When the pandemic closed down my university in spring 2020, most folks assumed that we would be back up and running a normal slate of face-to-face courses in fall 2020. In mid-August 2020, the pandemic infection rates still exceeded the local disease control agency’s guidance. Thus, the university remained “remote-only” in fall 2020. Spring 2021 offered options to teach hybrid (some folks online, some folks in-person) courses. Some folks chose that option, although most taught 100% remote.
Due to my personal history as a college administrator (thus I was known to nearly everyone), and someone who enjoyed a spontaneous conversation, I took up my department chair’s offer to host a weekly online meeting place. This meeting place would enable folks to remain in-touch and have informal chats. An apt metaphor would be an online or virtual watercooler. I called my meetings “hallway conversations.”
I decided to host my “hallway conversations” every Monday from noon to 2 pm during the 2020-2021 academic year. In my department, Mondays are generally meeting days, and most folks had scheduled afternoon official meetings. I intended my meeting to provide a little comfort before the official meetings began.
To remind folks about the online meetings, I sent an email similar to the following each Monday morning:
Random hallway conversations are half the delight of being a professor or working at a college or university. They are a chance to chat about family, classroom anecdotes, and more serious topics (like recipes for food favorites). Some folks even use them to talk about upcoming research and inquiry ideas.
Do you have any really great success stories from this week?
Please join me (and whoever else is around) today from noon to 2!!
[LINK TO ZOOM MEETING]
See you then!
Every Monday from noon to 2 PM, I logged in to the conferencing software and continued my work at home. To accommodate my need to deal with home-related issues, I created a sign that said “IF I MISSED YOU, PLEASE LEAVE A NOTE IN THE CHAT.” I placed that sign directly behind me in my office. The all-caps message was very large and easily readable whenever I was not on-camera. Hallway conversation sessions would run for two hours, and I would chat with any and everyone who dropped in—interruptions were expected!
How it went
I had a number of great conversations throughout the year. There were a few common topics in three categories: work “stuff” (upcoming research and department opportunities, navigating departmental and admin resources), home “stuff” (improvement and maintenance projects), and personal “stuff” (mental & physical health tips and food recipes).
Despite the high quality of the conversations, the overall number of conversations was somewhat lower than I expected. Some weeks, several folks stopped in (not all at the same time); most often, one or two folks stopped in; and, a few weeks, nobody stopped in. I was a little puzzled why the turn-out was so low.
When I looked into the formal literature on informal conversation, I found there were some pretty well-established “givens” where informal networks are concerned. For example, Pataraia, et al. (2014) said, “We conclude that academics’ personal teaching networks are mainly discipline-specific and strongly localised” (p. 4). That is, conversation networks are focused and small. Pifer (2010) said, “Trust enables faculty members to be open to the vulnerability that can be attached to academic work, such as seeking and obtaining feedback on classroom management, teaching style, grant writing, research design, and other skills. This vulnerability can be particularly acute for junior professors who have entered the profession and seek tenure” (p. 44). That is, getting conversation from folks who are outside your rank might be challenging.
Anyone who truly knows me, knows that I hate hierarchy more than most folks do. Yet, the number of weekly attendants was small, and I was curious why.
In reviewing the notes I generated along the way, I see that my desire was to deal with my own isolation by offering to help others who were also dealing with isolation (yet without saying that explicitly).
In retrospect, I see how closely my invitations hewed to the expectations reported by formal research on “informal conversations” or “hallway conversations.” Such an outcome was not what I intended when I invited my department colleagues to weekly informal conversations. I probably wouldn’t have proposed the online “hallway conversations” if I had read the formal literature first.
In any event, I learned a valuable lesson and was content to leave it as a personal lesson. Since spring 2021, conditions have changed, the university re-opened for fully in-person classwork, and the need to use a video conferencing tool diminished drastically. Given the similarity with already-reported results, I lost interest in writing anything about the experience, or sharing anything I learned about the value of video-based conversations with anyone else. I was getting ready to archive my notes entirely, when two things happened in the space of two days.
First, a conversation at a department meeting revealed that folks are noticing fewer of their colleagues (even from other departments) are working in their on-campus offices, and this lack of neighbor-like interactions was making folks feel isolated from each other. Second, a colleague recognized my effort to maintain contact with others during the pandemic through my “hallway conversations.”
What do I think teaching professors can take from this? Stay in touch with the people you know and work with—email, text, phone. It’s a fair bet that they are also noticing there are fewer folks around who will chat with them while taking a break. They may also be feeling isolated. You may even offer someone a welcome respite from thinking about something more dire or serious. If I can boil it down to one phrase: Stay connected to each other because it’s more important than you think.
Pataraia, N., Falconer, I., Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A., & Fincher, S. (2014). ‘Who do you talk to about your teaching?’: Networking activities among university teachers. Frontline Learning Research, 2(2), 4–14. https://doi.org/10.14786/flr.v2i2.89
Pifer, M. J. (2010). “Such A Dirty Word”: Networks And Networking In Academic Departments [Proquest Llc]. Ph.D. Dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University.