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Language science meets 'The Wheels on the Bus' at Helix Center Roundtable

Maryland language scientists are used to the idea of interdisciplinary collaboration - but rarely sit down to discuss language science with psychoanalysts and children’s book authors. At the end of April, Colin Phillips did just that as part of a prestigious roundtable on 'The Mind of a Child' at the Helix Center for Interdisciplinary Investigation in New York.

The Helix Center’s mission is to “draw together leaders from distinct spheres of knowledge in the arts and sciences for interdisciplinary roundtables”. Roundtable panelists are told to prepare nothing in advance in order to encourage spontaneous and creative discussion, and to allow for the emergence of new perspectives and connections between participants’ areas of expertise. The Center also aims to engage a broad audience in the dialog through events and live webcasts, as well as through continuing discussions online.

Colin’s fellow panelists were Patricia Bauer, psychology professor at Emory University; Paul Harris, professor of education at Harvard; Regina Pally, co-founder of the Center for Reflective Parenting; Steven Wein, associate dean for child analysis at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute; and Paul Zelinsky, children’s book illustrator and author - perhaps best known for his rendition of The Wheels on the Bus.

The two hour discussion covered a wide variety of topics and brought to light sometimes surprising connections between participants’ disciplines and interests. The unstructured, unplanned roundtable format also highlights some of the challenges and skills needed to communicate effectively across disciplines and outside of familiar academic contexts. Participants can’t deliver carefully planned nuggets of wisdom; they have to listen closely, figuring out how their contribution will fit in and drawing out valuable information and questions from others at the table.  “I was reminded of the improv sessions that Allyson Ettinger and Nina Hsu led during this year’s Winter Storm,” Colin remarked in a blog post about the experience. “You have to follow every word, and think on your feet. We’ve had similar experiences in the unstructured workshops that we ran in the past years, in Kiplin Hall and Tel Aviv. And I’ve often found that the most useful parts of classes come when the discussion pursues an unexpected direction.”

According to Colin, one of the most interesting outcomes of the roundtable was thinking about connections that he hadn’t noticed before, or hadn’t thought about carefully enough before. “I’ve been involved in research on the difficulty of pragmatic processing, I regularly teach about research that shows that young infants know more than first meets the eye, and as a parent I’m very aware of children’s fascination with stories, and their ability to enjoy the same story again, and again. I think I know the script of Finding Nemo by heart. But I had never thought about how they might be connected to one another.”

You can watch the video of the roundtable here:


Tuesday, June 16, 2015
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