March 21, 2013

Open Space Learning – Thoughts on a Training Session

Here at the Gendered Knowledges project, we were lucky enough to be invited to an Open Space Learning training session, run by Dr Nick Monk – deputy Director of IATL.

I knew the session would serve a multi-faceted purpose: allowing us to experience open space learning first-hand, enabling us to use it in our own teaching and indeed our planned workshops and events for the Gendered Knowledges project; and to give us time, space and opportunity to get together with other members of the team to discuss issues surrounding sexualities and gender. Sounded good to me!

The session was held in the Reinvention Centre – consisting of a big room, under-floor heating, no chairs or desks, but beanbags and cushioned cubes… an ‘open space’ (strangely enough!) – more space, more comfort, more movement.

After some initial warm-up-getting-to-know-each-other exercises, the whole group was divided in to 2 sub groups and sent to either ends of the room, with a pile of gender/sexuality-themed images, stats, graphs and text extracts to sort through, make sense of and arrange into a narrative for the other group to interpret. Easy?!

My personal opinion was (but other members may have felt differently!) that our group worked really well together. I certainly felt able to express my opinions, thoughts and interpretations and it felt as though other members felt comfortable in doing the same. Working with small extracts of text, and images meant that we could all engage with them quite quickly, regardless of what ‘discipline’ we were from and seemed able to voice our thoughts on each with ease. Having a range of documents/images also meant that if there were some you were attracted to more than others, you could choose to talk about a chosen piece and weren’t ‘forced’ into giving an opinion on something you weren’t as comfortable with.

For me personally, there was no feeling of being out of my depth – which is empowering and motivating.

The benefits of being an interdisciplinary project of course, meant that groups consisted of a variety of people from a variety of disciplines so if somebody wasn’t sure of what an image or piece of text referred to – there was usually somebody who did. It felt equal and collaborative. To quote a group member,

“We’ve created a hierarchy-free space, amazing!”

Now to the narrative: our group arranged the resources to represent a narrative of childhood, gendered norms and socialization through education and wider social conditioning. We then moved onto adulthood: the double standards, the sexualization, sexual violence and the imposed normative gendered behavior expected within society. We concluded the narrative with disruption, resistance, subversion and the Queering of these aforementioned gendered norms.

Interestingly, our last, most ‘radical’ queering image happened to be one of the historical images – that of Pope Joan.

As an aside to our main narrative, feeding into it but not placed directly within it, we had a theoretical and/or statistical deck of cards, or ‘tool kit’ to evidence our narrative if appropriate and necessary – enabling us to dip in/out of theory and statistics whenever required – to illustrate the narrative but not interrupt it.

Unbeknown to us, each group were actually given the same pack of resources – and interestingly the arrangements of the narratives although similar, did have their differences.

This was an engaging, interesting and inspiring activity and the training session in general, for me personally was enjoyable and valuable – from both a theoretical and a praxis point of view. I know that many of the group members came away with ideas for their own teaching methods.

I certainly think we could make use of this structure and approach within the Gendered Knowledges events: allowing for an interdisciplinary, collaborative, equal sharing of knowledge in a safe and supportive environment.


- 3 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Lana

    Thank you Emma for your post! I really enjoyed it as well. It was a refreshing change from conventional academic teaching methods. The different and warm working environment, combined with innovative teaching method is very different from we, in academia, are used to and trained in!

    In addition to being great exercise in team-building, I was surprised to see how much one can learn about the ways in which different participants conceptualize and articulate gender and sexuality. As a method, it allows creative space for interdisciplinary to be visible. It also has the potential to create safe space for participants to share not only their knowledge, but also to enable people to bring (consciously or unconsciously) to the discussions their own identities, background, and passions to the topic, as well as sharing different stories of what drew them to be engaged, academically and in practice, in issues relating to gender, sexuality, representations and power.

    Also, open-space learning activities often have reflective dimension to them (at least for me). Reflecting on what creates good team work (and what doesn’t), the performative roles people take and play, and on how positive group dynamics can be enhanced.

    24 Mar 2013, 10:22

  2. Anna Sloan

    I have been thinking quite a lot about what Lana calls ‘safety’ – the idea that we talked about quite a lot in the post-activity discussion, that we need to find ways to make all students/participants feel safe and welcomed and able to speak. Many members of the group on Weds actually seemed fairly skeptical of this idea, because surely some kinds of students (e.g. those on the autism spectrum, it was suggested) would find this kind of activity particularly uncomfortable. So the question is, how do we really genuinely make all participants feel safe? Or if this is not possible (as it may well not be), how do we minimise the exclusions while still engaging in focused teaching and learning?

    This issue strikes me as being at the very centre of what our project is about. The debate in my group focused on the various exclusions in feminist discourse: the way mainstream feminism is really white, Western, middle-class feminism, and the way gender studies in the academy often (though certainly not always) reflect this hegemony. It’s all about whose voices are heard – by who gets the most seats at the discursive table – and this is of course determined by existing power structures. This project’s ‘radicality’ has to be about acknowledging the existing power structures within the academy – both in teaching and in research (e.g. disciplinary boundaries) – and then trying as best we can to get away from them, to re-imagine the university.

    Incidentally, I’ve been thinking of writing a blog post that would identify some of the power structures at work in our own project, but I’m wondering if this would be useful or whether it might end up being rather inflammatory.

    24 Mar 2013, 18:28

  3. Katharina Karcher

    OSL and power dynamics – a truely interesting question! Although I do agree with your criticism of the material, I think we need to critically reflect on our own role in this situation. If I remember correctly, Nick invited us to send him images and quotes that we consider important, and most of us havent done that in advance. It seems to me that it is simply not a very good idea to leave one person in charge of selecting the material for an OSL session.

    I do think that we could do that differently in the future, because we have a range of ideas and positions in our team. Why don’t we try collecting material right now? Ill try to create a section with some material on gender. Please do add quotes and images that you think are interesting! I am sure that together we can collect plenty of material for a different OSL session on gender! :)

    27 Mar 2013, 12:45


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