What Are Embodied Conversations?

By: Nate Phillips | April 21, 2015

In her book For Space, the geographer-philosopher Doreen Massey proposes that space (a) is a product of interrelations, (b) is home to multiple possibilities, and (c) always under construction. In elaborating on this last point, she writes, “perhaps we could imagine space as a simultaneity of stories-so-far” (p. 9).

Though I’m distilling Massey’s ideas too much here and not carefully enough, I wanted to start with these three points because they came immediately to mind when Ani, Ilana, Lynn, and I first met to talk about the possibilities of collaborating together to design a series of conversations that would inform the Chicago History Museum (CHM) staff about past and potential future learning pathways for teens who have or who will participate in teen programming at the museum. What, after all, is a history museum if not a product of interrelations, a home to multiple possibilities, and an ever-under-construction site of “a simultaneity of stories-so-far”?

Ani, Ilana, and Lynn knew that in the past, teen programming at CHM had had a powerful influence on the lives of the young people who had participated. The group of teens who came together ten years ago to build what would become the Teen Chicago exhibit at the museum, to conduct interviews with Chicagoans about teen life in Chicago over the previous decades, and to plan programming and events connected to the exhibit, were all still connected to their CHM mentors. But what had happened to those teens in the years after they participated in Teen Chicago? What were they doing now? How, in other words, had their time together in the space of CHM led them towards multiple learning pathways and possibilities? And how could CHM staff make those productive pathways possible for future teens as they interacted in the museum?

Those were their questions. Together we determined that those questions could best be answered in ways that are, as much as possible, true to the way that humans learn, live, and act in the world. Though we tend to think of learning as taking place in bounded, walled spaces—in a school classroom or in a museum, for example—we are learning across our lives, across spaces. Together, we wanted to think about teen learning at the museum and over time since then, in a way that was true to this mobile, fluid, and embodied vision of learning.

Understanding and investigating learning in a way that is true to this vision is difficult. If learning is on the move, where do we look for it? How do we identify it and reflect on it? How do we design for learning on the move? Those are questions that the research group I worked with while a graduate student at Vanderbilt University has been thinking carefully about for a long time. The Space, Learning & Mobility Lab (SLaMLab) at Vanderbilt, led by Professors Rogers Hall and Kevin Leander, is focused on investigating and theorizing relations among space, mobility, and learning. As a graduate student at SLaMLab, with Drs. Hall and Leander and good friends and fellow doctoral students Katie Headrick Taylor and Jasmine Ma, we worked to develop methods that can be used to investigate learning on the move, learning across lifespans, and learning in physical and virtual spaces.

In trying to answer our questions at CHM, we drew on the methods that had been developed at SLaMLab, adapting them to address CHM’s needs. We knew that we wanted to engage past and future teen learners in conversations that allowed for a vision of their learning that was embodied, that was true to the time and space of their learning, and that could help us to think about future spaces of learning. With the SLaMLab tools and with our own questions, “embodied conversations” were born. We later came to call them “geoconvos” for short, addressing both the geographies of learning across time and space and the conversational nature of the methods and tools—ways of telling those “stories so far” to each other and to ourselves.

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