Making an academic workshop work?
March 25, 2013 8:28 AM   Subscribe

What techniques have you seen working in practice to get people to talk when they come from quite different backgrounds?

I am organising an international academic workshop on an interdisciplinary topic. I want attendees to interact with each other and start deep conversations. I am looking for suggestions for ways to run the event to encourage this, and generally create an atmosphere of collaboration. The audience will range from graduate students to full professors.

No cheesy icebreakers - they won't work with this audience - but anything from clever hacks to extensive re-working of the traditional format of presentations+q&a are welcome.
posted by Grinder to Education (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I have only ever seen one thing that works, and it is a cheesy icebreaker. Give everyone a big piece of paper, and have them draw a picture representing themself, their work, and a hobby or interest. Everyone goes up to the front of the room, talks for 30 seconds about why they selected their images (the organizer goes first), and the papers get tacked/taped/fastened to the walls.

Utterly ridiculous, but it builds commonality and points of discussion. It's easy for people with similar work to start chatting, but two people that like to cycle may hit on something fun and interdisciplinary after they start talking about their favorite rides.

This one does better than your typical icebreaker because it actually has a purpose, rather than just making people feel awkward.
posted by bfranklin at 8:50 AM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

How long is the workshop? An afternoon? A week? Multiple weeks?

I believe the traditional method in my field is to schedule a lot of coffee breaks and make them at least 15 minutes long. This works better the more physical space you have. (There's some balance to be struck between having enough space so that people can hear each other and move between groups of people and having few enough distinct places to sit that you're forced to sit near a stranger if you're going to sit down.)
posted by hoyland at 9:07 AM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

hoyland: The workshop is 2 days long.
posted by Grinder at 9:19 AM on March 25, 2013

It depends a bit on the topic and the number of people involved, I think, but one really good technique I've seen used, which may or may not work within the confines of your workshop, was during a so-called futurology workshop (it wasn't in English, so I assume this is how it would translate). Participants were presented with a problem relevant/ somehow linked to the topic, the twist being that they had to think about the problem as though it were 20 years down the line. For example "Higher education in 2035".

The idea wasn't to let their SciFi imagination run wild, but rather to create some sort of tabula rasa with regard to current constraints when thinking about the topic (so, no legal or financial hindrances, etc). The first step was to imagine and list all possible future "stakeholders" (hate the word, but it's useful) in the problem as presented. Everybody did that alone. Then the various stakeholders, people/ groups, were each written at the top of a sheet of paper, participants were split into groups, and each group got two or three stakeholders who they had to represent: their future interests, biases, limitations, points of view. Write them out on the sheets of paper, stick the papers to the wall, and then everybody could peruse them at their leisure during the 30 mins coffee break. Then the original groups were re-united, some more discussion, and then negotiations started. The aim was to get a coherent view on the future in higher education, in this example, which takes into account all the interests, potential conflicts etc, without being hampered by the usual restrictions of life today.

I didn't participate in this workshop - I was one of the translators, and from my booth it seemed doom to failure at the beginning - the person holding the workshop was incredibly bland and communicated no energy at all, plus it was her first workshop ever. At the same time, participants were all male, total high-flyers - university rectors, secretaries of state were amongst them, and at the beginning everybody was eye-rolling and complaining. By the time the coffee break was scheduled, everybody hung around in twos and threes in full-on conversation about the topic, they really got into it, and at the end most of them commented enthusiastically about how useful/ cool/ fun it had been.

Basically, it's pretty much group work and inter-group engagement with a future-edge to it which allows people to be slightly playful and unfettered.
posted by miorita at 9:34 AM on March 25, 2013

Could you tell us the topic and the kinds of academics who will be there?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 9:53 AM on March 25, 2013

In my experience, people like to talk, they like to kick ideas around - but they're often worried about being dignified, group norms, etc. (I mean, I hate people/parties/fun times/extroversion myself - really hate them - and yet I've been to trainings where we did fairly intense icebreakers, group work, movement, acting things out, etc and gotten a huge amount from them. I've gone into things like that hostile and come out feeling good. And I'd say that I hate those things far more than most people.)

I run the occasional workshop, meeting or class. Here are a couple of things:

1. It is always worth it to "waste" time on icebreakers and getting-to-know-you stuff. I used to think that these were pointless and superficial, but I have seen them make a huge difference in comfort level, engagement and ultimately the work done. Learning about your participants and getting them interested in each other is not a waste of time, even though it often feels important to cut straight to the chase.

2. Think of your activities as "building a container" - you're trying to "build" people into a group which can do the work of the group, so you need to bring out people's commonalities and personalities, and give them a little teeny chance to shine. This helps turn them into a temporary "community".

3. I really like the "everyone talks about themselves-in-relation-to-the-topic" approach as described by bfranklin. The best two-day training I've ever been to had everyone stand up and introduce themselves for one minute by the clock - we each had to go to the front of the room, start talking and only stop when cut off at the one minute mark. It was great. I mean, I hated it at the time, but it really pushed me into a good head space for the event. For this event, where people may be less tractable than we were, I like bfranklin's idea.

The key is to make people do something just a little silly or frivolous - not so silly or frivolous that it compromises their dignity, and with enough scope that someone who is very shy or very serious can mold the activity to their personality.

You don't want to simply leave this up to coffee breaks, since a lot of people will talk mostly to those they already know, some people will feel shy or ill at ease, there may be status issues, etc.

4. I've had good results with "popcorn-style" list generation as a way of assessing the temperature of a room - have people toss out words in answer to a question or prompt. It could be something as basic as 'what brings you here today', something specific to the field, something to gauge knowledge (I did a 'give me words you associate with [topic] one for a class recently and it worked really well to assess the room.)

5. I also do a lot of pair conversations - I have people talk to the person next to them about a prompt or just about the topic for one minute with no interruptions, then have them trade off. Sometimes I have them repeat so that people get two minutes each. For a very Serious and Eminent group you might want to have people pair up and do elevator speeches/mini-presentations about their field. If you can find a way to have each Postcolonial Literature person talk to a Science Fiction Studies person (or whatever) that would be great. Pairing people up like this gives people an anchor in the room - I didn't even really like my pair person at the best training (we really had nothing in common at all) but it was an effective exercise.

6. Food - I usually like to bring something home-made late in the event. You don't want to lead with home-made food because people think you're all maternal and it messes with your authority, but when it's at a later session, it can be really bonding/informal. I like to bring something small, like cookies or savory shortbread, in a small quantity so that everyone gets one. Or buy something special - some kind of fruit plate or local treat - to share late in the event. This helps people feel liked.

I think the most important precepts of running a class or a workshop are
- letting people reveal their personalities, interests and skills
-letting everyone talk a good deal amongst themselves
posted by Frowner at 9:58 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've done anti-violence training work in prisons that involved some very hard to crack nuts in terms of getting people to open up and fully participate. The most genius thing about the workshop design was alternating cheesy icebreakers with more serious, sometimes intense, activities. It built group cohesion over a couple of days in a way I've never seen before.

Icebreakers are really important.
posted by zug at 10:53 AM on March 25, 2013

This is an icebreaker, but I don't think it's cheesy, and it's specifically aimed at academics. I have seen it work really well at an interdisciplinary workshop.

You get people into random pairs with people they don't know, and give them five minutes to come up with a title and brief description for an academic paper they could potentially collaborate on.

It's especially fun to see the result of pairings like Engineer+Gender Theorist, or Fine Arts Prof + Statistician.

At the workshop I saw this at, some of the collaborations ended up actually going ahead!
posted by lollusc at 4:38 PM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you really don't want icebreakers, though, other things that I think affect the chance of people talking to each other at workshops:

- breaks just long enough for people to start talking, but not long enough for them to hive off and find a coffee shop. 20 minutes- 30 minutes for tea breaks, 5 minutes between papers, and an hour for lunch (if provided) is usually about right for this. The 5 mins between papers is good because people will stay in their seats, but get a little bored and start chatting with the person next to them, who often is a random stranger from a different field.

- a drinks session at the end of the day, on site.

- do not have many chairs around the place where morning and afternoon tea is. If there are enough chairs for everyone, people will find their friends and colleagues and sit together. If they have to mill around, they are more likely to get talking to new people. You need some chairs for people who might be ill or tired or have a disability, of course. And obviously you'll need chairs for the lunch period.

- a poster session encourages people to talk to the poster presentees, who might not be in their same field. Poster sessions work especially well combined with the above-mentioned drinks session, in my experience. That way people who might not otherwise stay for the posters will hang around to drink, and might end up casually looking over the posters while they do. And the alcoholic lubrication will make people more likely to start chatting.
posted by lollusc at 4:44 PM on March 25, 2013

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