Newness in the academy: the burden of formatted spaces
“Conferences have such formatted spaces that just attending them becomes a burden.”
Two big themes officially set my agenda in Montréal these past few days, and I ensured I had the energy to work with them by making space and taking time for meaningful conversations inside as well as outside the program. The overall theme for this year’s EGOS conference was “Bridging Continents, Cultures and Worldviews,” and the theme for the track I co-organized with Stefan Meisiek and Steve Taylor was “Identity in Art, Design, and Organization (ADO).” In the ADO track we found various ways to break out of the burdensome conference format referred to above in an email I received from a colleague (who did not attend the conference). We interrupted our process a couple of times to listen to keynote speakers who addressed the overall conference theme.
The ADO track has a tradition of experimenting with ways to break out of the formatted conference spaces. In 2011 in Gothenburg we tried working with arts to stimulate innovative art-based experiences to reflect on, and we relegated the discussion of papers to the sidelines. That was too radical for some people. This year we started with an open-space approach, inviting the participants to identify the issues that preoccupy them in the field. They rapidly filled all the blackboards along the wall (unfortunately, my camera does not have a panoramic lens that would have permitted me to take the entire width of the board)!
Together, we found clusters of issues that we wanted to discuss in small groups (e.g., artistic interventions, design process, shadow side of bringing arts into organizations, how to conduct research on aesthetic experiences, theories and philosophies relating to identity). Over the course of three 1.5 hour sessions, groups formed and re-formed, so that people had a chance to get to know each other during these conversations about their issues. As a participant commented at the end of the conference: “I arrived here feeling peripheral and then discovered how many colleagues were addressing topics that related to my work.” We are building a community.
This open-space based process laid the groundwork for the sessions on the second and third day dedicated to discussing the conference papers that the participants had submitted electronically. We had grouped the papers in advance, so that participants knew which 4 papers to focus on reading for the two 1.5 hour sessions dedicated to the papers. Having 45 minutes just to listen to and respond to comments about one’s paper in a small group is a rare opportunity. As a result, I learned as much from the discussion about other people’s papers as I did about the comments they made on my paper with Gervaise Debuquet on “Artistic interventions in organizations as intercultural relational spaces for identity-development.” For example, (how) can we use and develop Alvesson & Willmott’s theory of identity regulation and identity work? All of us grappled with the challenge of figuring out how much more/or less we need to explain our methods and our case material—it is so much easier to see it in another paper than one’s own!
Talking about artistic interventions is one thing, experiencing them is another, as the session with the McGill Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI) on Thursday afternoon showed. Paul Yachnin and Leigh Yetter got us to take roles in a scene from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. (I wonder what the Bard would have said upon hearing his text spoken in accents coloured by Swedish, French, Hebrew, German, Finnish and more, and seeing a suicidal sword composed of whiteboard markers.) Playing the scene challenged us to deal with not quite understanding what we were saying, but we still sensed in our bodies the tension between two social groups who were making fun of each other in different power plays. Relating the scene to modern organizations, the obvious parallel is to relations between management and employees. But I started to fantasize about how the scene would look/sound and how I would feel if the two groups on stage were academics and the people in our case studies.
In addition to all the ideas sparked by the discussions in my ADO track, I am also taking home ideas that were sparked by two speakers in the opening plenary session: the representative from the platinum sponsor of the conference, the Desjardins Cooperative Institute, and Nancy Adler, artist and professor at McGill University.
The Desjardins speaker (whose name I unfortunately did not catch) pointed out that business schools are neglecting to teach their students about a business model that accounts for 20% more jobs than multinational corporations provide and whose value is equivalent to the 10th largest economy in the world, namely the cooperative and mutual business model. She built a strong argument for correcting this problem of ignorance in our teaching and our research.
Nancy Adler, too, challenged the participants to take seriously a phenomenon that most of us are either ignoring or rejecting as a passing fad, namely the rapid emergence of “MOOCs”: massive open online courses. I learned from Nancy that “the fastest growing company in the history of the world” is Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company that “envisions a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few.” It aims “to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.” The development of this “disruptive technology” is driven by a design approach of rapid iterations to detect and correct problems. Nancy was not trying to convert us all to offering MOOCs to hundreds of thousands of people around the world, but rather to invest our imaginative power into figuring out new modalities for creating on a global scale the sense of community that we know how to achieve in our face-to-face courses. I am going to start by taking a MOOC.
The conference offered an unusual space for reflection: a darkened room with comfortable chairs, where Nancy Adler’s film was continually playing, her paintings and selected quotations inviting participants to stay a while with beauty. I stopped by a couple of times and found other participants there, quietly absorbing. Thank you for the inspiration, Nancy, and thank you also to Paul Shrivastava for the meaningful evening conversation!