The Table of Knowledge: A Place for Empowerment

By DR. JILL M. KLEFSTAD

The success and sustainability of our work as educators includes finding ways to connect and work together. Higher education typically consists of silos housed within departments, colleges, and schools, across the campus.

Although encouraged to create a unified and welcoming environment for students and faculty, classrooms and offices remain isolated places where we increase our skills, knowledge, and dispositions through teaching and research. We are challenged to understand the pedagogy of teaching and navigate the community system on our own. 

Furthermore, we struggle in these separate spaces to link our personal goals and beliefs to the community and search to uncover the connections we share. If indeed the success and sustainability of our work depends on connectedness and working together, then opportunities to experience the intricacies of community need to be provided to all faculty and staff.

Change begins with each of us individually before it can spread to others. In higher education, opportunities for professional development are viewed as integral to our development as educators. The experiences we choose are meaningful when they provide sustainable opportunities in building relationships that create personal change and also modify our operating systems.

Conversations among people have always enthralled me because of all I discern from them. Sometimes, these insights become a goal willingly added to my bucket list. This summer while relaxing and rejuvenating at my permanent campsite, I had the privilege of engaging in numerous conversations with a man known at the campground simply as “Spike”.

Spike is a professional maintenance man that repairs problems that occur in homes or campers. He was the first to assist in disposing of mice in my camper, fix broken hydraulic hoists on my bed, and remove brush around the site to create a pathway for decorative lighting. It occurred to me, throughout my daily encounters with Spike, that he carries similar dispositions to that of a teacher: compassionate, respectful, trustworthy, industrious, and creative. Like any exceptional teacher I have met, he has a heart of gold and thrives in helping others.

One of the greatest gift Spike gave to me this summer was the gift of his time. During those moments when we were engaged in conversations I was awed by Spike’s wealth of knowledge acquired from his own experiences. When I asked him how he got so smart he replied that although age made him wise, his daily visit to the Table of Knowledge (T.O.K.) made him even more astute. Upon further inquiry I discovered that the T.O.K. was a gathering every of a group of eight to ten men every morning, in a local coffee shop.

The topics discussed varied from the top news story to the men’s own personal experiences. I listened as Spike explained how important that time in his day has become to him and how through the years these men have developed a strong camaraderie with one another. The T.O.K. has been sustainable for these men because of the personal investment in giving the time to one another.

In the past, I have been told that the greatest tribute to another person is to adopt their idea or thought and make it your own. Spike’s adventures at the Table of Knowledge made me wonder how a T.O.K. on a college campus could serve as a means to foster collaboration with colleagues and potentially students. It was intriguing to envision a place to gather together to share ideas and thoughts in a safe environment somewhere on a university campus.

The concept of a table of knowledge is more meaningful when you stop to think about the purpose of the kitchen or dining room table. As a child, I recall our dining table as a consistent place for a daily gathering of my family to share a meal. As a parent it was equally important to pass on that tradition to my own children as we gathered for dinner around the table. Even now, when my adult children return home, either alone or with their friends, we gather around the table where deep conversations occur. In a very real sense our dining table is a table of knowledge represented by togetherness, respect, and understanding of one another.

In August 2016, through the support of the Teaching and Learning Center on our campus, my colleague and I began a T.O.K. that was held twice a month. We envisioned this as a time where faculty and staff could gather together to share ideas and thoughts, support one another, and learn from the wisdom and experiences of each other.

As preparation for the T.O.K. began, there were certain principles we examined in regard to managing the spontaneous conversations that would occur. From the document, A Resource Guide for Hosting Conversations that Matter, the following principles were shared: 1) create hospitable space, 2) explore questions that matter, 3) encourage each person’s contributions, 4) connect diverse people and ideas, 5) listen together for patterns, insights, and deeper questions, and 6) make collective knowledge visible. These principles served as a framework for the T.O.K. however, over the past two years, and even though each of the principles are supported, the group abides by two basic principles; 1) remain positive and 2) no use of technology.

Over the past two years the T.O.K. has occurred every other Monday during the lunch hour and will continue this year as well. Participants are encouraged to bring their lunch. There is never a set agenda and the gathering are scheduled for an hour. Additionally, there is never any ‘assigned’ topics because the conversation never wavers. Topic themes have varied over the years to include themes about student engagement, effective teaching strategies, assessment, campus climate, reflective practices, and retirement.

As facilitator, my job consists only of bringing chocolate, infusing humor, and assuring that each participant’s voice is heard. Sometimes we have as many as twelve participants but frequently the group includes the same five to eight colleagues from across campus. Despite the numbers, those who find a safe haven at the T.O.K. leave feeling recharged and refreshed.

When the year ended in May 2018, I asked the participants if they would like to see T.O.K. offered again. It was a unanimous yes. Following that meeting, I sent out a short evaluation to help prepare for this upcoming semester. The questions on the survey included: What is the best part of the T.O.K., what topics did you appreciate discussing, and any suggestions for change. Below are a few of the responses the participants shared:

The best part of the T.O.K. is

• “I feel like this is a reprieve for me, a place where I can go to rejuvenate and just talk with no judgement’

• “This has been a like a gift of time for me to connect with colleagues in a nonthreatening way”

• Establishing and growing cross-disciplinary collegial connections

• The willingness of participants to be vulnerable in asking for feedback or suggestions to problems (and the non-judgmental way that others listen and respond). It is a safe space for thinking, exploring and learning

• I enjoyed the range of topics discussed and the emphasis on raising academic oriented questions rather than airing or rehashing negative attitudes, judgmental thoughts. I appreciate the fact that you structured the experience to be positive and supportive.

• I was grateful for the fresh response to topics that some of the newer guests brought to the conversation, especially those who were not necessarily teaching. It made the dialogue more interesting.

• It was exciting to experience the inquisitive nature of some of the participants.

• Most importantly, the Table of Knowledge was a safe place that teachers/staff could bring academic oriented concerns and share them with others who were genuinely concerned and willing to provide thoughtful, reasoned feedback.

• I value the meetings as a time to break away from my routine and think about others on campus in teaching roles, examine the “whole” of the University and re-evaluate my daily approaches.

• The camaraderie and diversity of the people and the disciplines that they represented.

• Thoughtful reflection on ideas.

• The respectful way that participants engage.

• The Table of Knowledge meetings have been very helpful and feel supportive of the teaching role. I don’t live in town, so it can be difficult to get to know others on campus from other departments or areas. The meetings have also served to enlighten me about happenings on campus, cultural events and opportunities with Teaching and Learning Center.

Topics I appreciated discussing:

• Learning how faculty are using different strategies to cope with a lack of student engagement in the classroom.

• Hearing about timely issues in education and how teachers and staff felt about those issues.

• Mentorship

• It’s helpful to know what other people in other roles and other departments are doing — it’s motivating.

Some topics I would like to discuss:

• I’d like to discuss getting collaboration projects going with some other departments. I know everyone is busy. I don’t know how to light the fire to get a project initiated.

• I’d like to know more about how to go about getting a grant for projects.

• I’d like to know more about the Foundation, fundraising and how we can facilitate bringing corporate resources into the school. It seems like there are a lot of rules and guidelines driving receiving, using and sharing resources with businesses. Some projects have disintegrated when they “needed to be handed-off”.

• I’d like to know more about what the Senate is, what it accomplishes, guides, and why it seems so important to some and not to others. How can the Senate, as a productivity vehicle, be useful?

Suggestions for change:

• I would like to see more involvement of instructors and staff.

• I appreciate discussing a broader range of academic oriented teaching topics.

• Having a group with variety and cross-discipline dynamics is good; it’s helpful to spur thoughts.

• I’d like to meet more often; however, I don’t really think that’s too realistic as everyone has a busy schedule.

• Not sure. I like the organic nature of the meetings and the flexibility

• I think it is important to keep the Table of Knowledge as a small group. Over 11 seems to inhibit conversation.

• Having a moderator or “guide” is helpful. The role is missed when absent.

The success of our work in any profession lies in those experiences that revitalize our personal self and creates a community with a common purpose. The essence of such endeavors is contingent upon the willingness of participants to provide the gift of time around a table and within a welcoming space.

About the Author Dr. Jill M. Klefstad has been a Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Wisconsin-Stout for the past 26 years.

Her passion and success as an educator is due in part to the collaborative work with colleagues and students, as a result of the relationships built with them. Her research interests include inquiry-based learning, critical reflection, and recruitment and retention of men in early childhood education.

Resources

Brooks, Joe (n.a.) Community Works Institute. Gathering for purpose: Education change, Confucius and the moving vehicle. Retrieved from: https://www.communityworksinstitute.org/cwjonline/essays/a_essaystext/gathering.html

Brown, J., & World Café Community (2002). A Resource Guide for Hosting Conversations that Matter at the World Café. Retrieved from: http://www.meadowlark.co/world_cafe_resource_guide.pdf

Community Works Journal, http://www.commmunityworksjournal.org

OLDWAYS (2011). The Psychological Significance of the Kitchen Table. Retrieved from: http://oldwayspt.org/blog/psychological-significance-kitchen-table

Participedia (2016). Kitchen Table Conversations. Retrieved June 2018 from http://participedia.net/en/methods/kitchen-table-conversations

Participedia (2010). Socratic Cafes. Retrieved July 2018 from https://participedia.net/en/methods/socratic-caf-s

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