Classically Inclined

June 22, 2017

Is the academic research seminar series still fit for purpose?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:21 am
Tags: , , , ,

When I joined Royal Holloway four years ago, I was asked to take over the job of coordinating the academic research seminar and reviving it after it had fallen into abeyance (mainly as the department had had its mind on other things). I was delighted to take it on – it would mean I could write to all sorts of interesting people, I would be sending regular e-mails to the Liverpool Classicists e-mail list so my name became familiar,  and it was a research-related sort of admin task. Great. I made a point of putting the seminar in a lunchtime slot, because while I wasn’t pregnant at the time, I was very aware of the issues of family-friendly working and several colleagues had (and still have!) young children. And I got on with it.

By the time I was made permanent, and so could start thinking about what I might want to do differently, I was already feeling that the research seminar wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. Yes, I invited some great speakers and got to hear some really interesting papers, but the pressures of term (teaching, meetings with other staff and students, preparation, admin that had to be completed right this minute and so on) meant that my colleagues often couldn’t make it. Our graduate students are a geographically diverse bunch, sometimes living quite a distance from campus, and found it disruptive to come in for a single hour if there wasn’t something else happening on the same day. Despite plenty of publicity, we rarely got people from other departments in the college coming along, and in three years we never had a visitor from further afield. So I started wondering what the seminar was actually trying to do.

Now, in principle, a research seminar works as an opportunity for a department’s research community to get together, hear a speaker talk about their work, and socialise afterwards. A seminar series is meant to be part of a department’s research culture, to get colleagues in the same place and to help foster relationships based around research. However, this model is based firmly in what we might think of the 1950s academic vision, where the academic in question is able to leave the running of his household (yes, it’s definitely a he-academic) and wrangling of any children to either a wife or a housekeeper, and immerse himself in the pure streams of academia, unencumbered by domestic responsibilities, any requirements to do admin, and with the freedom to slope off to the pub afterwards in the knowledge that someone else will make sure his dinner is on the table when he wants it. Obviously not all 1950s academics were in this position, but let us see this chap, or Peregrine as I often think of him, as the ur-academic for whom modern academic systems were constructed. For Peregrine, the weekly seminar as an opportunity to leisurely dissect a paper with his colleagues and to then engage in the homosocial bonding ritual of a pint or two before home fits into his schedule nicely, and works just as it should.

Not so the modern academic, for whom the seminar has often become either a burdensome three-line whip that eats time needed for other things during term, or the subject of an ‘I wish I could but…’ e-mail to the staff member organising it. As far as I can see, the current purpose of the research seminar series is to be able to send out a ‘here is what we are doing, we still exist!’ e-mail to the Liverpool Classicists list, and include it in the REF research environment statement as evidence of a thriving research culture. But just having one doesn’t mean that it’s actually doing its job.

This year, when I came back from leave, I decided to do something different. I have just held the second of two research symposium days – the first was in April, between the spring and summer term, and this one comes just after our summer term has ended. They’ve each had a theme (political speech and encounters, both broadly defined) and have had the same sort of structure: two guest speakers giving a paper of the usual seminar sort of length; short presentations from PhD students and staff members on how their work intersects with the theme; plenty of time for conversation, shared discussion and general chatter; and coffee. Lots of coffee.

So far, this seems to have worked as an alternative model. It’s much easier for staff to block out a day for research-based activity, and for our graduate students to spend a day in each other’s company. We still get the benefit of meeting academics not based in our department, but we get to engage them over the whole day and hear their input into our conversations. We learn more about other people’s work formally and informally, and catch up generally. After this week’s symposium day, our graduates headed off to the pub to continue chatting; some staff went with them, some went off to other responsibilities (including childcare) as we would at the end of a usual working day.

Next academic year, I’m planning to have a research coffee and cake session for staff at the start of the autumn term, so we can all talk about what we’ve been up to over the summer, and then to repeat this pattern of two seminar days outside teaching term but close to it. There’s no point in doing anything over the Christmas break, as staff have marking and those with families have to factor in school holidays, so we might as well admit it and schedule these days to share research when we can enjoy them.

Now, my thoughts here have been driven very much by the circumstances of our department and trying to find a form for a regular research event that works for our staff and PhD students. It may well be that the traditional research seminar format works very well for other departments (although I will forever be a bit sceptical about the practicality of the 5pm seminar for family-friendly working). That said, I’ve just agreed to do a seminar in a traditional series in spring next year, and being invited to do this sort of thing is often seen as a key sign of professional recognition in promotion processes, so we’ve a long way to go before a full revolution across the academy. But I do wonder whether, if we sat down and thought about this, we’d conclude that the seminar series is still fit for purpose.

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