Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Metaphor for Conversation

I've been thinking a lot about dialogue and conversation recently, so much that I expect dialogue to become something of a centerpiece in my Master's project. What that will look like, I'm not sure, but that dialogue is at the heart of real education is something I believe with increasing fervor. As a Johnnie, that's far from a revelation, but I'm finding that many of the most revolutionary educational theorists - Paulo Freire in particular - were champions of a dialogic pedagogy. What's stunning is not that a classroom engaged in dialogue tends to develop critical thinking and a sense of personal freedom, but rather that so few classrooms use dialogue.

I'm certain I'll return to this concept in future posts, but right now I want to share one of my favorite metaphors. I don't know if I came up with it or if I heard it somewhere else, but regardless I've very much made it a part of my own thinking on the nature of conversations.

The metaphor is this:
Conversations are rivers. This is true especially of conversations between two people, but might also apply to conversations in groups or classrooms. As people converse, there are branches and tangents - new rivulets - that the conversation can and does follow. Frequently the river forks, and the conversants have to choose which direction to go.

The thing about good conversations is, both participants (or all participants) take their turn guiding the metaphorical boat of the conversation down the path of their choice. It's always essential, however, that the conversation stay contiguous. Building upon the ideas of others and listening carefully are signs of a fast-moving, effectively-steered boat. What's more, good conversationalists learn to move not only down a branch of the conversation, but also back up to take a different fork than was taken before.

This last point is an important one, and too often a lost art in our "exchanging monologues" culture. Riverly conversations are synthetic and analytic, progressive and reflective. When we merely exchange ideas, we tend to jump from river to river, rather than following the natural course of the conversation. We wouldn't notice the difference between this and a real conversation, however, if it weren't for the effort to move backwards, an effort that exhausting a branch of the conversation (or at least coming to a mutually agreeable return-point) necessitates. Indeed, a conversation that never turns back on itself - that never returns to an earlier but neglected idea and pursues it instead - is probably not a conversation in any meaningful sense.

Perhaps the most poetic upshot of this metaphor, to me, is the zooming that you can do with it. The Amazon from space (above) is a broad river, but even this small portion of the mouth - these estuaries - would take countless hours to explore. With a tip of the cap to Heraclitus, it's worth nothing that rivers are ever changing, both because the water is flowing, and the people who observe the river are different each time they confront it. We can zoom further in, however, and see the individual hydrogen bonds, the essential infinity of possible arrangements between molecules that signifies the true impossibility of exhausting dialogue.

Conversation is a river, not because it flows, or because it is traveled, but because it is infinite.

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