Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Forget the lecture halls and labs - the coffee area is where it all happens

When I was an undergraduate I walked into the coffee area of our zoology building and was informed that “some of the most important papers on animal behavior were written here”.  It was a somewhat ugly coffee area in an ugly concrete building, with vinyl covered plywood tables and bright orange upholstered bucket chairs that looked like they had escaped from Austin Power’s 1960s love pad. The coffee wasn’t even good, in fact the zoologists were highly envious of the botany department who had a tea trolley with excellent tea and chocolate covered cookies, but I digress… The coffee area was the place to be as that was where everyone in the department congregated, talked about what they were reading or working on, and most importantly, brain-stormed ideas.  Sure there was a certain amount of procrastination going on, with faculty avoiding having to go back to grading, hiding from sheets of data that had to be entered onto excel spread sheets, or balking at yet another hundred samples to analyze back in the labs. But the collegiality that there was in that coffee area: with undergrads chatting to the “silverbacks” of the faculty, sharing their innovative ideas, and getting mentoring advice in return; or scientists from different disciplines advising on different or new techniques to colleagues that had encountered a brick wall in their research progress; was quite frankly more valuable than many lectures, and worth the price of a disgusting cup of instant coffee. Our department was not alone. At the famous big science facility CERN, home of the large hadron collider, there are whiteboards in the lunchrooms because when the scientists there get together they can’t but help brainstorm ideas, and this is encouraged as some of these lunch time collaborations have yielded important scientific fruit.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that conferences are a necessity for the growth of an academic. They give you a chance to share your ideas with other academics to receive support, or possibly criticism, so that you can strengthen and refine your analysis and your interpretation of your data. They are important events to find out the methods and results of peers in your field, information that could be incorporated into your own studies. Informal places where you can get advice, share ideas and develop research and writing partnerships. Rare is the conference where I don’t come home with a note book full of contacts to email, studies to cite and methods to try out. You can travel around the world to find a venue to discuss and debate with your peers. Sadly there is no such place within my university. There is a laughingly called “faculty lounge” but it is basically a converted storage room, with a couple of arm chairs, that has basically been taken over by senior administrators as a meeting room anyway.

According to its website and mission statement, my university department  supposed to be  interdisciplinary - where science meets social science and policy analysis - with practitioners in multiple fields being brought together. But most researchers at the university work in isolation, locked away in their offices or labs. Despite its supposedly inter-disciplinary nature, my department isn’t great at getting together. There are some faculty in the same department that I see maybe once a month at a faculty meeting, some I never see for semesters at a time. This is just within the department, let alone with faculty in other departments in the college of science, or university as a whole.
There was recently an idea to have joint lunches in departmental conference room, so faculty (and possibly graduate students) could get together and chat/share. This was a great idea, but it was also pretty much a disaster with only one or two faculty at best turning up. Which is fair enough, who wants to relax or hang out in what is ostensibly a classroom and/or a place of examinations.

What we dearly need is some sort of lounge. A place where faculty, staff and ideally graduate students, can get together and chat, sip coffee and hang out in a relaxed and informal atmosphere, where academic news can be shared and ideas exchanged. Somewhere with a comfy chair where you can read the latest issue of science or nature in comfort and then chat and debate about the articles with colleagues. This could be at a university level, or ideally a department level. Other departments have spaces for meeting and getting together that are not classrooms or conference rooms. Our neighbouring psychology department has many, and even <horror> offices for graduate students. Such a place would greatly aid the spread of ideas, mentoring and collegiality. I’ve worked with several universities and institutions and this is the only one that has not had some sort of faculty and/or graduate student lounge or club, such an absence is to the universities detriment in terms of promoting productivity, intellectual development, innovation and also for general morale.

Nobel and Pulitzer prize winner Saul Bellow once said “Goodness is achieved not in a vacuum, but in the company of other men”. The same could be said about ideas and innovation. Meeting in a relax atmosphere leads to the forming of academic relationships and exchanges of ideas, that is the power of coffee.

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