No Contact Without Interruption. Action Dialogue with Martin Leahy.

MARTIN LEAHY Ph. D is a teacher, researcher, and organizational consultant. Dialogical/relational (Buber, Rogers, Freire) approaches to teaching, research, and leadership are the foundation for Martin’s practice and scholarship. Twenty years ago, he launched his own consulting firm, committed to serve more not-for-profits. Teaching at The Chicago School for Professional Psychology (TCSPP) is a second career. Since becoming an organizational steward with AR+, Action Research Plus Foundation, Martin has been leading a  co-lab for faculty interested in action research.

Hilary: Good to see you Martin.  What do you find is holding your attention these days?

Martin: What comes to mind is a meeting I had yesterday. With a new institutional committee charged with creating a “state of the discipline” report.

Hilary: That would be the state of the discipline of organizational leadership, right? Interesting. I’d like to read that.

Martin: as happens so often, we were told the accrediting body requires this work. To do this well, we would need the resources to carry out a market research study. But, it became clear that all we’d do is write something so that we can check off a box. In other words it likely makes no difference other than making faculty feel unhappy and resentful.

Hilary: I guess it makes administrators happy. We know there are fewer and fewer tenured faculty but increasingly highly paid administrators. I wonder if they are happy with where education as a system is heading.

Martin: I think of Ginsberg’s book, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University. I was strategizing with a number of faculty colleagues. We wondered: how can we do this compliance work while simultaneously using the assignment to open up a meaningful conversation about what we’re teaching? If just for ourselves. And there are other things on my mind. I’m on the phone tomorrow for an hour and a half with 6 students who are interested in action research dissertations, co-facilitated by my AR+ colleague, (Prof) Ben Teehankee in the Philippines. That’s a joy.

Hilary: I’m glad to hear that your experience of AR+ and the connections have been good.

Martin: Absolutely. As you know, Ben and I led a 15-week co-lab with 12 faculty, coming from both schools, to help them prepare to supervise action research dissertations. Ben and I love teaching, philosophy, and research, especially research that advances social justice. We could finish each other’s sentences. And, De La Salle describes itself as a university of and for the poor. It’s just really nice to work with colleagues who have similar values.

Hilary: As you know, and thank you for your help with our first Cookbook, we like cooking metaphors in AR+.  I see the co-labs as a kind of test kitchen for action researchers. What did you test in your co-lab?

Martin: A lot. We made some mistakes early on that we corrected mid-way. For example, we started with a curriculum, a traditional online format, weekly topics, assigned reading, online discussions, what we are accustomed to as faculty members. We had early struggles with time zone differences, unreliable internet in parts of the Philippines. And faculty members kept asking us, like we’re the experts, what is action research? And I don’t feel that we were ever able to give them a truly satisfying answer. Despite dedicating a week to research paradigms, which Ben and I thought to be important, but we started losing people.

Hilary: Sounds like it may have been too much work for already busy faculty. And maybe they weren’t as engaged with their own experience cause they were looking to you as experts. It’s even a tad ironic given that action researchers really don’t much like that expert, banking model.

Martin: Exactly! So, we changed our approach. We used action research to turn things around. Imagine that! We did an analysis on what was happening with participation using the quantitative data from the course analytics and qualitative data from discussions and shared that with participants. Together we made sense of that and came up with a new plan of action. We invited colleagues to show up for a weekly electronic meeting to talk about whatever they needed to talk about driven by whatever project or desired change our colleagues want to create in the world related to action research. And then we crossed our fingers and launched Co-lab 2.0! So, we self corrected. We realized we were not really using an action research approach.

Hilary: Martin, I am so struck by this and your willingness to self correct makes all the difference.  And I see it all the time. I probably do it too often myself. Action researchers seem to fall into not using our own action research process. It’s odd. Any reflections on why that happens?

Martin: Expediency and practicality, I suppose. Things just lighten up in an academic setting when we don’t start with all kinds of propositional knowledge prior to having a real conversation. Start instead with experience, what people actually did, and then you derive propositions out of that.

Hilary: As an editor of an academic journal, I think about how we write for academic audiences, those deadly dull articles that we want other people to read. So, the question is how do we make meaningful contact. I know you have a therapy background too. Gestalt therapy, right. I believe I learned a Gestalt phrase that I find so powerful. Contact requires interruption.  I translate it to mean that if we want to make contact, we must interrupt the norms that insulate us from really experiencing what is going on, rather than living in our ideas of what is happening.

Martin.  Yes. Of course, Lewin was grandfather to both action researchers and Gestalt therapists. He gives primacy to experience. Doing something and then reflecting on the doing rather than talking about is so key. As in our co-lab. We reflected on that experience together. The long and short of that, by the way, is for the rest of the co-lab we shifted the conversation toward relational empowerment which allowed us to have more intimate conversations connected to live concerns. We presented tools, concepts and models too, but, “just in time,” when the experience of the participants called for them. And we really enjoyed this.

Martin: Sounds like you created a safe space for conversation. A relational space which is necessary for moving to collaboration.

Martin: I know of your work with Eros/power. You might especially be interested to know that in one of the powerful conversations we had, it was about gender and positional authority. One professor colleague, spoke of a young woman, a dissertation student, and how he struggled with making connection and keeping professional distance especially given these #Me-Too times. So, we had a remarkably open conversation, men and women inquiring together into how to manage distance and relationship with students across genders.

Hilary: That’s sensitive material. Yet I think it’s crucial to work with it in a creative way. I am so happy you could create space for it. Creating relational space is its own big learning. So I’m hearing that you’ve done a lot and you’ve learned a lot with AR+. How would you articulate the value for your school [The Chicago School] in this work? Can you imagine joining us at Chalmers on International Women’s Day for a couple of days to see what’s possible with other peers from other parts of the world?

Martin: The school gets a lot from AR+… enhancing the teaching of research, exposing faculty to faculty colleagues from around the world, helping students to become engaged scholars. I think what would draw me there would be an opportunity to meet other academics who are interested in making a difference in the world and it might actually help me formulate, continue to formulate, what it is that I want to do with action research at my school.

Hilary: Let’s vision a little bit. Five years, ten years down the road, what’s different as a result of a number of institutions connecting intelligently together? To raise consciousness of action research?

Martin: I think what’s different is that graduate education is transformed, at least among a hundred institutions. Like with the AR+ projects to connect up a hundred universities and learning communities. And so very practically… say, you come, you get a doctorate in organizational leadership in my program. I want experiential learning to be the foundation of the way we all teach. In the beginning is experience.  The cycle ends, or a new spiral begins, by applying the learning to practice, specially by designing a mini experiment to go out and try some new ways of acting that almost always involve personal transformation.

Hilary: I’m with you, I love it. I bet your students already appreciate it.

Martin: Now that you mention it. Recently a student, a senior manager in a major Pharma, said to me: “Throughout the degree program, I learned a lot of theory and built a good foundation. But your class was truly a class where I learned from doing. And so I will be able to utilize what I learned on almost a daily basis.”

Hilary: Congratulations. It’d be funny, if it were not so sad, that faculty like you need support to do what the students want you to do. WHat society needs you to do.

Martin: Transforming, transforming higher education: bringing together theory and practice and personal growth and social justice. Going back to the beginning of our conversation, Hilary, it’s moving away from nonsense imposed by administrators to time spent on programs that make a difference.

Hilary: Amen! Thank you so much for your time here, Martin. I look forward to what’s next for you and for your school and for all of us in AR+.