Peopling rather than experting

I’ve just given another paid workshop, to an audience I at first felt like I have no rapport with – they’re public administrators. My slides were technical, an attempt from my side to show that this is serious, that I did my homework – a common academic / engineer fault, I suppose. But I spoke personally. I’ve slowly decided personal and authentic is my brand, and to hell with it. Shit’s my thing, deal with it. And they loved it. I don’t know if they’re convinced, and frankly, I don’t care. They listened and that is the first step. More on this a bit later. 

Getting paid for this is perhaps a bit odd to admit, maybe people think I’ve been getting paid all along. The fact of the matter is I am practically addicted to volunteering and as my friend says ‘no one wants to pay for the important stuff’, and maybe not getting paid was a buffer to tell myself that people will tolerate me because I’m free. Getting paid for it has boosted my confidence that people actually really do like what I have to say. Bottom line is I like talking about how we can become more AquaSavvy, how we as everyday people – rather than politicians or engineers or urban planners can become more water sensitive, can thrive with a high quality of life in an arid environment.

At the same time I see colleagues struggle with talking to ‘outsiders’, they complain about being misquoted, about having their time wasted. But they persevere because they are more terrified that the people then go to sensationalist half-truth spewers (looking at you, Mike and Tony). The sad thing is that they seem to believe that if you shout the same message louder and louder, it’s going to get through. I wonder if it occurs to them that they are being ‘misquoted’ because what they say is so incomprehensible that the journalists have to translate it, but may not be sure what into, because it is so incomprehensible in the first place.

One colleague has embraced this with simpler language, but what I disagree with is that his simple message seems to be a one trick pony. In my view, he confuses ‘simplified message’ with ‘dumbing it down’.

I like to call my approach ‘gentle stories’ where I am not even that interested in convincing the audience of a particular angle. Sharing the wonder of something doesn’t rely on the listener to buy into it. Stories take time, we need to build relationships. It’s the difference between a healthy social fabric and crisis mode. This is why I just love initiatives like 1001 South African Stories (with my story here), Open Streets and others.

I feel that this not only involves how we as researchers talk about our work, but about how that work is done in the first place. Another colleague articulates this beautifully:

“I’m surprised to see citizen science defined as providing data to scientists or even as translating science to/for those thought to be outside a (somewhat hallowed?) community of scientists. For me, and I suspect for many over the past many years, recognizing citizen science includes valorising the contributions – to understanding (and addressing the demands of) the natural world (physical as well as ideational) – of those conventionally regarded as outside the community of scientists. It involves recognizing and accepting that there are other than conventional scientific ways to analyze the world; valorising those as just as legitimate and useful for relating to that world as are those of conventional science; and, importantly, accepting that conventional science is not and cannot be divorced from the historical, socio-economic and -political context/s out of which it came and that enabled it to become as dominant as it has.”

This also links to an article that this same colleague shared, and which I so fully agree with: Letting go of the need to know: an important water-wise principle – The Source

“We don’t know the answer, because we CAN’T know the answer. We can’t even be sure what the problem is. But for deep experts … we rightly feel obliged to analyse, identify and solve.

The more we imagine that we have things under control, the less we value the input of others. We might talk about working collaboratively, but if we feel that we are the experts why would we collaborate? From this mindset we constrain the collaboration and undermine the very relationships that ‘integration’ requires.”

I’ve written about this stupid experting thing before.

I think universities – the holy place on the hill, the ‘new religion’, the ivory towers – are dead. And that pleases me. Concepts like engaged scholarship, action research, or more commonly, practising what you preach and getting continual feedback, sharing gentle stories, have a better future ahead.

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