A Parlor

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (Kenneth Burke)

This is an oft-invoked image of the academic conversation. It is often invoked as a metaphor for understanding academic writing. But how often do we actually, literally experience it at university?

Lectures and seminars and conferences have stopped offering us opportunities for parlor talk of this kind. Instead, people are allotted so many minutes to present their views, and a generally passive audience is then given time for a “Q&A”, moderated to the point that nothing but polite questions, familiar obsequities, and witty barbs can get through. Is there a way of fostering an actual conversation?

I think I may just have hit on something. I present it here for your careful consideration and considered critique.

Imagine a research group or university class that meets once a week. The meeting lasts two hours and has between 10 and 20 participants, most of which are regulars. There are no one-time guests. New members are invited to join the group and attend as often as they like thereafter. Only breaking the rules of decorum can get you thrown out, always at the sole discretion of the moderator, which is  a function that is taken in turn by each member of the group.

The first hour is devoted to “opening statements”. Each participant is given an equal share of the hour. If there are 20 participants, each speaks for three minutes in an order that is determined randomly every week, with newcomers always speaking last. The important thing is this: they may speak either on a topic of their own choosing or in response to something previously said by someone else. They may respond to a preceding opening statement or to something that was said in a previous meeting. Their speech is entirely free. They can small talk about the weather or present an important new research result.

The important constraint is this: if they respond to someone else, that person will have an exactly equal amount of time to respond in the second hour. If they simply have a question, they can state it, and yield their time to the respondent, who may choose to answer right then, or accumulate the minutes for later.

It will be immediately understood that the second half of the meeting may simply not happen. If every opening statement is sui generis it will generate no response time. The meeting will be adjourned after, say, 20 three-minute or 12 five-minute opening statements. Participants will now have a week to prepare for a more, let’s say, “engaging” conversation next week.

At the other other extreme, suppose the first opening statement attracted responses from every other participant. Suppose there are 12 participants. This would allot 55 minutes to the first speaker to develop what was, apparently a very interesting line of thought. In the middle range, the second hour might end up as dialogue between two or three people. In so far as they do keep going back and forth,  given the rules, they will give each other as much time to respond as they take to speak. The conversation ends when the last person on the speaker list disdains to continue, perhaps using the time to make a general closing statement that is not a response to any particular participant. Or when the hour runs out, of course.

Notice that there is no agenda for this meeting and the moderator’s only job is to keep time and to allot response time as needed. There are no “rules of order”, except the expedient of yielding one’s time and the option for immediate response. The conversation would proceed from week to week in a completely organic way.

Notice that it would be possible to actually teach a whole class for a whole semester this way. The teacher might have three minutes (in a class of 19 students) to get the students’ attention (already fixed somewhat by the pressure of the exam, of course). The students now have the option of saying something themselves, giving time to the teacher (either by asking and yielding or by using three minutes to critique the teacher’s point), or to engage with a classmate who would get time to respond.

At first pass, this seems like an excellent idea. Something definitely worth trying. But I feel like I might be missing some obvious reason that this could never work. Have at it!

2 thoughts on “A Parlor

  1. Bookmarking. I can see how this would work well for certain kinds of classes. I don’t know how it would work for a working meeting, a committee meeting, but it would be good for a meeting that was trying to define the state of a question (if people were of good will).

  2. I agree that you couldn’t run a business meeting this way, i..e, one in which decisions had to be made. But I think many organizations would benefit if they held a weekly meeting like this. The trick would be to make sure that people didn’t think it was a waste of time to hear what other people have on their minds.

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