Balancing the messy, complex work of humanities research with the logistics of managing collaboration can be quite challenging. There are a range of resources out there1 for the high-level aspects of project design, but we rarely provide students with training in how to manage the micro-level interactions that make up collaboration. So you’re a humanities student working with a group. You decide you have to call a meeting. Where do you start?
This post aims to provide some quick tips to students, in particular, for making meetings a productive experience for everyone involved. We won’t go into too much detail about any one of these topics. We’ll instead give a high-level overview of some concepts and approaches that you can implement. As the saying goes, everything will look like a nail if the only thing you have is a hammer. We’ll give a brief overview of the other things in your toolkit.
Any meeting will work better if you have a clear goal in mind, and carefully plotting out the structure of a session will help everyone feel that their time is being respected. Set an agenda for your meeting and circulate it to the group ahead of time. Doing so lets your team know what they need to do to prepare for your work together. This process might feel overly formal depending on the size of the group, but you will quickly find that after a couple iterations it will feel less unusual and more like just the standard way of conducting business. One common trap students fall into, though, is over budgeting the agenda. Don’t overthink them by scheduling down to the minute, and be wary of trying to pack in too many topics. Group conversations around humanities topics take on a life of their own and need space to grow if necessary. Experience will help you learn which topics are likely to take up more time.
One of the first tasks involved in running a meeting is getting people into the room. Physically, for sure, but it’s also important to bring everyone together mentally. This is especially true when a group is new and hasn’t worked together before. Icebreakers can be a useful tool in this regard, as they give people a chance to set aside whatever might be going on outside the room and learn to come together in this space with these people. The lab spends a portion at the beginning of the first several meetings of the Praxis fellowship on this sort of exercise. While they might feel like a waste of time, this community building pays deep rewards down the line and is worth the tradeoff. You can find a range of icebreaker examples online. Brandon’s personal favorite is “describe your worst haircut,” and Ronda likes to ask people which job they’d like to have in show business (or the circus) and why.
Meeting regularly as a team is important, but you want to make sure that you meet regularly because you need to and not because each meeting devolves into a series of unstructured conversations. Scrumming can be a tool to ensure that your meetings cover necessary ground, get the important pieces on the table, and flag things for further discussion at later parts of the agenda. Scrum is a term drawn from the world of rugby meant to refer to a formation of players, but it also refers to a form of project management practiced in software development. Implementing the practice typically involves confining project updates to a specific and fixed portion of the meeting. You might, for example, have each person go around and, in one minute (actually one minute!), share what they worked on, what’s next, and what they need from others to keep working. You can learn more at the Atlassian page on scrumming.
Moving things forward
Timekeeping can be one of the most challenging aspects of running a meeting on a humanities project. We traffic in ideas, and we’re used to making them increasingly complex. As facilitator, you might feel awkward about trying to manage the agenda, as though you are cutting off conversation that people feel particularly passionate about. But some strategies can help you to manage the meeting and the work rather than the people in the room. You will frequently need to look for opportunities to move things forward. It can often be useful to explicitly call out what you are hearing in the conversation and setting some movement based on it with phrases like these:
- I’m seeing XYZ as our actionables here.
- What are next steps with this? Can someone take X on?
- What do we need to close this conversation?
If a particular topic seems particularly sticky and as though it needs more conversation, consider delegating the people most engaged in it to work on it after the meeting is over and return to the group with a proposal to vote on. You might also keep a parking lot list of topics to return to in the future for discussion as time allows that are less urgent.
Saying no is a super power
We got into this work because we cared deeply about the topic. Saying no in that context is hard. Once we have an idea for a project it can be difficult to accept that it’s not doable. If someone has a suggestion for the group it can be hard to help them realize their idea might not work. We are trained to make ideas complex and interesting, and this often leaves projects with fuzzy boundaries. Consider this, though: you always have a finite amount of time and an infinite world of possibilities before you. You cannot do everything. Saying no is required– it lets you say yes to the things you really care about. Some questions that might help:
- What do we care about the most?
- What is a stretch goal that we can put in the parking lot of future ideas?
- Are there any ideas that we like but don’t have the resources to act on?
In the academy, many of us are introverts (Brandon and Ronda wave). Unless you are holding consistent votes on topics, it can sometimes be difficult to tell when decisions are made. If no one speaks up about an idea what are you supposed to make of it? Lazy consensus is a tactical approach to running meetings that empowers you in the face of these silences. Bethany Nowviskie describes the term in this way: “when a decision needs to be made, someone steps up with a proposal about how to proceed, and the whole group gets a certain amount of time to speak up against it. People in favor might, lazily, give it a +1. […] And there’s no obligation even to do that much — because (here’s the important thing) the default answer is always yes.” This simple formulation–respond by X deadline if you have objections to this proposal–empowers a facilitator to move things along. The practice does rely on regular check-ins with collaborators to make sure they have space to raise objections. But the approach can also shift a group’s default momentum forward by turning tacit uncertainty into tacit agreement.
Managing a successful meeting is as much about the present as it is the future, about ensuring that tasks get appropriately delegated. At the end of each meeting, it is useful to check that everyone has pieces to work on and that no one person is taking on too much. Collaborators should be allowed to volunteer first, to direct their energies towards tasks that will best use their skills and time. But part of a facilitator’s job is also making sure that all pieces of the work are accounted for. One trick for delegating tasks is to pay attention to the conversation in a room. You might ask those people who discussed a topic to be the ones to volunteer to take it forward. Part of doing this work well, though, requires letting people be empowered to say no and accepting it. If no one is willing or able to volunteer for a task, it might be time to slot that task into the parking lot of future ideas or let it go entirely. In terms of tools for task management, we recommend Trello and Basecamp.
There is much more to say about any one of these topics, but hopefully this post offers new facilitators some basic tools for managing challenging conversations about complex topics. We spend much of our working lives in meetings. Learning how to manage them well can make the work go a little easier.
Visualizing Objects, Places, and Spaces: A Digital Project Handbook or DevDH.org are great places to start. ↩