I am currently teaching a lot of workshops on higher education topics where participants (who previously didn’t know each other, or me) spend 1-1.5 days talking about topics that can feel emotional and intimate and where I want to create an environment that is open and full of trust, and where connections form that last beyond the time of the workshop and help participants build a supportive network. So a big challenge for me is to make sure that paticipants quickly feel comfortable with each other and me.
As I am not a big fan of introductory games and that sort of things, for a long time I just asked them to introduce themselves and mention the “one question they need answered at the end of the workshop to feel like their time was well invested” (way to put a lot of pressure on the instructor! But I really like that question and in any case, it’s better to know the answer than to be constantly guessing…).
For the last couple of workshops, I have added another question, and that is to ask participants to quickly introduce us to their “nerd topic”*, which we define as the topic that they like to spend their free time on, wish they could talk about at any time and with anyone, and that just makes them happy. For me, that’s obviously kitchen oceanography!
Introductions in my workshops usually work like this: I go first and introduce myself. I make sure to not talk about myself in more detail than I want them to talk about themselves and to not include a lot of orga info at this point so I am not building a hierarchy of me being the instructor who gets to talk all the time, and then them being the participants who only get to say a brief statement each when I call on them. I model the kind of introduction I am hoping for to make it clear what I am hoping for from them. Then I call on people in the order they appear on my zoom screen and they introduce themselves. (I hate the “everybody pass the word on to someone who hasn’t spoken yet!” thing because it’s hugely stressful to me and making sure I call on someone who really hasn’t spoken yet and don’t forget anyone binds all my mental capacities if I am a participant. So when I am the workshop lead, I do call people myself and check off a list who has spoken already).
Including the “nerd topic” question has worked really well for me. Firstly, I LOVE talking about kitchen oceanography, and getting to talk about it (albeit really briefly) in the beginning of a workshop (when I am usually a little stressed and flustered) makes me happy and relaxes me. My excitement for kitchen oceanography shows in the way I speak, and I get positive feedback from participants right away. Even if kitchen oceanography isn’t necessarily their cup of tea, they can relate to the fascination I feel for a specific topic that not many other people care for.
And the same happens when, one after the other, the other participants introduce themselves. Nerd topics can be anything, and in the recent workshops topics ranging from children’s books to reading about social justice, from handcrafts to gardening, from cooking beetroots with spices to taste like chocolate to fermenting all kinds of foods, from TV series to computer games, from pets to children, from dance to making music. People might not come forward with their nerdiest nerd topics or they might make them sound nerdier than they actually are (who knows?), but so far for every nerd topic, there have been nods and smiles and positive reactions in the group and it is very endearing to see people light up when they talk about their favorite things. Participants very quickly start referencing other people’s nerd topics and relating them to their own, and a feeling of shared interests (or at least shared nerdiness) and of community forms.
Since they fit so well with the content of my workshops, I like to come back to nerd topics throughout the workshops. When speaking about motivation, they are great to reflect on our own motivation (what makes you wanting to spend your Saturday afternoons and a lot of money on this specific topic?). When speaking about the importance of showing enthusiasm in teaching, they were a perfect demonstration of how people’s expressions changed from when they talked about their job title and affiliation to talking about their nerd topic. Also practicing designing intriguing questions is easier when the subject is something you are really passionate about. Nerd topics are also great as examples to discuss the difference between personal and private — sharing personal information, showing personality, is a great way to connect with other people, but it does not mean that we need to share private information, too. And if participants are thinking about their USP when networking online, connecting their field of study with their nerd topic always adds an interesting, personal, unique touch.
Maybe “nerd topics” are especially useful for the kind of workshops I teach and not universally the best icebreaker question. In any case, for my purposes they work super well! But no matter what the nature of the workshop: Self-disclosure has been shown to lead to social validation and formation of professional relationships, both in online professional communities (Kou & Gray, 2018) and in classrooms (Goldstein & Benassi, 1994) and other settings. Listening to others disclosing information about themselves makes people like the other party better. But there is some reciprociticy in this: openness fosters openness, and as soon as the roles are reversed, the second person disclosing information can catch up on being liked, and the more is disclosed from both sides, the more the liking and other positive emotions like closeness and enjoyment grow (Sprecher et al. 2013). So maybe asking about participants’ “nerd topics” is a good icebreaker question for your classes, too?
*While I really like the longer form of the question, I’m actually not super happy with the term “nerd topic” itself. But I don’t have a good and less charged alternative. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them!
Goldstein, G. S., & Benassi, V. A. (1994). The relation between teacher self-disclosure and student classroom participation. Teaching of psychology, 21(4), 212-217.
Kou, Y., & Gray, C. M. (2018). ” What do you recommend a complete beginner like me to practice?” Professional Self-Disclosure in an Online Community. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 2(CSCW), 1-24.
Sprecher, S., Treger, S., & Wondra, J. D. (2013). Effects of self-disclosure role on liking, closeness, and other impressions in get-acquainted interactions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(4), 497-514.