New Ways of Working (1): Discussion and Collaboration Online

Jane Whittle

Due to Covid-19 over the last 15 months almost all meetings have been online rather than in person. This blog explores the benefits of these new ways of working for academic researchers, and historians in particular. Rather than focusing on online conferences, which have already generated quite a bit of discussion (https://manyheadedmonster.com/tag/the-craft/), the blog looks at other ways of meeting to exchange research ideas. Despite frustrations, meeting online has many advantages: it’s low cost, time-efficient, and brings people in disparate locations together; its environmental impact is minimal. I’m writing from the perspective of academic running a research project, but I think that these observations have a wider relevance. The blog concentrates on two types of meeting: project meetings (regular meetings of a small group working on a project) and research seminars (a presentation to a group of interested people, followed by open discussion).

Project meetings

Throughout lockdown I have been running a research project involving 6 people. As well as myself, these include an academic at another University, three postdoctoral researchers, and an administrator. When the project began in September 2019, we tried to meet in person once a week. Regular meetings are essential for coordinating the project, and supporting the postdocs. However, meeting this way was not always convenient: the postdocs are doing research across England and don’t necessarily live in Exeter. The other academic had teaching commitments at his own University. The grant funder wouldn’t pay for the postdocs travel to regular meetings because it assumed group members were resident in Exeter. We didn’t even consider it as a possibility of online meetings until lockdown. Then, like everyone else, we had to learn quickly. It turned out to be really easy, and discussions work well. Throughout the last 15 months we’ve continued to meet every week, providing a regular keep-in-touch point even in the most difficult times. It has helped us all stay grounded and focused, and allayed some the isolation created by lockdown. Our meetings are loosely organised, with each member of the group describing what they’ve been working on, and raising issues they want to discuss. It’s an essential part of supervising the postdocs on a project, but I think it is just as valuable for the established academics. Here is a group of people who discuss their ideas, present problems for discussion, read each other’s work, and offer suggestions for improvement. Having worked as an academic for over 20 years, and I don’t think I’ve experienced this level of support since I was a PhD student.

What will we do in the future? When the lockdown restrictions are lifted we will continue meeting online. It will be good to meet in person sometimes: we’ll hold in-person project workshops on particular issues perhaps four times a year. This works for us – but this way of meeting, holding discussions and supporting fellow researchers could be used in other academic contexts. Could academics from different Universities form similar groups to meet regularly to discuss work in progress? Would it be a good way of putting together edited volumes on particular research topics, or of co-writing articles and books? Or a way for PhD students to construct networks of students with similar interests? Working online means that we are no longer restricted to our own University for regular intellectual interactions – we can branch out and create our own sets of work colleagues.

Research Seminars

History research seminars have a standard format across the UK. They consist of a speaker, normally invited from another University, talking for 50 minutes about their latest research. This is followed by questions and discussion with the audience (a mixture of staff and postgraduate students) for around 30 minutes. Afterwards the speaker, organiser and some of the audience go out for a drink and meal. Such seminars are valuable. It’s good to get feedback on work in progress, and important to know what others in your area are working on. Seminars are also an occasion for sociability and informal discussion between colleagues and students during which intellectual friendships and collaborations are formed. On the other hand, research seminars are not without their problems. It is often struggle to get audiences for seminars on specialist topics. Increased workloads mean that time for research seminars has become harder to fit in to busy timetables. Large departments have multiple competing seminar series. Postgraduate students who live some distance from the University find it difficult to attend. Those with family commitments find evening activities difficult. There are intellectual issues too – is a 50 minute paper necessarily the best way of sharing research?

What has working online taught us? I’ve really enjoyed dropping in on talks given elsewhere, such as the Institute of Historical Research in London, or organised by the Royal Historical Society, without having to travel. There is certainly a place for continuing some online seminars in future, so that they are open to academics everywhere. However, I’ve also had the experience of giving papers online and found it difficult. The discussion can be good, but ends abruptly. Without the informal conversations in the pub or restaurant, you are left wondering who the audience was and what they thought. There is limited scope to form new intellectual connections. So in person seminars do have an important role. But we should also experiment with new formats.

At Exeter we have set up a blog discussion group in economic history (History of the Economy Research Blog – HERB). The idea was to create regular discussions that could involve PhD students, postdocs, and busy academics. We meet every two weeks during term-time for exactly one hour. Beforehand, one member of the group writes a blog of 1000-2000 words on a particular theme (this year’s theme is ‘work’), based around a particular document. This is pre-circulated. During the hour, we have 5-10 minutes to read the blog. An allotted discussant starts the questions, before opening the discussion to others (PhD students go first). This seems to work well. It involves a wide group of researchers who would not normally be able to attend in-person seminars (many live some distance from the University). The discussion is always lively and involves the whole group. We’ve learnt a great deal more about each other’s research. And the blog has a lasting legacy on our website, open to anyone curious about we’re up to at Exeter (https://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/history/research/economicandsocialhistory/ ). These online meetings will continue, even once other in-person seminars resume. Such online discussion groups are easy and cheap to set up. They are not reliant on institutional funding and structures. They offer a new route for interaction: more meaningful than twitter, but more open and flexible and less time-consuming than the traditional institutional research seminar.

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