Pitfalls of Dialogue

Public dialogue, done well, is a work of art, a thing of beauty no less impressive than a fine painting, sculpture or tapestry. A well-crafted dialogue is at its best when the audience becomes participants; the lectern fades and interaction flourishes.

But most events publicized as dialogues don’t meet that expectation, often because they utilize formats that stifle rather than stimulate engagement.

Take the standard panel discussion format, a surefire way to keep the audience limited to being an audience. Most panels begin with each panelist provided with ten or so minutes to make their point, but invariably extending overtime as they attempt to cram in more information than appropriate for their time slot.

Then the audience gets to ask questions, with each panelist feeling compelled to chime in on each question, creating a dead zone of tuned-out audience members bored from listening to the panel talk to itself.

A successful panel should stimulate rather than stultify, and at the Centre for Dialogue we’ve developed a few methods that move panels towards dialogue. For one thing, each panelist is given only five minutes at the start; we charge them with telling one and only one story during this strictly limited time, a story that illuminates an experience that contributes a personal perspective on the meeting’s topic.

We then turn the audience themselves into a large panel, asking them to contribute their stories. Sometimes we encourage a few members of the former audience (now participants) to share their stories with the larger group, or we might ask them to share a story with the person in the next seat.

We handle questions and answers differently as well. We’ll call on an audience member to ask a short question, but limit the response to one panelist and two minutes. Then we turn it around and ask if anyone in the audience would like to answer the same question before moving on to the next query. We’ve also encouraged panel members to come prepared with questions to ask of the audience, reversing the expected direction of interaction.

Another way to kindle good dialogue is using breakout groups, since many more participants can speak at a breakout table of eight to ten than in a larger plenary session. But breakout groups have their pitfalls as well, particularly in how they report back to the larger plenary. The danger is in gruesomely long reporting back that attempts to cover every point discussed, a sure recipe for draining energy out of a room and extending meetings well over their advertised time.

We’ve tried a couple of things that work well for these reports. A notetaker captures all the ideas in breakouts, and then we amalgamate those in the days following the meeting and issue a report. At the meeting itself, we ask each group to decide on their one best idea and report that out verbally in one to two minutes. While we miss ideas from each table, the range of single ideas from all tables usually covers most of the territory discussed at any one table.

A second approach we’ve taken to liven up reporting out is to ask for a one-minute, art-based summary to be presented to the plenary following the breakout session. We’ve seen poems, skits, dance, collage, and songs that vibrantly capture key points from each table, in an entertaining style that is highly participatory and deeply engaging.

These tricks of the dialogue trade all have one thing in common: individuals come together as equals to share the deep wisdom in the room rather than limit their involvement to passively listening to an invited expert or observing a panel perform.

Isn’t that the essence of public dialogue: catalyzing an audience to become participants?

Why Aren’t African Bees Collapsing?

Honeybee colonies are dying, about one-third of all hives globally each year, an enormous tragedy for bees and beekeepers alike. There’s not a single cause, but rather a congruence of interacting issues including pesticides, diseases and pests, among others.

But not everywhere; a recent study from Africa indicates that Kenyan honeybees are not so seriously afflicted, due to diminished presence or impact from three of the major components causing colonies to collapse elsewhere on our planet.

Kenyan colonies were found to have a low exposure to pesticides, with only four pesticides found in colonies, and those at low levels. In comparison, over 129 pesticides are commonly found in North American honeybee hives, often at concentrations high enough to harm bees. Pesticide interactions with each other and with bee diseases and pests are one of the most significant factors contributing to colony demise, so these low numbers were good news for Kenyan beekeepers.

The Penn State researchers also found low incidences of Nosema, a fungal disease that has reached outbreak proportions in many parts of the world. Nosema was only recently introduced to Kenya, which may account for it’s low levels in colonies. But pesticides are known to reduce bees’ capacity to combat Nosema, so a more intriguing possibility is that Nosema is low in Kenya is because the low pesticide presence in Kenyan colonies reduces the disease’s virulence.

Another factor in the relatively good health of Kenyan colonies is that the varroa mite is not as deadly as its been elsewhere in the world, because African bees may be less susceptible. For one thing, African bees have higher levels of hygienic behavior, removing mites from cells in which they feed on larvae and grooming adult mites off of adult bees. The African bees also may be less attractive to varroa, perhaps due to having a different odor than European bees, or stiffer external hairs that make bee cuticle less hospitable to the mites.

The life cycle of African bees also contributes to diminished varroa impact. Colonies abscond (abandoning hives) and swarm (reproducing) frequently, which causes breaks in brood rearing that limit the ability of varroa to reproduce. Also, brood of African bees take about 2 days less to develop from egg to adult than in the European-derived bees found elsewhere in the world’s beekeeping regions, which isn’t quite enough time for the varroa mites to mature inside the African brood cells.

One beneficial side effect of reduced levels of varroa and nosema is reduced chemical use by beekeepers, saving money but most significantly reducing the pesticide load that bees are exposed to. While any one factor does not explain the relative health of Kenyan honeybees, it seems that reduced exposure to pesticides has contributed to healthier bees and a viable beekeeping industry.

If I was the czar of global agriculture, I would command reduced pesticide use by both farmers and beekeepers. That’s a key element for bee health, because in addition to directly toxic effects and subtle sublethal impacts on bee behavior, many pesticides diminish bees’ immune responses and thereby increase susceptibility to diseases and pests.

The Kenyan and many other studies have made it clear that a dramatic change in global agricultural practices is part of the solution for the current malaise afflicting honeybee colonies, and also the many species of wild bees equally susceptible to death by agriculture.

We know that reduced pesticide use will benefit bees; it’s lack of political and social will that keeps colonies dying. Until that changes, bees will continue to be challenged by our increasingly toxic planet.

For more information, see:

Muli E, Patch H, Frazier M, Frazier J, Torto B, et al. (2014). Evaluation of the Distribution and Impacts of Parasites, Pathogens, and Pesticides on Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) Populations in East Africa. PLoS ONE 9(4): e94459. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094459

The Book I Didn’t Write

I didn’t write a book a decade or so ago, titled Seeds at the time. It was going to be about, well, seeds.

I had in mind a book that would cover topics such as the biology of seeds and how early farmers selected the crops they grew from wild plants. I imagined discussing agricultural practices related to saving seeds, and how crop diversity on farms had changed over the 10,000 or so years of human agriculture.

There even was a physical file in which I stuffed random information, in a cabinet that’s now almost empty since computers have made hard copy filing almost extinct.

My seed file is eclectic, including a packet of open-pollinated squash seeds, a few business cards, an article from Science magazine about seed banks, and pamphlets about an eco-organic plant sale, heritage seeds in Canada and a then-upcoming international world exhibition about organic farming.

I never did get around to writing Seeds, and doubt I ever will, but the idea popped up again the other day while I was browsing a Seattle bookstore and saw the new book Seedtime: On the History, Husbandry, Politics and Promise of Seeds. It’s by Scott Chaskey, a New York State poet/farmer widely considered the founder of community-based sustainable farming.

I got quite excited seeing his book. My first thought was that Chaskey’s book validated my most excellent idea, and I couldn’t wait to read the book I didn’t write.

Except: turns out it’s not my book. The only similarity is that the word “seeds” is in both our titles. Otherwise, his book bears no resemblance to what I had in mind. His voice is more the poet than the scientist, with undertones of mythology and spirituality, flowery descriptions of seeds and poetic waxings about farming and the spirit of the land.

I did write a book once that was published at the same time other authors came out with similar books, on genetically modified crops. Mine, Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone, was written in the early 2000’s, when GM crops were new to the marketplace. I’d hoped to be first out of the post on the subject, and imagined writing the hot-off-the-press New York Times bestseller on this topic of consuming public interest.

But, other books on GM crops came out within a few months of mine, a couple just before and a few just after. We shared the wealth of readers, and none of us hit that best seller home run. I read them all, and what struck me was how different each was, with that endless variety of authors’ voices that make reading such a delight.

That lesson of voice has stayed with me. There are many, many books on almost any subject; upwards of 2 million new books are published globally every year, 290,000 in the U.S. and 20,000 in Canada. Each is infused with the author’s distinctive writing rhythm, each telling a unique story no matter how similar their topics.

One dictionary definition of “voice” is “the distinctive style or manner of expression of an author or of a character in a book,” but I’m fond of another meaning: “the range of pitch or type of tone with which a person sings.”

That’s something to celebrate, the range of pitch and tone with which authors make their writing sing.

A Long Farewell

A moment took me by surprise this afternoon, although I should have expected it. I am no longer the Director of SFU’s Semester in Dialogue. After 12 years, it was time to pass the torch.

I’ve known this was coming for years, so my departure was not unexpected. Still, today feels quite different from yesterday. It’s always fascinating to see what the sink-in moment will be indicating that life has changed. Mine was saying goodbye for the afternoon to our Secretary Linda Bannister, and suddenly realizing that I wasn’t her supervisor any longer.

I’m not retiring, or even leaving; I have a year-long administrative leave coming up during which I expect to be into work most days, doing some writing and community-based projects I’ve been wanting to get to. I’ll be back teaching in some capacity when my leave is over.

Founding, directing and teaching in the Semester in Dialogue over the last 12 years has easily been the most affecting experience of my working life. The opportunity to mentor, to get to know hundreds of extraordinary students and provide a platform through which they could envision their own futures, has been beyond priceless.

The Semester has introduced me to the cornucopia of characters that make our region thrive, as we’ve had well over 500 community members in as dialogue guests. Urban planners and oil company CEO’s, government officials and anti-poverty activists, First Nations leaders and poets, they and so many others have graced our dialogue table. Their generosity with their time and willingness to interact has motivated our students to do more in the world than they thought they could, and provided role models for how to construct and effective and satisfying life.

I often joke that the Semester in Dialogue might be renamed “Making the World a Better Place,” as we admonish our students to treat their semester as an opportunity to give back to the community and make some positive change happen to the world outside their education.

There’s a Hebrew phrase “Tikkun Olam,” roughly translated as healing or repairing the world, and it’s that spirit that has guided me these many years in the Semester. I have no illusions that I can take much credit for world-healing, but I do know that our students can. The world is indeed better off with the projects, accomplishments and contributions our students have made through their Semester in Dialogue work.

My greatest satisfaction has been through the hundreds of students who found their voice and became more fully themselves through the Semester in Dialogue, who began to think more expansively about how much they could do, grew their motivation to have a positive impact on the world around them and developed skills to be effective agents for change.

I’m not really leaving, but still: all of you involved in the Semester have meant the world to me, and I can’t tell you enough how grateful I am to those many of you who have shared the journey.