A walking seminar

I’m just back from Paris, where I spent three days at a marvellous (and marvellously small) workshop on War and medicine organised with flair and brio by Vinh-Kim Nguyen.  More on that later, but we began with a ‘walking seminar’.

This was a new venture for me, and Vinh-Kim explained that he had first encountered it in the Netherlands.  The basic idea is to take a small group (six to eight people) and walk in the countryside together but in pairs, changing around every 40 minutes, in order to have intense conversations with each other.

St German en Laye forest

In theory, the first twenty minutes of each ‘block’ is devoted to the work of one of the pair, changing over mid-way to explore the work of the other, though in practice I suspect most of us enjoyed mutual conversations throughout the 40 minutes.  Then the pairs change.  It was far more enjoyable than sitting round a table in a seminar room, but also far more productive: the conversations were wide-ranging but focused (we’d all read one another’s papers, essays and drafts in advance), and the whole experience – we walked from 1000 to 1430 through the national forest at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, west of Paris – was exhilarating.  I know that many people think best on their feet, and I can’t remember when I learned so much in such a concentrated period with such pleasure.  And it was an incredibly productive springboard for the rest of the workshop.

Walking seminar St Germain en Laye, December 2012

L-R: Zoe Wool,  Vinh-Kim Nguyen, Fanny Chabrol, Ken MacLeish, Alex Edmonds, Catherine Lutz, Omar Dewachi, Ghassan Abu-Sitta

I’m now thinking how to use this to kickoff my graduate seminar next year.  No problem in finding a forest, but on Monday we ended up in a fine French restaurant for a lunch that took up most of what was left of the afternoon…

More from Annemarie Mol on walking seminars here, and posts about an Oxford version here.  I know that regular seminars can work very well too, but if anyone has any other ideas on how to enliven the proceedings or simply ring the changes let’s share them.