How to learn from a thing that's not your thing

From CommunityData

Learning from a thing that's not your thing is a necessary part of scholarship: it can be generative and exciting. It can also be boring and overwhelming. The invitations go out constantly, tugging at your sleeve to bid for your time. Sometimes "nope" is the right answer, but it turns out that saying "yep" is often a good idea.

Graduate school and academic culture is filled with all kinds of events and activities—a few are highly related to your research, but most things will not be squarely in your wheelhouse. Attending these events and learning from them is part of the "hidden curriculum" of graduate school—but that means the lessons to be learned can be a bit implicit. Although it might make a lot of sense to attend these events to learn these lessons, the vague/hidden nature of the lessons can make a person feel lost. If one goes in expecting explicit connections to one's own work, letting unrelated work just wash over you may feel like a waste of time. This page is a list of concrete lessons to be learned from varying kinds of events that happen, and the kinds of lessons that can be learned from going to them even if they're not related to your area of work.

Departmental Lectures, Colloquia, Special Speaker Things[edit]

  • If it's your department and during daylight hours, you probably should go. Because probably someone is noticing who goes.
  • What does the organizer do? When it's your turn to organize a thing like this, what will you need to know?
  • Unrelated to your thing? Thank goodness. Someone is about to save you a lot of time, because they'll summarize an area of knowledge and work for you, and that means you don't have to read the books and take the classes to at least be conversant enough in the topic to know it's not related to your thing -- or what the connections might be.
  • Imagine the dinner party conversation: if you wanted to explain your work to this speaker, would they care? Why? What connections might you make between your ideas and theirs to charmingly draw them into a conversation that's productive for you both?
  • Imagine the reviewer response: if the speaker were on a review panel, board, or other entity evaluating your work in a field of diverse work (most of which, like your thing, is not their thing....), why would they pick you and your work to publish, award, hire? What feedback would they have for your research?
  • What's at stake, why this speaker, how do they structure the argument, how would you do it, where do they fall short?


Workshops vary widely. Some are a weekly gathering of folks sharing their work and helping each other (and if you're going to bring work to such a place, you definitely should pay in with your time --- if it's a group of 8, meeting for an hour with an hour of prep to participate, you'll get back 16 hrs of work from others when it's your turn, so plan to pay that same amount into the pool). Some are oriented to a theme, might be conceptual or tutorial in nature, and happen only for a limited time (perhaps with a conference). Some entire conferences call themselves workshops. This is about the first category of workshop (the work-sharing kind).

  • What kinds of questions do authors ask? What kinds of answers do they get?
  • What kinds of concerns do people express?
  • What goes unsaid?
  • With the feedback the person is getting, what kinds of changes would you expect to see them make?
  • Can you see what someone means when they bring up an opportunity to improve? Did they see something you don't? Did they miss something you see clearly?
  • What is this work they're citing, is it interesting?

Reading Group[edit]

  • Pick a section that does resonate. Not interested in the setting? Ok, what can this paper tell you about methods? Etc.
  • What's at stake for the field this paper speaks to?
  • Why did this venue accept this work?
  • If you were to run a study your way -- methods, or setting, or whatnot -- how would you do it?
  • If you were a reviewer, what would you tell the authors?
  • Are there some key citations around big theories that might end up being your thing, or at least useful to cite?

But I didn't read the thing![edit]

  • Take 15 minutes and read it, silly rabbit :).
  • Fess up and just listen.
  • Use the comments that people make to build a summary or set of notes for yourself in your zotero. You might find it useful later.

Job Talks[edit]

  • What goes into a job talk?
  • Is it terrifying? What does awkward and unprepared look like?
  • How does someone summarize a body of work into an interesting story that can appeal to a broad group but still sound scholarly?
  • What kinds of questions do people ask?
  • Who will attend my job talk?


  • What goes into a defense?
  • Is it terrifying? What does awkward and unprepared look like?
  • What's the flow of who speaks when and how much?
  • How does someone summarize a body of work into an interesting story that can appeal to a broad group but still sound scholarly?
  • How specific should I get?
  • What kinds of questions do people ask?
  • Who will attend my defense? Who do I want to invite?