Re-enacting ourselves: academic behavior in research seminars

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This blog is about two similar events: one in Amsterdam, the other in Florence. Both events looked like a normal research seminar. We booked a room, circulated a paper in advance, we arranged a discussant and a chair. A paper was presented and comments and questions followed. It was also meant as a normal seminar, except for one thing: it was not. This was a re-enactment of a typical research seminar.  The focus was not on the paper, nor on the comments or questions. The main focus was on the behavior of the participants. What happens if we take an ironical distance towards our own behavior in research seminars? What happens if we adopt roles of typical academics and re-enact them in a staged research seminar?

Why did we choose to do this? It all started with a question from a first year’s PhD candidate. An obvious and legitimate question– and yet it came as a surprise.  “How should I behave in research seminars, conferences or workshops?” I was puzzled: How to answer a question like that?

There would have been an easy way out. I could have referred the PhD candidate to the several tips, guides or rules on conference etiquettes that can be found on the internet. These tips and guides are interesting as they mirror the numerous “manuals of manners” that seek to discipline social behavior across society (beautifully analyzed by Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process). Just like manuals of etiquette, tips or guidelines on conference behavior set out what it means to be a ‘civilized academic’. And just like manuals of etiquette they are written in the form of ‘rules’, whose source of validity often remains a bit obscure.   Apparently, it is simply ‘not done’ to behave in a certain way.  Many of the rules have an intuitive appeal, some less so. Edge Staff, for example, advises us “not to use phones while in a session”, “to avoid impressing with questions”, or “not to talk during a presentation” (as audience, that is…). ( This all makes sense, of course.  But what about the advise to “avoid workout attire, faded or worn embellished or message sweatshirts, or shorts and flip-flops”?  Or the warning: “Don’t lick your fingers–you will no doubt be shaking hands later”; “ Keep your shoes on! Shower, please!  Wear something professional and clean.”  (

I can imagine what would have happened had I referred the PhD candidate to such rules of etiquette. An ironical “thank you, that’s very helpful” –- or worse. And rightly so. After all, this was one of those questions that is not meant to be answered right away. Instead, it was an invitation, meant to start a common search for meaning: what do we do as academics? How can this be done differently? So, rather than answering the question, I deferred it.   The question became the starting point for something that is quite common in many other professional circles, but much less so among academics: a role-play or re-enactment. In cooperation with the graduate school of our faculty we invited PhD researchers and other members of staff to participate in a re-enactment of a seminar. The set-up was quite straightforward.  We asked someone to present a paper written by somebody else. The identity of the author of the paper remained undisclosed until the end of the role-play. The presenter had to adopt a role, and present the paper in character.  It was up to the presenter to choose a character, based on previous experiences in research seminars or conferences. The same goes for the rest of the participants: all had to pick a character and act it out in their role as chair, discussant or audience. The seminar itself thus became a re-enactment of what the participants had experienced before. Some based their character on concrete persons, others went for stock characters in academia, such as the self-congratulatory professor, the all too amicable colleague, the questioner that always starts with apologies, the passive-aggressive intervener (“I am just a simple lawyer, but…”), the uncommitted but nonetheless very present attendee (“I haven’t read your paper, but..”),  etc.   We followed the format of a regular seminar, with a presentation, comments by the discussant and a Q&A session. The behavior during the seminar mirrored the roles that were adopted. Interestingly (but perhaps not surprisingly?) most participants had a preference for unpleasant characters: professors who use questions to show off, participants that lecture the presenter instead of asking questions, people that challenge the legitimacy of the research project without an attempt to engage, senior academics creating and old-boys-network atmosphere, etc.  Yet, there were (happily) also examples of more constructive behavior such as posing short to the point questions or challenging the presenter through critical yet engaged comments. After the seminar we had a reflection and feedback session, where everyone discussed what happened during the seminar and how things could have been different. Around ten PhD researchers from criminology and various fields of law attended, together with five other staff members. The majority of the participants were Dutch. The same role-play was repeated later at the European University Institute in Florence, this time with a group of around 20 PhD researchers and Post Docs from different countries, many of them working in the field of international law. 

So what did we get out of the re-enactment? First of all, a lot of fun. To be more precise: the joy of recognition. Participants acted out characters that are all too familiar to anyone who has ever attended a conference. It was funny and slightly confronting to see how deeply engrained certain stock character in academia apparently are. Acting out and (mildly) ridiculing academic behavior was liberating in and of itself. However, it did more than that. It also created room to reflect on this behavior and to link it back to ourselves. Some recognized their own behavior in the roles chosen by others, adding that they were not particularly proud of how they conducted themselves at seminars before and now saw reasons to do things differently.  It also created space to reflect on the question of what our own role is, as presenter, as discussant, as chair, as audience. How, for example, do we prevent that we become bystanders if a presenter is bullied by a participant? And how do we prevent that our speaking up for a presenter become patronizing? How to deal with power imbalances that are brought into the room, cultural patterns that privilege some participants over others?  None of these questions can be answered in the form of clear rules or guidelines. Differences of opinion about what constitutes appropriate behavior are bound to remain—as they should. The re-enactment created a space to discuss these differences together, with direct links to what everyone had just experienced. The reflection, therefore, was not only normative, not only about the question how we should behave. It was equally about how it felt when certain behavior took place, how it felt to enact this behavior, how it felt to be exposed to this behavior.  In addition, it was about the very format and set-up of research seminars as such. How do factors such as the architecture of the room or the order of speakers matter? For example: the two role-plays took place in very different rooms. The first one in a small, business-like room where people sat relatively close to each other; the second in a large, slightly intimidating Florentine room/hall. This affected, inter alia, the assertiveness of the presenter, the possibility for audience members to disengage or the differences between self-assured, assertive characters and more modest members in the audience. However, it was not only the room that became topic of reflection. It was also the set-up of a seminar itself. Should it always be that an author presents and the audience asks questions? Why not turn it around for once? Why not send the audience away in small groups to come up with suggestions for the presenter?  Or more radical forms, such as theatrical performances of a text?

Of course, none of this led to a definite answer to the initial question: “how should I behave in research seminars or conferences?” However, it did help to create some ironical distance towards the way academics behave, and did create room to learn from others how they experience being in a seminar or conference. It helped to develop a heightened awareness of power relations in the room and an increased awareness of our own roles and responsibilities in the making of academic life. It also spurred creative ideas how seminars could be done otherwise, how to encourage new twice-behaved behavior in academia. As this also applies to the very idea of the re-enactment, this is, by definition, to be continued. 

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Julia Gaunce says

June 29, 2023

This sounds excellent, especially to the extent that it is an experiment that all participants are "in" on.