Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Metacamp Metasession, Meta Meta Meta

It was weekend, a week and a half ago. Michael Curzi (from the minicamp) came by. He played a few hands of Poker with us, which involved him never folding anything, and after awhiles I tired of it, and took him up on a bet that was higher than I felt comfortable with. As we played, he asked us what we thought of the camp, how things had been and how we felt about things.

It turned out we had a number of complaints, ranging from impatience with PowerPoints to insufficient agency. Those of us who were awake talked late into the night, devising more efficient ways to present material, more engaging forms of discussion, and more effective bonding exercises. Weeks of productivity training had well indoctrinated in us the value of small, immediately-available actions. "Next actions," we called them. We resolved to take actions to resolve our complaints, in the form of calling a meta-meeting to voice our thoughts and propose our ideas.

We thought hard about when to call the meeting. Jeremy checked and found the schedule empty for Tuesday afternoon's session (this would have been for the afternoon of July 5th), so I wrote a draft of an email inviting everyone to join us for a meta-meeting during, as opposed to after, Tuesday's afternoon session. Lincoln proposed scheduling for Tuesday evening, a less imposing time, but John favored occupying the session so that we could set a precedence of scheduling ourselves when there is nothing scheduled. I myself preferred afternoon, to take a position of authority in scheduling, and so that if the organizers already had something planned, they would be forced to interact with us as though we were organizers too. We took a vote and decided on Tuesday afternoon.

Immediately, there was trouble. There was already something scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. Even worse, Jasen did not get home until Tuesday night, and that was no good at all, because it was really important that such a relevant discussion have Jasen in it. Anna wrote back saying she was doing sessions on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. We rescheduled for Wednesday afternoon. By that time, Andrew would have been the only person still out of town. Unbeknownst to us, we displaced Anna's Wednesday session, but I guess it was all the better we thought there wasn't one, or I might have been too much worried about inconveniencing Anna to displace her session. On Tuesday, we worked out an outline of the general areas we intended to cover, and who would lead each part of the discussion.

Preparing for a meeting of any significance is quite terrifying. I was to open the meeting, I was to communicate a brief summary of why the meeting was called, and that it was important. I rehearsed several times what I was to say, but each time, what I'd rehearsed the previous time went into a black hole of never-was-and-never-had-been. 15:00 came and went, and we had, in addition to Jasen and Anna, a number of other instructors with us as well. Blake opened a shared Google document where we could take notes during the meeting, and several of us opened the document on our laptops. At ten minutes past the hour, even though we were still missing two people, we started the meeting.

After a brief opening introduction, John spoke about our current roles as approximately students taking classes. He recalled conversations with Jasen where Jasen had been eager to hear and receptive of his ideas. He then envisioned a camp where we, the participants, were more like coordinators ourselves, agents who altered the camp instead of passively receiving it.

Then, Blake led a discussion about different ways to discuss topics and possibly learn more about them. Many of the proposed changes involved more engaging activities, smaller group discussions, and fewer lecture-style presentations. It seemed that some presentations had been dull or basic, assuming less intelligence of us and thereby producing uninteresting or repetitive material. Some people felt that we should try to get what we can out of each session, but I felt that our time is sufficiently valuable that it's not worthwhile to spend three hours in an uninteresting session extracting what we can. It was said that simply talking with each other is an invaluable resource made available through us being thrown together. Lincoln proposed hand signs to signal impressions without interrupting the speaker. Someone had the idea that we keep a Google document open during sessions so we could put in our thoughts if we didn't get a chance to say them out loud. There was the concern that having laptops would distract people by providing internet, but others said it helped to be able to look things up on Wikipedia during classes. We took a vote, and it turns out that we find the internet an average of 4.36/10 useful to have during class. We also voted on the usefulness of learning business, and that turned out to be an average of 6.00/10. We resolved to fill out surveys after sessions as well in order to give more feedback about sessions, and Anna gave us a list of useful things to ask on surveys: the main idea of the class, the most surprising thing, and the most confusing thing.

Next, we voted on how comfortable each person felt with sharing critiques right then during the meta-meeting, and it averaged to 5.47/10. This was worrisome, because it showed that a significant portion of people were significantly uncomfortable with sharing their thoughts, or at least not entirely comfortable. We went around the circle and asked each person what was the largest obstacle to speaking freely, and the responses fell into several clusters: unwillingness to say negative (and possibly offensive) things, the pressure of speaking when put "on the spot," feeling like an outsider not directly involved, and lacking in confidence.

At this point, we took a few minutes to go into the Google document and write down things we wished to discuss. At the end of five minutes, we went through everyone's notes, one person's at a time. We discussed the idea of having pairwise conversations with each other in one-to-one conversations, and that was 7.42/10 popular. Julian wrote that things seemed to be more organized when everyone woke up and meditated together, so we resolved to enforce getting up and starting on time. Some people wanted to exercise in the mornings instead. We decided to try 10 minutes of exercise followed by 20 minutes of meditation, instead of the usual half hour of meditation. It was also proposed that people might choose not to attend sessions if they felt it was not relevant to them, and if there was something else they wanted to do. It was decided that everyone was to attend session on time, but that once there, individuals might present to Jasen for approval an argument as to why they are better off doing something else. Thomas wanted notes on each day's activities, so we decided on having two scribes take notes each day. The topic of cooking and dishes came up, and it seemed some people were less happy than others about how much dish-washing and cleaning they were doing, so we put up a dish-washing sign-up schedule. A recurrent theme was the preference for smaller group discussions where each person is more involved, so we divided people into four groups, to be reshuffled each week. In the afternoon, two of the groups have a two-hour "Anna session" while the other two groups take turns having a one-hour "Zak session," and in the evening, they switch. Of course, the "Anna-session" is not always together, nor is the "Zak session" always led by Zak, but it was a structure that produced different sizes of groups with different levels of involvement. We committed to holding more meta-feedback meetings.

We took notes of Next Actions, since it is always easy to talk about things and not do anything. In order to avoid the Bystander Effect, we assigned specific tasks to individual people: I was to schedule people to talk to each other, John was to draft checklists, Blake and Jasen to schedule more meta-meetings, Jasen, Peter, and Jeremy to wake people up in the mornings, and Thomas to assign people to scribe each day.

At this point, most of our decisions have been implemented. We get up together, exercise, meditate, and have our small-group sessions. We have scribing and conversation schedules and have been making much more use of Google documents. We fill out a short survey at the end of every session. We do more personal project and personal study than before. Things are a bit different. Are they better? Time will tell.

But I do feel that several significant things went definitively right in all of this.

The first is that we took something we thought and used it to alter the state of the world. To me, simply the act of calling a meeting and trying to change things identifies my fellow Megacamp participants as a group who, by some combination of ourselves and our influences on each other, take real actions. I feel it is an important step from merely talking about things to enacting them. In that step, we transcended our cast role as students, becoming neither passive commentators nor theoreticians, but causal agents.

The second is that things were conducted with a great deal of dignity and respect. Rather than feeling like us against organizers, it seemed that we were all pursuing a common goal, which was to make the camp maximally effective. Therefore, it was easy to listen to everyone's ideas, examine them, and decide on next actions, instead of the all-too-common status-fight of trying to seem intelligent and shooting others down. I felt that we took each other seriously, and every instructor took us seriously, so that in general we were good about not getting offended and looking for the most effective solutions.

A final thing was that we were able to commit to specific actions and then abide by them, because it is all too easy to make a resolution and then break it. If that happened, nothing would change at all. But we have held to our decisions, and that makes progress possible.

I am very proud to be among this group of peers and instructors. I feel that this issue was handled admirably, and that we worked reasonably and constructively to resolve our areas of discontent. Here looking back on it all, I respect everyone a great deal, both the instructors and the participants for their readiness to act and their resistance to becoming entrenched in well-defined roles (as in the Zimbardo experiment). I am eager to see where the next weeks take us, and I am confident that even should things go amiss, I am not trapped. In a Nomic sense, I feel that things are (and always will be) mutable, so long as there exists the initiative to change rules.

Instead of a line of lyric, I will conclude with this colorful, irritated passage from a colorful, irritated essay:

The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the Universe at last, and in every century they were proven to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about out modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong.

The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." The implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

Alas, none of this was new to me. (There is very little that is new to me; I wish my corresponders would realize this.) This particular thesis was addressed to me a quarter of a century ago by John Campbell, who specialized in irritating me. He also told me that all theories are proven wrong in time.

My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."

--- Isaac Asimov, http://hermiene.net/essays-trans/relativity_of_wrong.html

Peace and happiness,


  1. A nice touch, but you are making a surprisingly big deal out of it.

  2. To what are you referring, Vladimir?

  3. The whole story of changing the rules.