How to build a nurturing, collaborative research environment

I have a fabulous research environment right now, and while obviously some of that is due to having had funding to employ brilliant researchers (thank you ERC) we’ve been doing a lot of other things that are working out really well, some formal (weekly research group meetings and a Digital Humanities Network with lunch meetings a few times a semester) and some informal. I’ve realized that developing a research environment that is good for us and makes researchers happy is one of my top priorities, and so I want to think more systematically about how to do it. I’m sure some researchers are quite happy alone in their dens, and that’s certainly been the model in the humanities, but a lot of us like collaboration and actually talking about our research with each other. So I asked people on Twitter what works for them, and here is the list I have compiled, from my own experience and from Twitter. We are doing some of this here at Digital Culture, but can certainly keep working at trying more of these tips!

1. Remember it’s a conversation, not a competition.

When I asked the question on Twitter, the first response came from Jeremy Hunsinger:

I think this is at the heart of each of the other suggestions I have gathered. The trick is to figure out how to foster conversations, not competition.

2. Establish weekly, research-focused meetings that focus on conversations, not presentations. 

This is our main strategy here at Digital Culture, but regular meetings is something a lot of people on Twitter mentioned. When I returned home from my sabbatical at MIT, I was buzzing with the intellectual excitement of a semester in the Cambridge-Boston are, with fascinating talks and conversations to attend every week, and I really wanted to bring some of that home with me. One of the best things about my sabbatical was the Thursday research group meetings that I was generously allowed to attend at Microsoft New England’s Social Media Collective, which is led by Nancy Baym, Mary Gray and Tarleton Gillespie. Research groups were introduced in the humanities in Norway about ten years ago, but I was used to them just having irregular seminars a few times a semester where members would present something with slides and then there’d be a discussion, and sometimes we’d have a guest speaker, and it was all very nice, but I still didn’t really know what my colleagues were working on. The individual scholar sitting in their office alone was very much still a thing. At the SMC they never have slides presentations at the Thursday meetings. Meetings are held as roundtables, where each participant has a few minutes to talk about what they’re currently working on, often with a question for people – I’m working on an abstract for this conference and I think I want to do this, but I’m not sure, do you know any research I should be looking at? There are often guests, and they join the conversation like the regulars, perhaps with a few extra minutes to talk about their current work. Once a month there’s a book discussion. Sometimes the SMC will set up a separate session for a speaker, but Thursday meetings are conversation-only. And afterwards there’s lunch with the other research groups.

I thought it would be hard to convince my colleagues to do weekly meetings, but it turned out to be very easy to establish, and our research group has grown, not only with our own digital culture people, but attracting people from other departments as well. And as new people join us, it’s just the way things are. There are more of us than at SMC – usually there are between 8-12 people at meetings, and sometimes more – so we don’t have as much time for each person. I try to make sure each speaker gets about the same amount of time, and sometimes use a timer. We’ve not managed to completely avoid slides and presentations, but when we have one, it’s not more than 15 minutes long, and there’s still time for other conversation.

3. Eat lunch together

So we need to foster conversations. Weekly conversation-based research group meetings are one way of doing that. Another is simply having lunch together:

I’ve not really managed the joint lunch thing, other than that we bring lunch to our research group meetings. There has really not been any lunch culture at all among my colleagues. Some of the Nordic people eat lunch at 12 with the administration, but the sofa is always full and they do quizzes and I don’t want to do quizzes (ahem). I started to think maybe the no lunch thing was a mistake when the postdocs and PhDs who started last year asked where we ate lunch and then looked at us like we were nuts when we said we didn’t really eat lunch together. I’ll admit I quite like eating lunch at my desk reading something, and I feel like I have so little time (because I have kids who need me! and meetings! and things!) that I treasure that time. But quite likely lunches are something I should prioritize. Oh, but I have had a weekly lunch date with a colleague in her office. That has been excellent.

3. Have good spaces for collaborating

What exactly is a good space? Our building with its corridors of closed doors probably isn’t ideal – it was built when researchers worked alone, and doesn’t have many good spaces for collaborating.

Airi Lampinen wrote that sitting in an open plan office has really helped their research group:

She added that it probably wouldn’t work if it was forced, but they actually wanted to sit together: “I’ve only ever seen it work well w/ this democratic model where it’s done as a choice to sit together & not as cost-saving (or reinforcing hierarchies).”

Having easy access to seminar rooms and room for small meetings is important. I’d love more feedback about what kind of spaces are best – I don’t feel we’ve really got the ideal set up here.

4. A little bit of funding really helps

Søren Pold pointed this one out, and I think he is so right. Having flexibility for small things makes things flow so much better.

This year we started the Digital Humanities Network here at UiB, and it has been so much easier to do because we were given some basic funding to buy lunches for participants and invite speakers and people to run workshops. Serving a simple lunch makes events feel more like an opportunity for networking and meeting people. It’s been so satisfying seeing people come to our events from all across the humanities. I would never have known we had so many people working right here at UiB with digital humanities projects without the network. The network has attracted a lot of early career researchers, and it’s been great seeing them get to know each other and even develop collaborations.

4. Design opportunities for networking

My colleague Laura Miles (she’s my secret lunch buddy) has mention the importance of networking many times, and I think it’s important to design spaces where it’s easy for researchers to network, both within and beyond the institution. If you’re an advisor, send students to conferences! If you are planning events, try to make them good places for conversations and getting to know new people. If you’re a head of department, consider designating a mentor for every new associate or assistant professor you hire, not just for the PhDs and postdocs. Everyone needs help getting to know the ways of a new institution. And if you’re a researcher: make friends, share ideas, build a network. You’ll need it when you want to find a job or want to co-edit a special issue or organize a conference panel with somebody, or when you get a rejection and need somebody to give you a hug or talk you through keeping going and resubmitting. You need to build relationships with other researchers – and, for that matter, with people who can help watch your kids when you have to stay late to give a talk or something. So make friends, help others, share ideas, suggest lunches or writing groups.

When I was a PhD student it was really rare to be researching the digital as a humanities scholar. I had a few good colleagues, but apart from my advisor they weren’t working on digital aesthetics. Luckily my advisor excelled at sending me off to conferences and telling me to say hi from Espen, and I helped him organize a conference before I actually started my PhD too, so I met lots of fascinating scholars working on things that were very relevant to my own research. In the first year of my PhD I started blogging, and blogs became my main source of ideas and research conversation, and we developed friendships and supported each other.

5. What else?

I’m sure there are many other things we can do to build nurturing environments for happy researchers. What has worked well (or not so well) in places you have been? What ideas should we be trying out? Please share in the comments!!

03. December 2019 by Jill
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