CHAT-ing Our Way to a Better Community

Back in May, Alexander Diaz wrote about diversity in the mathematical community and gave some great advice on how to foster a more diverse community. In our mathematics department at CU, we are taking several steps toward that aim, and I want to outline one of the easiest to implement, something we call CHATs.

A CHAT is a time for grad students (and sometimes faculty) to get together and chat about a predetermined topic of interest. The goal of a CHAT is to have a discussion that strengthens the community by uncovering ways that participants can relate to one another and/or focuses on issues that directly affect how our community responds to diversity.

Some of our past CHAT topics include work/life balance, the events in Ferguson last year, and the obstacles individuals have overcome along with barriers they are still facing on the way to their degree.

CHATs are easy to implement because all it takes is a topic, a leader, and a location! Usually our CHATs are based off of an article or event that inspires conversation, our leaders are grad students who care about the issues, and we reserve a seminar room or space at a restaurant.

Let’s talk about logistics. Our CHATs last about an hour, but planning a CHAT does take some attention to detail. To strengthen community and foster diversity, these discussions need to cause people to connect rather than argue. A CHAT also needs to have people actually talking. Generally, we structure the event with a list of open-ended questions and pose them to the group to get the conversation flowing. For example, during our CHAT about work/life balance, we posed the question, “what do you do outside of the department and how do you make time for it?” Depending on the topic, one question might be plenty, but I suggest being prepared with more in case the conversation falls flat.

So even if you have enough to talk about, a group that is too large can cause a logistical nightmare. How do you have a discussion with thirty other people where everyone is involved? You don’t. I want to describe how we facilitated a CHAT with a large group and while it is certainly not the only option, it happened to work pretty well.

Our largest event included students and faculty and was held at a local restaurant. We wanted to be sure that everyone could participate in the conversation and could hear from both students and faculty. To do so, we created small, random-ish groups that guaranteed the student-faculty ratio was the same in each group. We used two different stacks of playing cards (one for faculty, one for students), gave one to each participant, and split groups by suit. There were three sets of questions, and we would reassign the groups after each question set. This set up smoothly facilitated connecting students and faculty with each other while allowing everyone to share their experiences.

You might ask how these CHATs foster diversity and community. CHATs provide an opportunity for individuals to share their perspectives and recognize each other’s different experiences. By opening lines of communication and addressing issues affecting our community, CHATs can create a climate that welcomes diversity.

CHATs, along with other events focused on community, have improved communication among grad students and between grad students and faculty while improving how our community responds to diversity.

About Sarah K. Salmon

I am a graduate student in mathematics studying algebraic combinatorics flavored by Coxeter groups at University of Colorado, Boulder. I earned my B.S. in mathematics at Northern Arizona University in May 2014.
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