Friday, September 14, 2012

Two cultures of seminars

Previously I posted about The Two Cultures of C.P. Snow who noted how the academic cultures of science and the humanities diverged in the twentieth century. I agree that both are the poorer for it.

Yesterday I went to a history seminar. The purpose of this post is not to discuss the content, which was fascinating. But rather, to note the striking difference between the mode of presentation and discussion from a typical science seminar.

First, the paper was read. Literally! The speaker had a manuscript which they read without interuption. There were no PowerPoint slides. Yet, the talk/paper was very engaging, interesting, and easy to follow, even for me a non-historian.

Second, the seminar went for 90 minutes, with about 40 minutes devoted to questions and discussions! Probably ten different people asked questions. This was also engaging and interesting. Furthermore, I felt everyone [speaker, questioner, and audience] benefited from this.

One might easily dismiss these differences as being solely due to the different content of disciplines or just how this particular seminar was run. However, I think science seminars and conference presentations could be more interesting and productive if
-they were more accessible
-they had fewer PowerPoint slides (or none!)
-there was more extended time for questions and discussion
-more people asked questions


  1. I agree, I agree, I agree, and I agree.

    I've hosted a few joint Physics/History of Science Dept. Colloquia here at JHU. That is an interesting melding of both these seminar cultures that you allude to. We've solved it by speakers going ahead and giving a usual Physics style colloquia, but then all interested parties hanging around for an hour (!) or so afterwards where they ask and discuss all they want.

  2. I would say better rather than fewer slides, though I think people aiming for the former will end up with the latter. The talk I gave that I consider to be my best had quite a lot of slides, but they were almost entirely pictures. I think that's what powerpoint (well, I prefer beamer) is useful for: showing pictures. The words should be spoken (and terms and concepts repeated sufficiently that people will actually remember them and start to understand how they are linked together).

    I think there is a high positive correlation between quality of the talk and number of questions asked. I have been to too many talks where, by the end, 10% of the people in the room understood everything because they understood it all before they walked in, and the other 90% (usually including me) got lost about 10 minutes in.