Sunday, August 29, 2010

Graphic facilitation from the practitioner's perspective

Check out this post, and its 31 responses (as of today), on Julie Stuart's blog. It's a response to a mostly favorable Harvard Business Review post on graphic facilitation. Several things are interesting to me from a research as well as practitioner perspective.

From the research viewpoint, what's of interest is the way Julie and her community talk about their practice and the ways the aesthetics of their practice intertwine with the way they see the service they provide to their clients and participants -- what I would call their practitioner ethics.

For example, here is Julie talking about the complex of activities -- the stance -- of a graphic facilitator in the heat of the moment of practice:
When I graphically facilitate, I’m listening as a journalist would for the key themes and highlights in the story, organizing the information spatially, instinctually finding the structure, giving visual emphasis and hierarchy to the story as it emerges on the paper. And also paying attention to where the group needs to go next.

And the way her personal experience is uniquely and inextricably tied to the many dimensions that make up her practice (how she is able to listen, shape, and facilitate simultaneously), which is evocative of the way McCarthy and Wright talk about how taking an experiential view moves thinking about practice away from abstracted types and generalizations:
There is no one else on the planet with my particular combination of skills: public policy background + non-profit management + journalism + conceptual art + stock trading + politics + teaching + facilitation.

Julie, and many of her respondents, take issue with the phrase "pricy artist's handiwork" that appeared in the HBR article, and more generally with being referred to as "artists" in the context of graphic facilitation practice:
I don’t think of myself as an artist when I do graphic facilitation work. Yes, there are drawings that depict recognizable icons but art is about a tenth of what’s involved with this work. . . . Art—what we tend to think of as fine art—has original content. Creating visual maps from content that emerges from a group’s collective process and not from me, doesn’t qualify as art, in the original sense.

In this we see the consequence of the reductionist meanings that the terms "art" and "artist" have taken on, that art is something that only fine artists do, and that real art is something you would generally only find in a museum, rather than seeing artistry as something inherent in all levels of human culture. Dewey (in one of my many favorite quotes) said this in Art as Experience:
The intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection, is artistically engaged. (p. 4)

While arguing that the term "artist" is used pejoratively in the HBR article, Julie's post also takes a similar position to Dewey, hoping that when seen without the reductionist implications, graphic facilitators
.... aren’t seen as “the artist,” the person in the room owning the creative process for the group. It is my hope that we will be the enablers of everyone else’s creativity. That we will teach people to make their own pictures so that we aren’t seen as “the artist” but the person able to bring the artistry out of the people we work with who are hungry to express themselves creatively. I believe there is artistry in everyone. As Ellen Dissanayake writes in Homo Aestheticus, this used to be an accepted fact. Our culture has taken the ownership of creativity out of the hands of many and put it into the hands of a few. I would like to return it to the many.

There is more to say about the piece, and the 31 respondents mention many different facets. The number and energy of the responses, most of which are from fellow graphic facilitation practitioners (and participants) brings me to the other point of interest. As a practitioner of another form of visual facilitation, it's amazing to see the level of community and mutual reinforcement I've seen in the graphic facilitation world.

Compendium has had over 80,000 downloads, and there are currently more than 1600 members of the yahoogroup, but we've never seen anything like that kind of energized practitioner community. I think this is largely because most Compendium users are not using it for the kind of facilitative practice with the tool and approach that we originally developed it for. Judging by the entries on our download log, most people are using it for individual work, mostly as a mind-mapping tool. There are certainly facilitative practitioners using Compendium out there, but the practitioner community hasn't gelled in anything like the same way demonstrated in Julie's post and responses. It's something to strive towards. If/when I finish the phd, maybe I can put more energy in that direction; it's been a long while now since I did.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Excellent sheep

“So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?”
- a student quoted by William Deresiewicz in his The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

It's funny that I just read Deresiewicz's article (following a link from eekim) after reading the novel The Good Son by Michael Gruber, and seeing the movie Inception last week, all while visiting a bunch of colleges and thinking and talking about college with family, friends, and old professors.

The common thread in the article, book, and film is the idea of false consciousness -- we think we're living out an authentic and coherent experience, with autonomy and clear knowledge of what we're up to, but in fact (at least in part) we're inside a hall of mirrors and enforced system of ideas, that has a huge mechanism in place for keeping you thinking you know what you're doing, when you are playing a part written by others, keeping you from seeing the limitations and blinders.

Now that I think of it, this was also the theme of another recent read -- The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. (Spoiler alert -- read no farther if you are going to read the book). I am sure I am far from the only reader who believed through much of the book that the title referred to Islamic fundamentalism and that the narrator -- telling his tale to a mysterious American in a Pakistani cafe -- was going to become a terrorist or the like. However, it actually refers to the narrator's realizations about his job as a management consultant in an elite New York valuation firm, which praised its ability to focus on the "fundamentals" in the businesses it examined (or helped destroy) for its clients. This book, too, talked about the blinders and self-enforced sense of privilege instilled by an elite education (in this case from Princeton, which is one of the colleges we just visited).

In The Good Son, a number of the characters, particularly an NSA language analyst, realize that their successes and ambitions were, similarly, self-reinforcing products of the system that they lived within without realizing (or, more accurately, questioning) it, which fall apart disastrously when push comes to shove.

We visited the University of Michigan, my alma mater, on this college trip. I found myself getting choked up during the information session, especially when they showed a (kind of corny) video, all on the theme of the wonderful and diverse opportunities available to the students. It occurred to me that this was because my years in Ann Arbor were all about becoming -- moving from the person I was before I got there to the (still limited, but far less so) person I was afterward.

Does/did the U of M foster the same kind of entitled blinderedness that the works above talk about? It's not a purely elite institution by any means, but some of that is undoubtedly there. I woke up (in some ways) while there, learned to see many things about our culture more clearly, but -- as with any education or acculturation -- I also have to wonder about what I'm not seeing.