Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Academics at play: the seminar

Some believe that academics take a sadistic delight in making other people feel stupid. This is not quite true. They also delight in making themselves feel stupid. For immediate proof, you need only attend an academic seminar.

Academics endure countless seminars, maybe several each week, and understand none of them. They sit for one hour at a time, under a weary blanket of tedium and shame -- shame brought on by the conviction that everyone else understands perfectly what is going on. But no-one has a clue, except for the three specialists in the same arcane topic, who aren't listening anyway, but whose feverish minds are instead using every piece of obscure jargon to prompt either a narcissistic flashback of their entire academic careers, or an irritating question that can invariably be translated as, "Could you please explain to everyone just how brilliant I am?"

Why do the academics do this? They concoct elaborate justifications.

They may charitably concede, "You're right, that seminar wasn't exactly in my area," as if they attend seminars that are in their area more than once every 18 months. In reality, if only the relevant aficionados had attended the seminar, it could have been held in a bathroom stall.

Sometimes they attend "general" seminars, and have to pretend that they understood the whole thing. And it is true that in departmental-wide colloquia, the speaker will on occasion kindly provide comprehensible background information, sometimes for as long as five minutes.

It is difficult to fathom the true purpose of these seminars. To the outsider they must appear as an especially abstract form of postmodern theatre, a perverse entertainment comprising of cryptic symbolism and bizarre traditions, an experience so intensely cathartic that some participants pass out, and even snore. It is Powerpoint Kabuki. Or is it an act of penitence? Surely it is no accident that the seminar room is devoid of any means of suicide? Any object with the potential to put an audience member out of their misery was removed years ago, along with their body.

The attendants themselves are convinced that the seminars are informative. The entire procedure is akin to a religious ceremony. Just like church attendance in a community of evangelicals, seminars are sacrilege to skip, tedious to attend, and if anyone leaves half way through they fear they will be damned for eternity. Plus, everyone believes that this time, finally, there will be enlightenment. If faith means a belief that cannot be shaken irrespective of the weight of evidence to the contrary, then academics truly have faith in the instructive power of the seminar.

The speakers are equally deluded within the solipsism of their performance. They would be dismayed to hear that they delivered anything other than a crystal-clear exposition of their topic. Didn't they spend all those harrowing hours in seminars in their youth, furiously thinking, "I could do this better!"? What they didn't realise was that all that time their sensibilities were being numbed. Their understanding of what constitutes a clear explanation -- let alone an engaging public performance -- was undergoing the befuddling educational equivalent of electro-shock therapy. They were quietly absorbing the same dreadful techniques as their predecessors. Learning plain speaking in academic seminars is like learning compassion in a torture chamber.

In fact, seminar attendance for students acts as anti-training in public speaking. You will receive better tips on oratory from a Best Man speech delivered by a drunken kindergarten dropout.

An expert seminar speaker will be sure to make unforgivable mistakes right on their first slide. Most likely they will attempt to summarise the entire talk in order to explain the 17-word title. If not, they are sure to do so in their next slide, the Outline. This is where even the most devout audience member starts to panic. The Outline reveals the abyss. The Outline is a comprehensive list of the topics that the audience will still fail to understand at the end of the talk, even though the speaker will now sink a vast swath of their precious time into trying to explain all of them before the talk.

Having wasted so much time on the Outline, the speaker must now scramble through the rest of the seminar. They may become frustrated, even angry, and in their panic will skip slides at random. The whole exercise is a regrettable missed opportunity. If only they had been given enough time to properly demonstrate their expositional ineptitude!

It is important to bear in mind that every one of these speakers has witnessed this same dire spectacle in countless other seminars and every one of them has vowed, "I will never do that." I might also add that these people are amongst those members of the population who have most often been praised as "observant", "intuitive" and "quick learners".

The seminar lasts for an apparent eternity, as the blind guide leads the audience on a stumbling excursion through Hell. The only sign of hope is the obligatory moment where the speaker looks directly at the clock, realises that they have been speaking for 70 minutes, and innocently asks "How much time do I have?" Is this because they are sometimes asked to give seminars that are four hours long? Or in countries where the clocks measure time in different units? The audience turn their pleading gaze to the organiser. Who politely answers, as ritual demands, "We have plenty of time. This is extremely interesting."

Eventually the audience becomes restless. This can't go on any longer. Then, just as the tension becomes unbearable, and the speaker announces, "Only one more slide," for the seventh time, and the crowd veers towards mutiny -- suddenly it's over. The audience are so relieved that they applaud. The torment is immediately forgotten, and people rush to congratulate the speaker.

"That was one of the best seminars we've had!"

And they really believe it.

Can we break this cycle of abuse? Maybe this is an example of my own mindless devotion, but I believe so. I have decided that seminars should be instructive after all, and have devised a plan to bring this revolution about.


  1. To optimize abuse, include a page counter at the bottom that doesn't take into account slide transitions properly. Because nothing says you don't care about your audience like "Slide 1/382" (real example).

    1. If I'm ever invited to give another seminar after writing this blog post, I'll be sure to try that!

  2. Excellent summary. I would like to see you do a seminar to present your revolutionary plans!

    1. It's never wise to issue a seminar invitation before the results are published.

  3. You need to come to some anthropology or breastfeeding talks. Nothing livens up a PowerPoint presentation like a slide of a lovely breast (or two, they usually travel in pairs). I can send you some to toss into your next seminar talk!

  4. I see you didn't follow my early advise about bg colors. Oh well, I still enjoy reading you. This one really made me chuckle a few times.

    Me, I have learned to love seminars. It's one of the few moments at work when I get to read a paper without being distracted by students asking if they should be wearing pants at the exam or a colleague who cannot empty the coffee tray, although she has just received this huge technical award.

    Seriously, if you have any ideas let's hear them. We are dying here!

  5. Uh oh. I think you're going to be disappointed. Unless you save it for a seminar, so it will look good by contrast.

  6. This beautiful memo made me seriously revise the talk I was going to give in a few days. Also, thanks for the easier to read `black on white background'.

  7. For added fun, you can forward to the audience the second part that I'll post tomorrow...


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