Building Connections, One Facul-TEA at a Time

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SPS Chapters on Building Community

Building Connections, One Facul-TEA at a Time


Sarah Wellence, Maggie Hinkston, and Jesse Farr, SPS Members, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

A Facul-TEA Time flyer. Image courtesy of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, SPS chapter.Low-key jazz, a selection of tea, pumpkin bread. Take all the elements of a cozy coffeehouse, add some physics students and professors, and you get Facul-TEA Time, our SPS chapter’s answer to forming better connections within the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Before the fall of 2019, our chapter hosted events that involved coffee or lunch with professors, but we sensed that many of our peers weren’t adequately benefitting from these formats. It seemed possible that nerves—along with the pressure to ask good questions—weren’t helped by the addition of caffeine or the awkwardness of interacting over food.

Our executive board wondered if it would be better to conduct interviews with professors and staff and to expand topics beyond research and expertise to include who they are as people, what they do outside of school, and how they became the professors they are today.

As for the format, what could be more relaxing than tea? We offer a variety of blends, keep the music soft, and play a video of a fireplace on a nearby TV to create a calm and welcoming atmosphere.

We invite one faculty member to be interviewed by the SPS chapter president (or, occasionally, by another SPS member) once a month at a weekly meeting. The colloquial interview typically covers the faculty member’s background and scientific interests, as well as personal facts about themselves. After we interviewed Dr. Soren Sorensen, who at the time taught honors introductory physics, the professor encouraged many of his students to attend, and we gained three new members.

The interviews always lead to moderated discussions, which bring forth advice from faculty members on a range of topics, including graduate school, the importance of public scientific understanding, and combatting imposter syndrome. This segment of Facul-TEA Time, a substantial portion of the event, contributes considerably to connections between undergraduates and faculty. Students are alerted to positions for undergraduate research and teaching assistance and are introduced to professors with open-door/safe-space policies. The relaxed format helps to relieve students’ initial stress and contributes to a sense of calm that makes it easier to ask questions. Despite most of the events lasting well over an hour and a half, attendance has steadily increased over time.

“I think Facul-TEA Time is an absolutely fantastic addition to our department culture,” says Sean Lindsay, a research assistant professor and lecturer. “It . . . allows each group to see each other as people. The welcoming and open style of the meetings are a great way for our department to come together as a community.”

Since COVID-19, Facul-TEA Time has been taking place virtually. We now gather with tea over Zoom, and the host shares music and fireplace clips on the screen. We were nervous to see how this would work, since the relaxed atmosphere came partly from sitting casually with the faculty member in our student lounge. But though they look different, our tea times run just as smoothly. In our last event of the fall semester, we learned that it’s possible to study acoustics, work in industry, and then earn a doctorate in experimental nuclear physics. Oh, and also that watching paint dry is a real job!

Facul-TEA Time has given us the opportunity to expand our chapter, bolster a sense of community, and form important relationships. It has also helped students find passions within different branches of physics and research opportunities with participating professors, as well as learn about the various paths offered by a physics degree.

In the future, we’d like to have more SPS members moderate the event to practice leading discussions, a skill often overlooked at the undergraduate level. We’d also like to have similar events with graduate students and staff to encourage even more connections within the department.

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SPS Chapters on Building Community