Have you ever gone to a session that blew your mind so completely, touched you so deeply, that you had a hard time moving on to the next session and just wanted to sit and wallow in the experience for a while?
I had one of those experiences at this year's Alliance for Continuing Education in the Health Professions meeting which, while always thought-provoking (it usually takes about a month for me to unpack my head afterward), never engaged me quite like this. Margaret Edson, who wrote the play "Wit" about a woman's journey through cancer, was, well, I still can't stop thinking about what she had to say, and how she managed to have an intense and personal-feeling dialogue with a big ballroom full of people. I literally had a hard time even speaking for an hour or so after the session, I was so deep inside the very simple, yet very profound, things she shared.
And she’s not an inspirational speaker, or at least I wouldn’t label her as such, though I was thoroughly, hmm, not so much inspired as deeply moved to try to find those moments she spoke about when we can drop our pretenses and vanities and defenses and just be our most true selves with each other. (I managed to work a little discussion of the experience into this editorial for the March issue of Medical Meetings, but it’s hard to capture.)
She didn’t so much teach us anything—I have very few notes from that session, which hardly ever happens. But then again, I don’t think I have forgotten a single word or concept she spoke about because she somehow got me, and I strongly suspect most of the rest of the audience, emotionally involved with what she was saying. It was all about being there in the moment, feeling our way toward a new way of being with each other not as professionals and peers, as we tend to do at these things, but simply as people. And she somehow made it specific to that audience of healthcare educators.
This makes me think that the big-ballroom keynote isn't necessarily dying, that there is still something transformative in a group of people all experiencing the same thing simultaneously, being brought to a place emotionally and intellectually that, at least for that moment in time, makes us a true community. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it took a playwright to get us there—what else do plays do but exactly what she did? Or that she’s a school teacher—this quote from an article about her in The New York Times kind of sums it up: “The difference between teaching and play-writing is not incomprehensible to me, they’re not so different. They both create a public event that leads to understanding.”
That’s what we need to shoot for in our plenaries. Less providing venues for knowledge-disseminating, more creating welcoming space where understanding can take root and grow.