tips and tricks for running a workshop

As a graduate student in Michigan, I benefitted from attending and participating in multiple subfield-specific workshops. As at many sociology departments, many of the most important substantive conversations and professionalization discussions happened in these workshops. I learned a ton in my graduate seminars on economic sociology or classical theory, but I learned just as much in the econ soc and theory workshops that I participated in for years after I’d stopped taking courses. As a faculty member, I’ve tried to export some of that model to Brown (which did not have as strong of a workshop culture). More recently, I’ve also had the opportunity to participate in a couple of different interdisciplinary workshops (for science studies students and for an interdisciplinary humanities group). Traveling across these different settings led me to reflect on some of my favorite practices that seem to make a workshop run well. Below, I’ll list a few small practices I’ve seen deployed to make workshops more engaging for participants and useful for presenters.

As a note, by “workshop” here I mean a regular meeting of a group of (typically) graduate students, post-docs, and/or faculty to discuss a pre-circulated working paper (dissertation chapter, MA thesis, grant proposal, etc.) for 1-2 hours.

Require participants to write written feedback in advance.

When I joined the economic sociology workshop at Michigan in 2008(ish), we had a rule that participants were required to write feedback on the paper in advance of the meeting and turn it in to the presenter at the end. This written feedback was fascinating because it helped the presenter see how different readers reacted to the writing before the conversation – much more closely mimicking how a paper or proposal is reviewed. Some times an issue would come out in multiple places in the written feedback that was never mentioned in the workshop discussion. Having already written a small amount of feedback (even just a paragraph or two) also improved the quality of questions asked by participants – everyone came prepared with something well thought-out to say.

Have a designated discussant or first questioner.

This term I’m participating in the Cogut Institute for the Humanities’ fellows seminar. The group is intensely heterogeneous – archaeologists and comparative literature scholars and science studies historians and… – which can be very vibrant but also means that the conversation needs a bit of guidance to make sure we all don’t talk past each other. Part of that role is played by the “first questioner”, whose job is to start the conversation off by summarizing and situating the paper a bit and then picking one avenue of conversation to start with.

Let students ask the first three questions.

The Science Technology & Society reading group at Michigan experimented with various formats and rules in my time there. One of my favorites was a rule that students got to ask the first three questions. The reading group, which only met about once per month, often had a fairly even mix of faculty and students and absent this rule it (and most other similarly constituted workshops) might have tended towards the faculty edging out students from the conversation. Giving the first questions to the students put their voices and concerns first, and helped to encourage students to participate by setting the tone for the rest of the conversation.

Mute the presenter for the first 10-15 minutes.

Another fun rule from the STS workshop asked for the presenter to open the conversation by saying just a few words about the project (less than 5 minutes) and then not speaking again for 10-15 minutes. That is, the other participants would ask questions and discuss possible answers while the presenter just listened rather than responding to each question in turn. Listening to other participants try to answer questions about what they think the core argument, evidence, or contribution of your work is can be a bit nerve-wracking but it’s also incredibly enlightening. Sometimes, the group comes to a consensus that your most important point is X when you thought it was Y, and perhaps you need to either own that it’s X or rewrite the paper to emphasize Y. This practice, like the written feedback in advance, leads to the presenter getting a better sense of how others understand the paper on its own terms and without their beyond-the-text clarifications.

Let the presenter have a few minutes at the end to ask questions.

Oftentimes, workshops get a little.. off-track. That is, the conversation leads to very interesting tangents, possible future projects, sparkling connections, etc. But this tendency to get a little distracted can mean that some of the core issues relevant to the presenter’s immediate needs may not get addressed or resolved satisfactorily. Giving the presenter the last few minutes (5-10) to ask the participants to reflect on whatever question they found most useful or pressing is a way to try to make sure that the presenter comes away with clarity about the most immediately useful feedback.

Take breaks and have snacks!

The value of a workshop is typically as much about building community as it is about the specific conversation. Try to give the workshop room to breather. If the workshop is longer than an hour, take a break! It’s difficult to focus for a full hour, let alone 1.5. Breaks give people a chance to zoom out and refocus the conversation, and they also lead to lots of interesting small side conversations about the paper or other topics. And try to provide a snack or a full meal if possible. Food builds community!

So, that’s what I’ve got. What’s worked well for you to make workshops work? Leave a comment!

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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