Thursday, June 5, 2014

Community agreements and other workshop excesses

At this point, I am trying to stop going to queer conferences. I haven't stopped completely (in fact, I'm going to GaymerX2 next month), but I am trying. I'm tired of conferences, with their inspirational but lacking in substance keynote speeches, and attendees who are all younger and more enthusiastic than I (at least in the case of college student conferences).

And workshops. Some workshops are great, but many are just bad. Here's an illustration of a bad workshop:

The facilitator picks an overly broad and vague topic, like "queer masculinity". Because it's so broad, lots of people think there's something there for them, so there are maybe 50 attendees. The facilitator decides that each person should introduce themselves, where they came from, and their favorite celebrity or whatever. This takes 20 minutes out of an hour workshop, and causes further interruptions when people trickle in later. After that, they spend another 10 minutes on "community agreements", so that we all have the same understanding of how the discussion is supposed to go.

Finally, the facilitator makes it clear that they don't actually know how to run a discussion, and that's why they were stalling so much. People are called on one by one, and allowed to talk for far too long. And no matter what the original topic was, the discussion somehow comes back to one of the strange attractors of queer discussions. Like "labels", there's a strange attractor if I ever saw one. Everyone leaves vaguely unsatisfied.

I'm exaggerating slightly, since most workshops don't have all these bad things all at once. But many workshops have at least one of the bad things.

Like introductions. Unless you have a workshop with under 10 people, what's the point? The more people you have, the more time it wastes, and the less beneficial it is. When 20 people introduce themselves all at once, who's going to remember any names? There are better ways to do introductions, like have people say their name when they speak, or introduce themselves at the beginning of small group discussions. Or skip introductions altogether.

"Community agreements" are intended to maintain safe spaces, but are also often a time waster. Community agreements are often given catchy names like "step up, step back" (don't dominate the conversation), "one diva, one mic" (don't interrupt), "use 'I' statements" (don't overgeneralize your experiences), "don't yuck my yum" (don't mock people for what they like), "ouch, oops, educate" (how we're supposed to treat errors), and so on. There's also "confidentiality", "don't assume", and more. Facilitators pick their favorites.

I will grant that community agreements have some value, but I don't think we should be wasting ten minutes on them, and definitely not ten minutes every single workshop. And some agreements are just too obvious or vague to be much help. I'm pretty sure people know that they're not supposed to dominate the conversation, and that the problem doesn't arise due to ignorance. Sometimes it feels like community agreements are just a superstitious tradition, with no way of knowing if they are effective. Or maybe the agreements are like Pavlov's bells to get the dogs salivating, only we're conditioned to respond to this bell by thinking THIS HERE IS A SAFE SPACE STOP BEING AN ASSHOLE.

As for strange attractors of discussion, maybe they are just a pet peeve, since I never hear anyone else complaining about them. But every time meatspace groups start talking about labels, I get so annoyed. Inexperienced moderators often think "If people are talking so much about labels, then clearly this conversation hasn't gotten enough attention yet!" And there isn't really much I can do to change the conversation because all I can think to say is to tell everyone else how wrong they are, and then I become part of the strange attractor problem.

Lastly, facilitators need to seriously think about discussion structure. Calling on the audience one at a time works when there are ~10 people, but it does not scale!