Some Thoughts on Group Conferences

Dave Chappelle in concert, Washington D.C., Warner Theatre
“Well, gang, what have we learned today?”

So anyway, I decided to try something new this semester: small group conferences. Why? Well, with over a hundred students, single meetings are unworkable, even if I were detail-oriented, which I’m not.

Also, I’m learning that conferences can be stressful for students, especially those with social anxiety, and asking them to come to my office could make it worse, even with all the geeky tchotchkes and multicultural artwork. Neutral territory is best.

Finally, I remember sitting around conference tables in grad school—a nice change from the “sage on the stage” model students are normally subjected to in college. I’ve caught myself saying on several occasions that it would be nice to hold class in a pub or café, where everyone can be on the same level (in more ways than one) and where food & drink would help ease the tension. In fact, I have fond memories of two special occasions in the prison–Volunteers Appreciation Day and The Lifers Club Picnic–when I got to sit with the men, break bread, pass around the barbecued chicken, and listen to The Gap Band’s Greatest Hits. Nothing like sharing food to help subvert the hierarchy.

Now that conference week is over, how did it go? Or, in the words of Dave Chappelle, “Well, gang, what have learned today?” A handful of takeaways:

  1. Find a bigger space. I imagined the conference room in our office suite to be much larger that it actually is. Maybe close quarters don’t seem so confining when you’re sharing it with peers, but there were times when it felt too close for comfort when I had to share it with 3 or 4 students. That was especially true at the first meeting, when I sat at the head of the table, which meant I was between the students and the exit. Maybe try the cafeteria next time?
  2. Skip the Dunkin’ Munchkins and stick to Jolly Rancher. Especially Blue Raspberry.
  3. The most popular paper topics were depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, and divorce. Our students are suffering. Many of them could interview each other for research. They were surprisingly willing to mention their problems in that small setting; perhaps it’s because I so frequently bring up my own.
  4. I really think most of the students benefited from sitting around a small conference table, sharing their research, their stories, and their vulnerabilities. At least I hope so. I know I did.

All in all, I’ll call the experiment a success. I’m not sure if it will make for better papers, but that wasn’t really the hypothesis, anyway. And, as they say in the science world, “further research is needed”!



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