Creating a welcoming teaching/learning environment in workshops

I've always believed that there needs to be trust extended between teachers and learners in order for effective learning. This is particularly important in computational workshops like the ones that I run for academics, because the intersection of computational science culture and academic hierarchy breaks that trust in so many ways. As a result I've worked hard to grow a workshop style that builds trust by creating a welcoming and inclusive environment. But on a number of occasions I've screwed up and hurt people. I've broken the very trust that I tried so hard to create, and fallen far short of my own expectations. This has been devastating to some of my trainers and attendees.

I'm writing this blog post because I was asked by one of the people traumatically affected by my mistakes to describe what I have done in response to these mistakes, and in particular how I've changed myself and my workshops.

How I've changed myself, and what still needs work.

Over the past 6 years, I've worked to grow my awareness of sexual harassment and the challenges faced by women and marginalized groups.

Some of this has been through attending other workshops, or inviting speakers in to mine. For example, I brought my lab to the Ada Alliance Ally workshop at the 2015 PyCon. In 2017, I hosted (and then attended) an unconscious bias training as part of an extended Carpentries instructor training.

I've also significantly broadened the diversity of voices that I follow on Twitter. I read, listen to, and hear the stories of marginalized groups, people of color, and breastfeeding mothers on social media. I know the importance of amplifying these voices and have worked on improving how frequently I do so. (I can provide some starting Twitter follow recommendations if people are interested - just bump me @ctitusbrown.)

I've also educated myself on parenting support and childcare concerns at meetings, most recently reading and learning from How to tackle the childcare–conference conundrum, Calisi et al., 2018. This led to helping others create a checklist for conferences: (site co-authored with Dr. Tracy Teal and Dr. Rebecca Calisi).

I still have a lot of work to do on the energy I project sometimes. I would appreciate thoughts (specific types of workshops? counseling?) on how to invest in self-improvement here.

How we've changed our workshops

Improvisation is deadly.

An important lesson I’ve learned is that improvisation is the source of a lot of mistakes. A lack of preparation and proper staffing can, and has, resulted in my acting in thoughtless ways that have caused harm to workshop participants. Being better prepared provides the time at the workshop to think through personal interactions and more effectively handle issues that arise.

Because of this, I've invested heavily in up front preparation and appropriate levels of staffing for workshops, to ensure that we are doing a better job of handling people's needs. I've also recruited people with breastfeeding experience to event staff, and asked colleagues who are mothers to review facilities in advance. And I've adopted the mentality that if I know that I will need to do something specific during the workshop, then I've failed to prepare properly.

Staff expectations, venue defaults, and informal check-ins are critical.

Some of my failures came from expecting the lessons I've learned from past workshops to be automatically applied forward, even as I grew events and recruited new support staff and instructors.

I now lay out clear staff expectations for creating a welcoming environment, including supporting pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. We clearly outline facilities and support that are available without specific prior arrangement, and provide points of contact for questions and concerns on accessibility.

People also often do not know that we really care about creating a welcoming and inclusive environment, and value (and will act on) informal reports of problems! We've been making more efforts to reach out regularly and informally to attendees to ask how things are going, and have been able to nip several issues in the bud before they became bigger problems. Often just asking "how are things going?" in a private setting is incredibly rewarding - the effort needs to be made!

Clear reporting chains for Codes of Conduct are important and effective!

To make sure that issues that do arise can be reported, I’ve ensured that there is a clear reporting chain for Code of Conduct violations at my workshops. It's particularly important that this chain always includes people who do not answer to me and over whom I have no power (and that I make that clear to people). I've also increasingly invested in evaluation and assessment and review activities of my workshops, which feed back into workshop planning.

The combination of these has been effective. Reported incidents have led to me changing my ways several times - in one case, a CoC harassment violation by me was reported to someone with supervision over me, and was resolved to the reporting individual's satisfaction. In another case, unwelcoming language by me was sharply noted by an external evaluator. Both cases led to really significant changes in my behavior as I realized how my actions were having a horribly negative impact on others.

Apologies are important, but they are not enough.

When I screw up, I acknowledge the screw up and apologize. But this doesn't reverse the harm I've done, and there can be cases where I don't know until long after the event (if at all). So it's important to me to invest in personal and systemic change as well, and I have a long way to go. This is work I'm committed to doing, and I appreciate any suggestions people have to offer!

I'd like to especially thank those that provide leadership and insight in this area, and do so much important emotional and practical labor. I have learned so much from you all and hope that I can something give back as well.


p.s. I received a lot of excellent feedback from friends and colleagues on drafts of this post; thank you! I am fortunate to be part of a community that values this work!

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