Small talk

Small talk is, by definition, unimportant, inane and non-functional. I’m actually a big fan. In large organisations such as universities, informal networks—fueled by everyday social interactions—have a greater influence on roles, responsibilities and behaviours than formal structures (Dabos & Rousseau, 2013). Small talk matters.


(Image from Errant Science – the flow chart guide to academic gatherings is fun).

Incidentally, it is my four year old’s most frequent form of conversation:

4: ‘Are you a koala?’

Me: ‘No, I am not a koala.’

4: ‘I am not a koala either. I am not many animals. What animals are you not?’

This can continue indefinitely, especially for the ardent reader of an encyclopedia of animals. (And if this conversation starter doesn’t get the small talk flowing for you, then I recommend the Thesis Whisperer’s posts on conference dinners and points for conversation).

Last week, I attended a peer review of teaching workshop. I found the morning sessions especially useful and tweeted some of the resources:

But it was the small talk that made the day for me.


I caught up with colleagues dispersed by the closure of our university centre last year. We had been used to sharing morning tea every day, talking about learning and teaching, research and the intricacies of our everyday lives. These people were connected with the emotional landscape of my life, and I with theirs. I miss them keenly. Our conversation was small, but valuable.


Over coffee and lunch I chatted with an ex-student and met new people. Talk turned to time, reflection and mindfulness. Regular blog readers may remember a previous post on aspirations for the year, in which I focussed on how I want to feel calm and confident. I recently realised I should have added challenged to this list, so am working on ways to prompt more thinking and learning. In conversation, I shared this realisation and learnt about some exciting initiatives to bring contemplative practices into university settings.

UNSW has a meditation lab for students and staff, which includes  a list of useful links. I have added a short guided meditation to my work day once a week. (I am going to start with the free versions of Stop, Breathe, Think and Headspace. If the practice sticks and I find it beneficial, I will post a follow up).

And the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney is doing some wonderful work on health, wellbeing and creativity. Author Charlotte Wood, winner of last year’s Stella Prize for The Natural Way of Things, is writer-in-residence there:

“The whole place is a curiosity generator,” she says. “Steve Simpson, the boss, says it is all about risk and experimentation. The big shake-up for me has been to be as open as possible to ideas that are not even related to my work” … “It has certainly influenced the details of my three women,” she says. “A gerontologist told me that among these women in their mid-70s one will have a parent still alive. A professor of nutritional ecology doing work on animals and ageing made me think that one of the women could have a really old pet. I went to a seminar about sleep and dementia, which opened a new area for my characters.” The scientists are enthusiastic about Wood’s presence: “I met a guy on the stairs who is a researcher into sunlight and he said, ‘It’s fantastic you’re here’.”

I can’t wait to read the novel—featuring three ageing women—that she writes in this space!


There was a lively back-channel discussion on Twitter. I love the nuance this type of small talk adds to conferences and workshops. As with many events I attend, the elephant in the room was casualisation:

One Twitter commentator queried whether peer review of teaching was taking time away from teaching and learning (I have kept this anonymous as this off-the-cuff comment was reconsidered and the tweet later deleted). I responded that I have some sympathy for this view, but hold hope that academics talking to each other can have positive outcomes. The Twitter conversation continued, with the colleague commenting on the value of informal rather than formal conversations. I agree, as do others:

Bring back the tea room!

11 thoughts on “Small talk

  1. I highly agree! Sometimes the small talk with someone might be the only interaction that they have with another human being all day. We never know when that little bit of small talk might just make another person smile. Thank you for sharing that thought provoking post.


  2. That was, of course, an entirely positive view of the “consensus moderation” approach. However, it also has its limitations. Do we really need to reach consensus? Maybe on assessment standards at undergraduate and PG coursework levels, because of the equity imperative for students. But what about when the students are moving into more original work as part of theses/dissertations? Surely the requirement for multiple reviewers/markers at that level anticipates that consensus may not be possible? And then what happens? Majority view prevails? Averaging of recommended “points”? Should we seek further expert opinion?

    But I digress…

    The key problem I see with the “consensus moderation” approach is that a large number of the people responsible for the actual act of assessment – applying judgment about student performance against criteria/standards/whatever – are excluded from the process because they are employed as casual staff members. So you can moderate assessment specifications by consensus but not the assessment of student fulfilment of them. Bear with me, this is related to the tea room thing.

    When I first started marking, I had to pick up the assignments to be marked from the Maths Dept tea room. There were almost always a few people there having a cup of tea (or the then-unusual and coveted plunger coffee that one of the professors provided), collecting mail, having a break from the office and so on. They were often engaged in discussions about teaching: its challenges, its methods and practices and its philosophies, including the various ways to bring students to the “aha” moment when it all makes sense and you see the light go on in the student’s eyes.

    I learned so much from those casual chats – and the bigger ideas and deeper thinking they gave rise to, about the nature of learning, the nature of teaching, and the nature of knowledge itself. Even a young casual staff member could join in – indeed, was welcomed into the conversation as we were seen as being closer to the students and thus providing a valuable perspective to even the very experienced teachers. They would ask me what I thought about one or the other issue and they were genuinely interested in my response. I’d ask them for advice or guidance with teaching, marking and giving feedback to students, and they would take the time to think about and discuss the issues – mentoring, teaching and reassuring all at the same time.

    How could that happen today? Casual staff members teach their classes, sometimes on campus, sometimes remotely, and there is often nowhere within the department for them to sit, or hang their coat, or put their bag down securely, or to get a cup of tea or coffee. Even where there is access to a “hot desk” and kitchenette, they are rarely going to come across small groups of department colleagues talking casually yet earnestly and thoughtfully about teaching. They don’t have to pick up marking any more from a mail room or the unit convenor – they just download it (usually at home using their own internet connection), mark it online, and return it to the student online. No conversations, no friendly chats, no inclusion in a discussion and no chance to ask questions, seek advice or explore ideas. What a lonely bloody life we’ve created for our brightest young academics.


  3. So many key issues raised in this post! The ‘elephant in the room’ at most conferences/seminars/academic gatherings of the reliance on sessional staff, or casualisation of the workforce. How do we enhance learning and teaching if sessionals are not included in quality processes? How do we continue to learn through small talk when decision-makers and designers of university spaces are removing ‘tea’ rooms and other important small talk spaces?
    Small talks is valuable in so many ways!

    Thank you for this post slow academic.


    • Great comments, Cathy and Marina, on the impact of the loss of the tea room on casual staff. When I was a young casual staff member, listening to you and others talk about learning, teaching and higher education in the tea room sparked my interest and prompted me to build my career in the field. Thank you!


      • Not just the tearoom – I miss the corridor chats and shouted quips out office doors as we try to finish marking or inane reports. This is the glue that holds teams together, especially when times are difficult.


  4. Great post Agnes, which I want to respond to on several levels. But here I’ll just say that even some departments lack any tea room culture – a mere aggregation of lone researchers.


  5. Thanks, Andrew – so difficult when social support is the responsibility of the individual without an organisational culture to enable it. At the risk of overstating it, makes having a coffee with a colleague seem like an act of resistance! We should have a furtive coffee soon.


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