The Joy of Colloquium: Recipes for Workshop Success

It’s that time of year when we come together with those close to us to celebrate, before the year ends, the things that really matter… like conference proposals (NASSR’s is due January 17th!), chapter drafts, readings from new books, and the other standard fare of the nineteenth-century working group. But concocting the perfect colloquium moves beyond a craft to become an art form, and it is the aim of this post to give you some pointers on preparing that rare colloquium that is truly — well done.

The colloquium is the humanities’ analogue for the lab, where people with similar research interests collaborate together from across the graduate program and from that strange other world of the faculty. And, for the ABD student in particular, colloquium can be a godsend — it’s like a class in my field, only more fun! But where scientists and classes might meet on a daily or weekly basis, it’s a bittersweet truth that colloquia only happen semi-frequently; thus, when they do, it’s all the more important to get the format right for maximal engagement — and delectation.

(1) Choose your recipe

Colloquium meetings can range from a formal talk with an invited speaker followed by a group dinner, to a graduate-student-only forum for discussing someone’s recent conference paper draft. I’ve found that, as with feasts, colloquium fare is more delectable when the courses are varied. This fall, our Nineteenth-Century Colloquium read selections from an award-winning book (Elizabeth Carolyn Miller’s Slow Print, which won NAVSA’s best book of the year), hosted an exciting talk by Jonathan Farina, workshopped one of our senior students’ brilliant chapter on Coleridge’s Conversation Poems, and fêted the genre of the conference proposal with our first-through-third-year colloquium members. For our colloquia next term, we’re also looking forward to discussing other genres, like conference papers, article drafts, and practice job talks. Planning a colloquium’s annual bill of fare involves delicately balancing a whole range of genres and interests, while encouraging participation both internally and from scholars outside the institution.

(2) Set your timer in advance

Colloquia aren’t difficult to organize — they just involve some advance planning. Once you’ve determined the topics for your meetings, be sure to reserve rooms and get in touch with faculty sponsors. It’s also vital to contact potential guest speakers in advance, particularly if they are traveling to you. In addition, it’s a sad truth that, sometimes, professors find reasons not to come to colloquium, and it can be a bit upsetting to see that your anticipated faculty quintet is down to a duet or soloist. To mitigate this, it’s best to send out all of the semester’s dates before the term even begins. And, as far as pace is concerned, I’ve found that monthly meetings during term tend to work best; otherwise, one risks burning out the faculty who do attend regularly, and the generous graduate students who volunteer their MSS drafts.

(3) Find the equipment you need

Funding for colloquium is a key component of its success, particularly if you wish to invite guest speakers. Paying for your guest lecturer’s travel (and sometimes lodging) costs, honorarium, and the requisite dinner is essential, so as you organize your colloquium, it is important to secure funding. Potential sources include Department or Graduate School-wide budgets for student groups, faculty research budgets (if you can incorporate a research element to your meetings), or even a financial pool among all attendees for light comestibles. Do the economic legwork early; you don’t want to be caught, two-thirds into the semester, with a speaker but no honorarium.

Other tools to consider include the technology you use to contact the colloquium’s members. Do you have a website? A listserv? A colloquium app? A message in a bottle that flowing rainwater pushes between apartment buildings? And, as you pick your platform, you will also want to consider your audience: how frequently do they like to be contacted? Are they likely to check a site actively, or are they more respondent to messages that you initiate? Make sure your tech is in place before your meetings begin, and train your members to use it. And, you may wish to send out colloquium reminders and all required readings a week ahead of time, so that your guests are amply prepared for the festivity at hand.

(4) Assemble the key ingredients

Colloquia are some of the most enjoyable experiences available for graduate students, because there can be a social component: you meet with junior and senior faculty, students more or less advanced than yourself, and even people from outside your institution. You can certainly have colloquia without faculty (indeed, one of our most productive meetings this term had only one faculty member present, and he took a vow of silence before the meeting began). But it is often of great benefit to have faculty there, especially professors who are not familiar with your work. It’s also excellent to have students from different stages of the program, so that junior graduate students have the opportunity to see and comment on what a dissertation chapter looks like, before they actually write one.

The number of attendees can certainly vary by institution or by specificity of discipline (I can imagine a “Romantic Poetry” working group on the one hand, and a “British Literature” group on the other). One wants enough variety that there will be good conversation, but not so many attendees that some people in the group never speak. Our nineteenth-century colloquium is currently sitting at about ten students, plus four or five faculty, and that is a great size. Other colloquia I’ve attended have just one faculty member, which changes the dynamic considerably (not in a bad way — a single professor does tend to carry the show, though).

A special note: when selecting guest speaker(s), you will wish to consider how their work fits into the general interests of the group, but more importantly, whether it would add something new to your institutional conversation. Your speaker may have needs you haven’t considered before (like the need for a glossy poster: we recently learned about a heretofore-unknown competition among some junior professors about who had the greatest number of posters from guest talks!). Find out what your speaker can bring to your group that is different from what you’re used to, both in their content and their professional deportment.

Finally, it is lovely to make the meeting sociable and enjoyable, and that often involves bringing actual ingredients to the event — food and wine can make a big difference to the morale of your attendees! And the location makes a difference, too; a basement classroom with a circle of chairs set the tone for what we called “Nineteenth-Century Group Therapy,” while meetings at students’ apartments were difficult to coordinate for our group’s size… Find your sweet spot.

(5) Put out any fires

Inevitably, and like all good things, colloquium will bring out unexpected sides of your attendees, and occasionally these surprises will require creative management. On the other side of the faculty attendance coin is the problem of too many cooks in the kitchen: sometimes the advice is just so overwhelming that it’s hard to know whose suggestions to take (especially when your colloquy is in disagreement!). If you love your dissertation advisers, it can be difficult, just when you’ve established the perfect chemistry of your committee, to bring them together with their other students, and with other faculty whom you didn’t include on your dissertation. Suddenly, the well-crafted blend of personalities is horrifyingly thrown off in a demonstration of the Freudian uncanny — it’s like your committee meeting, but not quite! Alternatively, if the convening of your dissertation committee causes strains of Mozart’s Requiem to dance through your head  (“Comitatis Maledictis,” as it were), you may feel their criticisms of your chapter all the more keenly in front of your peers, and your advisers may be frustrated to have to discuss your text’s problems, again.

How does a responsible colloquium organizer address these very real challenges? You may wish to arrange certain meetings to be for graduate students only (particularly if first drafts of chapters are involved); alternatively, you may invite faculty to workshop their new writing as well, or balance critical workshops with readings of published material, just so that students don’t feel that their work has been rendered into steak tartare. “Considering” rather than “attacking”  pieces of student writing produces much better conversation!

(6) Bon appétit!

For the ABD student in particular, colloquium is one of the most positive environments available for improving your work and for feeling connected to ongoing critical conversations. At its best, colloquium can help you feel supported by scholars and friends in your field who are on your side. Organizing a colloquium is an especially rewarding experience, and with these simple steps above, you too can craft a masterpiece that your colleagues are sure to relish.

Acknowledgment: The Columbia Nineteenth-Century Colloquium wouldn’t be its delectable self without the excellent Lindsay Gibson, my co-coordinator, who adds a necessary dash of spice to every meeting.