Thursday, March 9, 2017

Convening Culture 2017: Dr. Elif Akçali on Divergent Thinking and Collaboration

On February 22-23, I attended the 2017 Convening Culture Conference sponsored by the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. It's an annual conference that brings together artists and individuals working in arts and culture across Florida. To be honest, I had never heard of the conference before. It was brought to my attention because Lee Bennett Hopkins was to be inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame during its closing reception.

2017 Florida Artists Hall of Fame inductees
Don Felder, Billy Dean, Lee Bennett Hopkins, and Jim Stafford
with Secretary of State, Ken Detzner.

Hosted by the University of Florida, a mere 20 minutes from home, I decided to attend and see what I could learn. I suspected that the conference would probably have more to do with visual arts than poetry, but sometimes trying something new—stepping out of the box—is, by itself, worth the price of admission. What I discovered is that it was worth a whole lot more than that.

The theme of the conference was "Exploring Innovation and Entrepreneurship through Arts and Culture." Facilitated discussions and informative sessions touched on different ways to approach innovation on a variety of levels, including divergent thinking, cross-community and multi-discipline collaborations. It also highlighted the work of artists whose work exemplifies that spirit of innovative creativity and entrepreneurship. 

It shouldn't come as a surprise that artists (including writers) are natural entrepreneurs. The problem is:

Artists are small businesses with terrible bosses. 

So says Colleen Keegan, strategic planner and arts activist with Creative Capital Professional Development. According to Keegan, the biggest obstacle for artists is working too much. "You cannot create from a state of stress . . . don't should all over yourself."  (Sound familiar?)

Reading over my notes from two weeks ago, there are a number of things you probably aren't all that interested in—the 57 pages of support materials from the Florida Grants Intensive I attended, for example. (Anyone have $25K they want to give me so I can apply to have the State of Florida match it?)

What I would like to share with you are a few inspirational tidbits (besides the ones quoted above). For that, I'll be turning to two of the invited speakers: Dr. Elif Akçali (featured in today's post) and Lily Yeh (featured in tomorrow's post).

Dr. Elif Akçali
The plenary session on Wednesday morning with Dr. Elif Akçali was titled "The story of a collaboration: What did engineering learn from dance?" An Associate Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Florida, Dr. Akçali spoke about the year she turned 40 years old—the year she decided to say yes to everything. One of those yeses was in response to a faculty member in the dance department who asked if anyone was interested in collaborating. You can probably imagine how uncomfortable an engineer might feel in the creative arena, but she followed through, found a connection, and the experience was transformative. 

It was fascinating to discover how these two individuals from such different experiences of thinking and doing came together collaboratively. What they ended up with was something that could not truly be evaluated under the umbrella of engineering or under the umbrella of dance. It was a field unto its own. Two of the outcomes from their partnership were:
1) a process engineering tool to edit dance works, and

2) a curriculum change to teach choreography and storytelling to industrial and systems engineering students so that they can understand and communicate "the story" of their senior design on a deeper level.

As it turns out, Dr. Akçali also encourages her students to write poetry on engineering topics. Why? Because to think differently you need to act differently. 

I encourage you to watch this ten minute video where Dr. Akçali makes the case for divergent thinking. (It includes some of the same material she shared at the conference.)

Some takeaways on collaboration:
  • Don't hold on too tightly in a collaboration—let go of the ego.
  • Realize that one partner will always be ahead of the other, so you need to be a patient teacher in those situations.
  • Be ready to transform, change views, approaches, and opinions.

And finally, a quote from Isaac Asimov, from The Roving Mind (1983):
Knowledge is indivisible. When people grow wise in one direction, they are sure to make it easier for themselves to grow wise in other directions as well. On the other hand, when they split up knowledge, concentrate on their own field, and scorn and ignore other fields, they grow less wise—even in their own field.


  1. What a cool collaboration between engineering and dance! Exciting project! Thanks for sharing your takeaways with us, Michelle.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Michelle. That's why I follow this blog. Poetry terrifies me, but I wait for each months challenge, then just say, yes.

    1. Practicing is the only way to find that quiet confidence, David (I can't say that I'm there yet either), but I'm glad you keep saying yes. :)

  3. Inspiring Ted talk, Michelle, thanks for sharing Dr. Akçali and her thoughts with us. Taking a walk in the uncomfortable . . . I look forward to tomorrows post.

  4. Engineering and dance -- I bet there's significant overlap. Biologists might be interested, too. Medicine. Fascinating. I've always thought divergent thinking is a good idea. And breaks from working too hard. ;-) Great post.

    1. They have a great Arts in Medicine program at the University of Florida, Brenda. That's who actually hosted this Convening Culture conference. I was surprised that they didn't talk about those kinds of applications more.

  5. Michelle -
    Appreciations for an inspiring article about the conference.
    I expect to savor the video of Dr. Akcali later.

    And it's so fun to see the joyful image ( this one by you or by Stef Salkin?) again of LBH's rock star moment with the Florida Artists' Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

    1. The photo was neither Stef's nor mine, Jan. It's the one that was posted on the Division of Cultural Affairs' FB page.

  6. I was fascinated by the rich ground discovered in this collaboration between engineering and dance. Thanks so much for sharing your takeaways!

  7. What a fascinating collaboration! My son is taking a course now being taught be an art professor and an engineering professor. He absolutely loves it, but of course because that is exactly the way his mind works.

    1. That's so cool, Liz. How great that this course was available for him to take!