactic that provides a direction but a continuous critical re-posing of the problematic at stake and its creative productivity.

Once the session was in a certain mode oriented (or territorialized), the refrain, with which the territory appears, became so strong that it disabled any re-emergence of a creative collective process. Participants fell back into straight-forward and short-handed exercises of rehearsing the jargon of their accustomed and inscribed disciplinary modes of thought. What would have been necessary was a little cut to open up another line and therefore a new field of potentials. In that sense a discussant can take on such a job, an audience member as well or one of the presenters (ideally we might want to get to a point where these differentiations are somewhat obsolete). The question refers for me to a lack of intensity and resonance. Certainly a molar resonance developed according to a strong refrain - the deterministic statement according to molar blocks of thought. But there was another resonance immanent yet not activated. The discussion that the presenting students generated in the meetings before bore plenty of potential for a collective mode of thought. A group-intensity, a comfort and ground to work from were the immanent forces that could have been activated to generate a new shift towards a processual opening.

We have two more chances to experiment in the coming sessions. Let’s hope things get more often cut productively than they did this time.

1 comment

Devora Neumark

November 22nd, 2009

As one of the participants in the inaugural Interdisciplinary Dialogues session, I feel compelled to respond to your post for two reasons. To begin with, I want to publicly register my appreciation for your efforts inviting the conditions within academia for greater collaboration and the coemergence of unfolding meaning (to use the term often associated with the David Bohm Dialogues group). I also want to extend your thought-provoking critical reflections on the event by pointing to the work of William Isaacs, who following Bohm’s initiative articulated the process of dialogue in his 1999 publication Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. While I have reservations about some of what Isaacs does with his analysis of the dialogue process, on more than one occasion when I have been asked to convene dialogue circles, I have relied on his study to make sense of the challenges that arise within the process. Describing four stages within a dialogue arc, Isaacs elaborates on the different kinds of leadership necessary and the different crises associated with each. He also points to the necessity of having enough time for the group to process (through) each stage – something the group assembled for the “Art as Research” event did not have.

I have come to understand that dialogue, like the creative process, is a process that cohabits with conflict as a vital force of change. From this angle I am encouraged by the potential within the Interdisciplinary Dialogues series to embrace the possibilities of reflective and generative dialogue, possibilities which require practice in (and the cultivation of) active listening without defensiveness; “[exploring] underlying causes, rules, and assumptions to get to deeper questions and framing of problems” (Isaacs: 41); and dealing skillfully with strong opinions – all of which I think are central to the project of developing collaborative scholarship.

Perhaps if participants (and here I mean all the people present in the room during one the Interdisciplinary Dialogues events) were given an introduction to the principles of dialogue and offered an overview of the intention, processes, and challenges inherent in dialogue (as distinct from debate, discussion, and dialectic), together we could create the conditions wherein politeness and argumentation (both necessary preliminary stages leading to generative dialogue according to Bohm and Isaacs) give way to the “fields of conversation” within which new insights emerge.

Dialogue, like creativity is a practice, one that challenges individuals and social groups to move beyond fixed positions, cognitive patterns and affective strategies. I think that the Interdisciplinary Dialogues events can provide opportunities for people (myself included) to become more skillful at checking their resistances and learning to collaborate as members of the Academy.

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