The Academic Seminar Reimagined

How one college transformed its research seminars into engaging, interactive symposia.
The Academic Seminar Reimagined

EVERY SCHOOL HAS them, those research seminars where no amount of marketing can prevent embarrassingly sparse attendance, low participation, and less-than-spirited discussion. But the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics in Newark wanted to take a different approach to the way it invited external speakers to present academic seminars to its faculty. Rather than offer small, individual seminars, college administrators decided to organize large-scale departmental symposiums.

The idea originated with faculty in the university’s department of business administration, explains Bruce Weber, dean of the Lerner College. They decided to move from a model of scheduling multiple visits by individual researchers to one of planning a single-day showcase of researchers.

The all-day format of the Lerner Management Research Summit draws higher-profile regional experts, has greater impact, and motivates more faculty and doctoral students to attend than several single-speaker events, Weber says. “It’s more exciting for the outside speakers to come here. They are getting a lot more out of this visit.”

The college’s new symposium format incorporates three elements. It begins with research presentations in which speakers share the details of their work. Following the presentations, a panel of experts engages with Lerner faculty, students, and each other in an interactive dialogue. The day ends with a networking session, where attendees can continue discussing the panel topic in smaller groups.

The first summit brought together a panel of visiting experts who, instead of discussing their research topics, talked about their lives as researchers and how they found meaning in their work. This led to a discussion with the audience on topics ranging from overcoming rejections to communicating with journal editors.

“The goal of the panel was to inspire the attendees to think more deeply about the meaning of our lives as researchers, scholars, academics,” explains Katalin Takacs Haynes, an associate professor of management who served as the moderator for the school’s inaugural summit held in November 2017. For many in the audience, hearing about the panelists’ search for meaning was “a profound experience,” says Takacs Haynes.

Dustin Sleesman, an assistant professor of management, says that the summit provided him with “a great opportunity to reflect on the ups and downs of being a researcher in today’s hyper-competitive publishing environment.” Just a few days after the summit, he was able to implement takeaways in his class on conflict and diversity—this effect was magnified across the many faculty who attended.

Fifty people attended the Lerner Management Research Summit in March. News of the summit is also reaching broader audiences, says Takacs Haynes. For example, an editor from a prominent journal has asked to be included in the program in 2020. To date, the Lerner College has used this daylong symposium model to host a marketing camp and additional faculty research summits. Organizers are now planning to implement the approach for other departments.

The key is not only to make a great impression on visitors, says Weber, but to give them a chance to interact with the school’s research culture. “We want them to see that we’re making the scholarly pursuits of our faculty a key priority at the college.”

Dena Hillison is a communication specialist at the University of Delaware’s Lerner College of Business & Economics in Newark.