Conversation Project: Lessons so far

This past January, I attended a facilitation training that Oregon Humanities offers, and was so taken by their approach that I just wanted to get more. When I heard that they were recruiting new topics and leaders for their Conversation Project series, I put in an application; now I am two Conversations deep into a string of nine that I currently have scheduled. (And, the applications to host just reopened! /shameless plug)

Facilitating is a frequently invisible form of labor that requires skill, spontaneity, and endurance. Can you remember the last time you experienced great facilitation? I aspire to hope to get to the level of calm, joyful facilitation as the folks I most to, but in the meantime, I want to reflect on some of the things I am learning, and trying, as I do these Conversations. This is all the more timely, as Rachel Bernstein, who I work with at OH, recently sent me a link to this piece in Library Journal.

My topic, Beyond Fake News:  How We Find Accurate Information About the World, is obviously linked to the kind of information literacy instruction I do as a librarian. However, the premise of the Conversation Project is that, together, a group of people can explore their values, beliefs, and choices regardless of their content expertise. The role of the facilitator is to raise questions, synthesize and create meaning out of what has been said, and to help guide the discussion to places that are interesting, challenging, and rich.

(I get kind of gushy about Oregon Humanities, and even the assessments that OH uses are kind of amazing: one of the questions on their post-Conversation response form asks about the ratio of time that the facilitator spoke compared to the participants – did you feel good about it? Another asks whether there were moments when the conversation changed – deepened, got heated, pivoted. These are excellent questions for teaching, as well.)

This is all hard work. One page I have already dog-eared in my facilitator’s guidebook is a typology of questions from Asking Big Questions. Coming up with questions that are big enough to be interesting, but not so big enough to become meaningless…and that are specific enough that everyone in the group can feel the stake in is tough! Considering how often I talk to students about developing research questions, this is a new type of question that I feel like a real n00b at. 

When I applied to facilitate Conversations on this topic, it wasn’t because I was an expert. I had noticed a pattern of folks asking me questions about fake news, questions dripping with anxiety and a sense of guilt. What should we be doing? What could we even do?

Based on the first two conversations, I’ll say, we haven’t come to any conclusions. But it can be powerful to know that other people are worried; to be challenged to clarify your values and beliefs; and to learn from others in your community. In my conversation, I use a historic newspaper from the community to get participants to think about the conventions of news information within their community over time. (Shoutout to the University of Oregon's Historic Oregon Newspapers site for making this possible.) In Klamath Falls, a participant noted that, this October 1917 issue of their local paper had no news about the anti-war protests likely going on. They did have news about the soldiers, and also about a pro-war speaker on tour. Although the current state of corporate news, and the potential to falsify through Photoshop and other tools, is bleak, misinformation is hardly new.

Finally, one thing I am still amazed by, every time I do any of these OH things, is that: if you bring people together, and give them a place to go, they will talk with each other. It amazes me every time.