“Shut up,” he explained.
Reflections on generative and not-so-generative communication in academia.
When I first came to the US to go to graduate school, I spent hours and hours in heated, coffee fueled discussions in the patio of the university cafeteria with just about anybody I could find and often continue late into the night. These conversations were central to my decision to stick with this academic stuff and forget about my previous life in music for a while. Some people were clearly more fun to talk with than others, to be sure. But the best conversations would be open and flowing and moving into all sorts of new directions. I’d get home and immediately head for my desk to write–in long hand. This convivial play of ideas was one of the reasons why I ended up in academia.
Sadly, those of us who have spent some time in academia professionally know that many if not most academic exchanges, particularly in the formal setting of conferences and seminars, are rarely as exciting. And if there is excitement, it’s often because of intellectual jousting, which, as members of the integral community known, can be quite nasty even among the most “enlightened” folks. It’s an open secret that we can get very attached to our own ideas, to being right. Academic discourse reflects this attachment, and the jousting can go south fast. Already in the language we often use we can see where this is going. “I defended my dissertation.” “He attacked my position.” “She demolished his argument.” If argument is war, then academia is the battlefield. It’s as if being a “good” scholar involves, perhaps above all, the ability to rip apart somebody else’s argument.
If academia has created an adequate and sometimes exaggerated turf for intellectual skirmishes, we have surely not done as good a job of fostering contexts that stimulate exciting, provocative, creative interaction. At a recent invitational conference, a colleague came up to me and whispered that she didn’t really feel safe in this environment. She didn’t feel people were working together, even though the entire conference was allegedly about collaborative work. I had heard that there had been some rather rude interruptions and put-downs, even during the lunch breaks, and was a little taken aback. Most of the people at the conference were decent sorts, after all, generally friendly, and ready to hang out in the evening over a drink or two. My colleague remarked that every time she opened her mouth to say something, somebody, usually an older male participant, had shut her down with comments like, “you haven’t read XYZ,” or “the problem with this sort of thinking is…” or just regular old “mansplaining.” I was tempted to give her “welcome to the farm” talk about academic discourse, male egos, “seniority,” the tendency in our hallowed halls to worship the “critical” view, that some academics like to show off by proving someone else wrong, how all too often a critic will focus on one small aspect of what we’re saying and drone on about how this view has been discredited, and so on. Then I realized that this would simply be perpetuating a kind of academic environment and “dialogue” that I also detest. Ironically, the whole purpose of the conference was to generate scenarios for the future. It soon degenerated into “my catastrophic scenario is bigger than yours,” and “how could you not account for this or that reason why the world will end.” Anybody who attempted to focus on what could be was shot down with yet another dose of catastrophe theory.
I later went for a long stroll with my colleague. We had a most memorable conversation, and occasionally got lost because we were so engrossed in conversation we had stopped paying attention to where we were going. By the time we found our way back to the conference, we had covered any number of topics of mutual interest and were planning any number of projects. So what was the difference that made the difference? Well, a key difference was that we were actually listening to each other, and the conversation opened up possibilities, shed new light on shared questions, provided insights into topics we were both exploring. Our attitude was different, it seemed. We were not trying to prove each other wrong, imposing our view, poking holes, tearing each other’s views apart. Arguably, we wanted to bring out the best in each other—and in ourselves. Our metaphor was not war, but more like what William Irwin Thompson called mind-jazz.
In other words, in creativity-speak, our focus in academia seems to be mostly on convergence, not divergence. We’re good at shutting discussion down, or at least shutting other people down. And while there are obviously notable exceptions, more generally we’re not so good at creating an open environment for divergence, for real open dialogue, with conviviality and playfulness and risk-taking, stepping into the unknown. We don’t explore together very much any more, and we certainly don’t encourage students to do so. But what if we did in fact support much more exploration, playing with ideas, taking a “what if” approach, going out on the edge, taking risks?
The thing about these kinds of exploratory, creative dialogues is that they often involve a glimmer of an idea, something inchoate, ambiguous, ill-formed, far from thought out—in fact, often barely thought at all. This inchoate idea can either be nurtured, developed, and played with for a while, or it can be cut off at the root. The same thing happens inside us, as it were, when we dismiss our own emerging inklings as nonsense, a waste of time, stupid. Nothing cuts us off from the creative flow better than premature classification. There’s a time to be critical, and there’s a time to let an idea emerge, grow, and reveal itself to us. If we critique too soon, it’s all over. We’ve got to give ideas time. This is why tolerance for ambiguity is associated with creativity. I’ve met too many people who tell me they have writer’s block only to confess that they have an idea, write a sentence, look at it, and convince themselves that it’s awful. That may well be the case, but the point is to keep writing and get in the flow, otherwise we just shut down. Then, later, we edit. And if we throw it all out, we start all over again.
If in a social setting we aren’t allowed to present even our well thought out ideas without immediate attack, how can we, in dialogue, be willing to take a risk and go with an ill-formed idea, a hint of something that we’ve just picked up and would like to run with for a while? Something we’d like to invite others to play with? Why should we be willing to propose an ill-formed idea, a hint of something that we think might be worth pursuing, if we know that it’s going to get shot down right away? Clearly this critical attitude is not appropriate 24/7. There’s a time to apply it, of course, no question about it. But you can have too much of a good thing.
The creative process involves periods of divergence and periods of convergence, idea-generation and idea-selection. Are we good at fostering climates for idea-generation in academia? If convergence is the almost inevitable approach, clearly not. Of course critical, convergent, idea-selection is necessary. This bears repeating. But surely we should also be able to create climates that are more playful and exploratory, where we actively listen, support emerging ideas, go along with perspectives that may seem weird or unusual or even wrong.
A basic rule in improvisational theater as most people know, is to go for “and,” avoiding “but.” In other words, to continue with the idea, add something, and go with the flow. This serves as a start. I want be clear though that I’m not proposing we have the occasional brainstorming session in class or at conferences. Not just because the literature on brainstorming seems to suggest it does little good, but also because brainstorming is essentially an artificial process. It’s part of the approach that says creativity is not central to what we do. It’s something we have to make a particular space for outside of the regular stream of our activities. What I’m talking about is a broader attitude towards people and ideas, one that sees creativity as central, and knows about the need for both divergence and convergence as part of the larger creative process. I’m also talking about a different idea of what it means to be a scholar, or at least engaged with the world of ideas. An image of scholarship in which creativity is not something confined to a specific time and place, if at all, but a way of being in the world that recognizes the importance of generative dialogue, recognizes, in less social scientific terms, that when human beings get together to exchange ideas we can do so with conviviality, in a way that appreciates a plurality of perspectives. A way of being and relating that it is not just about proving we’re right, showing off our encyclopedic knowledge and our ability to “take apart” somebody else’s argument. I’m also talking about taking a hard look at our academic egos, where, when, and how they show up, and how they get in the way of convivial and creative exchanges and sometimes even basic manners.
The academic world has suffered from depicting itself as engaged in the rational, objective pursuit of knowledge, a collection of abstract minds questing for truth in a strictly “mental” pursuit. This is mostly nonsense, in the end. I’m not making a philosophical statement about the nature of truth here, but rather saying that academics are human beings. Quiet as it’s kept, we have feelings too, and yes, we can become incredibly petty and small-minded in our pursuit and defense of our academic goals, enormously attached to the importance of our rational objective contributions, and “our” ideas and positions. And perhaps this shows up in the way we interact rather more often than we’d like to admit.
All the more reason to see our academic work as a locus for self-understanding and self-improvement, for reflection not just on the content of our work, but on the process of being a scholar. In this way our intellectual pursuits become an opportunity to participate and contribute in ways that embody the best of us. Can we also engage in academic dialogue in a way that will bring out the best in all of us?
While we may sincerely be engaged in a quest for knowledge, perhaps with the idea of making a worthwhile contribution to humanity, we should, I think, also become aware of how we can accumulate knowledge to create “positions,” positions built up to become fortifications for our egos, positions like fortresses with which we defend ourselves from others, attack the “positions” of the “opposition.” In the process we may perpetuate precisely what we may be trying to change, a world based on domination, control, imposition.
In the process of reducing academic inquiry to a strictly “mental” and objective process, we have lost so much. I’m not proposing feel-good hand-holding kumbaya. 30 years in California, I’ve seen and heard enough kumbaya to last me several lifetimes. What I’m suggesting is a greater emphasis on transparency in the process of idea-development, rather than presenting fixed positions to defend. It’s clear that how we get to our ideas, theories, and so on, is a much messier and more complex process than presenting (and defending) the finished product. As such, with a few notable exceptions involving apples and light beams, how we get to our ideas is hardly ever addressed in the scientific literature. It’s left to biographies and autobiographies (or pathographies and auto-pathographies, these days) where we begin to get a sense of the messy, serendipitous nature of much of the creative process. We’re all about the context of justification, and leave the context of discovery behind, because it’s all too subjective and doesn’t fit into any neat formula. Let’s explore inquiry in a wider perspective, acknowledging the process that is usually behind the scenes, and supporting mutual explorations as well as the individual creative process. Science is increasingly becoming a collaborative process. We owe it to ourselves to learn to communicate in a more generative way. In the process, we may have to reveal the many aspects of the creative daimon. We should also engage in some serious self-inquiry, recognizing that inquiry itself should become an important avenue for our own personal and collective development.
A creative encounter involves openness to questioning, reflecting on our own assumptions, our own ways of constructing our understanding of the topic at hand, and more generally our world, through encounter. The sociology of knowledge has alerted us to the situated nature of knowledge. It’s shown us how culture, race, class, and gender play a role in the way we construct knowledge. The psychology of knowledge has received less attention. Abraham Maslow wrote a short little book about it, The Psychology of Science, that even some Maslow scholars barely seem to be aware of. The larger question stems from looking at the role of the inquirer in the inquiry, and seeing the inquirer as a whole person, a real person with passions, values, concerns, blind spots, idées fixes… How and where do our research interests fit into—or better, emerge from, and then inform– our lives? What drives us to pursue a particular research agenda? What motivates our passions, interests, curiosities, methodological choices? How do our choices reflect and then shape who we are? And how do our exchanges with others reflect and shape who we are? What authors and perspectives and traditions are we drawn to, and why? Who irritates us, who do we choose to ignore, who bores us, and why? As academics we often feel we have to give “reasonable,” rational reasons for our choices, our topics, our methods, our favorites. We might also explore what dynamics of projection, introjection, what shadow play we are dealing with.
If we engage in dialogue solely to assert our view then our aim is really to shut down the dialogue. If we see dialogue as a creative process our purpose in participating is to enrich the encounter and keep it going, we’re creating a different world—perhaps embodying different ways of being, knowing, and relating. It’s not about asserting the answer, but fostering the opportunity and potential of ongoing collaborative creative inquiry. That doesn’t mean we’re engaged in endless divergence, unable to come to any conclusions, but rather surfing the waves of divergence and convergence, relinquishing our dreams of omniscience and the final answer in favor of ongoing inquiry. If we see knowledge not as an edifice built brick by brick, but rather as an ever evolving network, we can also hold our knowledge more lightly, all answers leading inevitably to more questions, and that our goal is to create an ever more fertile ground for further inquiry.
About the Author
Alfonso Montuori, PhD, is Professor at California Institute of Integral Studies, where he designed and teaches in the Transformative Leadership M.A. and the Transformative Studies Ph.D. He was Distinguished Professor in the School of Fine Arts at Miami University, in Oxford Ohio and in 1985-1986 he taught at the Central South University in Hunan, China. An active musician and producer, in a former life Alfonso worked in London England as a professional musician. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on creativity and innovation, the future, complexity theory, and leadership. Alfonso is also a consultant in the areas of creativity, innovation and leadership development whose clients have included NetApp, Training Vision (Singapore), Omintel-Olivetti (Italy) and Procter and Gamble.