Let’s talk about talks

Last Tuesday (Apr 14), there was an interesting discussion at IAG/USP about the outcomes of a poll, or rather, a survey that some of the astronomers did about the attendance to the department’s talks (seminars and colloquia). I don’t have the actual numbers, but there were some results like this:

  • 50% of the faculty staff and 50% of the postdoc answered the survey, and so did some 60% of the graduate students, plus a handful of undergraduate students
  • Most people said they only attended talks related to, specifically, their field of research
  • Most people answered that the main reason for not attending other talks was because they were bad, and the second (but close) reason was “lack of time”

While these results are somewhat alarming, they are not at all surprising. I have to confess that I too shared this closed-mindedness of only attending to talks that only belonged to my area. But luckily I was remembered that astronomy is not only the study of stars, or galaxies, or any other particular field: astronomy is a body of knowledge that encompasses countless aspects of the universe. I think it is common to separate things because we like to work with compartmentalized blocks, it’s easier that way. Or at least it seems, most of the time.

First point: why go?

The discussions reminded me of this cartoon: don’t forget the bigger picture, it says. And now that I think about it, I’ll probably print it and glue it to my office’s door, just because more people should see it. It’s not like a simple cartoon will magically change someone’s mind, but it can help. There are countless reasons why we should listen to other fields of research, such as networking opportunities, intuition pumps, the sharing of new ideas, and maybe even a potential new collaboration.

One of the reasons why people decide to become scientists is the autonomy. Scientists have, to a certain level, more freedom than other professional careers. In principle, we are not generally forced to attend meetings that are not of our immediate interest, nor do we have to have a fixed, written in stone, schedule. While we have our own interests and motivations, it is important to remind that we need to address to certain expectations. Scientists are expected to produce knowledge, to answer questions, to give back to the people who paid their salaries. There is no such a thing as a free lunch. The better we can weave our little dents in humanity’s body of knowledge, the better scientists we are.

Okay, but what if talks are outright bad or too hard to understand? What if the talkers don’t introduce the subject? What if they do not consider that they are addressing a broader audience, even if the organizers said them so? There are a few mitigating actions that can help in this point, such as red-flagging bad talkers and making sure they are prepared to talk to a particular target audience. In the discussion, someone gave the idea of a postdoc giving an introductory talk [a few days] before the main one, so as to “normalize” everyone to the same level. So, there are things we can do, and others that we can’t. If the talker is just bad, what can effectively be done about it? Nothing more than a red flag. So there is no point in discussing this. There will always be some bad talks, we just have to deal with them.

Second point: quantity vs. quality

An important issue that was pointed out is that it is not always about the quantity of people that attend talks, but rather how much knowledge is exchanged, which is the actual point of having a talk. As someone wisely said, it is possible to have a wonderful session with just ten people.

Some people criticize their snappy-styled, sitcom-sized talks, but there is much we can learn from TED. Their talks engage people in ways that, sadly, few scientists can do. Last week, during a Data Science Workshop at IAG/USP, we had a wonderful and engaging presentation by Professor Claudia Medeiros (Instituto de Computação/USP), where she introduced us into the many doors that were open for data scientists in the corporate world. She didn’t delve into the technicalities of data science, she focused on a broader topic that would suit the varied audience we had. And she delivered the message, that was received with many curious questions.

But as I said previously, expecting to always have a good talk is not a good thing. Let’s be more pratical: what can we do to make people engage more? A suggestion made on that discussion is to give an opportunity to people who were too embarrassed to ask questions, such as using an anonymous questioning system or even Twitter hashtags (which is a great idea). Also, we should avoid pointless questions such as “did you consider the magnetic fields?”: they do not help in engaging people; in fact, they can make it harder. Please, leave technical questions for an after-talk session or just read the paper; unless, of course, the talk is targeted to a technical audience who will actually be interested to know about your goddamned magnetic fields.

Another idea I read somewhere was that some people find the informal sessions, such as the coffee-break and the dinner, actually more productive, science-wise. Maybe we could have meetings that consisted only on feasting. I don’t think I would suit to these, though, because I would always have my mouth busy and wouldn’t be able to talk.

Second point: blaming an abstract entity

Something was brought up in the discussion that made me a bit uneasy at the time, and in hindsight, I completely disagree with: they said the lack of care for talks or other areas of astronomy (or the fact that students are afraid to ask questions) are part of “our culture” (whatever they meant by that). In fact, I think it is a dangerous line of thought. This thing about always blaming our culture for its miseries has a name in Brazil: it is known as Complexo de Vira-lata (which literally translates to “the Mutt Complex”). If you’re reading this post and work in another astronomy department somewhere else, you’ll most probably relate to the issues of talk attendance. When I was an exchange at Kapteyn Astronomical Institute, at the University of Groningen, the attendance to talks too wasn’t that prolific (I don’t have numbers to cite, though). And the faculty staff didn’t stimulate students to attend them; in fact, it was only my graduate colleagues that did.

I don’t think this is an issue of the culture of our country or of our astronomy departments. First of all, how to objectively define a culture? And how can we change it? Or rather, is it possible to change a culture? How can we change something that we can’t even define? As with the bad talkers, there is no point in discussing this. We should not blame what we can’t define.

Wrapping up: my suggestion

And after presenting you with the discussion we had, here is my take on the issue: can we try smaller groups of discussion? I remember that the best science discussion sessions I had during my course in academia, so far, have been with small groups: up to 10 people, tops. The problem with big sessions is that they will eventually turn into the so dreaded traditional talks, which are less engaging and are more prone to frustrations, almost like classes. Sometimes they are unavoidable, such as in congresses and scientific meetings, and maybe this is their place. But in weekly sessions, it is probably too much.

Featured image: “Back Lighting” by Steve Jurvetson


Let’s talk about talks