Monday, 16 June 2014

The seminar revolution

[Previously: Academics at Play: the seminar.]

When I was a graduate student, attendance at departmental colloquia was compulsory. The talks were so bad that I wish I had done what I am about to suggest to today's grad students. Instead I just stopped going. I hoped in vain that one day the Head of Department would demand to know why, so that I could bravely announce that I would resume attendance the moment the quality rose above atrocious. Of course, he would have threatened to expel me. Then I would have had no choice but to make clear the strength of my convictions, not to mention my level of contempt for his hollow threat, by attending every successive colloquium seated in the front row with a notepad and pen.

There are two problems with such seminars. One is the abysmal quality of the delivery. Rudimentary public-speaking skills can easily be taught to any functioning adult, a demographic into which we can generously place most academics, and these techniques can be quickly mastered by anyone with the opportunity to practice -- for example, by having spent the last decade delivering lectures on an almost daily basis. Nonetheless, academics remain such spectacularly bad speakers that we can only conclude that this problem is insoluble.

That doesn't matter. If the audience are learning something, they can excuse any quantity of mumbling, rambling, digressing, backtracking, garbling or even outright drooling and gibbering. I myself have enjoyed many seminars. But my level of enjoyment is inversely proportional to the topic's distance from my own expertise. And here-in lies the second problem: the material is invariably impenetrable [1].

This problem would evaporate instantly if the audience asked questions. But they cannot. The primary goal of any academic is not to learn, but to be learned. The learning is done in private. The public sphere is for the dispensation of wisdom, and to exhibit the superiority of your fine mind and the inferiority of everyone else's. If your question doesn't make you look smarter than everyone else, then why the hell would you ask it?

This puts us at an impasse.

But I have a solution.

There is one group of people gullible, naive and frustrated enough to hack through this Gordian knot. Yes, that's right graduate students, I'm talking about you. Aren't you sick of being ignored, put-upon, and treated as an irrelevant nuisance? Now is your chance to make a difference! Sure, it may only be a superficial modification to an irrelevant academic culture, but let's face it, it's much more revolutionary than your career ambitions to date. And, for once, also achievable.

All you have to do is ask questions. Not just a few of you, occasionally, but all of you, every time you don't understand what the speaker has said. No-one else can do this. The postdoctoral researchers are too deeply degraded in sycophancy to even consider it. The faculty are too dull and responsible to dare. The undergraduates don't turn up. Only you can do it.

It won't be easy. You have to work together as a team. Before the talk, gather together and make a vow of solidarity. Consider the noble tradition to which you belong. Think of Gandhi. Think of the Civil Rights movement. And this time no-one is going to abuse you, spit on you, beat you, or imprison you. A hunger strike is unlikely to be necessary. The worst you'll get is a strongly worded email pointing out that if you are unable to dutifully submit to long periods of intense boredom, then you are not cut out for a life in academia. Surely you can handle that? If you suspect not, have a few drinks first.

Are you ready? All right, off you go. Sit together near the front. Make sure you have your hand signals ready. The instant messaging apps should be open on your smartphones. Now the speaker comes in, an awkward introduction is made… and it's time for that roller-coaster ride through a protein structure, or Monte-Carlo simulation of the global climate implications of bovine flatulence, or periodic table of relativistic particle orbits.

And already on Slide Number One we have our first question.

"What is a Carter constant?"

"You mean the Carter constant? Everyone knows what the Carter constant is."

You were ready for that. Another hand goes up. "I don't."

"My God! Haven't you all taken a standard course in advanced general relativity?"

Whoever prepped with three shots of vodka announces, "No." She suppresses the urge to vomit and continues: "This is not a specialist seminar. This is a general departmental colloquium. So please tell us what a fucking Carter constant is, you condescending insufferable shit."

Once you've set the right tone, the rest will be easy.

When another fifteen minutes have passed, and the speaker is still on Slide Number Two, it is likely that a faculty member will turn on the rebellious mass of graduate students and pompously request, "Could we please let the speaker continue?"

To which one of them politely asks, having practiced for the last week: "How are we to make the most of the visit by this illustrious scientist if we cannot ask questions?"

Professor Fuckwit may well reply, "There are some of us who possess a sufficient understanding of basic science, and we would like to hear the rest of the seminar."

Now three-shot Sally steadies her voice and announces, "Then please excuse those of us who do not." Then you all rise as one from your seats, and file out. Perhaps to the bathroom.

The immediate outcome of this admirable performance will be much huffing and puffing from the faculty. But remember: academics are sissies. They save up their small store of wheedling passive-aggressive combativeness for email exchanges over minor details of their inconsequential research. They have no power to stop you. If you behaved this way in their lectures, they could fail you. But who is going to dare to suggest failing all of the department's graduate students, just because they ask questions in a seminar?

There are only two reasonable courses of action. One is to relieve the students of the duty of colloquium attendance. But they can hardly ban the students, can they? So you should continue to turn up.

The next option is that the seminars improve. Visiting academics are apologetically warned that the impertinent students in this department have the audacity to demand actual explanations of what they're being asked to listen to. Word spreads. A colloquium invitation from your department is received with dread. Speakers arrive shaking at the podium.

But there are those who rise to the task. They return home proud to have triumphed. Suddenly, a successful seminar in your lucky department is seen as a badge of honour the world over. The best speakers are begging to get invited. They're paying their own travel costs. They're highlighting the experience on their resume. They're bragging to their friends.

"The students all took me to the pub afterwards, and told me it was the best seminar they'd ever heard."

"Oh yeah? I was there two months later, and they presented me with a certificate and a bottle of champagne."

"That's nothing. I was taken to a student party and spent the entire night writhing naked in a drug-filled orgy."

"You're making that up."

"You're right. I haven't been there. They didn't even acknowledge my email request to speak! If I don't get an invitation soon, how will I ever get tenure?"

That, my dear graduate students, is my infallible plan for you to revolutionise academic seminars.

So, you think it's just fantasy, do you? Come on! Where is your imagination? Where is your thirst for revolution? Where is your backbone?

Oh, sorry. What was I thinking? You're all academics in training. In that case, forget it.


1. Admittedly, my experience is restricted to science seminars. Maybe out there in the wider world of the humanities, the audiences are rolling in the aisles, the applause is deafening, and the adoring crowds have to be held back by security. But somehow I doubt it.


  1. Aw gee Mark, you should come to one of my conference presentations -- I have the audience rolling in the aisles with laughter, cheering, clapping, and all around having a great time. Of course, I show lots of slides of breasts. That helps.

    1. I recommend caution before others take this advice.

  2. If only grad school were this good! We do have a revered Russian professor who studied with Landau and who does almost exactly what you suggest, but without the language. He's far too classy. You've inspired me though. I may need to take the Jameson's bottle to the next seminar.

    1. The Russians are in a class by themselves. Or, at least, they should be.


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