“We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.”
As academics, we love learning, and pushing the boundaries of what we know, though being at that edge may be uncomfortable at times. For instance, when venturing into a new research direction, or reading a challenging Journal article...I want to talk about one way I think this discomfort shows up at time, and that has bothered myself and some colleagues I've spoken with: how we behave as audience members at academic talks, and by we, I mean students and professors. Invited speaker series and colloquia are a healthy part of an academic commmunity/department. It is one of the ways we infuse new and fresh ideas into the default ones that permeate the culture of a department/community. It is a way, if you will, to perturb the system from its typical equilibrium, and we do this by inviting experts to talk about a particular topic, from which we would love to learn. In most academic talks I have attended, this is where the beautiful image I paint stops and start to go South real quick, in a hurry. I have been to too many talks in which the audience, students and professors alike are borderline hostile towards the speaker. In my opinion, this is an unacceptable behavior that must be addressed, and below I give some insight into the origins of such behavior, and how we may combat it. It's time for us to take a No-Assholes Policy (NAP) at academic talks and presentations.
I am not suggesting that we should not challenge speakers, whether invited ones, our students and colleagues, or that we should not expect to be challenged during talks. I thrive on this kind of challenge: my thinking is “first, I would love to learn different point of views from the audience, and second, I have been thinking about this problem long enough that I trust that I understand in better that 99% of people who are being introduced to it for the first time”. What I am suggesting is that challenge is not synonymous to lack of respect, challenge does not try to undercut the self esteem of the person on the receiving end, challenge is not synonymous to lack of compassion. This is particularly important when the person on the receiving end is a minority (racial, social, gender...). We talk all this game about inclusion, radical inclusion, and yet our actions, particularly at academic presentations does not support this talk. Let me begin by setting up some important contextual information surrounding invitations to talks.
You've invited this person, they've traveled a long way, they are outside of their comfort zone, in some cases they are traveling to intimidating places (we all know of institutions in our field that have this reputation). It is the responsibility of the host institution to provide a safe environment for the speaker, and this includes making sure that they feel safe during their talk and are treated with respect. Why invite this person if you're going to treat them like sh#t?
2. The role of Faculty
As Faculty, I think we are the first ones guilty of treating invitees poorly. Why? Without going into a deep philosophical discussion, I think it all goes back to Ego, and the perception that we need to defend a certain sense of self-importance. I'll come to grad students in a second, but the way this shows up is in the arrogant and unreasonable expectation, that we will understand in 1 hour, a project that somebody has presumably been working on for a number of years. As faculty, we need to lead by example. Like it or not, our grad students in most cases have such a reverence of faculty that one can make a parallel with the relationship between parents/care-givers and children: grad students will mirror faculty behavior, so that what you see is that a nasty professor at a talk is akin to a license for students to let it rip and fly! Let us lead by example.
My message to students is to not fall for the Ego trip that is expecting that you will understand every single thing on every single slide in every single presentation given at your department's colloquium series. I used to be that guy, in high school. My report cards always came back with ”Excellent, grades! Needs to learn to control his impulse to have all the answers”. My point is, this behavior is not a sign of maturity. In fact, the mature and respectful thing to do is to flag most questions in one's own notebook as ”need-to-look-into-this”, and when asking a question to be aware of why you are asking the question: are you really looking for a clarification, or are you trying to show off? are you sure the speaker is wrong, or perhaps are you missing something? It takes courage, and maturity, to be able to become of the observer of your own intentions. I am not suggesting you should not ask questions. Be aware of your intentions.
4. The responsibilities of the speaker
The speaker does not get a pass. Respect, compassion etc...go both ways: the same way the audience shouldn't expect to understand the entirety of years worth of work in an hour, I believe it is my responsibility to the audience and a sign of respect for their presence to: a) Prepare my presentation before hand, b) Proofread my presentation, c) Deliver the presentation in a comprehensible manner. This may seem vague, but there are various ways this shows up. For instance, if one's talk is very very technical, starting the presentation with theorems and equations can be quite intimidating to the audience, who may all be at different levels in their learning (faculty, students etc...). Starting with a motivational example instead can be a sign of care. The point is, it is important to know your audience (e.g. by asking your host) and have your audience in mind when putting the talk together/delivering the talk. Again, it's the idea of being the observer of what you are doing and looking at yourself and work from a critical point of view: ”if I were seeing this material for the first time, how would I feel if equations are dumped on me on the first slide?”. This applies especially to teaching, where I thinking showing compassion to students through how material is delivered can help learning tremendously.
5. Learning from Tech: towards a code of conduct?
Today, most conferences (academic or non-academic) have a code of conduct. Having attended both tech and academic conferences, I have felt the audience at the former to be more respectful of speakers on average. Perhaps there is an opportunity here to learn from the tech community and to come up with a code of conduct for academic talks? Without fail, a every tech conference I have been to, the organizers have at multiple points pointed the participants to their code of conduct.
I won't be offended if you take a nap (siesta) at my talk. Just do it in the back. I urge us, as a community, to take NAP!