A guest blog post for #HEBlogswap by Dr Emma Kennedy, Senior Lecturer in HE Learning and Teaching, University of Greenwich
I bought Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering because I was attracted by the subtitle: ‘how we meet and why it matters’. As university teaching, as well as other activities, increasingly returns to an in-person basis, I wanted to stimulate my thoughts on the benefits of being together, of sharing a space. However, Parker’s book surprised me with how much it had to say about gathering in general – whether in-person or virtual – and how useful I found its advice in my thinking on pedagogy.
This is not a book review, although I happen to recommend the book highly. It’s more of a meditation inspired by the book, so I might meander away from Parker’s original purpose, which draws on her vast experience facilitating a variety of events and conversations. As the title might suggest, The Art of Gathering offers advice on ‘gatherings’, broadly defined – this can include parties, but also includes meetings, away-days, debates and, yes, lessons. Parker structures her book around eight key guidelines for creating a good gathering: I’m going to outline four of my favourites and talk about how it’s stimulated my pedagogical thinking.
1. Decide why you’re really gathering
Parker contends that many gatherings ‘make the mistake of conflating category with purpose’ (p. 4). We hold a wedding, a wake, a board meeting, and we let those terms dictate how we plan our gathering. I think this often holds true for education: we may plan a lecture, for example, as an hour of talking, complete with slides, simply because someone has told us that it’s a lecture and put us in a lecture theatre. We haven’t examined our pedagogical purpose and determined that talking for an hour is the right way to go about it: rather, we’ve made our purpose to talk for an hour, because that’s what we ‘know’ a lecture looks like. What if we thought differently, and worked backwards from what our students would ideally be doing, thinking, or feeling, at the end of the session? Is our purpose to get students to remember some information? To ask them to reflect, or perhaps to analyse? Do we want them to do some critical thinking or evaluation? All of these are valid purposes, but if we start from there, each ‘lecture’ might look very different.
2. Close doors
By ‘close doors’, Parker means that not everybody should be invited to a gathering, and that each gathering’s membership should be purposeful – which necessarily means excluding someone. In literal terms, this rarely applies to teaching: who is in your session is usually decided far ahead and by someone else such as an admissions tutor. I certainly wouldn’t argue for more exclusion in higher education. Rather, I think this is a useful principle not for people but for content. If your session has a specific purpose, then just as Parker advises not cramming people into your gathering, I would advise not cramming content into your session. Overstuffed curricula mean you end up covering a lot of material in a shallow way, rushing through slides and activities, and perhaps skipping over things you think are important. As Kevin Gannon notes in Death to the Content Dump, ‘when learning dictates content, rather than the reverse, the survey course can achieve what I want it to’. Decide what you want the session to do and throw out any ‘content’ that doesn’t help with that, to allow you – and your student – to focus better on the content and activities that do.
3. Don’t be a chill host
Parker defines ‘chill’ as ‘the desire to host while being noninvasive’: refusing to set rules, allowing people freedom to do as they please (p. 73). In her words, chill hosts ‘assume that leaving guests alone means that the guests will be left alone, when in fact they will be left to one another’. (p. 74). Overbearing speakers take over the floor and bossy guests take over the agenda, while those with less confidence simply fade into the background. This mirrors my experience in higher education. How many of us have watched in frustration at conferences as a senior (often male) academic rambles over their allotted presentation time, leaving other, junior panel members with less time to speak? In these situations, strong chairing is paramount but hard to come by, as people are intimidated by hierarchy.
I don’t have time to deal with academic power structures here, but in the classroom we can make our own ground rules and stick to them together – and the teacher, as the one with power, is the one who should take responsibility for enforcing them. In class discussions that are mostly unstructured and whole-class, louder students will naturally dominate. If your purpose is to give all students the chance to participate, include structured activities such as think-pair-share to decentre those who naturally take the spotlight, or introduce ways to participate without speaking, such as Mentimeter. If your class has agreed at the start of the session that they want respectful conversation and debate, you need to stop anything that crosses those boundaries. The individual being censored may not thank you, but the quiet majority of the class will – even if they don’t say it out loud. As a teacher, for better or for worse, you are in a position of power: and to quote the 1793 French National Convention, ‘a great responsibility is the inseparable result of a great power’. You’re not trying to run a Republic, but you have power over your classroom in ways that your students don’t: so don’t be afraid to use that power for the good of the group.
4. Create good controversy
In this chapter, Parker ironically uses crises of so-called ‘cancel culture’ on university campuses as examples of people being afraid of controversy, but I want to distance myself from that argument and that line of thought, particularly in the UK. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I believe that free speech in the classroom depends not on absence of rules but on protecting vulnerable groups from those who challenge their right to exist: a debate on one’s own humanity is not a valuable form of controversy. Parker defines ‘good controversy’ as ‘generative rather than preservationist […] when it works, it is clarifying and cleansing’ (p. 233). I’m inclined to agree, but I believe that in the classroom, this kind of controversy is so valuable that it’s even more important to get it right.
For controversy to be ‘generative rather than preservationist’, it’s important that students’ identities aren’t threatened: that means no hate speech, transphobia, racism, homophobia, etc. If you feel a particular argument as a material threat to your safety, you’re unlikely to feel the clarification and generation from the controversy it brings. Make your classroom a place of psychological safety. It should also be shared among the group, rather than one-on-one disagreement: the multiple ways of thinking about and phrasing issues this ensures will contribute to the generativity of good controversy. Finally, it should be based on intellectual argument: while everyone is entitled to their own tastes and opinions, ‘I like it’ and ‘I don’t like it’ are unlikely to provide clarification if everyone is just saying it back and forth. You disagree? Say why, and maybe in your explanation we can find an interesting nugget of agreement, or another avenue down which to take the debate. Maybe someone else can jump in. It also means that in participating in the debate you’re engaging in the kind of thinking that you’ll eventually have to do in most assessments: setting out a position and justifiying it.
All these points link to one another. Have a purpose for your teaching session; use that purpose to guide what you do and what you cover in the session; use your power as the teacher/host to keep the group on course to achieve said purpose; and finally, use the heat of controversy to generate interesting and fruitful discussion in whatever your set purpose is. (Unless your set purpose is ‘students will ask no questions’, in which case, feel free to ignore everything I say about pedagogy, as we probaby have quite different views on everything else!). I enjoyed Parker’s book for all its points, but also for its fundamental orientation towards the guest experience: I found it a helpful tool for rejuvenating my thoughts on the student experience, and the teaching session as an experience. I hope that all your sessions, wherever they take place, are a valuable experience for both students and teachers.
Convention Nationale (1793). Collection générale des décrets rendus par l’Assemblée Nationale … Mai 1793. Paris. Accessed via Google Books. URL: https://books.google.ca/books?id=D55aAAAAcAAJ [accessed 09/10/2021].
Delizonna, L. (2017). ‘High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It.’ Harvard Business Review. URL: https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it [Accessed 12/10/2021].
Gannon, K. (2014). ‘Death to the content dump: a survey course manifesto’. Blogpost. URL: https://thetattooedprof.com/2014/05/01/death-to-the-content-dump-a-survey-course-manifesto/ [accessed 09/10/2021]
Parker, P. (2019). The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. London: Penguin Business.