Enabling scientific discourse: how to make a square table round


I enjoy discussion, working groups, and teaching. Specifically, I love it when folks get brainstorming, and the collective process generates novel and often creative insights or solutions. I have had the good fortune of participating in ’roundtable’ discussions for teaching, service (less fun), science, and sometimes political ones (even less fun). Clearly, I am poorly adapted to political ones, but with respect to the teaching and science roundtables, here are a few tips that I have used successfully to promote discussion.

1. Montessori-level preparation. Collect and provide the best possible materials to stimulate discussion and challenge assumptions. This can include peer-reviewed publications, editorials, but even more importantly for teaching media, online public discourse, and relevant public datasets or evidence.

2. Present process not product. It is easy to teach to product (i.e the book chapter or assigned reading), but to stimulate discussion, focus on process and do #1 with an emphasis on providing insights/decisions associated with the scientific topic. Provide the dataset, first pre-print, reviews or comments associated with product online, or your own challenges in processing the information in the final product.

3. Provide materials well in-advance. If possible, provide not only the primary material (i.e reading) but also one teaser of the additional material that illuminates process.  Then frantically prep more before lecture or lab.

3. Embrace, accept, and use awkward silences to your advantage. When you ask a question and silence follows, it is so hard not to end it. Dignity, nervousness, and lack of hope all prevail.  However, I have found that waiting that extra little bit often gets folks discussing the idea.

4. Take the pressure off. Provide big topics for discussion or questions then allow students even a short period to discuss amongst themselves (even in a big lecture) and you usually end up avoiding #3.  Heck, even circulate around, chat with the smaller groups, get the ‘answers’ and then offer to the class collectively as an additional substrate to promote discussion.

5. Offer an alternative outlet to class-level discussion. Blog, discussion board, twitter, or even emails to solicit additional discussion points.  However, you must bring these back to the class the following week, even in brief, to ensure that students are ‘heard’ and to resuse these ideas for discussion.

6. Finally, the big one, be vulnerable. Explain what you know, admit what you do not, and present the discussion as an opportunity for collective discovery. This makes teaching more fun and that is what it is supposed t0 be anyway right!

1. Prepare materials in advance. Tufte is a big fan of the handout. If possible, send a sample of the topic out to the group to mull over. This can be representative paper, a review, a dataset, or anything concrete that appeals to other modalities and provides appropriate substrate for gestation.

2. Provide an agenda. I abhor outlines in talks but for roundtables they are useful. Even if all of the items are not addressed or if you get out of order, it provides those creative academics a bit of structure to their discussion and thinking and can reduce the likelihood of going down the rabbit hole.

3. Provide sandpaper. Remember, a roundtable is about discussion. A presentation at the beginning is a great idea.  The more polished the better. However, the roundtable should not be a long presentation clearly presenting only the research findings like a job talk. Then at the end, you say questions anyone? You might get lucky, but you might not get any discussion. Hence, do the presentation of course but focus on the ‘sandpaper’ of the topic. What were the elements of the research that bothered you/rubbed you the wrong way or provided a challenge.  Even hinting at these will more likely guide the discussion towards opportunity instead of confirmation of what you found.

4. Provide glue. Same as #3 but mention they elements of the research that really stuck. They are also an opportunity to advance discovery as much as the sandpaper.

5. Provide questions that you do not know the answer to. Risky, yes. Useful, absolutely. After-all, why are you there? If you are the facilitator, aggregate questions from the participants in advance. Ask for them. Then offer them up plus your own at the end of a presentation. This approach kickstarts the discussion even before the discussion begins.

Active versus passive inquiry in both teaching and research roundtables generates more valuable outcomes. These are just the quick tips that I have experimented with, sometimes unsuccessfully, but that can frequently enhance scientific discourse.