March 23, 2024

The Presentation Exchange for Workshops and Classes

Attention conservation notice: Advice for running an academic workshop, which I've only followed myself a few times.

Some years ago, Henry Farrell and I ran a series of workshops about cooperative problem-solving and collective cognition where we wanted to get people with very different disciplinary backgrounds --- political theorists, computer scientists, physicists, statisticians, cognitive psychologists --- talking to each other productively. We hit upon an idea which worked much better than we had any right to hope. (Whether it's ultimately due to him, or me, or to one of us tossing it out as obviously dumb and the other saying "Actually...", neither of us can now recall.) We've both used it separately a few times in other settings, also with good results. Since we both found ourselves explaining it recently, I thought I'd describe it in a brief note.

  1. Every participant in the workshop writes a brief presentation, with enough lead time for the organizers to read them all.
    In the context of an inter-disciplinary workshop, what often works best is to describe an outstanding problem in the field.
  2. The workshop organizers semi-randomly assign each participant's presentation to someone else, with enough lead time that the assignee can study the presentation.
    Again, in the interdisciplinary context, the organizers try to make sure that there's some hope of comprehension.
    (While I called this the "presentation exchange", it needn't be a strict swap, where A gets assignd B's presentation and vice versa.)
  3. Everyone gives the presentation they were assigned, followed by their own comments on what they found interesting / cool / provocative and what they found incomprehensible. No one gives the presentation they wrote.
    In some contexts, I have found it helpful to institute the rule that the author don't get to speak until after the presentation is finished...

Doing this at the beginning of the workshop helps make sure that everyone has some comprehension of what everyone else is talking about, or at least that mis-apprehensions or failures to communicate are laid bare. It can help break up the inevitable disciplinary/personal cliques. It can, and has, spark actual collaborations across disciplines. And, finally, many people report that knowing their presentation is going to be given by someone else forces them to write with unusual clarity and awareness of their own expert blind-spots.

As I said, Henry and I hit on this for interdisciplinary workshops, but I've also used it for disciplinary workshops --- because every discipline is a fractal (or lattice) of sub-sub-...-sub-disciplinary specialization. I've also used it for student project classes, at both the undergrad and graduate level. That requires more hand-holding and/or pastoral care on the part of the teacher than a research workshop, and I've never tried to make it the way I start a class.

Learned Folly; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Corrupting the Young

Posted at March 23, 2024 15:05 | permanent link

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