Is Dialogue Possible?

Promises & Perils of Dialogic Pedagogy

Promises and Perils of Dialogic Pedagogy

It certainly wasn’t boring.

At least not after the slow start! But maybe the start wasn’t actually that slow . . . here I am re-thinking the beginning after the end.

We did not rush back from lunch, so the first set of presentations did not begin on time. Actually, time boundary-keeping was broken earlier, when Eugene and Ana asked James and me to say something during the opening/welcome talk about our action research project. We wanted to keep it brief. I did not think to record the time we actually took nor how long beyond the time allotted in the schedule, but it seems likely that we were already over time before we had practically begun.


Lunch was leisurely yet animated. I was twice called over to the other table in the aftermath of a so-called problematic moment, not to mention finding myself in wild debate with an Israeli over the title of a conference that I am attending in May. We were late getting back to the conference venue – how late past the scheduled start I have no idea. Did the first presenter go way over his designated time? I held up until the third or fourth presentation and then I could not remain alert. I don’t think I actually fell asleep, just dozed but still – enough to feel a little embarrassed.

Tweet activity was okay – we had active tweeters right away and some persisted throughout. You can watch a video of the Tidepool visualization of tweet activity from the first 36 hours of the conference here: #Bakhtin tweets in Tidepool.  Also, you might be interested to know that, at the very end of the conference, @nafoolah tweets from far outside-the-room: “does this hashtag come from nothing to help in my studying about Mikhail Bakhtin” and @antoesp shares Cresswell and Hawn (2012), with dual hashtags for #bakhtin and #epistemology.


Two tweets on the same topic, posted simultaneously.
Two tweets on the same topic, posted simultaneously.

Thankfully the energy shifted during the last presentation of Day 1 when Ana presented her struggle to maintain balance within the tension of being drawn, simultaneously, to two opposed chronotopes: sticking with the standard curriculum or shifting to the Live Event. Her presentation generated the first simultaneous tweets, as well as the first animated Question and Answer period of the conference. Then we were off to dinner. Did anyone sense conflict percolating around the edges, in the hallways, offline? I was unaware.

The First Tsunami was covert

Neither my colleague, who discovered a theory of problematic moments, nor myself recognized the possible problematic moment when it occurred during the second day’s first session. I rejected the idea when it was first presented to me, but once past my initial gut reaction I had to admit that I had felt an emptiness open up, a silence deep enough that wonder regarding what would happen next began to grow. Perhaps I sensed others’ emotions begin to fill the void….but the facilitator re-covered the breach for us; we all went along with her move. I forgot about it. At break however, a participant and one of the organizers approached me with the claim that they had caused a problematic moment.

Pinpointing a possible problematic moment
Pinpointing a possible problematic moment

I rejected this instantly because James and I are pretty sure group-level problematic moments cannot be caused by individual action. This theoretically-descriptive aspect, combined with my previous experiences with problematic moments, led to my out-of-hand rejection. But Kathy was persistent, and her language described my embodied perception perfectly, a silence after a silence. Nearly 24 hours later, when we were able to ask conference participants about their experience of/in that moment, many of the participants who had been present were not able to distinguish the second silence from the first: either they sensed one stable pause; noticed no pause; noticed but deemed it unremarkable, perhaps cultural but nothing more); or was already experiencing an encompassing state-of-being which consumed the distinctiveness all particular moments during that timespan. Such nuances of intrapersonal response detail incredible subtleties of simultaneity and are a significant finding of this action research project.

Control: Fight or Flight?

Based on everything we learned afterward (and, may I just say, we learned a helluva lot!), I can imagine that the instigators of the planned disruption might not have felt the shift from the first to the second silence because they were enjoying the carnivalesque pleasure of rebellion. As it happened, the presenter quickly picked a possible response and pursued it. And, as noted above, none of the rest of us intervened in the tension between pursuing/resuming a standard chronotope or shifting to the chronotope of engaging with Here-and-Now live events. During an interview, the presenter explained, with a touch of regret, that she had not acted as usual in that kind of situation because the group had not yet established a communal sensibility.

Normally we would have captured the PM on video and been able to show it back to the group for interrogation, but unexpected requests for copies of presentations had thrown us for a loop. We missed recording a few presentations while grappling to absorb the ramifications of distributing copies of video obtained under conditions of informed consent. Without the PM to replay, we were left with only the principals’ reports of their respective experiences of the moment. These proved insufficient inspiration for a collective exploration of whether or not a PM had occurred. Instead, we found ourselves in a swirl of debate trying to teach the relevance of differences between interpersonal (individual) and group-level dynamics. In retrospect, we realized that it would have been helpful to articulate the theoretical frameworks that guide our analytical gaze and generation of hypotheses.

Norming: Academic, not Innovative

Probably it could not have been any other way. Despite the encouragement we took from pre-conference email communication describing, for instance, how “Our mini-Bakhtinian conference is not the same as every other conference you have attended,” the rituals of social interaction were not significantly affected. The change in form, “that we don’t have parallel sessions, but the whole conference takes place in only one track” may not have implied as much willingness to explore the stages of group development as we optimistically interpreted. After the possible problematic moment, James and I became absorbed with preparing for our scheduled workshop slot: we were generating hypotheses about the possible problematic moment and imagining how to design the session in order to maximize engagement with the data. As far as I can recall, the presentations continued along the rest of Day 2. Presumedly most of the conference participants again enjoyed a meal together; we huddled in our hotel room, parsing video and strategizing how best to maximize the learning opportunity.


For this first blog entry (the project proposal specified two or three), I’m working from memory and also trying to cast as wide and broad an overview as I can, while remaining tight on the emergent data that we selected for qualitative analysis. The foursome who appeared to give the first presentation on Day 3 had not been previously present; from my point-of-view they caught a huge thrust of energy as the group initiated a Q&A only a few minutes into their presentation. I was quite impressed with how they handled the feedback, apparently unruffled they took it all down and hung in there for the rest of the morning (but that’s all). It seemed that conference participants who had remained since the start were hitting stride. Then came our workshop and it proceeded as if grudgingly. Although no carnivalesque actions were performed, two of the small groups overtly chose not to conduct the structured “now what” task but instead opted to talk about something else that they wanted to talk about with each other. We left to debrief and, upon return some 90 minutes later, were informed that we had missed a(nother possible) problematic moment.

The Second (possible) Problematic Moment was Overt

A conference participant who had left remains in conversation via Twitter
A conference participant who had left remains in conversation via Twitter

We were not there and did not leave the camcorder running, so we have paltry data to work with. Eugene told me they have faced such disagreement before, that it has to do with (according to some) “application,” and (according to him), “implication” regarding his dialogic pedagogy philosophy (?) of teaching. Yifat said, “Oh you really missed something,” and James was told that there was a din, an outburst of many talking at the same time. It sure sounds like a group-level event. I mused about it on twitter, getting responses from Eugene and also Mara – who had been able to attend (along with several others) only the first two days of the conference.


"love" was tweeted at least 16 times in 30 minutes
"love" was tweeted at least 16 times in 30 minutes

We were only able to stay for the first presentation of the last, fourth day of the conference.  It would be cool if some quantitative analyst would run the tweet data (as captured in Tidepool tweet counts) and correlate word frequency with the topics of each workshop. As with the National Science Foundation tweet data (Idiographic Case #1) from their Workshop on Transformative Research, the tweets that Tidepool captures represent only a partial perspective on the conference-as-a-whole. For what it’s worth, the word with the highest count within the time boundary of a single presentation was brought to us by Jayne.

4 thoughts on “Is Dialogue Possible?”

  1. We missed out on presenting our content

    The experience of doing our action research project in the conference once again reaffirmed the complexity of what we are trying to do. The Problematic Moment Approach, which was the basis for our action research project, was developed using two frameworks that come from completely different paradigms: (1) the critical discourse analysis theories of Norman Fairclough and (2) Tavistock group relations theories. Also included in the mix is the notion that group level events, such as a Problematic Moment (PM), are physically experienced in the body, like “a sharp intake of breath” (Interview with Elisa on March 30, 2012). We have also been trying to bring in the work of Evangelina Holvino on the simultaneity of differences in order to understand what identities are being repressed in a PM and what resources are required to be able to intervene in a group after a PM has occurred. We are not just interested in understanding a PM; we are also interested in developing a “technology” for making interventions in groups that further social justice and equality. We also believe there is a spiritual aspect to dialog nicely explored by Jayne in her presentation entitled “At the heart of pedagogy: Aesthetic love.” However, we missed the opportunity to present this content as the sequence of activities in our presentation focused too much on process work

    We missed the PM!

    Steph mentions in her blog post that neither she nor myself recognized the possible problematic moment when it occurred during the second day’s first session. The fact that we did not experience this moment raises a credibility issue about our conceptualization of a PM as “physically experienced in the body, like ‘a sharp intake of breath.’” Fortunately, some participants noticed it and brought it to our attention. It could be that people who are more attuned to the discourse and dynamics of a group are more sensitive to recognizing one than newcomers are. If that is the case, then we need to make some changes to how we conduct this kind of action research project in the future.

    Presentation of selves-what happens when we pretend

    The morning of the second day began with an activity which was intended by the presenter to change the somewhat monological and mind focused experience of the conference so far. She decided not to give her intended presentation but to do a more experiential activity which got us on our feet and into our bodies. During this naming exercise, however, one member presented herself as Liesl rather than using her real name. Liesl is the fictional eldest Von Trapp daughter in The Sound of Music (The symbolic interactionist folks would have a field day with that one!) Apparently, the person identifying herself as Liesl and another participant discussed doing this when her turn came with the carnavalistic intention of poking fun at the exercise. It seemed that participants first reacted with confusion about what really was the name of that person and that brief silence was followed by another silence, more uncomfortable than the first, when the group as a whole realized the implications of the presentation of a false identity. This moment was a PM.

    Agency and silencing

    Peter’s distinction between the traditional self, the modern self and the postmodern self was helpful. A modern self is conceived as having an identity which has an experience, whereas the postmodern self is constituted through experience. The modern self has agency. The postmodern self has no unity at its core but is rather a simultaneous collection of identities which are called forth, or not, according to the context. Using Holvino’s notion of the simultaneity of differences, we theorize that for this conference, salient identities foregrounded included institutional affiliation, academic discipline, title, gender, nationality and membership/non-membership of a Bakhtinian network . What happened in the PM can be interpreted from both the perspective of the modern self and the postmodern self. Further exploration of the conference and ideas of identity, agency and how people can become silenced, as I was in the fishbowl, will have to wait for another blog post later this week.

  2. Dear Stephanie, James, and everybody–

    Stephanie and James, thanks a lot for posting about your conference’s experiences, reflections, and study. I think that your study of the mini-Bakhtinian conference on Dialogic Pedagogy in Newark DE – it’s emerging tensions and chronotope – is very interesting and important.

    However, I have 2 related concerns regarding your approach to your study:

    1) Correct me if I’m wrong, but your approach focuses on form of interaction as you defined relational breakdowns and chronotopes through description of interactional forms (e.g., breaking silence) or genres/formats (e.g., PowerPoint conference presentation). Although a focus on interactional form may be useful in analysis of emerging tensions, breakdowns, and chronotopes, I think its usefulness is very limited and secondary. Without attention and analysis of the content of what is going on, it is impossible to understand the human, relational, nature of the ongoing events. Thus, abrupt silence may or may not be a marker of a relational breakdown. PowerPoint conference presentation may or may not be a marker of monological social relations. Bakhtin (1986) both appreciated and highly criticized a formalist approach to literary studies and I want to refer you to his critique as I have found it very relevant and useful.

    2) Using a group as your unit of analysis can be both useful and problematic. It is problematic because relational breakdowns maybe rooted in paradigmatic tensions transcending a particular group in a particular setting, although, of course, how these paradigmatic tensions erupt in a particular group in a particular setting can be an important and very legitimate inquiry. For this reasons, I suggest you focusing on broader discourses in the field, cultures, and institutions.

    I found your workshop both very frustrating and helpful. It was frustrating for me because I felt a lot of impositions on me and shaping me in your “we”, which I was not a part and did not want to be a part for the reasons I spelled above. I disagreed with your interpretation of the events in question and with your approaches. However, I found your focus on centrifugal and centripetal forces at the conference AND testing of your ideas with us VERY helpful, inspiring, refreshing, cathartic, and useful. I love the frank an revealing discussion that happened at the end of your workshop. I think you created an important event for us. Thanks a lot for that.

    What do you think?


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