Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Creating a positive lab culture

Although I attended my very first NeurIPS this year, I missed the keynote by the incredible Celeste Kidd. Fortunately for me, she shared her closing remarks, which I encourage everyone to read. She says important things far more eloquently than I and raises issues that frequently go unspoken.

Inspired by her words, I want to talk about the proactive, constructive part of the story that we as professors, advisors, and/or managers can do to create a healthy culture in our labs and offices. Much of what I share here I have learned from my amazing colleague, Radhika Nagpal. She too has deep insight and material on creating a positive lab culture.

Let's start with the obvious. Lab culture is important; it's what we live and breathe every day. When I moved to UBC, I decided to explicitly write down what I hoped to achieve in terms of lab culture. My website says,

Lab Culture People do their best work when they are both challenged and happy. Research provides plenty of intellectual challenge; our lab culture is designed to encourage happiness.

We are open and collaborative We value diversity in all dimensions, welcoming students and collaborators of all genders, orientations, races, and religions. We collaborate within the lab and with colleagues outside the lab. Today, we have projects with colleagues from theory and engineering, statistics and business, Harvard and Duke, the UK and New Zealand, colleges and high schools.

We are positive Feedback is critical to the research enterprise. However, feedback can take many forms – we welcome constructive criticism. We criticize ideas, not people. We criticize with respect. We are open to others’ perspectives. We do not always agree, but when we disagree, we do so collegially and respectfully.

We are supportive Each of us shares in the mission to enable every member of our lab to achieve their greatest potential, realizing that each person’s definition of success is highly personal. We support each other in realizing our individual images of success. (Radhika Nagpal’s awesome talk articulates this eloquently.) We do not tolerate personal attacks and discrimination of any kind.

The part in italics comes directly from Radhika.

Here I'd like to talk about concrete steps I've taken to try to create that culture.

Day 1 -- My first face to face meeting with a student

For the past five years or so (it took me a long while to figure this out), I open my first conversation with students with the following.
Welcome!  We are so glad you are here. You were admitted, because we believe that you have what it takes to be fabulously successful in our program. That said, graduate school can be hard and there will be times when things aren't going well. It may be your research; it may be something personal; you may be unwell. No matter what it is, do not hide. You are welcome to come in here any time and say, "I didn't get anything done this week."  Just do not hide. Come to class; come to lab; come to our meetings. Together, we will get through this.
I like to think that this is the first step in establishing culture. It says that the students are not alone and that my job is to help them get through this big, scary ordeal they are starting. It is my starting point at building a trusting relationship.

Lab 1 -- our first lab meeting of the year

We began the year by welcoming back all our continuing students, welcoming our new students, and welcoming our visiting students. We then played the game where each person wrote down, on a sticky note, something about themselves that they thought others would not know and that would make them unique. I then read each one and the group tried to match the statements to people. This turned out to be a lot of fun. We were terrible at guessing!  You have to make up rules about people telling the truth (i.e., if I say, “This must be you Juanita!” and it is, you have to fess up).  We tabled the harder ones and came back to them.  I think I would probably use some physical sorting during this to keep people moving and to separate those “still in play.”

Next we spent the thirty or forty-five minutes talking about what an inclusive environment looks like and what behaviors make an environment not feel inclusive.

I shared memories of my first days and weeks at UBC and how students and faculty alike went out of their way to make me feel welcome and included. I also shared stories of a conference I'd attended recently where I was invited to one of their VIP events and felt incredibly unwelcome and most definitely not included. Other students shared their experiences.

We have  a diverse international group and better gender balance than many computer science and especially systems groups, so we heard many perspectives. People were thoughtful and respectful.

Lab 2 -- one week later

I had given people homework to take any two Implicit Association Tests. I also shared my favorite quote on the topic, "Being biased doesn't make you a bad person; it makes you human. Being unaware of your biases and/or being unwilling to work at mitigating them is what makes you a bad person."

I admitted that I always test biased against women in science. I asked how many people found their results uncomfortable. Then I talked about the specific things I do to try to compensate for my biases, e.g., blind grading, the conversations I have with myself before meeting a new student.

Then we played a two-minute video from here.

Next we played The Tag Game. This did not work as well as I had hoped. I labeled the tags with numbers of stickers of different sizes, shapes, and colors and then asked people to form groups. They were all kind of lazy and just formed groups as a function of where they were standing instead of looking at the name tags at all (but maybe this was a sign that my group didn't need this game?).

The basic idea is that people focus on finding people with similar shapes and/or colors on their nametag and when you see the patterns, you can start talking about how you were drawn to finding others like yourself and what this means in other contexts.  So, even though the game didn't work, we had the conversation anyway!

Then I  talked about different kinds of bias and let the conversation just go from there — fabulous interaction! Some of the biases that came up:

  • Gender bias
  • Beauty Bias
  • Affinity Bias
  • Conformity bias
  • Halo bias
  • Horn bias
Lab 3 -- one week later

I came in with a stack of sticky notes on which I'd written one-sentence scenarios, all of which were based on genuine interactions that I'd had with students. These scenarios ranged from health problems to family problems to stress reactions -- some were pretty intense. And I warned people that some of the topics might make them uncomfortable.

The students paired up and each student took a sticky note. Each student got a chance to both be a student dealing with the issue on the sticky and a student to whom someone was coming for advice. Here were the directions:

Each person is going to grab a sticky and then with a partner, you'll take turns being a student who is experiencing some difficulty or a friend that is being asked for "help". You'll get about 5 minutes in that role and then you'll switch; we'll do this with about 3 different partners.

Every one of these scenarios is based on a real conversation I've had with students (or former students).

As the listener: Your first task is to figure out what the person wants:

  • to vent
  • advice
  • help
  • something else
Many of these are problems you cannot "fix" -- this is sometimes frustrating and uncomfortable as an engineer. Figure out what your partner wants/needs and what you can do (sometimes it's just getting them to talk with someone else). As the person in difficulty, think about:
  • How do you ask for help?
  • How scary is it to ask for help?
  • What do you want (see above)
After each person had had a few different partners, we had a group discussion. It went really well. Students acknowledged just how hard it was. A colleague said that they'd found themselves using words that they weren't used to using in conversations with students -- FEELING words. Some people were confronted with situations to which they couldn't relate, e.g., I'm male and my partner was dealing with a pregnancy. Even so, we talked about how to be a supportive colleague even when you can't empathize.

I expect that we'll do a similar sort of orientation/culture-building exercises this year, but we will talk more explicitly about racism. We'll talk a lot about mental health -- COVID-19 has changed our lives in myriad ways, and I worry more than ever about students feeling isolated. I moved my lab to Discord about a month ago, and it seems to have been a good move. I spend a lot of time on Discord, Skype, Zoom and make sure that every one of my students (almost) has some structured time to talk with me every day -- it might be short; it might be in the context of our reading group, but for the students who want it, they can have daily human interaction. At the same time, many of these meetings are optional, so the introverts don't need to feel overwhelmed.

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