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Better science workshops

If you’ve worked in research – especially geophysical research – you’ve been there. A workshop is advertised on a thing you’re really interested in, and you think “awesome! a few days of interacting with a bunch of people doing stuff I’m also interested in, hear stories, tell my stories, make connections…”.

…at least the first time. And then, for a lot of people it ends in disappointing weirdness – having to submit proposals to be heard at the event, no space for participation in the daytime, hyper crowded agendas, cliques and established networks close in around themselves in breaks and post-day activities, networking opportunities are exclusionarily expensive or in noisy crowded places which suit specific personality types. Still, to do researchlyfe you’re kind of stuck. You need to go. And somehow fight it out.

We also know that science workshops often fall prey to some well-trodden effects: ‘fastest/loudest’, and ‘same ten people’. These both mean that in general, the default is that we hear from whoever can shove their stuff in first, most loudly – which is often the same people. This has been a self-reinforcing effect in science for a long time.

Here are some simple ideas for doing better.

These are borrowed from many sources – a couple of workshops I’ve been to run by ThinkPlace, a Canberra based consultancy. I’ve also gained a lot from speaking with mentors about how to do these things (shout out particularly to Thierry Gregorius and Hans-Jurgen Torsrud). My professional lives outside of research come into play – most particulary wilderness guiding for Cradle Mountain Huts/The Tasmanian Walking Company. And so does experience gained from past research field campaigns that worked really well (thanks in particular to Andy Chianci). Working with the FOSS4G SotM Oceania 2018 organising team and the OSGeo community in general has shaped many of these ideas – as has seeing how the French Polynesian facilitation team at the 2022 Oceania Geospatial Symposium worked. Last, and maybe most imporantly, working with my courageous co-facilitators at the Nansen Legacy 2022 sea ice workshop in Tromsø – where we implemented all of this in a multidisciplinary research workshop.

In short, they’re not new, they’re tested time and again and this is probably facilitator 101. Let’s put all that to work on running better workshops in geophsyical research.

Things to do when setting up the workshop

Choose and communicate a code of conduct

A code of conduct is the foundation of your workshop. It defines expectations for behaviour and provides means for dealing with things that happen outside of those expectations. It is a constructive document, one to build a community on. If you feel it is punitive, then your attendance isn’t compulsory. As a facilitator, it can be that clear – here are our expectations. If you’re uncomfortable with them, stay away.

The Berlin Code of Conduct is a great foundation.

A code of conduct needs to be clearly communicated ahead of time. In research world you will probably get responses like “oh, whats happened?” – providing an opportunity to explain that well, nothing is wrong – we’re just naming what we expect. Importantly, ask people to read it before coming. Some people won’t, so we make sure everyone understands at the event.

Consider your team

It is 2023 and your team needs to model what the community should look like. There are many, many reasons for this – and one very practical one: now that you have a code of conduct, consider who your attendees will feel comfortable reporting incidents to. This raises another issue – your team needs to be able to deal with code-of-conduct or other issues that arise. Make sure you all check in with each other about all of this.

Set and communicate a clear agenda and clear goals

When designing the workshop, be clear about what you want to see at the end. This was really clear in the OGS workshops – and helped get people working together. Going in with ‘well we want to make collaborations’ will end in a clique reinforcing blahblahfest. Set concrete, and realistic ideas – like “after two days everyone here should know what datasets are available. If we’re lucky we will know what state they are in”. Or “after today a team to work on a paper about …. will be decided”.

Filter

In geophysical research inclusivity has come to mean we have to hear from everyone all the time. This is not true. Based on your agenda, goals and resources – say no to people. Stick to your limits. If you need to invite people, start at the bottom of the research stack with precariously-employed researchers and doctoral candidates, then move up. You will get a better discussion that way!

Do not call for presentations

Workshops are places to do work – avoid presentations. Ask people to come with data to discuss, things to work on – if they need to show a plot for asking questions about no problem! Just show it in whatever software it is built in, tweak it right there.

The whole presentations model discourages participation and interactivity, it dampens everybody’s enthusiasm. It’s a workshop, bring stuff to work on.

Make it all or nothing

If you don’t have time to come to all of the workshop, don’t come. That’s it. In the Nansen Legacy sea ice workshop we allowed a few people to come and go – it was a mistake because we had all spent time on culture-setting, and the people turning up later didn’t understand how to operate.

Things to do in the workshop

Spend time to set expectations

This probably the most powerful session of the workshop, and I picked this idea up from ThinkPlace. The very first session of a workshop is spent discussing the code of conduct – raising any issues with it. And then deciding as a group how to implement the code of conduct. I asked people to spend five minutes writing down five ways (one sticky note for each thing) they thought people should behave in the workshop. Importantly, no names are attached. We ran a quick icebreaker (in this case a variation of a paper plane game / journey of discovery about each other) while facilitators gathered up responses and grouped them into related principles.

As a group, we then discussed the ideas people had given and came up with a set of operational principles by broad consensus. Here, we give people the opportunity to own principles they’ve come up with – and share their thoughts. We discuss all of it as a group.

This took about an hour – it can be shorter or longer depending on the group. It doesn’t have to follow the structure described above – that was a great way of getting people from all different places to work together. If you’re in a smaller group and / or more comfortable with each other you can work it out other ways. The important thing is to write the guidelines down someplace visible. At this point, we can impress on everybody that “hey, these are now your rules. We as moderators will abide by them, and you also now have the power to make sure these principles are applied. First to yourself, and also its OK to kindly remind others about them’

The most important aspect of this is ownership. Everybody has participated in setting the scene, making the rules. It isn’t an abstract code of conduct anymore. For some research cultures, this way of working can also help to break the lines of power. Sometimes that is up to facilitators – sometimes it just works. We found that it helped people feel more comfortable to speak, and we also saw some people consciously making room for others rather than taking up all the space.

Relentlessly police the agenda and goals

Science discussions have an awful habit of veering off into pet projects and side chat. Stomp on it. Don’t let it happen. If it works, set an agenda beforehand and stick to it. If you can’t set an agenda upfront, use the second session (once the operational guidelines are in place) to set one.

Keep to timings, stay on topic. It is a great idea to keep time in your plan for things that crop up. Offer space later to discuss things that arrive.

Break it up

This really is facilitator 101. Keep timeslots short, break big groups up. Your facilitator team is going to determine how many attendees you can have, because you need to break big groups into smaller ones, with at least one facilitator per small group. Timing wise, ideally we’re all working hard and can only focus for so long. 90 minutes per session is a lot, and when things really need doing, get people to work and think fast. It doesn’t have to be right, it has to be done.

Lead by example

Signal to attendees that you’re serious. Visibly use a timer for yourself. Visibly include your facilitator team in everything. Visibly raise up voices that you haven’t heard from. It is a great practice to jump in and say “hey we haven’t heard from [this group] yet – what are your thoughts?”.

Keep copious notes

As a facilitator, bring a lot of spare space in your notebook – you’ll be writing a bunch of stuff down, tracking off topic discussions to put somewhere later, making notes about things to follow up on later, noting who is using up space and who you need to create space for, making notes for yourself about things that went well or didn’t go well.

Ask for help, your attendees are your team too

This is a lesson learned from guiding, when we had to build new teams every week – because, well, have you ever tried to get 10 people through a 6 day wilderness hike if you can’t forge them into a collaborative team? Good. Luck. To. You.

You have a bunch of smart people engaged toward a goal, use all their skills and expertise as much as possible.

As facilitators, you are all the boss

Critically, your bunch of smart engaged people have to trust all the facilitators implicitly. You all have to be the boss facilitator. This is a tough one for the baked in heirarchracy (?) of science – do it anyway. If you belong to a standard privileged class, do the lead by example thing and give space to cofacilitators representing other groups. Be a shit umbrella – meaning, let any shit from your fellow privileged class people land on you.

After a workshop

Celebrate!

Workshops are hard, especially in geophysical research. If you got it done, you’ve achieved a lot! Especially if you did all the things above and pushed hard on the concept of what a research workshop means – in 2023 you’ve probably met resistance along the way. So. Congratulations!

Debrief with your team

If you’ve just run a workshop, make time to discuss how it went with your co-facilitators. Then follow up a few days later. Especially if you plan to run more workshops that are similar. And make time to discuss and digest attendee feedback.

Collect anonymous, free form feedback

Make a way for attendees to respond with their thoughts – without naming themselves. Avoid trying to second guess things, instead allowing free text responses in any surveys. Alsp, make sure there’s a way for attendees to respond with anything you haven’t thought of.

How many people does this stuff work for?

In workshops I’ve attended using similar strategies to this whole proposal, the largest group has been 50+ with 5-10 facilitators. The Nansen Legacy sea ice workshop was a lot smaller, 10-20 attendees. We had three facilitators for the sea ice workshop, who had dual roles as attendees. the largest workshop I attended had a team of 5 or more. I’m sure there are well tested guidelines outthere – I’d happily run all this with up to 50 people if I had at least 3 co-facilitators. It is a lot of work.

Anything else..

A key idea I got from workshops I’ve attended is that a great general goal is this: It doesn’t have to be right, it has to be done. For whatever your goals are. You can always iterate on things later, you just need something to iterate. Like this post – imperfect, yet hopefully useful and a baseline to move on from…

Summary

This is a completely noncomprehensive guide to helping make research workshops better. Nobody likes a nonparticipatory blablahfest, and we all know research is full of behavioural issues. The points laid out above aim to help get past both of those issues – to make research workshops fun, inclusive, productive, and something you really want to go to.

Remember that whenever you organise something, you’re going to annoy some people, exclude some people. All the above is aimed at making conscious choices about who you annoy, who you exclude. Does it matter if a bunch of super-established, totally career-secure people get their backs up? Probably not, it doesn’t affect their career in the slightest. So – work on behalf of the people who don’t have that privilege. Put your own privilege on the line.

And good luck! I hope these ideas help. Feel free to take them and do great things.

Of course, I’m open to helping you develop and run better research workshops – reach out for a quote. I can also recommend you get in touch with the people I mentioned at the top. ThinkPlace in Canberra, Thierry in the England, and Hans-Jurgen in Norway (Tromsø and more or less anywhere). I can also recommend my co-facilitators in Norway – Drs Stefan Thiele (Bergen) and Elizabeth Jones (Tromsø).

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