Being introduced to the Art of Hosting has fundamentally changed how I teach in ways that I can clearly discern. Being introduced to hosting has enhanced how I prepare my students to practice engagement, facilitation, and hosting. But it also helps me reflect on and advance not only my practice as a host, but also my practice as a teacher. The two are closely intertwined; I now regard the classroom as a hosting environment and have reoriented my role to being a host of professional learning.
Teaching Students to Host
I first experienced The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”) in January 2011, when I took part in the first training workshop in Minnesota as a participant observer interested in researching deliberative, democratic practices. That workshop occurred less than two weeks before I was to start teaching a semester-long class on organizing public engagement processes at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. I’d prepared the class carefully, as I’d just finished my PhD and joined the University of Minnesota faculty. Public engagement is my area of research specialization and I was excited to be teaching the material to master’s students for the first time.
Being introduced to hosting fundamentally changed how I teach that class—and more importantly, how I now teach in general—in at least three ways. At the most basic level, it led me to include some new content in the class, for example to teach my students the basics of the World Café technique for meetings, or the concept of the Chaordic Path, or to have them practice creating visual agendas.
It’s not these techniques or ideas per se that marked a fundamental change in my teaching. I’ve participated in a research project in which we’ve studied closely what it is that hosting practitioners learn and do (Quick and Sandfort, 2013). Like many of the people we’ve interviewed, I found that the techniques or concepts taught in hosting workshops are neither completely new to me nor indispensable to hosting. More importantly is how I have re-oriented myself to teaching generally, namely by re-envisioning the course as a practicum in engagement. Another element of this is how Art of Hosting has given me awareness to de-center my authority in the classroom. These transformations have gone well beyond this class to the stance that I now bring to teaching in general.
Teaching One Another
The Art of Hosting training workshop is an immersive experience. Participants learn to host by both training their peers in the methods (with the support of a coach) and experience being hosted by others. This helped me imagine how to turn my class into an experiential practicum in which we practice and evaluate engagement approaches by using the classroom as an engagement laboratory. Having been trained in interactive, teaching methods through the Pedagogical Fellows program at the University of California, Irvine, I was committed to creating an experiential, active classroom. But until I took the hosting workshop, I had envisioned myself in a kind of heroic facilitator role in which it was my job to set up and run the exercises, trying to draw students in. The hosting workshop opened my eyes to options for having the students lead the exercises and to the potential value it would add: it avoids the fatigue (for students and me) of always having me in the facilitator role; it give students more facilitation experience; and, most significantly, it multiplies the knowledge and learning in the classroom by bringing all of their perspectives, as well as my own, into the mix.
I have students facilitate in teams, at least twice per semester (one of our weekly discussions of readings, concepts, and cases, and another for an immersive exercise). Non-facilitating students also actively engage in the exercises. I meet with the facilitation team one week in advance to introduce them to the practice they’ll be using, brainstorm with them about using it, and build a relationship so that they can use me as a sounding board as they develop their plans for the session. My goal is that through the experience they become more reflective, adaptable practitioners. The facilitation practice is worth 15% of their grade. But what I evaluate them is not their performance per se, or how well the class responded, since one of the lessons we repeatedly emphasize is that facilitators are never close to being in control of the dynamics in an engaged setting. Instead, I assess the reflective analytical skill. I motivate them to be thoughtful in their preparation, prepare them to anticipate where things may take an unintended turn and how they may respond, and praise them for their ability to be “on the balcony” (Heifetz and Linsky, 2004) to read the room and adjust accordingly. Teamwork and reflective analysis is also key. One of their assignments is to prepare a short memo, as a team, on what they did and how it went. In addition, each facilitation team uses a short feedback form to provide the next facilitation team with information about how it felt to be a participant (to make that experience more visible to the facilitators) and suggest what could be retained or changed in their approach.
The participating students have an active role in processing and honing the practices as well. We debrief each practice afterwards, considering questions such as: “What work does this practice do, and not do?” “How does it feel to be a participant, and to be a facilitator?” “In what contexts would this work well or badly, or what engagement ‘problems’ does it create or address?” We reserve a few minutes at the end for me to add my own perspectives, situate the exercise in the context of common engagement problems (e.g., power differences, information bottlenecks, time constraints) and tie it in with other themes and experiences in the class.
Even with a rotating group of facilitators, it’s challenging to sustain an active experiential learning environment throughout 15 weeks. We work with that dynamic by picking up topical issues. A large part of my role is working with the facilitation team to identify those issues. Not surprisingly, it’s never been a problem to come up with a topic for engagement. For example, each year we do a design charrette to re-imagine a physical space in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs for which there are opportunities, resources, and management support for some small-scale renovations. We learn the World Café technique by using it to consider what was at stake for public engagement in the controversial consultation process on whether to allow wolf trapping in Minnesota. When bringing in guest practitioners to speak to the class, we use an exercise in how to design a deliberative process in which multi-directional exchange and the discovery of new ideas and knowledge can occur for all parties.
From Teacher to Host
The third transformation in my teaching has been subtler and more profound. I’ve rethought my role, moving from a traditional teaching stance to a hosting stance, and have slowly realized that it involves a de-centering of my authority. I don’t abandon my authority in the classroom, which would be neither desirable nor possible. I’m fully cognizant of it and frequently activate it. But I specifically avoid activating it in commonplace ways.
For example, while I do have specialized expertise in public engagement, I don’t enact that as having unique primacy in the classroom. In other words, I do not trade on my expertise to create distinction and barriers for exchanging other kinds of knowledge important for becoming an effective practitioner. My research reveals that the embodied experience of trying out practices, emotions (e.g., hope, exclusion, being silenced, excitement, boredom), and rational cognitive processes are indelible parts of democratic experience.
I also narrate the kinds of process and environment responsibilities that I have for holding the integrity of the classroom. I tell people that I will be an ally or intervene if they or I have a sense that they are not safe in a dialogue. I do this both to model and enact my hosting role, to make it visible and be accountable, as well as open to question and challenge. For example, approximately once each semester, when I get a sense that my students are overwhelmed with fatigue and stress, I observe that publicly. I remind them that my first interest is their learning and suggest that we need to cultivate spaciousness in order to learn well. I explain I am consequently going to slow down our pace, remove a few readings for the week, or do something else to refresh our energy. Or when I’ve been in classrooms where the energy is dragging, or where I am simply doing too much of the work, filling in ideas or playing a heroic facilitator role, I call it out. We pause, talk about the problem, and I ask the students to step up to make the environment more conducive to their learning. Not surprisingly, they respond well to being hosted in that way, and generally reciprocate by bringing a heightened level of attentiveness and generosity to helping one another learn.
I also help to build their community, not only through traditional co-facilitation teams and feedback mechanisms, but also through other hosting moves to create an inviting environment. We begin the class with a Circle Process in which I ask each person to share what calls him or her to be here. We conclude the class with an Appreciative Inquiry exercise in which they work, confidentially in small triads, to reflect on what skills and capacities they have as a facilitator and what they can continue to build. In some cases, those relationships continue; the first cohort I taught, all now graduated, still gather for happy hours periodically, to have fun, check in, and help one another. The experience of the class has inspired half-dozen students to make hosting a core part of how they do their work in a variety of domains, even though they initially enrolled in the class because it was required for their degree program or merely offered at a convenient time.
As the syllabus for my public participation class says, the learning objective of “becoming competent in facilitating and participating in public” occurs in large part through “processing our own work as a community of co-learners.” As a new faculty member, I first thought it was a risky strategy. I feared that students or other faculty might think I was acting too young or naïve, didn’t know enough, lacked confidence, or felt ambivalent about leaving my student role. I worried that if I didn’t lecture enough, they might not realize how much work I was in fact doing in other ways, and that it would translate into damaging teaching evaluations. But I tried it nonetheless, because at the core I was convinced that a hosting stance would be better than a traditional teaching stance for accomplishing my primary interest in the classroom, which is that my students learn as much as possible. As it turns out, my concerns were unfounded and, so far, it has worked very well. Since they do facilitation in the classroom and share the responsibility, I have found the co-learning paradigm useful. When I have the sense that I’m not learning much, it becomes fairly clear that the students are not either. (Certainly what I am learning is often different in nature, and often more incremental than what they are learning, but when I am open to enabling my own discovery and momentum, I am indeed better attuned to enabling theirs.)
That said, I’ve learned there are useful limits on how far I de-center my role. My students consistently want me to lecture more, even as I have increased how much content I provide with each class. They want the benefit of my expertise and unique perspective, and I have still not quite found the sweet spot for how much of the content to provide. The size of the group and length of course also seems significant; it is easier to have immersive, experiential learning with a group of 20 or more students in a semester-long class. Otherwise, the immersive practice experiences begin to feel stale, less like authentic ways of doing work (e.g., debating views on “stand your ground” laws) and more like “exercises” for the sake of exercises. Finally, I’ve learned that, when coaching students to prepare them for their leadership roles in peer-to-peer teaching, it’s extremely helpful for me to pre-set a standard, weekly time for those meetings. Otherwise, the logistics of organizing those coaching sessions take so much time that it detracts from the energy we have to putting into making sure they are well prepared to lead a good session.