Steps in a Process Part Two: Useful Disruption

I suppose there is a sense in which it’s good for people to start to feel comfortable within the process of learning to discuss texts. It’s hard to imagine how a group could ever take shape if its members weren’t more or less at home in it, and no group can take over responsibility if it doesn’t begin to cohere as a group. What this all means is that participants need to find roles in their group that they can feel comfortable playing.

But the very heart of the objectives that Touchstones – or Wonn Refleksyon – sets for itself is to help people learn to recognize and modify their habitual roles. This is central to taking responsibility for one’s own education, central to our becoming increasingly active within our education – not just as who we are, but as who we are choosing to be. And this aspect of our work runs directly counter to the need to help participants feel at home in the group, because the roles we generally settle into at first reflect more than anything the roles we play in other aspects of our lives, especially our academic lives if we are teachers or students.

This has been true in spades of our Saturday group. They came to the group, as a whole, as strong students. Such students provide impressive answers to what they view as the questions in a text that any good academic would probably have in mind. They might contribute their outside knowledge of a text: Our most forceful participant told us, wrongly it turns out, that an excerpt labeled as coming from the Iliad was actually taken from a play by Racine, and he proceeded to describe the content of that play. His knowledge of that play was, for him, the context within which we, as academics, should address the excerpt. Or such students refer to a text’s purported social or historical context: A student told us that we had to see Hector’s doomed choice to leave his wife and return to battle in the context of the Greek sense of honor, which he explained at great length. Or they might connect the text to what seem like important academic and societal questions or concepts – existwntialism, political ideologies, historical issues. In our class, other members of the group, also strong students, would follow such leads, adding their short comments whenever there might be a little space.

The overall strength of the members of this particular group was, almost from the start, how fluidly many of them spoke, so we would pass from one long speech to another without much space in between. Or much connection, either. These speeches might be punctuated by quick questions or short comments from other members of the group, but such questions and comments only served to invite further speechifying.

These long-acquired habits can’t change very much unless participants become aware of them and of the consequences they have. They must make their sense of the discussion, and not just of the issues under discussion, explicit. They must turn their collective attention to the activity itself.

There are various ways to do this within Touchstones. An important one is the use of observer groups. A meeting using observer-group work can start as any other class would. A text is read, and then students work individually on opening questions. At some point, however, some of the students are removed from the circle. They sit outside of it while their classmates hold a discussion of the week’s text. That discussion ends early, well before the end of class, and the remaining time is used in judging the discussion that has taken place. Often there are two discussions of the text, so that all participants can join one and observe the other. Then, the two are compared.

Our Saturday group took to judging themselves early and quickly. In discussions of our work together they made frequent reference to a lack of balanced participation among group members. That is: They noticed that some of them were talking a lot, and others very little. They also discussed the role I was playing as their leader. It was an unaccustomed role for them: a leader who rarely spoke, who never took the final word, who was more likely to intervene to help someone else get involved than to share his own thoughts. At the same time, they quickly recognized that I was exerting a lot of control over the group by determining its procedures.

And so a funny thing happened. The group became so interested in the process we were following, and in how our procedures would vary slightly from week to week, that we shifted almost all of our attention to the process itself. Our discussions of the texts shrank in length and importance as members of the group insisted on questions they had about how I ran the class. The members of the group were thinking of themselves as future group leaders, not as current group participants. They stopped reflecting on their own work almost entirely. Specific personal judgments of their own contributions disappeared in the face of larger strategic considerations. The group’s progress in this direction was aided by a seemingly unrelated fact about the group: consistent tardiness. Participants would regularly arrive from fifteen to forty minutes late. To allow for this, I would hold discussions of the process for the first twenty minutes or so. Those who arrived on time felt as though they were getting to work, and the others found it easy to join in whenever they showed up.

It’s rarely useful to think of a group’s work as going well or poorly. Every group is an individual, with individual strengths and needs at every stage. So I wouldn’t have said that the work was going well or badly, but I did have a particular concern. I began to worry that this group was so involved in how its future groups might work that it wasn’t making much progress as a group itself. As its members settled into a regular focus on their interest in the issues surrounding group leadership, they settled back into their habitual roles. The more assertive participants asserted themselves forcefully, the more passive ones followed their lead.

At the same time, the very fact that they were, as a group, changing the focus of which is to say, taking control of – our discussions was a very positive sign. The day finally came when the group decided, without ever saying so, that they would not discuss the week’s text. After sharing our opening questions on the story of Cain and Abel, there was a short silence. The student that broke it asked about the choice of texts, and on that morning we never looked back. They were going to talk with me about how texts are chosen. As much as many of them initially looked to me to play a deciding role in our early discussions, they were happy with the fact that I was leaving our choice of focus in their hands.

So my effort to shift the attention of the group from the text to the process may have moved the group forward in some ways, but it didn’t disturb its work for long. My sense is, that the comfort this group is feeling can usefully be disrupted again. My plan is to encourage the group to focus once more on the texts themselves. These texts can be confounding, unsettling, if we take them seriously enough. I suspect that I will need to do a lot to help the group find them confounding. I suspect that I will increasingly need to show the group how much there is in each text that I myself don’t understand. If I can insist on my own uncertainties, on those I see in the texts themselves and in the questions they raise for me, we might just learn to find talking together difficult again.

Once we, as a group, find that we are at a loss, anything is possible. Until we do, it’s hard to see how the habits that we have can really change.