Tapping critical moments: The facilitator as a manager of group tension and flow
by Gene Segarra Navera
In my two previous reflections, I discussed the roles of the facilitator as an empathizer and a motivator and as an evaluator and an organizer. In both cases, the facilitator takes care of the process of teaching and learning by focusing on critical participants on the one hand, and raising critical questions on the other. In this reflection piece, I discuss the third dimension of facilitation as transformative performance where the facilitator carries out his or her role as a manager of group tension and of the general flow of interaction between and among participants in a learning group (Hogan 2002; Stanfield 1996; Thiagarajan 1999, Wardale 2013). This time, I focus on critical moments.
Critical moments are moments of tension and uncertainty, and are often unexpected. They arise from discussion and debates on issues that are sensitive or that hit a raw nerve among participants. They are moments of uncertainty in that the outcome of the interaction becomes less predictable, either because of an unimpeded flow of interaction, or a slow, halted communication flow between participants. This happens in the classroom as well as off-classroom interactions between the teacher and student. The conferencing session that enables teacher intervention to improve a student’s performance in the learning task is also a site where certain kinds of tensions take place. Now, how do we deal with these tensions and difficulties brought about by these critical moments?
From the perspective of facilitation, I propose a management of flow through the impartial mediation of tension-laden moments of interaction among participants in a class or learning group. I illustrate the performance of this facilitation role through a case from my IEM2 class in Academic Year 2018-19. I replaced the names of the students involved in my discussion of the case to protect their identity.
Tension from discussion: The case of Farida and Mazda
During the first semester AY 2018-19 offering of Discourse, Citizenship, and Society, I asked students to critically examine in their own terms an article that appears to be addressing tensions that surfaced from a public debate on religious freedom. The article was written by a Muslim scholar who serves as head of the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in the Plural Societies Programme of the Rajaretnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University. The goal of the class exercise was for us to understand what assumptions we bring when we critique public rhetoric and then relate these assumptions to David Zarefsky’s insights on the role of rhetorical criticism in a democracy, our required reading for the session.
I facilitated the discussion by raising the following questions:
- How do we make sense of public rhetoric (based on our responses to the article)?
- What do we consider when we engage in the criticism of others’ ideas expressed in public platforms?
- What do you think motivates us into engaging in such a kind of criticism? Why are those considerations important to us?
- What are the implications of not being cognizant of the factors or considerations raised in questions 2 and 3?
The discussion generated quite pointed or critical remarks about how the article tried to remain consistent with the state narrative without actually addressing the issues that had emerged from the controversy (e.g., issues having to do with race relations, religious fundamentalism and tolerance, etc.). The discussion was vibrant and honest, to say that least. Using the four questions above, I encouraged the students to reflect on why they generated their pointed remarks on the article. We then attempted to link their reflection points to the ideas put forth by Zarefsky, specifically regarding problematic tendencies when engaging in public criticism: (1) the tendency to disregard facts, (2) the tendency to rely solely on facts, (3) the tendency to be deterministic, and (4) the tendency to be overly skeptical by constantly searching for the negative. Toward the end of the session, I raised the possibility that the article in question may be examined through a constructive critical lens, as per Zarefsky’s suggestion—that the text uses rhetorical strategies to sustain viable public policies and to reaffirm enduring and productive social values rather than subvert them.
In the late afternoon of that day, I received a long email from two of my Muslim students who participated in the discussion, but who expressed discomfort from what had arisen from it. The email is presented below.
Dear Dr Gene,
The purpose of this email is to inform you of our stance on the issue discussed in class on Thursday, August 23rd. We felt that the discussion based on the case of the Imam was interesting and enabled us to explore different viewpoints. However, while the topic necessitates the class to see it from various perspectives, as Muslims and people of faith, we found that some discussion points and arguments made were particularly uncomfortable and upsetting.
Though the discussion began as a critique on the article itself, certain comments felt like they were based [on] assumptions [about] the Muslim community. This could possibly be due to a lack of understanding of the context, which was what the bulk of the article was for. Although we agree that the article may serve as a propaganda issued by the government to maintain the status quo, we feel that that does not downplay its value as an informative piece to maintain social harmony that we all strive for. However, we felt that our classmates overlooked this, which resulted in them inevitably brushing the article off as merely propaganda.
In particular, we’d like to respond to certain comments that were raised and made us uncomfortable (not directly quoted):
Comment 1: Written by a Muslim…one-sided
- We would like to address that the article was never meant to be an objective piece, rather it was written to bring to light the culture and history of Islam which we felt served its purpose. The writer, regardless of faith, is a learned individual in the field of International Studies, with the capacity and knowledge to comment on such issues. As such, we feel that his religious inclinations did not influence the article, as seen by its neutral tone and stance. The assumption that a Muslim-written article would defend Islam takes away the agency and voice of the writer, as well as the legitimacy of his unbiased stance.
Comment 2: Too much effort…look guiltier
- We feel that the effort was warranted, as it served to elaborate on the specific context that the Qur’an was conceived and to address possible misconceptions, which were also surfaced in class. The explanation was needed to clarify the words of a religious leader, one with influence in the mosque, that he does not speak for all Muslims. It was also necessary due to the lack of information regarding the history of Islam within the public sphere, in an attempt to bring to the mainstream knowledge of a typically minority faith in Singapore.
Comment 3: Congregation kept quiet…agreed with Imam
- On that same assumption, if the video was recorded by someone in the mosque who did not share the same opinion as the Imam, it is unwise to think that the rest of the congregation agreed with the Imam. Furthermore, the articles clarified that the text was one separate from the Qur’an, and should therefore not be confused with official sacred texts and the stance of Islam on other faiths.
Some other comments made were quite vague in their explanations, and we would prefer not to address and dwell on them.
In an age where Islamophobia is rampant globally and ignorance oftentimes acts as fuel for arguments, we feel that it is vital that such articles are circulated in order to highlight the position and reality of Islam and the majority of its followers that is rarely seen in public discourse. Being a minority faith in Singapore, we are all the more vulnerable to criticism and accusations stemming from a lack of knowledge and understanding. The publishing of informative pieces gives the community an opportunity to be heard, rather than silenced. Essentially, we feel that a lack of knowledge framed as a question would have been much better received than one that feels like it is framed as an accusation.
Nevertheless, we appreciate your neutral stance on the issue and effort to keep the discussion constructive. We found the session informative and illuminating in exposing us to various views of non-Muslims in Singapore. Please understand that we do not seek to accuse our classmates or yourself of being insensitive, rather we felt it imperative to explain our side of the story as people personally connected to such an issue by faith and belief.
Thank you for your time and understanding!
Farida and Mazda
Discourse, Citizenship and Society IEM2
I thought that the letter was honest and well-thought out. It is interesting that both students took notice of my “neutral stance” during our class session, which I thought was the best disposition when dealing with debates in the classroom. The neutral stance of course does not mean an absence of position on critical issues; but when hearing out competing and contradictory voices, impartiality in mediation is most necessary. That is the best way to deal with a critical moment that arises from a discussion of a public controversy. The very letter by Farida and Mazda, however, generated a different kind of critical moment altogether. I did not anticipate that the class discussion would generate discomfort on the part of Farida and Mazda (not their real names). Receiving the letter made me anxious for a while. However, I welcomed it because it opened up a space for teaching and learning. As a facilitator, I felt it best to tap this critical moment, and this is demonstrated in my reply to Farida and Mazda below.
Dear Farida and Mazda,
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about the discussion that transpired in class on Thursday, August 23rd. I appreciate very much your honesty and the substantive points you raised to respond to the ideas that made you feel uncomfortable during the class. I think that these points need to be shared and I would be glad to give you some time to share them on Tuesday before we discuss McDonald, especially if you feel that they would help clarify misconceptions about the Muslim community in Singapore. I think that raising these relevant and pertinent points is a learning moment for the entire class including myself. It is unfortunate that due to limited time there was not much opportunity to discuss various perspectives about the article.
The module is of course one with you in battling discourses of social exclusion like Islamophobia which is inimical to the very idea of rhetorical citizenship and democratic deliberation. When we exclude or silence people of a social group, what suffers is the quality of deliberation and decision making in a democratic society. (You can probably sense that the course is critical of discourses of exclusion through the module poster where you find a person of color who is calling for an end to racism, Islamophobia and war.)
The activity that we did involving the ST article was primarily meant to surface problems and assumptions when we carry out rhetorical criticism or the analysis, interpretation and evaluation of public discourse. It was never meant to accuse a social group, particularly the Muslim community, of wrongdoing or complicity to what was considered “enmity toward non-Muslims”. What we realize from the activity is that we conduct criticism based on assumptions and these assumptions are informed by experiences, biases and prejudices that we need to be fully cognizant of as critics or analysts of rhetoric. The Zarefsky article is meant to offer a “corrective” to our tendency to criticize based solely on our beliefs or negative assumptions about a rhetorical artefact. When I was conceptualizing the activity for the session, I found the ST article as a useful resource because it can be interpreted in various ways. What we can learn from Zarefsky is that the ST article can be appreciated for its rhetorical power to unite a public that is distraught and unsettled by a controversy. It mobilizes rhetorical strategies that sustain social stability, that make us manage differences, and that reaffirm societal values (like social and religious harmony). These rhetorical strategies (e.g., transcendent, multivocal, and displacement appeals) are of course not unique to the article. They are also mobilized by other speakers/ communicators/ rhetors in order to ensure the cooperation of the recipients of their messages.
Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts and invaluable insights. I am glad that you have articulated them through [your] email. It is a mark of your active engagement as students of NUS and as rhetorical citizens of Singapore.
I wish both of you a pleasant and restful weekend.
P.S. For your IEM2 project, you may want to work on the discursive construction of Islamophia in every day discourse or through utterances that circulate in public platforms in Singapore. It is good to surface these problematic social practices in order to increase critical social awareness and to enable people to think of ways to end such practices. Your future peer reviewers and the class in general will definitely learn a lot from your papers on this issue.
My email was my way to reaffirm the reasonable points raised by Farida and Mazda. It also served as a moment of clarification on the principle behind the design of the activity, the underlying principle of the module, and what we needed to take away from the learning moment based on a structured activity. I also felt that it opened a possibility for a research project especially at that stage when students were still uncertain as regards what to pursue for their individual projects. In handling the situation, I acknowledged the existence of the tension or discomfort, encouraged the students to talk about it and share it in class for the benefit of all, clarified my position, affirmed their honesty and their right to express their positions especially as members of a minority in Singapore, and suggested ways on how we can learn from the moment and move forward with these lessons in mind.
Critical moments as teaching and learning moments
Critical moments, like the one illustrated above, challenge us to think of ways on how to tap situations in the classroom that offer opportunities for teaching and learning. Critical moments are, more often than not, moments of great unease and uncertainty, but as shown through the students’ email, they are rich sites for crafting new teaching moments and for learning what our students think of the processes they go through during class sessions. Critical moments just need to be tapped through strategic facilitative roles in order for us to generate productive and meaningful lessons for our learners and for ourselves.
Hogan, C. (2002). Understanding facilitation: Theory and principles. London: Kogan Page.
Musa, M. A. (2017 April 12). No doctrinal basis for enmity towards non-Muslims. The Straits Times. http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/no-doctrinal-basis-for-enmity-towards-non-muslims (Retrieved on 30 July 2017)
Navera, G. S. (2019 January 14). Asking critical questions: The facilitator as an organizer and an evaluator. SoTL Chronicle. Centre for English Language Communication, National University of Singapore. Available at https://blog.nus.edu.sg/macadresources/2019/01/14/asking-critical-questions-the-facilitator-as-an-organizer-and-an-evaluator/ (Retrieved on 12 March 2019)
Navera, G. S. (2017 October 4). Seeing through the lens of the learner: Levels of visuality in instruction and materials development. SoTL Chronicle. Centre for English Language Communication, National University of Singapore. Available at https://blog.nus.edu.sg/macadresources/2017/10/04/seeing-through-the-lens-of-the-learner-levels-of-visuality-in-instruction-and-materials-development/ (Retrieved on 12 March 2019)
Stanfield, B. (1996). Magic of the facilitator. Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs. Online http://www.iafworld.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3294. Available on 24 May 2007.
Thiagarajan, S. (1999). Secrets of successful facilitators. Workshops by Thiagi, Inc.
http://www.thiagi.com/article-secrets.html. Available on 24 May 2007.
Wardale, D. (2013). Towards a model of effective group facilitation. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 34:2, 112-129, doi: 10.1108/01437731311321896
Zarefsky, D. (2014). Is rhetorical criticism subversive of democracy? In C. Kock and L. Villadsen (Eds.) Contemporary rhetorical citizenship, pp. 29-50. Leiden: Leiden University Press.
 IEM2 refers to the ideas & exposition module level 2, a research writing module that is content-specific and rhetorically intensive.
 This is a I&E level two module where students and I discuss, interrogate, and critique how discourse (talk and text) is mobilized to address or resolve public controversies.
 Permission to have the email included in this piece was granted by the students. They were informed that this piece will be accessible to the public especially teachers and researchers in higher education.