Using and abusing academic workshops

My kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its office-holders.
“A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain, 1889

I did participate in three workshops in the past two weeks. One thing that I noticed was that while a few participants had problems with their supervisors (academic or otherwise), few did say so directly. Some were very eloquent in eluding to the issue with terms like “problems with people in hierarchical structures” and the like, but stating concrete actions that a supervisor did wrong were rare.

Personally, I think I get it. It’s extremely hard to criticize a supervisor in a semi-open setting. Loyalty counts a lot. It’s a positive trait. It’s showing character. You don’t want to be the person stabbing someone else into the back.

But …

In a workshop where the issue is to become more effective at work, how can you not state your problems with your supervisor? There is no way to improve and change yourself if you do not address the real issues. And if the issue is your supervisor, you have to address that issue.

How else can you hope to change things?

It is not disloyal. On the contrary. You could argue that it is the kind of loyalty that counts. The kind of loyalty that is not to the “office-holders”, but to the country itself. And in academia, that country is science. Addressing problems with your supervisor makes you a better scientist. Not necessarily at the university or institute your supervisor works — if a consequence of that workshop is that you should leave an dysfunctional environment — but where ever you end up.

But for accurate feedback and real change to happen, you have to be open about the actual problems. It can’t work any other way.

Of course, it must not become boss bashing or venting (see here, here, or here) — and not because that would be disloyal either. It would just not be very helpful in a setting where you might actually get some professional feedback.

So, personally, I think you should be open in workshops. And I am pretty sure that many people in these workshops have “insufficient knowledge exchange with their supervisors” — otherwise, why are they in that workshop?

Things you should not do, however, are — among others — the following:

  1. Don’t come if you are sick.
    It’s nice that you are glad that you managed to participate despite your severe cold. But frankly, I am betting that most of the other participants would have preferred it if you stayed home … because they did not participate in a workshop in order to get infected! It happened to me a couple of times and it’s just extremely bad manners. If you are sick, stay at home. I mean, seriously, that’s like biological warfare and I have other plans for the weekend than lying in bed. Alone that is. (This also applies to the normal work days.)
  2. Don’t start an ideological debate.
    I am a psychologist by training, meaning I know a thing or two about theories about human behavior and about methods to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions. If you have never worked with humans as research participants, you might underestimate how hard it is to control for possible biases. Unfortunately, a lot of consultants lack the necessary knowledge and skills to critically evaluate claims. Worst case, it boils down to the practitioner saying “I know it works in practice.” and the scientist countering “You only think that it works.” Evaluation (mostly) without biases is really hard.
    However, while I have a problem with a lot of pseudo-psychological models and explanations, I usually hold my tongue. After all, an ideological debate helps no-one. You probably do not want (nor am allowed) to take over the course, nor would the other participants accept you. Instead, I usually assume that the problems exists. Frequently, I ignore the theoretical “model” the trainer applies. I focus on the proposed interventions — do they work? In many cases, you can replace the more esoteric explanations in your mind with working models about human behavior. Just tune out the pseudo-scientific “explanations”. Unless the trainer does drift into the fairy land of NLP or the self-help(lessness) realm, I hold my tongue. If this person does real damage … never happened, but I suppose I would speak my mind and leave. Afterwards, I would inform the organizers. But that’s pretty much it.

So, in short, if you participate in a workshop that aims to help you work better, speak honestly about the real issues. Concealing them robs you of the opportunity for real feedback and improvement (= doing a better job). But don’t participate in a workshop if you are sick or start an ideological debate.
And above all, have fun. Learning should be fun.