Gantts vs Zombies

Zombie fare (Photo by Tseen Khoo; Cake+decoration by Shayne Smail)
Zombie fare (Photo by Tseen Khoo; Cake+decoration by Shayne Smail)

As my experiences of university functions move beyond ‘plonk and cheese’ to gigs that involve sushi rolls, mini-quiches, and chocolate eclairs, I felt like it was time to write something about the slippage between the intimate and the professional in academia.

I’m particularly interested in the way that staff negotiate the grey area of social participation and personal revelation* as part of a university’s everyday rhythms. This is a topic that fascinates me, and the ‘and another thing!’ nature of this post probably reflects this.

I’ve often joked with my peers that my most enduring trauma in academia was watching colleagues boogeying on the dance-floor at the tail end of conference dinners. It is my scholarly primal scene. It is also another very good reason not to attend conference dinners, but I’ll save that invective for another post.

I mention the dance trauma because it’s an example of a time when I felt that I got to know too much about colleagues (you can tell a lot about people from the way they dance).

If there’s one thing I learned early in my academic life, it’s that many academics are extremely good at not-participating in institutionally sanctioned events. Being the introvert that I am, I appreciated this culture because I’m a picky participator. If there’s the faintest whiff of ‘team-building games’, I’m hard at work getting out of it. If anyone mentions a themed university event, I’m suddenly booked up…all the time, anytime.

At most of the functions I attended, academic staff were poorly represented, and the ones who were there tended to bemoan the heinous crime of being forced to attend when they were already the most wronged in the university ecosystem (i.e. they were humanities academics, or quant social scientists adrift in a sea of qual boffins, or a constructionist pitted against a school full of positivist educators, or …).

I have never found that any of the big institutional gigs that I forced myself to attend were of great use. My most sustained and fun connections with academic colleagues were forged in the ‘hallway track’ of conferences and the ‘café track’ of everyday work meet-ups. Though my personal Twitter account flags for all to see that I’m ‘one of those’ zombie-friendly types, most of my research network colleagues and immediate workmates wouldn’t be privy to this because: a) they’re not on Twitter, and b) it’s not a part of my work persona.

Particularly now I’m a non-academic member of staff, the range of topics that might be covered in day-to-day conversation with researchers in meetings and chats is more likely to include deadlines and budgets than what I’m doing on weekends, what research I’m working on, or which conferences I’m going to this year (hence the ‘Gantts vs Zombies’ conceit of the title). I’m seen through the lens of my role rather than as a colleague.

It is interesting, though, to occupy this type of ‘bystander’ role in the research process (i.e. it’s presumed that I’m there to I enable it, but I don’t actually participate in it). Having been in academia previously for close on two decades, it’s a big change.

One benefit is being able to watch the efforts of a range of institutions as they try to enhance their research processes and cultures. All the research development peers and scholars I’ve met through social media and face-to-face at other institutions are very sharing folk and I’ve learned a lot about the terrain of the profession, as well as how others are addressing research culture issues.

A constant bug-bear (up there with the ‘dearth of academic leadership’) appears to be the issue of ‘breaking down silos’. Some interpret this as trying to mash different scholars, schools and units together more often at functions or workshops so that academics are forced to interact with a broader range of peers. Often, the aim is to try to grow strong collaborative relationships within the institution.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Except when that focus eclipses (or deprioritises) other avenues of collaboration. It is short-sighted to believe that having a one-institution team gleans all the publication goodies for University X. For example, in the wider world of research, having a project team that hails from one institution could be viewed as a weakness: Why aren’t these researchers working with other organisations? Are they building connections that are the most convenient rather than the best?

Creating an environment for potential research collaborations depends equally on building energy about an area and its potential, and giving researchers the time and space to forge personal relations with enough depth that they know who they want to work with. Events where it’s primarily about being seen to be in attendance do little on these fronts.

Everyone has different collaborative styles, and disciplines can also vary significantly when it comes to how people work together on research projects.

It’s always good to know the institutional priorities under which your research functions, but be wary of letting these (sometimes ephemeral) priorities restrict or dictate your work’s collaborative directions and outcomes.

Browse our posts tagged under “Working together” for more about collaboration, networking, and co-writing in academia.

* I was going to say “personal exposure”, but this might trigger too many Christmas party memories for some.


  1. Hi Tseen,
    I always really enjoy your posts, thanks! I don’t fully agree with this one though. I’ve seen my 75+ year old PhD supervisor do the boogey on the dance floor at Christmas parties and I loved it! What’s wrong with people letting loose and relaxing? Reminded me that we’re all people, who can have good and bad days, which makes it easier for me to deal with work issues.


    • Hi Annalies

      Thanks for your comments + happy to be disagreed with!

      I love that your supervisor grooved on the dance floor. I think what sets me against the conference dinner + my aversion to the dance floor stems from feeling that conference dinners are obligation events. At conferences, if I want to get to know people or hang out with buddies, I much prefer a small group outing. I only ever attend conf dinners when I have to (e.g. when I’m the convenor…). I recognise the value of the conf dinner for some, but I prefer to let loose + relax only with particular people (and, yes, that may well be a control-freak alert you’re hearing…). 😉


      • Hi Tseen,
        I see what you mean and I really enjoy those smaller outings too, but I enjoy conference dinners because it gives you a chance to meet new people in your field. I have had many an enjoyable conference dinner, actually haven’t had a bad experience yet… But each to their own I suppose 🙂


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