Towards the beginning of November last year, I got an email from J. Nathan Matias, asking if I would be interested in helping organize an event at the Media Lab during January. In his email, he described the event as an opportunity for people to teach each other things that they feel passionate about, covering topics both academic and non-academic. There was no specific format for the sessions, and session leads could choose whatever structure they thought would be most suitable, from one-on-one chats to large workshops to more traditional lectures. I thought it was a great idea, and signed up, along with a few other (mostly) MIT grad students. Over the next couple of months, we designed and planned this event, which we called the “Festival of Learning”, and it finally came together and happened over yesterday and the day before (27-28th January). The session topics formed, as we had expected, an interesting mix, ranging from building cardboard forts to exploring the frontier of physics (“firehose style”), from making mochi to research methodology 101. As Jason Haas, a member of the organizing team pointed out, the “festival” aspect of the event was not forgotten either, and an enthusiastic group of students filled up an entire conference room with nearly 1,500 balloons.
Throughout the event, the balloon-room, as we called it, turned out to be a place for people to go back to their childhood, run around, dance, laugh, hide, and occasionally, pop a balloon or two.
There were other transformative experiences as well - Scott Nicholson, visiting professor at Comparative Media Studies stationed himself in the E14 atrium throughout the event, painting faces of everyone who asked.
Jenny Broutin, a graduate student in the Media Arts and Sciences program conducted what she called “idea chats”, one-on-one conversations with people about any idea that they wanted to talk about. The venue that she chose for the chats made it even more interesting - a large scale cardboard pop-up book that one can walk into.
Another decision that we as organizers took was to do away with furniture for lunch/afternoon snacks, and instead have blankets inside the large Media Lab atrium, so that people could have their food picnic style. This changed the fundamental characteristic of the atrium space - something that had a very formal and almost sterile atmosphere turned into a very intimate gathering place for a community. Coming from India, gatherings where everyone sits on the floor is nothing new to me, but with this explicit “design intervention” I realized how a seemingly simple tweak to the way people share a physical space can lead to magical effects.
Certain transformations emerged from the attendees as well - throughout the second day, for example, we had a helium filled radio controlled shark float around in the atrium space, causing occasional moments of hilarity.
For me personally, the there were a number of highlights during the event. Throughout the planning stage, it was an amazing and humbling experience to work with people who were passionate about ideas of learning, people who recognized and celebrated the fact that learning can happen in a variety of settings, contexts and formats. It was also one of my first experience with collaborating with a people from across the Media Lab and beyond - I had previously collaborated on research projects with other Media Lab and MIT groups, but this was a very different experience altogether. During the event, I led a session on making South Asian kites, and it was my first experience leading a craft-workshop style session. The session concluded with people running around in the MIT campus, trying to get their kites to fly, which was a lot of fun.
I also led a session on making Masala Coke, and the range of reactions that I got after people drank what they prepared was absolutely hilarious. I also got my face painted by Scott Nicholson, again, something I would probably not do in normal circumstances.
During the planning stage, we also discovered that there’s no Free/Open Source web app to manage user registration and sign-up for this type of event. So with some help from others, I quickly hacked together a Django app to address our needs. I plan to shortly release this app under a FOSS license so that it can be remixed and reused for other similar events.
As a final bit of reflection, the Festival of Learning was an wonderful event, showcasing what the community at Media Lab and beyond can achieve in terms of energy and creativity if they decide to come together. It was wonderful to work with the organizing team, with people who have such infectious passion, creativity and energy. It was amazing to see people from all over the community come up and propose sessions - and then teach them with so much thoughtfulness, passion and dedication. During the concluding session, Joi Ito, director of the Media Lab commented, “do it again”. We would certainly love to!