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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Brandy Agerbeck ’96

Part of an ongoing series of essays about the folks who learn and teach at Grinnell, those who do both, and those who otherwise contribute to that mission.

About a week ago, I had a chance to meet and chat with Brandy Agerbeck ’96, an alum who I’ve known about for awhile, but never knew when she was a student [1]. Brandy has one of the more interesting careers I’ve seen of our alums: She’s a graphics facilitator.

No, a graphics facilitator is not someone who helps graphics (I’m not even sure how you help graphics), or even who helps people make graphics. Rather, she’s someone who facilitates meetings, discussions, and brainstorming sessions by drawing pictures, pictures which can include words. Her facilitation seems to serve multiple purposes: It records key points from the meeting; it shows relationships between ideas; it gives an outsider’s perspective on what is being discussed; and it builds shared understanding [2].

I knew about what Brandy did in the abstract. I’ve looked at her Web site, skimmed her books [3,4], and even heard about her work documenting President Kington’s TEDxDesMoines talk [5]. At some point, I probably read her Manifesto, or, as she terms it, Brandyfesto. But I never saw her working. That’s now changed.

About a week ago, Brandy returned to campus to help facilitate some discussions of self governance [6]. And it was really cool to see her in action and to chat with her about her techniques. I’m not sure how she could remember all the things that we were saying [7], prioritize, synthesize, and moe. There were a few points in which she paused in writing things down and started filling in some words, or adding emphasis, or more. I asked her about that later. She said (approximately): In those cases, I was just trying to take in all that was being discussed and think about how it related. But there are also discussions I facilitate in which my stopping, or just filling in things, plays a really important role. Eventually, someone looks up and says She hasn’t written anything down in the last fifteen minutes. We haven’t really been doing anything useful, have we? [8]

I liked the ways she pulled out our ideas and related them. It’s also clear that in her years of experience, shes built a framework that she fits things into; all the posters from our discussions have at least one talking head [9]. Most had larger ideas in the center (and larger), with additional ideas flowing out from there. I’ll have to go back and look a bit more at her use of color [10].

If you haven’t stopped by the JRC to look at her sketches from the eight or so discussions we had about self-gov, you should. They suggest a lot of interesting things.

What else? As I was skimming The Graphic Facilitator’s Guide, I noticed profiles of the different kinds of speakers. I worry that I’m too many of the troublesome kinds. As far as I can tell, I’m a rambler [14], a mumbler [16], a devil’s advocate [17], an outlier [18], and a detail-oriented person [20]. I feel sorry for people who have to facilitate meetings with me.

It’s great to see a Grinnellian blazing a new trail [24] that takes advantage of the things we teach well at Grinnell: listening, synthesizing, and contributing. I hope that we’ll bring her back to teach a workshop or Wilson course on graphics facilitation, or even run a Lab on campus [25]. Looking further in the future, maybe I should have her document the next CS reunion!

Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear: You should read the Brandyfesto, visit her Web site, watch her TEDxWindyCity talk, consider reading her books, and perhaps even consider adapting and adopting some of her practices. I know that I will.

[1] That shouldn’t be surprising, at least if you read the title. She graduated in 1996. I started in 1997.

[2] It does many other things, too. That was just a short summary of the issues that come to mind.

[3] The Graphic Facilitator’s Guide and The Idea Shapers, among others.

[4] They are perpetually on my to read list, but they haven’t made it to the bedroom table yet.

[5] Well, TEDxSomething.

[6] Have I ranted about my frustrations that so few students participated in those discussions? I should have.

[7] She did say that the discussions at Grinnell were more content-rich and on task than many discussions she’s asked to facilitate, so I think we may have been a bit more challenging.

[8] Okay, she probably didn’t say fifteen minutes. She probably said five. But the implication is the same; noticing that someone isn’t writing can have an impact, and help move a discussion forward.

[9] I’d like to know why some have just one talking head, and some have two in discussion. I’ll have to revisit the posters.

[10] As someone who is color deficient [11], I don’t always notice the ways in which color serves a role, other than when others seem to be seeing something that I’m not.

[11] Red-Green. While I can see red, and I can see green, there are certain pairs of red and green that look identical to me. I know that when one of my kids was on a soccer team that wore a dark green, and they played another team that wore a dark maroon [12], it was almost impossible for me to tell the teams apart.

[12] Or was that vice versa?

[14] Someone who takes a circuitous path to the get to the point. Solutions: Give them time to talk [15]; Say something like I’d like to make sure that I get your point correct. Can you please summarize? (Adapted from p. 108.)

[15] That’s not a good idea for me; no one else would have a chance to talk.

[16] She describes mumblers as people who talk quietly. I’m not that. But I do mumble. Solutions: Use body language; say I didn’t quite catch that. (Adapted from p. 109.) Surprisingly, shove a microphone in front of their face is not a solution she suggests.

[17] Agerbeck describes these primarily as the people who feel their goal is to shoot down every idea. I don’t think of that as the devil’s advocate’s role. Rather, I think of it as making sure that we consider risks and challenges. In any case, her solutions are to use the criticisms to reframe the debate If a similar idea failed five years ago, what is different that we can take advantage of now? Or What did we learn from that failure? Graphically, she looks for ways not to record, but not reinforce, the criticisms. If the advocate re-raises the same issue again and again, she points to it so that they know it’s been recorded, or underlines it. (Adapted from p. 111.)

[18] Yes, all voices are equal in a meeting, but the Outlier seems to be in another meeting altogether. Solution: Don’t capture it; you only encourage them. (Adapted from p. 113.) My solution: Put it in an endnote [19].

[19] Or is the other way around? I put the digression in the main body of the text and the real work is in the endnotes? Oh well, this is textual, rather than graphical.

[20] Sample quotation: If you look at page 7, column 4, second row down, you’ll see our profits in this sector rose 2%. Unfortunately, her solution is not data are central to all arguments, so put it at the center of the picture. It is, instead, to Record conclusions from the data, not the data itself [21] and Highlight a resonant piece of data [22]. (Quoted from p. 114 [23].)

[21] Data is a plural noun. I think she meant data themselves.

[22] Datum works much better than piece of data.

[23] I thought about making a joke in which I gave much more precise description of the positions of the quoted material, but I’m too lazy.

[24] Although not all that new; she’s been doing this for something close to twenty years.

[25] If not, maybe I’ll save up my pennies to attend a Lab in Chicago in 2018.

Version 1.0 of 2016-11-20.