"What we can do to help each other with `agency'"
Report on an exploratory workshop held at Swarthmore College, April 17-19, 1998
Organized by Peter Taylor, Lang Professor for Social Change, 1997-98

Note: This report aims to convey the aims of the workshop and create a picture of its process. Readers are invited to speak to the organizer or other participants to learn more about the content and outcomes.

Precirculated prospectus
The program as it turned out

Precirculated prospectus
Who and what has agency? How is it constrained, facilitated, and structured? Who makes claims about these issues; where, when, and why? What can we do to enhance the agency of ourselves and others, both in and out of the academy?

These kinds of questions -- whether or not framed explicitly in terms of agency -- arise in many arenas, in many ways, and for many different "we's":
Biologists debate the evolutionary selfishness of genes and their causal role in producing human behaviors. Observers of biotechnology question who is empowered by the information resulting from newly developed DNA makers for diseases. Resource economists and anthropologists examine whether peasants and indigenous populations can (re)establish institutions that regulate resource management. (This question takes the form both of an abstract consideration of collective governance as well as an immediate practical challenge in the era of structural adjustment, neo-liberal reforms, and international environmentalism.) "Actor-network" interpreters of science highlight the role of technologies and other non-human "actants" in shaping the outcome of scientific investigations. Other science studies scholars ask whether this formulation reduces human agency to a lowest common denominator. College teachers wonder what effect they have "on students' long-term capacity to make sense of and act upon the challenges and opportunities that the field's scholar-teachers teach, write, and care about?" (Mike Maniates, Allegheny College) Scholars concerned with social change seek ways to connect with, acknowledge, and facilitate the work of activists. Tenured academics who notice the "downsizing" of the academy, in particular, the replacement of professorial lines with temporary or underremunerated teachers, ask how they should organize, mentor graduate students, and support less privileged colleagues. And so on.

The starting point for this workshop is that these diverse questions and lines of inquiry are related, that the theoretical, pedagogical, practical, and political aspects of issues of agency can be linked so as to be mutually informing. This is increasingly the case in my own work [1] and I want to explore with others the potential for such cross-facilitation. It is important to me that the experience of the workshop as a process should open up new possibilities for each of us -- thus, the "What we can do to help each other" in the title. In this spirit, I want the workshop to involve experiments with different forms of interaction. To increase the chance of participants being open to such exploration, the workshop will be small and based around a core of friends, correspondents, and Swarthmore colleagues whose work connects with mine in some ways. I expect, therefore, we will find each others work engaging on conceptual, empirical, and experiential levels. I do not expect that we will meet specific goals of, say, "furthering theories of agency in natural resource studies." Nevertheless, from my knowledge of each of you, you can expect to be interested in the insights, experience, struggles, and plans of the other participants. And to gain tools, connections, and confidence to help in exploring new themes and practices -- including how to conduct academic meetings in more fruitful and supportive ways. That is certainly my hope.

The program as it turned out

Before the workshop:
Proposals were solicited for experiential sessions, that is, instead of the session leaders telling us what they have thought or found out, they lead us to experience the issues and directions they are exploring. (This format comes from the International Sociey for Exploring Teaching Alternatives (ISETA) and lends itself to communicating pedagogy, but should be adaptable to other topics.[2] )
(See note [3] for some plans that didn't much happen.)

* Food and social gathering for those who arrived early enough.

* Welcome and brief introduction by PT

* Spoken autobiographies/stories, centered around how each of us has come to be working on agency in some sense. Material emerging in such sessions provides more and different context than formal presentations -- We know more than we are usually able to say, and opening this to exploration in subsequent conversations and sessions is an important basis for (inter)connecting our work.

*Supportive listening in pairs

* Cardstorming, facilitated by KB -- an ICA [4] workshop method for collecting and synthesizing the contributions of the group about what we would like to have accomplished by the end of the workshop
Clusters that emerged:
0 Learned new models and paradigms
0 Discovered new questions and the answers were in our stories
0 To envision/act on new practices
+0 We treated each otherwith care, curiousity and humor
% Learned different expressions of limitations of academic practice
% Use of humor helps apprehend two forms of reality (+ve & -ve)
* Possibilities for intersections connecting intellectual with practical
* Time was spent on how to take back home new practices
* Specific questions with group contributing answers
* All engaged in process, but from our own individual places
* We "grew" the value of educating citizens
- We stayed within time parameters

* As we adjourned, Yrjö commented" "One commonality is we've all had to unlearn something."

*Dinner and hanging out.

*Peter T. One "something" many of us had to unlearn is defining ourselves by "undoing" what's wrong.
The themes from the list might be thought of as in terms of a pairing
-- getting comfortable about letting go of undoing
-- getting specific support/resources for envisioning and enacting new practices

*Freewriting on what struck us from the first day.

*Brainstorming, informed by the cardstorming, autobiographies and precirculated papers, about the sequence of sessions and new sessions to develop.

*Peter E.: "Exploring our voices: the range of voices that could be said to be part of us or available to us."
(List voices that are important to me, pick one that you don't often use & write in that voice, practice a phrase in that voice. Discussion.)

*Judy: "Colorful Histories: The Use of Personal Narrative in Studying Gender, Race and Class"
Teaching sociology & women's studies through personal memoirs (chosen to familiarize students w/ unfamiliar voices/worlds, fostering reflexivity in act of reading, and creating a group culture that supports reflexivity)

*Educating scientists to be reflective -- 10 minute presentations by:
Peter T. -- how can we make complexity facilitate social change?
(I am interested in this question from three angles:
A) In terms of scientific concepts and evidence;
B) In terms of social influences on scientists as they establish what counts as knowledge; and
C) In terms of the influences A & B can have on further scientific research and on its invocation in the policy arena.)
Yrjö -- biodiversity is an opportunity to get beyond natural/cultural divide
Scott -- stories/metaphors are maningful in science
Connections with different people's work

*Using non-agentic, relational language by Ken, Mary, and John
"What if we tried to go without using ideas of blame, individual responsibility, agency, and so on"
Format: Introduction (related to precirculated paper on relational responsibility). Scenario modeled by Mary & Ken. Further scenarios invented and acted out by small groups. Group discussion where we say what we think about this possibility (MG: "Some people hate it.")

* John: Activity of passing a book with a cup of liquid on it down a table and back again, to illustraet joint action, whose meaning is dialogically structured

*Dinner and social gathering.

*Completing PT's connection sheets (yet to be linked to the site) and drawing a sense-of-place map.
Name, Contact info, Oragnizations I'm associated with that some of you may be interested in connecting with or learning more about, Practices (old & new) that are important to my work, Other people important to my envisioning and enacting new practices, Epigrams, Open Qs...

*"Vivid, living examples" (JS): CC's videos about women in the military (3 options: i) be a woman (make-up etc.) and not be treated seriously; ii) be a man (deny difference); or iii) be a woman who ironically succeeds at being a man)

*KB facilitates historical reviewing the workshop.

*Apprecations and sharing of what you plan to apply or develop further from the workshop. (Led by JL)

Ken Brown (Forestry, Lakehead University; experiential learning and facilitation of collaboration; President of ISETA)
Carol Cohn (Sociology, Bowdoin College; feminism and militarism)
Giovanna DiChiro (Environmental Studies, Allegheny College; environmental justice and alternative sources of scientific expertise)
Peter Elbow (English, U. Mass. Amherst; teaching writing `with power' and 'voice')
Ken Gergen (Psychology, Swarthmore; social constructions of mind; relational theory of the person, relational practices in organizations)
Mary Gergen (Psychology, Penn State; feminist Critiques of sex/gender in psychology; performative psychology)
Scott Gilbert (Biology, Swarthmore; embryology and evolution; metaphors and narratives of development)
Yrjö Haila (Regional & Environmental Studies, Tampere, Finland; ecology of biodiversity; philosophy and politics of ecology; constitution of environmental policy; the interface between ecology and society; art and nature)
Pat James (Swarthmore; experiential training, teambuilding, leadership development, and conflict resolution with respect to issues of class, race, gender, and other "isms")
Judy Long (Sociology &Women's Studies, independent scholar; personal narratives as windows on the construction and reconstruction of social organization in the everyday world)
Gwen Mills (Coordinator of Cornell-community 'collaborative problem solving' group trying to assess and select medical waste treatment technology -- organizational backup person for the workshop)
John Shotter (Communication, University of New Hampshire; social constructionism; establishing dialogical practices within existing practices; instituting self-reflective and self-developing practices in health care, worklife, and other settings.)
Wes Shumar (Education & Anthropology, Swarthmore & Drexel; anthropology of education, environmental education; commodification of higher education)
Peter Taylor (Swarthmore; `distributed' agency in the `heterogeneous construction' of environment, science, and society; critical reflexive practice within the natural and social sciences; teaching critical thinking about biology and society)

Regretfully not attending, but keeping in touch:
Arun Agrawal (Politics and Agrarian Studies, Yale; community-based resource management; current popularity of `community')
Iain Boal (freelance geography, environmental history, etc., Berkeley)
Brenda Dervin (Communication, Ohio State; sense-making methodology and analysis in information and many other areas)
Raúl García Barrios (UNAM, Cuernavaca; agrarian micro-institutions; erosion of ability of peasants to reorganize these under neo-liberal reforms)
Arlene Katz (Social Medicine, Harvard; hearing the patient's voice, including "young residents consulting with a Council of Elders").
Bonnie McCay (Eco-policy Center, Rutgers; institutions for management of common property resources)
Meta Mendel-Reyes (Politics, Swarthmore; popular education; democratic theory and practice)
Richard Sclove (Loka Institute; making science and technology responsive to democratically decided social and environmental concerns)
Anna Tsing (Anthropology, U C Santa Cruz; intersections of environmentalists and peoples at the margins)


[2] As just one, compressed example, Susan Oyama stimulated me to think about the persistence in biology of metaphors and theories that rely on agents hidden within agents (e.g., Dawkins' "selfish genes") to explain development and historical change. She relates this to our primary experience of ourselves as subjects maturing from dependence and passivity to independence and control, increasingly able to impart order according to prior knowledge and plan. But, she notes, we also exhibit intelligence in the form of adjusting to obstacles, accomplishing things that do not reflect a plan. My thinking is that, if metaphors build upon our experience, then, in order to get beyond agents-within-agent concepts, scholars need to highlight the experience of ourselves as subjects that are interacting and inter-dependent. And develop ways of better representing that experience and create more of it. This last thought turns me towards "process" work, especially in teaching and social change groups, that help people recognize what is going on and do better in difficult situations.

[2] For example, last fall at the ISETA meetings I ran a session, part of which was a class simulation though which students experience Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" model for overexploitation of a shared natural resource and then reflect on and criticize the model. At the same time, in order to elicit ISETA participants' best thinking about productive use of ambiguity in relation to critical thinking, I asked them to be student-participants in the class simulation and to make observations on the simulation from the point of view of either a student or a teacher. Discussion of these observations formed the second part of the session.

*Pre-circulation of p/reprints -- either of your work or work that has challenged you lately -- accompanied by "sense-making" contextualization. [5]
*Connections made based on this prospectus, precirculated materials, and email exchanges. From these connections, further suggestions and pre-planning for additional sessions might arise.
*Participants who have more experience in "instigating process" may help the more "content-oriented" of us plan ways to depart from the usual conference paper presentation followed by discussion.
*Conceiving and preparing sessions for this kind of workshop will challenge us to identify the background needed for motivating discussion about the problems that are most difficult for us.

[4] ICA, the Institute for Cultural Affairs, run workshops on facilitating groups (which include classes, grass roots activist organizations, and more recently, businesses) to address challenging or difficult situations and arrive at a plan for action that the group members are clear about and motivated to implement. See http://www.icacan.ca/ and Spencer, L. J. (1989). Winning Through Participation. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt.

[5] Brenda Dervin, in the Department of Communication at Ohio State, has developed a "Sense-Making" approach to the development of information seeking and use. One finding from Sense-Making research is that people make much better sense of seminar presentations and other scholarly contributions when these are accompanied by contextual information along the following lines:
a) The reason(s) I took this road is (are)...
b) The best of what I have achieved is...
c) What has been particularly helpful to me in this project has been...
d) What has hindered me, what I have struggled with has been...
e) What would help me now is...
Reference: Dervin, B. (1996). "Chaos, order, and sense-making: A proposed theory for information design," in Robert Jacobson (ed.) Information Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Also available at http://edfu.lis.uiuc.edu/allerton/95/s5/dervin.draft.html.

Peter Taylor 9/4/00