What Makes a Good Workshop Tick? Reflections and Questions on Procedure

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about workshops. I regularly participate in three. One I co-run with Einer Elhauge on Health Law, Bioethics and Biotechnology as a class that students can enroll in which also attracts a number of faculty and fellows from Harvard Law School, other faculties, and the greater Boston area. I also regularly attend and sometimes present at our general faculty workshop, which also occasionally involves presentations from scholars outside of the law school. Finally, the Harvard Juniors get together about once every two to three weeks to workshop one of our papers in a small and informal group.

Each of the workshops have a different rhythm, format, and purpose. Our school is large enough that we can sustain both the general workshop and more specialized ones. Lately, though, I have been thinking about how workshop formats facilitate some kinds of discussions or developments but not others.  If, as I constantly tell my students in Civ Pro, procedure often shapes substance, why should that be any less true when it comes to workshops?  So I’ve started asking around to hear how others run their workshops and here are some variations I have heard of:

The first dimension is the presence/form of a “presentation”.

– Let the presenter present the paper for the usual 15 minutes.

– Let the present present for only 5 minutes.

– No presentation at all, right into the Q & A.

– Have another individual present the paper instead of the presenter.

– Have both the presenter but also a separate commentator.

A second dimension goes to how questions are handled including questions of how to manage a queue.

– Have “protected” time for presentation versus allow questions immediately.

– Have a strict queue that people get on in sequence by raising hands and the moderator writing their names down.

– Have a queue but allow follow-ups from the questioner or others on that line outside the queue.

– Take raised hands each time without a queue.

A third dimension goes to attempts to mold the type of questions.

– Require anyone who asks a question to also suggest something they liked about the paper.

– Have the presenter spell out precisely what they want feedback on in advance.

Finally, for workshops that mix students and faculty, there are further questions about whether to keep separate queues for the two groups, begin with faculty, begin with students, etc.

I’d be curious to hear about the results from experiments with workshop format along these and other dimensions. Did the quality or type of interaction change significantly?  Are there best practices we should be thinking about?

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3 Responses

  1. Dan Cole says:

    The Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at IU-Bloomington has a long-established colloquium series (now every Monday and Wednesday). The “rules of the game” are long-standing, well-established, and function effectively. Papers are made available prior to the presentation. Colloquia begin on time and end on time. The presenter has 45 minutes, followed by 45 minutes of discussion. The first question is always asked by a graduate student member of the Workshop, who is pre-assigned the task of coming up with that question. All graduate student members of the Workshop and visiting scholars are expected to regularly attend the colloquia. Following the first question, all other participants may ask questions or make comments by raising their hands to join a queue maintained by the moderator. In the queue, no distinction is made between faculty and students.

    The process works very well. The length of time for questioning usually is long enough to ensure that everyone who has a question gets to ask it. On those rare occasions when time runs

  2. Dan Cole says:

    On the rare occasions when time runs out before everyone is able to ask a question, there is usually time afterwards for audience members to interact with the presenter.

  3. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    A moderator, such as the Academic Dean in general faculty workshops, can continuously summarize the points being developed during the Q&A. That can increase the value of the discussion for the speaker and amplify particularly valuable themes the work stimulates.