Saturday, October 8, 2016

Seminars, guest speakers, and departmental culture

In my department at ProdigalU, we have weekly seminars covering the full range of subjects across our department, and we also have topical guest speakers less regularly. Attendance for first year grad students to the weekly seminar is mandatory, but after that, attendance is optional. Attendance at topical seminars is always optional. At first, I was surprised by how few students actually took advantage of the opportunity to see some outstanding speakers at the top of their respective fields, even if they are outside the students' immediate area of research. But then, I realized how few faculty actually attend when the topic is not research relevant, and it all became clear. The students are taking their cues from the professors.

At PhDU, it was in the departmental culture for all faculty to attend the weekly seminar. For more topical seminars, all faculty in that area would attend. As a result, it was the norm for students to attend weekly seminar, and also to attend topical seminars in their areas. I think this is a much better departmental norm for students and for the speakers (who have a large, diverse audience).

A good seminar is organized such that non-experts can follow and find interest in at least the first section of the talk. As a result, I find that I often get ideas when attending seminars outside my immediate area. I also find that such information becomes useful and/or interesting at some point in the future as my research evolves, and then I have a starting point to start out. Furthermore, I find this so helpful, that I sign up to meet seminar speakers as often as I can (though I wait until a day or so before the schedule is set for people outside my area so that my colleagues who have a more direct interest have a chance). Meeting with the seminar speaker is a way to find overlap, meet people in my broad field, and network all without ever leaving ProdigalU.

I do my bit to work on the departmental culture--I come to weekly seminar when I am on campus, and I encourage my students to attend as well. However, my observations of new faculty arriving after me suggest that it is more likely that departmental newbies will adopt the norm (of not attending without direct personal benefit). Maybe I am the only one who sees seminars in my broad field but outside my area as something useful?


Norman Ramsey said...

So much depends on the quality of the talk. It doesn't take many bad talks to get me hiding in my room at seminar time. And it's hard to find good speakers! I have invited speakers who gave brilliant conference talks but were not able to translate their brilliance into s good experience for a more general audience (disciplinary but not subdisciplinary).

Grumpy said...

In my Dept we make all the first yr grad students attend the seminar and try to alert the speakers that the audience will be full of green students.

I found that has the converse effect to the one you describe: the students are all headed to seminar at 11 am and I'm at least looking up who the speaker is and more often than not attending..

Another thing that is extremely important for attendance is proximity. It's crazy, but having a seminar anywhere outside of ~100 m away (even in an adjacent building!) really hurts attendance.

xykademiqz said...

but having a seminar anywhere outside of ~100 m away (even in an adjacent building!) really hurts attendance.

LOL! Totally. A department I am affiliated with often has speakers who present work of interest to me. But I need to walk 10+ min, some of it uphill, to get there. If I have work to do (which is always) and it's raining or snowing or bitterly cold (which is often), that 10+ min walk most definitely does not increase my resolve to go hear the talk.

prodigal academic said...

I find that most of our speakers give a pretty good seminar. I do sometimes bring something to read and sit in the back if I am unsure the seminar will be accessible to me.

I agree that having to leave the building makes seminar attendance less likely. Our seminars are pretty conveniently located (I do see students sometimes walking by to snitch cookies meant for attendees). That is why I think it is such a shame that seminars are lightly attended.

I also think that making the speakers aware that a large swath of the audience will be green is a great idea, and makes me more likely to attend seminars, since I know they will be accessible to an outsider. But I seem to be the only one who feels this way, since I'd say maybe 10-15% of professors in my department even attends seminar, unless it is someone REALLY famous.