Heated research group meetings

Having difficult discussions is the topic that resonated the most to me in the readings related to inclusive pedagogy. I firmly believe that to safely execute a difficult conversation by de-escalating the unexpected landmine moments that are beneficial for knowledge exchange is a quintessential skill that every teacher should possess. An essential point that I noted in the reading is that the discussion in an academic setting should never be about the people and that it should always be about ideas that they are exchanging.

I’m interested in applying the tips & strategies for difficult discussions, which are tailored for a classroom setup, to research group meetings (RGMs). RGMs are a lot like a classroom but are also very different. In a typical RGM, students present their work, and each presentation is often followed by a thorough discussion involving peer students (colleagues) and a principal investigator (PI) – the teacher. More than usual, the conversation can become heated as the presenter and audience might not share the same level of understanding of the presenter’s work or might disagree with the assumptions made and (or) conclusions drawn by the presenter. It is particularly important to enforce inclusive pedagogy and maintain a healthy relationship in RGM as the students often work together for a considerable amount of time (more than a semester), which is not always the case in a classroom setup.

As suggested in the reading material, I think the PI should set up ground rules of exercising an RGM and enforce them whenever needed for constructive intellectual dialogue. Since it is not possible to anticipate the needs of every student, the PI should be willing to make changes to the rules if needed. It is also beneficial for the PI to know about potential hot-buttons of individual students so the PI can intervene if they’re triggered in a discussion. More importantly, the PI should know his/her hot-buttons and have a plan to make sure that the debate is not compromised. Bluntness is often confused with rudeness and is a potential cause for individuals getting offended, which results in a heated discussion. It is desired that the PI should be mindful of this behavior and bring the focus back to the ideas. On a final remark, I believe that a rude comment by a student might be a sign of something more complicated happening in the student’s life. Therefore, I think the PI should have a confidential meeting and direct the student to helpful resources available at the university.

4 Replies to “Heated research group meetings”

  1. This is an interesting point! Thanks for sharing the tips & strategies for difficult discussions. I am in a lab with graduate students from interdisciplinary programs and a few undergrads, so I can relate myself to it. Students come from different backgrounds, and some may not necessarily know the topic as well as the others. PIs should take this into consideration. I also think it is a good idea for the PI to give a brief introduction to the topic before the discussion. As you mentioned bluntness and rudeness, it is confusing to tell if a student is critical or this student has something going on in life. Thus, PIs should be aware of something inharmonious. All in all, PIs play an important role in making students inclusive in the lab.

  2. RGMs are more and more frequent in Universities, especially for graduate research groups. Unlike traditional classroom education, RGMs generally require more students’ and PI’s engagement and contributions. The RGMs’ success in inclusive pedagogy can inspire us to create an inclusive classroom learning environment.

  3. I am fortunate that I haven’t had research meetings turn into a heated debate, but I do think that it is important to be able to recognize when a PI (or someone else in the group) needs to step in to reduce the tension. Ideally, a PI should cultivate an atmosphere of respect and collegiality (and ground rules for meetings should help with this).

  4. Thanks for bringing up this very, very under-discussed topic.

    I personally believe the rigor of gradschool and research (while also navigating the whole adulting and figuring out what to do with life thing) carves us to be extremely resilient people, one way or the other. Once this resilience becomes a part of who we are and is also prominent in the culture we’re surrounded with, it becomes incredibly easy to fall right into the trap of presuming everyone is the same. Being accustomed to trying and failing, over and over again, criticism in terms of advisor and peer feedback in those meetings and outside, trying to maintain a delicate balance between mental, financial and emotional stability and so on are very trivial aspects of graduate life that not necessarily everyone outside takes dealing with for granted.

    I think all the above make those heated conversations more likely with new researchers in the group (or at least, that’s how I have noticed in our group), who also happens to be the once least equipped to navigate those situations, so I think we definitely need more talk and work on handling those situations and it starts with starting conversations like these!

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