You’re at a University, you want people to hang out, what do you do?
If you’re on a moderately large University campus it’s probably pretty likely that you could hit one or two departmental or institutional mixers a week. Maybe more if you’re lucky and plugged in to the right group of people. If you can hit them up relatively frequently then you can relax and socialize with a group of peers, or senior researchers, you can make connections, build informal bonds and, eventually build more social capital with which to establish research collaborations in the long term. We know mixers are good. drmellivora exhorts us to go to them on Tenure She Wrote. Every conference, department, and university has them. They must be good to go to. . .
But what if you can’t? How many times do you need to find a babysitter, or ask your partner to look after the kids so that you can go to a mixer? And if you can’t, consistently, are you squandering social capital? A lot has been made about trying to find work-life balance, but extra-curricular mixers live outside of the explicit realm of ‘work’, and yet they can strongly influence work outcomes.
John Hopkins University runs a successful Belgian Beer Mixer that is clearly providing benefits to the university and to the researchers who participate, bringing researchers across disciplines together in an informal and relaxed environment, but we have to assume that these mixers aren’t accommodating everyone. It far easier to indicate and be assertive about scheduling conflicts during work hours, and people are more accommodating about finding suitable times. Extra-curricular socialization is much harder to confront. It winds up being an invisible ‘pass’. There’s no re-scheduling until after the kids go to sleep, most people head over after work and leave before dinner. There’s no re-scheduling until later in the week because your kids live with you every day of the week (which they make up for with unconditional love). And it’s not just kids, there are hundreds of reasons why people have to take a soft pass at mixers, and most of them don’t involve an unwillingness to make new connections.
Webb and Bartlein (1993) talk about the benefits of hanging out on the University of Wisconsin’s Terrace drinking beer to the team cohesion of the COHMAP project, and it was pointed out in a recent Science of Team Science (SciTS) listserv posting that Stokols et al (2008) also suggest informal social events to build camaraderie among individuals to help foster team science. But in Cheruvelil et al (2014) we point out that one of the first steps to building effective teams is to focus on social sensitivity and emotional engagement. Granted this is in the context of existing projects, but mixers, in the half-shadow of work, are not always the best places to support social sensitivity. Mixers can often be a source of social conflict, and some people may avoid going to them for that reason alone.
Surely there are more ways to bring people together in a semi-formal context that aren’t outside of work hours. I mean, are mixers really just another way to make us work more? If we were lawyers we’d definitely be billing, right? And does it have to involve drinking? I mean, drinking is such a part of the culture of ecology (for example) that Jeremy Fox makes his dichotomy cheap vs non-cheap beer, and, for someone like me who is equally at home in the Earth Sciences, well, forgetaboutit. WIRED’s article “Why Geologists Love Beer” from the 2009 AGU meeting begins: “Fact: Geologists love beer.”
So what about alternatives to the ever-present Mixer? Organized, but informal lunches? Potlucks are always a bit dangerous, but organized brown bag lunches with some focal theme can get people sitting with new neighbors, and possibly building new relationships. They’re also more accessible since you can schedule them at different times of the day, and people are already at work, plus having the department pitch in for free food is always a good way to get every graduate student to come.
What sorts of suggestions do you have? What’s been successful in your department, or at a conference/workshop that you’ve attended? I’d love to hear suggestions.