Whether you are a scientist or artist, lawyer or educator, performer or poet, administrator or physician, you can benefit from a more fully embodied engagement to your life. -Celeste Snowber
How might engineers begin to enjoy communicating their ideas to colleagues, professional audiences, and the world at large? The typical stereotype of the engineer is of a person far more engaged in the head, mining the mechanics of algorithms and linear thinking slumped over a computer than that of one who inhabits a "body," reveling in spatial creative thinking and wanting to physically interact with a curious public. End result? These engineers are not only miserable when they have to present their research, but they are also judged as POOR communicators.
What are the possibilities for these engineers to communicate more successfully and with passion once they are given some improvisational tools? What if engineers were to "open" to their own life stories, gestures, and "bodily" understandings? What might they create or co-create? How differently might they express themselves personally and professionally?
What do I mean by "bodily" understandings? Celeste Snowber in her book, Embodied Inquiry, expresses the concept this way: "A return to celebration of our physicality awakens the juices of a creative life. Life in and of itself is an art form and living artfully and aesthetically is central to being responsive to a life. The body in all of its fullness is a gift that allows us to walk, run, flop and fall along the journey that is set before us."
Let me restate this concept in my own words based on my experience of teaching international graduate students at Georgia Tech for two decades, being a visual artist, and certified leader in the improvisational system of InterPlay. The parameters of communicating effectively does not begin and end when it is time to present research results to colleagues, potential employers, or lay people. Effective communication is an outcome of a life fully engaged in physically, mentally, and emotionally. That is, what you are, you communicate.
If we want our engineers, biologists, physicists, etc., to inform us about their deeply complex ideas and outcomes, we educators must assist them in becoming more fully human. We can invite them to integrate their "head" with their "bodies" and "hearts." This integration can be achieved in playful incremental steps!
An example of what these incremental steps might look like can be seen in the Saturday, October 15th workshop I facilitated on the Georgia Tech campus for graduate students in Materials Science Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. Convening from 9:30 to 2:30 with breakfast and lunch included, we did the following:
1. Warmed up by doing InterPlay physical exercises to Jami Sieber music
2. Played around with saying our names using vocal variation (speed, rhythm and pitch) and physical actions
2. Developed rapport by leading and following intervals
3. Told nonlinear stories in 30-second and 1-minute intervals, implementing physicality and emotions (enthusiasm)
4. Embodied some of the six skills of English rhythm and intonation (pausing, linking, stress, reduction, focus, and rising/falling intonation.
5. Walked out the rhythm of a poem (student led)
6. Practiced embodied intonation in the improvisational activity, "Yes, and..."
7. Integrated physicality, English rhythm and intonation, and emotions in a big body story explaining research to a lay person
8. Practiced summarizing ideas and increasing physicality
9. Played kazoos to experience the heft of breath of intonation using the GT Fight Song and have conversations
This improvisational workshop using the tools and principles of InterPlay succeeded in physically enaging these engineering graduate students from the United States, Iran, Peru, Colombia, Korea, China, Vietnam, and Brazil.
Some noticed feeling awkward and challenged. Some experienced release
from stress. Others enjoyed connecting with classmates they never have a
chance to talk with on a day-to-day basis. Two students, one from Iran
and another from Colombia, discovered they did similar research and sat
down immediately after the workshop for a deeper discussion. Students from
the United States had the opportunity to be with international students
in a different way and to confront their own challenges of communicating in English. The feedback that brought me the greatest joy? One Korean student approached me before he left to express a relief at being
invited to play! I had informed everyone that I was a "recovering serious person." He said he would like to be one too!
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I am happily grateful to Celeste Snowber, who I just discovered, and her most recent book, "Embodied Inquiry: Writing, Living, and Being through the Body." Part of the wider InterPlay community, Celeste is a dancer, writer, poet, and educator at Simon Fraser University, B.C., Canada, where she is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education. As usual, I am forever thankful to co-founders Phil Porter and Cynthia Winton-Henry for the improvisational system of InterPlay and how they facilitate friendships and collaboration among national and international InterPlay communities. It is with deep gratitude I acknowledge Karen Tucker, director of the Georgia Tech Language Institute, for her dedication to expand her understanding of ways we might communicate and hence the LI's programming across the GT campus. Many thanks to Amanda Gable (MSE) and Jeffrey Donnell (ME) who facilitated this improv workshop for their graduate students. And thank you Tony Martin for being my driver and relieving me from the worry of driving on a GT football game day.