Sunday, November 29, 2009

Reflections on IFVP session (pt 1)

This was meant to be the first in a series reflecting on a presentation I gave at the IFVP 2009 conference in Montréal a few months back. Though it's actually the second since I put up this post last week when I got the participant evaluations back.

The session, held on August 6, was the first chance to put the concepts and tools I've developed in my research in front of an audience of practitioners and see how well they landed.

Most of the preparation was done as I whiled away an evening in the dead end of La Guardia terminal B, concourse A, where all the Air Canada gates are. It's possibly the most run-down and crowded area of that airport, with the fewest amenities; not even a functioning water fountain. It was hot and stuffy and crowded, due to a number of weather delays that night. Huge floor-mounted portable air conditioners did little to cool the throngs, and the 2-foot-wide temporary ducts draped from the ceilings subtracted even further from the amount of free cubic space per person.

The pressure of work and family obligations in the weeks leading up to the session had not given me many opportunities to prepare. I'd thought that I would present the same material I'd given to several research audiences this year. But the flight delays gave me several precious hours of downtime to think.

Balancing my notebook on the hard bench arms, I began to realize that IFVP was a very different opportunity. With research audiences, you must establish bona fides on several levels and spend the time ensuring you are painting a picture that even researchers from different disciplines will accept, in terms of grounding in the literature, rigor of approach, etc.

But the IFVP audience (while it might very well include people with research backgrounds) did not come to Montréal to evaluate my research. Rather, they were there to take the next step in the development of their own practice and to strengthen their community. So this was both a challenge to me to lift my thinking away from research-presentational mode, but also to think about what I could say and do that would be of direct relevance and benefit to the IFVP practitioners.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I can't say I was completely successful in what I ended up doing. I ran short of time, both for the preparation and during the session itself. However, I did get closer to something that felt like a start in how to talk about and engage practitioners in this research in such a way as to benefit them as practitioners. It was a first step toward the next step, after I grind through the rest of my analysis, finish writing up, and defend the thesis. It is finding ways to provide value to just such communities of practice as IFVP that seems like it would validate all the time and effort I've put into this, that it was worth taking all this time to drive through the ambiguities and lassitude, the constant devil-on-the-shoulder of "why bother." At the end, there might be something of value to pass on to practitioners.

So, sitting in the Air Canada concourse, instead of just tweaking my usual set of slides, I wrote down what felt like the main things of importance I could say to this group. I wanted to talk about what is common to their practice and the one I've mostly studied, though even recently when I've lifted my head away from Compendium sessions I've started to see that there are all sorts of commonalities with any sort of participatory representational practice (such as the very different Visual Explorer method that I discussed here).

The first was that the choices we make as practitioners matter. We make many choices in the heat of the moment about how, when, and why to shape the representations we make, and our participants' interaction with the representations. In the course of sessions, we think -- very rapidly -- about ways to incorporate input from participants and respond to the constraints and events in the situation. Some of us combine verbal and physical kinds of facilitative interventions with the visual ones; some don't. There are other kinds of facilitative practice that emphasize spoken words, music, or other sorts of mediated discourse.

Making the choices involved in performing these sorts of practices visible has been the focus of my research. The choices and their consequences are not givens. They are situationally specific, so they have to be understood in context. Even with purely verbal kinds of facilitation or mediation, when it is done with people and involves the shaping of discourse, physical actions, as well as visual media, there are always both aesthetic and ethical dimensions in the choices we make, even if we're not consciously aware of them as we make them. The choices are there, and the aesthetic and ethical dimensions are there.

What I've done is develop some tools for how to look at and think about this kind of live practice. I've placed aesthetic and ethical choices at the center of my analysis, to "slow down the looking" so I can discern, first, what types of moves and choices are there. Second, what do the moves mean in the context they were made in. Even if the moves are canonical to some documented process, they are still choices being made by the practitioner (i.e., just because they're prescribed doesn't mean they're not active choices at the moment of performance). The moves shape the representation, and the interaction with the representation, toward some set of ends. What I've been pursuing is how to understand, describe, and characterize these in their context.

For IFVP, I was less interested in showing what I've seen when I've looked at Compendium practice (though possibly that might have been better, I avoided most of that because I didn't want people to get bogged down in trying to make sense of unfamiliar situations and tools, as has happened at times before) and more in seeing whether the analytical tools and ideas were useful for graphic facilitators to help think and talk about their own practice. That is really what I've been after all along -- not the classic kind of predictive hypotheses about what will and won't work better in the abstract (though people always seem to want this!), but rather to enable and expand reflective practice. I want to know, does this approach help you to reflect on your own practice? Specifically, do the ideas about aesthetics and shaping, ethics and consequences, give you helpful ways to talk to each other about what you do?

I gave a presentation talking about the above, and then with the (rapidly diminishing) time left, I set up a live instance of practice. The idea was to run the live session then have the participants use some of the tools and ideas I'd been talking about to reflect on what they'd just done. More on that in a future post.

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