Performance and collaboration: creating new scientific ecosystems at CESTEMER

The Cultivating Ensembles in STEM Education and Research (CESTEMER) was held at the Goodman Theater in downtown Chicago on September 15-17, 2017. Initiated by Raquell Holmes and improvscience in 2012, it brings together a diverse mixture of scientists, artists, humanists and performers to discuss and discover new ways of doing science in groups. I attended to share what we’ve been working on at the Ronin Institute, as well as gathering new ideas and strategies for the way forward. There are now many great venues and conferences for discussions on improving science communication, the value of creativity in our workplaces, or integrating the arts and humanities into STEM and education – CESTEMER was about all of those things, but with an added unique emphasis on group performance and play.

In addition to the regular talks, poster sessions, and keynotes, all conference attendees had opportunities to participate as performers through games and techniques drawn from theater and improv. This meant the conference was not the usual armchair experience – all conference attendees were co-creators of the performance that was the conference itself.  Why is this important? Performance is critical to group learning because of it’s “show, not tell” and experiential nature. To take just one example, the workshop run by Nancy Watt and Carolyn SealfonWhose Idea Is It Anyway?” tackled the ownership of ideas in science. Workshop participants grouped together to solve a physics problem and were asked to “play” different characters drawn from several personality types. By experimenting with different characters, we were able to experience how each group solved problems based upon their willingness to build on other’s ideas, embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, share credit and move the collaboration forward.

The intense competition to demonstrate individual “ownership” of an idea often prevails in the academic world (coupled with an artificial scarcity that is perpetuated by the journal prestige system amongst other things) can sometimes lead to an atmosphere of distrust. Therefore the direct experience of the value of empathetic collaboration to produce both better results, as well as unexpected and serendipitous discoveries, through such workshops, will become increasingly invaluable as a means for cultural change in our institutions. This bottom-up approach, coupled with more top-down changes in publications and funding incentives, will, I believe, lead to more durable cultural change than either alone. Plus it’s also a much more fun way of doing science!

I presented a short talk outlining how the Ronin Institute is aiming to foster new ways of thinking of the scientific enterprise as an “ecosystem” of peers. In this ecosystem, scientists collectively empower themselves to build scientific careers in whatever mode or style works for them in the context of the rest of their lives (whether this is in a university setting or elsewhere). I contrasted this ecosystem idea with the usual “pipeline” metaphor that conceives that pursuit of autonomous research requires following one of a set of fairly narrow career paths, controlled by a relatively small number of gatekeepers. I shared the concrete steps we have made in cultivating our own science communities, such as the face-to-face local meetups, participant-driven events like our first Unconference, the virtual meetings: the weekly Tuesday “watercooler” and virtual web research seminars. You can see the slides here:

In summary, CESTEMER was a really fantastic opportunity to generate new “spores” in our evolving ecosystem of science and scholarship. I thank CESTEMER for inviting us, and I’m excited for the Ronin Institute to become part of this conversation. I look forward to all these spores travelling back to each of the participants’ everyday workplaces and spreading the message that we all do our best work when we listen and play together. I plan to attend the next CESTEMER conference in 2019 and I invite anyone interested to join me!

Lancaster at CESTEMER

Good news Chicago!

This weekend, from September 15-17, is ImprovScience’s CESTEMER conference, at the Goodman Theater (http://www.cestemer.org/). From their description:

What happens at CESTEMER? This innovative conference brings together faculty, graduate students, K-12 educators and professionals in STEM and art fields who are exploring, practicing, and researching performance in science. CESTEMER advances, among these diverse attendees, the practices of community-building, collaborative creativity, diversity and inclusion and their relationship to ensembles.

And, this CESTEMER will feature a talk by Alex Lancaster, who will be giving an overview of the Ronin Institute. His abstract:

The Ronin Institute, formed in 2012, is a self-organized community of scholars from both the sciences and humanities formed with the core assumption that researchers should create their own measures of success and that affiliation with a conventional brick-and-mortar research institution should not be the sole metric of “success”. As a 501(c)3 non-profit organization the Ronin Institute provides an affiliation for scholars, as well as a financial structure whereby researchers can apply for federal and state grants. In this talk I will share our own steps in cultivating virtual science communities, such as the creation of face-to-face local meetups, participant-driven events like our first Unconference held in November 2016, as well as virtual meetings: a weekly Tuesday “watercooler” and virtual web research seminars. I look forward to learning more from other CESTEMER participants about how we can continue and extend our journey towards creating living, joyful communities of scholarship.

Enjoy!

Ronin Featured in Nature Article on Independent Scholarship

Out today is a nice article in the Careers section of Nature called “Flexible Working: Solo Scientist.” It features the Ronin Institute prominently, and includes quotes from an interview with me, as well as Research Scholars Jeff Rose, Gene Bunin, and Vicenta Salvador. Also prominently featured is one of Gordon Webster’s excellent photographs from November’s unconference. Enjoy!

Open Letter on the Election, our Values, and our Community

I was putting together a letter to send out to the community of Research Scholars here at the Ronin Institute. When it was done, though, it seemed like it might be relevant to other academic communities, as well. So, I thought I would share it here:

Greetings Ronin!

On Tuesday, Donald Trump became the president-elect of the United States. We won’t understand all of the consequences of that for some time. However, it seems unlikely to mean anything good for scholarship. There is good reason to worry that there will be negative impacts on funding, and it is possible that certain types of research could come under more directed attack. For some of you, there may be more personal and immediate dangers – things lower down on the Maslow hierarchy than publication expenses.

The Ronin Institute is a 501(c)3, meaning that we are specifically prohibited from lobbying for or against any candidate or piece of legislation, so we can’t, as an institution, take explicitly political positions. At the same time, we do have a certain set of values, values that are clearly at odds with much of the rhetoric and actions of the Trump campaign and its supporters. Given the way in which the violation of those values – and of many, many societal norms – has been mainstreamed and normalized in the media over the past several months, I think it is worth reiterating our commitment to our two cardinal values here.

The first value is truth. This is the core value of all scholarship. It means being careful and thorough in your research, and it means being clear and honest in your communication. It also means being open to the possibility of being wrong, and it means working every day to be less wrong. As we move further into what seems to be a post-truth period in politics, it is more important than ever for us to commit ourselves to uncovering truths and sharing them with the world.

The second value is empathy. That means treating each other with kindness and generosity, recognizing that other people may have goals and face challenges that are different from your own. And that entails a genuine commitment to diversity. No matter how much bigotry and harassment may become (further) normalized and (further) institutionalized in the coming months and years, they remain unacceptable here. And no, before you ask, valuing tolerance does not mean that we have to be tolerant of intolerance. If you think this sounds excessively naive or soft-headed or stereotypically liberal, this may not be the right community for you.

I’m not saying you have to be perfect in execution every time with these things. But you do have to be striving towards them in good faith.

Finally, I want to remind everyone that the Ronin Institute is a community, created specifically so that we can help each other to pursue our individual and collective goals. Normally, we think of this in the scholarly domain – exchanging intellectual ideas, or brainstorming solutions to problems like library access – but I want to encourage everyone to think also in the human domain. This election has brought an ugly part of our society out into the open, and for a lot of people, the country feels less safe than it did a few days ago. Unfortunately, given the incidents that have already occurred around the country, that feeling is probably accurate. The fact is that many people, particularly minority groups – both visible and invisible – are in a much more precarious position now.

I know that many of you don’t know each other, but here’s the thing: I have had at least some interaction with each of you, and we have a fantastic group of folks here. I don’t know what kinds of support people are going to need in the coming weeks, months, and years, but I do know that we have a lot of people who will do what they can to provide that support. So, if there is something that you or others in your community need, please ask. If there is something you can provide, please offer. This, by the way, would be a great use of that Slack account you’ve been ignoring!

Now let’s get to work!

Scientiam consecemus

Jon Wilkins
Ronin Institute

Shop and Support Ronin (10% today at Amazon)

Happy Holidays to everyone out there. Just a quick reminder that you can make a charitable donation to help support the Ronin Institute AT THE SAME TIME and FOR FREE!

If you use the Amazon Smile program, they will donate 0.5% of what you spend to the nonprofit of your choice. The trick is you have to go to Amazon Smile and select the Ronin Institute as your designated charity. Then, set that link up as a bookmark, because it only works if you shop using the “smile.amazon.com” URL.

And just for today, if you’re set up with Amazon Smile, and you go through Giving Assistant, a full 10% of what you spend will be donated to Ronin. So set your Amazon Smile to Ronin, then head over to: https://givingassistant.org/coupon-codes/amazon.com, and do the shopping you were already going to do anyway!

Symposium on Academic Bureaucracy

On July 1, a symposium at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts tackled the role of bureaucracy in academia. The event was framed this way:

Does bureaucracy go hand in hand with neoliberalism, or is it neoliberalism’s guilty secret, a riposte to its professed efficiency? How is bureaucracy represented in literature and theory – from Franz Kafka to David Foster Wallace, Max Weber to Michel Foucault; and what do these representations reveal about the relationship between bureaucracy and human nature in post-industrial society? We all recognise form filling and box ticking as the pointless paraphernalia of audit culture, yet we comply with it anyway. Could it be that for all its inhuman, lifeless character, we are somehow attracted to bureaucracy because it is untaxing, relaxing, and procrastinatory, in a world that prizes relentless hard work and high-speed commerce?

Times Higher Education covered the symposium, featuring some nice comments from the participants. Elaine Glaser, one of the event’s organizers,

questioned whether the red tape existed “to make us keep our heads down” and said that it smacked of a “punitive attitude: if you enjoy your work, you should be doing more form-filling”.

A related sentiment was articulated by Mark Fisher:

The real goal of neoliberal managerialism, in Dr Fisher’s view, was “to stop people talking to each other, by breaking up departments and bringing in professional administrators”. Although he was all in favour of administrators and managers whose basic roles were troubleshooting and providing support for academics to do their jobs, “‘professional administrators’ are neither professional nor administrators”.

Pathological bureaucracy is just one of the features of the modern university that have disenchanted so many scholars across the academic landscape. In fact, many of the Ronin Institute’s members have made similar observations in explaining their decisions to leave traditional academia.

The problem is that bureaucracy has an inherent growth dynamic that can be difficult to fight against, or even notice. And yet, fighting against that growth is a necessity. One of the principles we’re committed to here is the Minimum Viable Bureaucracy. The core of the idea is that you should never add any layer of complexity that is not absolutely necessary.

If that seems obvious, it may be that I have not yet explained it clearly enough. There are lots of things that are nice to have — things that seem like they should make life easier, or that will guard against some very specific disaster. But every one of these comes at a cost. Of course there is the cost of paying an additional bureaucrat, but there is also the cost of redirecting the time and energy of the individual scholars away from the activities that, in name at least, are the core purpose of academia: research and teaching.

That means that there may be certain things you don’t do, even if the local cost-benefit analysis seems to say that you should. Because once you add something — a layer of regulation or a formal procedure or a staff position — it almost never goes away. You wind up committing to the costs, but tend not to reevaluate the benefits.

So can we actually build something that can function in the modern world while fighting hard against bureaucratic creep? Let’s find out!

h/t Thanks to Ronin Institute Research Scholar Alex Lancaster

Ronin Institute will Accept Cats Now, Apparently

At least that seems to me to be the inevitable consequence of this image, which I stumbled across this morning (posted by Nick Kapur, via Hiroko Tabuchi, via Stellar)

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Sadly, and contrary to early reports, this is actually an image by a contemporary surrealist artist named Tetsuya Noguchi (e.g., here, or here). However, Kapur, a historian, notes that he has actually seen genuine Edo-period cat-ear helmets before. Also, anyone looking for present ideas for the motorcyclist in your life, here you go:

woman biker with cat ear helmet

You’re welcome.

Introducing the Ronin Institute Newsletter: Kitsune

Happy New Year to everyone out there.

In December, the Ronin Institute published the first issue of Kitsune, a newsletter that will come out six times a year and will keep you up to date on the happenings at the Institute and in the world of alternative scholarship more generally.

That first issue is now available on the website here. If you would like to receive it in your very own inbox, send an e-mail to us at kitsune@ronininstitute.org, and we’ll add you to the list. You might also add kitsune@ronininstitute.org to your address book, so that your newsletter does not wind up in your spam folder.

We’ve got a lot of exciting people on the rolls now, and some cool programs in the works. Keep an eye on Kitsune, and you can stay up to date on both.

Introducing the New Ronin Institute Logo

Today is a big day for the Ronin Institute. It’s the day we unveil our shiny new logo, lovingly crafted to reflect the values of the institute and to pay homage in heraldic form to its proud one-year history!

Special thanks to Kristina Killgrove, who provided the Latin translation of the institute’s motto Scientiam Consecemus! (“Let’s Chop Up Some Knowledge!”)

Be sure to look for this symbol when you are out shopping for quality independent scholarship!

Ronin Logo 4