Academic workshops: how we build back better

Four experts from the University of Bath give tips on how to create an open, creative and non-hierarchical environment at your next workshop

May 21, 2021
Academic workshops can return better and more inclusive than ever post-Covid
Source: iStock

It’s 11:30 on Friday morning and the weather outside is glorious. You, however, are stuck in the spare bedroom, guiltily proofreading a paper while pretending to pay attention to the 29th contributed talk of the online workshop you are “attending”.

Everyone is struggling: you can see the Times Higher Education website reflected in the glasses of one audience member. Another is off camera but clearly doing DIY in the background. The speaker can’t get screen-share to work, and the host has turned themselves into a potato and can’t turn back. All you have to look forward to at lunchtime is beans on toast on your own in the kitchen. You long for the good old days of gossiping over stale sandwiches and scalding almost-coffee.

But were those old days really so good? Every academic has their share of bad conference anecdotes, of keynote egomaniacs and conference dinner drunkards. Workshops and conferences are microcosms of academia as a whole, and they are shaped by the same systems, conventions and attitudes that unfairly marginalise and mistreat many of our colleagues.

The inherent power dynamics of privilege mean that often these events do not encourage diversity of voices, and creative approaches and ideas can be lost. At their worst, these events are home to elitist, exclusionary behaviour and even outright harassment.

As we look forward to the hopeful post-Covid reopening, we should reconsider the purpose and design of academic workshops.

Recently, some academics have begun experimenting with more open and democratic programmes. These include the “unconference” and various formats of study groups and problem-scoping workshops. Run well, these events can create exciting environments where new ideas are generated and diverse new teams are formed to explore them.

Although it may not have the same CV-padding potential as speaking at one of the traditional, annual mega-conferences, the research and networking benefits of smaller, problem-focused workshops are making them an increasingly popular choice for organisers and participants.

With funding from the EPSRC Inclusion Matters scheme at the University of Bath, we have been investigating alternative models of academic workshops in our Collaborative Incubator programme. Which formats are best at encouraging enjoyable and productive explorations of new research ideas? How can organisers create an open, creative and non-hierarchical environment? Here are our top tips for organising an enjoyable and productive workshop:

Embrace collaboration over competition
Your goal is to create an environment where people can find complementary interests and spark ideas for joint work. Think about who is attending, their interests and expertise, and use this to your advantage when planning activities and seating arrangements. This does require you to put in a bit more time and effort as an organiser, but it will be appreciated and feel worth it when you see everyone busy collaborating later in the week.

Have relatively few speakers (who are well briefed)
Speakers are not there to brag about how successful they are – their purpose is to stimulate discussion around open problems and potential projects. Crucially, they need to be prepared to share these projects, and the potential successes, with others interested in working with them.

Intersperse talks with group discussion sessions
Groups must feature a mixture of career stages and be small enough not to be intimidating. These discussions should either be facilitated or have guidelines set to ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute. Sometimes this may entail asking the more confident personalities to keep themselves in check and encourage others to add to the discussion.

Set aside lots of time for unstructured group work
It may seem reckless to organise a workshop with a half-empty programme, but all the brilliant new ideas that people will be generating need time and space to germinate.

In our experience, interdisciplinary events are often fruitful, precisely because most people will be a little outside their exact area of specialism. This can help to level the playing field, as a PhD student from one subject can help a big shot from another. The jargon and politics of a specific discipline can be forgotten as everyone focuses on forming new connections.

You should also think about the experience of everyone attending. Is the room accessible? Should your name badges have pronouns on? Will extra flexibility be needed for those with caring responsibilities or religious commitments? Don’t be overwhelmed by these considerations, and do seek external advice. Simple things such as asking participants to bring their own mug can set a relaxed tone. Provide friendly, written guidance on behavioural expectations to help all participants challenge themselves and others to be more inclusive.

Another thing that really helps is good food. Forget the university-provided “meal package C” and instead source something superior from a local catering firm. As well as the benefits for your tastebuds and the local economy, this will have a remarkably stimulating effect on the mood and brainpower of your attendees. Be sure to keep the coffee flowing, too – nothing is worse than a room full of under-caffeinated academics, and those who have not found something that grips them will enjoy the good coffee and the background buzz of excited discussion as they get on with proofreading that paper.

We can’t wait to get back to talking to people face to face again – although we might skip the handshakes for a while yet. If you want to find out more about what we’ve learned about running truly collaborative and inclusive workshops, you can find a short guide here.

Susie Douglas is CDT lead, Julie Morton is a programme manager, Matthew Roberts is a reader in the department of mathematical sciences, and Tim Rogers is a professor in the department of mathematical sciences, all at the University of Bath.

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