Fellows Reading Group
Thursday, 5 November 2009
We are now well into the term. We have heard each other give talks and have been reading each other's papers in the reading group. A familiar comfort has replaced the caution that separates a group of people thrown together from around the world.
The group was now strong enough, I thought, to be subjected to a little experiment. Well, it will be two experiments. The first was an academic experiment. I'd been to a CityLive! event in Pittsburgh in which ten speakers were given just three minutes each to explain an idea too crazy to merit more time. The event had been fast paced and energizing. Why not do that in our reading group?
Of course, philosophers are wordier. Three minutes is very little time for them to say anything. "Let's take four minutes!" I announced, when floating the idea. Philosophers, it seems to me, do need to realize that the rest of the world operates with very different time horizons. In business, you are lucky to get 10 minutes to pitch your clever proposal; and those ten minutes can make or break a career.
There was a deeper motive to the event than the excitement of fast paced discussion. In philosophy, we are very good at destroying.
Brutally eviscerating a speaker in question time is a common goal-- but one that I actively discourage in the Center. We are not very good at encouraging new ideas. Or at least we don't have formal structures that set creating them as a goal. That was my deeper purpose. This was a chance to float an idea without real commitment yet still see how everyone would react.
Then there was the second experiment. I'd noticed apple turnovers in the freezer section of the supermarket. Might we try to bake some in our little toaster oven? What could be more inviting than the smell of freshly baked pastries?
In the hour preceding our meeting, Joyce and I were fiddling with the pastries in the little oven. As the minutes ticked away, it didn't seem that the oven was hot enough. We had a back up. I'd found a big box of chocolate florentines at IKEA over the weekend.
Our two experiments were under way. The academic experiment took root faster than I expected. I'd imagined that I'd need to speak my craziness first in order to loosen the atmosphere. By the time we were sitting around the table ready to start, it was clear that wouldn't be needed. Both Drossi and Slobodan had drafted their crazy ideas into one page hand outs.
This was an eager group that needed to be controlled. I had brought clocks: a big, old fashioned alarm clock and a stopwatch. They were for timing and also a visual symbol that the four minutes was to be respected. Michela volunteered to be chair and mistress of time. She asked for the rubber mallet I'd produced the previous week and she wielded it to great effect.
We passed from speaker to speaker. Some needed their four minutes; others wanted less. As we went around, I asked for each speaker to be assigned their own respondent, so that everyone got at least one reaction in follow up discussion. We decided that two minutes each in follow up would be enough. Even so, we were 90 minutes into our two hour meeting by the time we'd cycled through every pledged response. Only then could we open the floor for general discussion.
Had the plan worked? I think so. It was much better than I feared, but a little less that I'd hoped. My sense is that at least a few of us felt a little more comfortable with our crazy ideas. Yes enough of us were too guarded to try anything really adventurous. Old cautions are hard to set aside.
What of the other plan? Alas, our little toaster oven is the little toaster that couldn't quite. It did warm the pastries, but they only browned after the toaster was turned on. The apple filling ("made with real fruit") was steamy hot and delicious; the outer crust was browned and flaky; but in between was something a little more soggy.
The cookies were great. Chocolate florentines never disappoint, just like the bag of Kit Kats that Mark and Michela brought as a left over from Halloween.
John D. Norton