At the It’s Not What You Think-workshop this March we experimented with a number of changes to the traditional format of academic meetings. One of the key things we knew we wanted with the workshop was to bring together a properly interdisciplinary group of people –not just scholars from different academic disciplines, but also artists working with different forms of expression and in very different contexts. While everyone shared a common interest in the materiality of medicine and ways in which to communicate about it, the participants approached the problem in about as many different ways as there were people. The diversity was both dizzying and fascinating. But such diverse backgrounds and methods brought up one of the major problem areas of interdisciplinary engagements, namely how to open up a genuine conversation. How could we, as the workshop organizers, try to experiment with the workshop format in order to facilitate as much interaction as possible?

We thought quite a bit on how to approach this problem, and we decided early on that we wanted to do a sort of methodological speed dating. We wanted everyone to get a chance to get to know everyone else as part of the workshop program itself, and not just those you happened to know beforehand or stood next to in line for coffee. After some deliberations, we decided that all 40 participants would be given four minutes each to present themselves, their work, and what they hoped to gain from the workshop. Since we wanted to avoid paralleled sessions, not everyone could give a stimulus presentation, but we felt it was important that everyone got to say who they were and why they were there. You can see videos of almost all of the presentations here (just click the link under each participants name)..

We had little idea how the session would go. We hoped that it would be stimulating, but worried if it would feel stressed and superfluous. Would it just be a blur? When it was done (impressively, just 10-15 minutes behind schedule) we felt that it ended up doing two very important things: On the intellectual side, it gave a kaleidoscopic view of a multitude of practice, methods and theories that all converged on similar concerns; it felt like a glimpse into something that might not be a neatly bounded field of study, but which nonetheless had enough of a contour to give a sense of coherence and shared sensibilities. As an intellectual exercise, we felt it set the right tone and established a series of questions right at the outset. This carried over into the thematic sessions and gave everyone some context when people were asking questions and bring up new issues. On the social side, it was also greatly beneficial that everyone got some idea of who they might want to get to know. It made it much easier to start up conversations and seek out people whose work struck chords. It also, we think, helped shake everyone together early on and create a positive atmosphere for working on the partial solutions, pragmatic fixes, and novel approaches called for in the workshop description.

This is definitely something we will use again for later workshops! Anyone have examples of other conference/workshop format experiments for this kind of introductory sessions? Or maybe just ideas of how to tweak or remake what we tried at It’s Not What You Think?

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