Friday, November 10, 2017

Your Departmental Seminar NEEDS YOU

Remember that time you, or your supervisor, invited that awesome scientist who gives great talks – and you promoted it widely with enthusiasm – and then the speaker came and only half the department showed up? Oh, right, that has happened multiple times, yes? What’s up with that?
Oh, wait, perhaps you also remember that time when someone else in the department invited that awesome scientist who gives great talks (at least that is what they wrote in the email) – and promoted it widely with enthusiasm – and then you didn’t go because you were busy, or because it was too far away, or because it just wasn’t that relevant to your work. Oh, right, that has happened multiple times, yes? What’s up with that?
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Having now given more than 100 invited departmental seminars, having invited dozens of speakers for our departmental seminars, and having even been the chair of our departmental seminar committee for a number of years, I can attest that the above contrast is a universal problem facing departmental seminars. To combat this apathy, seminar organizers and committees try all sorts of inducements – they have wine and cheese receptions (many places), they have raffles for good wine (Oslo – when I visited some years ago anyway), some have a keg of beer afterward (UW Fisheries – in my day anyway), they take attendance, they give guilt trips, etc. Sometimes these devices work somewhat (and sometimes not) and some places have reasonably well developed cultures of seminar attendance (although many don’t). Regardless, I would guarantee that every department has had discussions and committees where low seminar attendance is bemoaned, dissected, and debated - and solutions are sought. Should it be earlier or later? Should we encourage/force people to invite famous speakers? Should we give more of a vote to grad students? Should we have receptions afterward? Should we change the venue? In short, seminars are never attended as regularly or as widely as they should be.
The main reason is that people don’t attend seminars is because they quite reasonably weigh the immediate perceived benefit of each seminar attendance against the immediate cost of that attendance. These benefits and costs are nearly always weighed on the basis of a person’s immediate research or teaching. “Will attending this seminar help me understand my science or give me new ideas?” Is weighed against “But I could use that hour to do this analysis, or write this paragraph, or talk to my student.” Or it is weighed against “I have to give a new lecture tomorrow” (or in an hour). Weighed in these ways, yes, it is true that the cost of seminar attendance will sometimes outweigh the benefit.
While I could make the usual point that long-term research and teaching benefits are gained by attending lectures not in your immediate area of research, that point has been made frequently and – seemingly – to relatively little effect. Instead, I am going to make an entirely different, although obviously complementary, point.
My main argument is that benefit-cost calculation based solely and teaching and research is NOT the only important factor to consider – and, in fact, neither might be the most important factor. Instead you should also view seminar attendance as a service – echoing the research-teaching-service triumvirate of university obligations.

Seminar attendance is a SERVICE because:

It reflects on the department to speakers and visitors, who will remember vividly if attendance was low. Remember that visiting seminar speakers are independent subsequent (dis)advocates of your department. Indeed, I am sure I have spoken to my colleagues in some context or other about every single seminar I have ever given.
It benefits the person who invited the speaker. That person will be embarrassed and disappointed if attendance is low, which will then reduce their inducements to invite more speakers and to attend the seminars of your invitees.
It sends an important signal to graduate students. I am sure nearly all professors would agree that their students benefit from attending a diversity of seminars and, yet, failure of a professor to attend seminars surely sends a signal to their students that attendance is not that important.
It sends an important signal to the administration that funds the seminar series. Every single seminar series struggles with funding to invite external speakers and, if a strong case can be made that your seminar series is well attended, then it is a much stronger case for funding.

So, put that seminar series in your calendar. Don’t ever schedule anything else for that slot. Assume you can’t use that hour for anything else. Just go. You will see cool research. You will get new ideas for research and teaching. The seminar speaker will appreciate it. The host will appreciate it – and reciprocate for your invitees. The grad students will see that seminar attendance is important and expected. Everyone benefits – and all you “lose” is an hour a week when you would otherwise have spent half of it just tweeting anyway.
If the seminar sucks, sneak out early and apologize later for that other obligation you had. If you are bored, discretely look at your facebook feed on your phone. If you are tired, take a nap. These imperfections are much less irksome than skipping the whole thing. Your seminar series needs you; and your department, your colleagues, your students, and you all need your department’s seminar series.

1. Some obviously good reasons to not attend seminars include not being in town, fixed family obligations (day care closing times, hockey practice starting times, etc.), medical problems (e.g., a broken leg), a conflicting class or lab, and the like.
2. This post is not intended as a dis of my department, where seminar attendance is kind of middle of the road, nor of particular people in my department (sometimes I miss too without a good reason).
3. Many places have many seminar series you could attend and I agree that it would perhaps not be optimal to attend them all. Pick a one or two to ALWAYS attend and attend the others more haphazardly if necessary.
4. This post is equally directed at profs, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students.


  1. Thanks Andrew - good points. In response to your first footnote ("fixed family obligations (day care closing times, hockey practice starting times, etc)"), the obvious response is that departments should schedule seminars (and other activities) so that those with family commitments can attend them just as easily as those without. I think this is pretty much common practice in the UK now.

  2. I’ve noticed that the culture around attendence is strongly driven by the most senior/prominent faculty in the department. When they attended hell or high water, and engage with the science and not their phones, students and junior faculty notice and do the same. Want to change your departments culture, start by getting the chair and full professors to model the behavior you are after.

  3. The same principles apply to signing up for individual meeting times with visiting speakers, especially for junior scientists. Grad students and postdocs especially should be meeting with any and all remotely relevant visitors as a way of getting their name & research 'out there' and building a network for later career. You may not collaborate with the visitor, but they might be on a future job search committee that is evaluating you.

  4. A mea culpa:
    I am one of those people who attends seminar inconsistently over the past few years. I am not proud of it but I do have reasons. Here are my reasons, some are 100% defensible and some are questionable.

    Reason # 1: Teaching conflict. For years my department had a seminar 12-1 on Mondays. I taught 11-1 on Mondays every fall. So, fall semesters I never went to the population biology seminar. That's totally valid as an 'excuse'. Less excusable is that, falling out of the habit of attending (in the fall) I frequently forgot to attend in the spring when I could have gone. We are creatures of habit, and once you break the habit it is harder to maintain.

    2. My wife and I are both academics with elementary-age school kids, who get out of school at just before 3 PM. Two days a week we have a babysitter get them, but three days a week one of us gets them, often to shuttle them to piano, dance, etc. We each take one afternoon per week, and the third afternoon we alternate. Our other (more formal) departmental seminar used to be 2 PM (Thursdays), then was 4 PM (Mondays), and is now 3 PM (Mondays). None of those times allow me to be at the kids' school at 2:55. So, depending on my wife's teaching schedule, some semesters I can't do seminar, other semesters I can only go every other week. (See note above about falling out of the habit, then failing to attend when it is possible). There is a valid criticism of this: I am voluntarily choosing to skip seminar when I might arrange for a baby-sitter. But I will not apologize or feel guilty for that decision. My kids need me to give them attention, do homework with them, play with them, do little science experiments, and drive them around, far more than the seminar speaker needs me. Everyone tells me my kids will grow up way too fast, to enjoy time with them as much as I can. So that's what I am doing. This point echoes Ben Sheldon's comment above, about being sure seminars are at family-friendly times.

    3. Here's the lamest excuse, which accounts for some (but just a minority) of my occasional absences: I fall asleep. You see, I spend typically two afternoons a week with my kids. I make up for this by working in the evenings when they are asleep. When they are awake, I am theirs as fully as possible from when I pick them up (or, when I come home) until when they are asleep. Then I need to catch up. That entails usually writing, reading, editing, Skyping, or grading from about 8:30 PM until about midnight on a typical day. Then I need to be up at 6:15 to make breakfasts, get kids up and showered and dressed and fed and off to school. Yes, I know that's not enough sleep. I know its not really healthy. But its how I manage my work-life balance, which is to say I spend a lot of time with my kids and get my job done anyway (mostly). But the result is that although I am entirely used to this schedule by now, and feel fully functional for most tasks, I have a very hard time sitting down in a dark room for an hour to be still and listen. I don't mean to sleep. I have my black tea with me. But I sleep. Which is embarrassing and defeats the purpose. So sometimes I skip a seminar when I might have gone, simply because I know I am not capable of getting out of the talk what I should. This accounts for a minority of my missed seminars (and again, I go to more than I miss). But it is a non-trivial part of my personal failure to live up to Andrew's challenge.

  5. A lot of times, folks invite campus speakers to increase their own social capital - they invite someone who they are looking to impress, land a postdoc, build a collaboration, cement bonds of friendship, et cetera. This decision is often independent of the actual quality of the talk that a person will give. A person can do stellar research but give a crappy talk. A lot of seminars are just not good talks, not enjoyable, and perhaps not the investment of time for someone who isn't in this person's subfield.

    Maybe if a department reliably brought in folks who are known to give good seminars for the who audience that they are addressing, the series would be well attended? I'm just spitballing here.

  6. This is the email I sent my dept colleagues after reading the blog...

    I encourage you to read this blog from Andrew Hendry on dept seminar attendance.

    I am probably one of the faculty members with the poorest attendance record which brings me some guilt but there are good reasons for that. Relatedly (esp to Hendry’s first footnote), I would like to have the following motion added to the next Dept Meeting Agenda…

    I propose that late Friday afternoon Departmental Seminars should be avoided at all costs because they are unfair to the seminar speakers (if they are from out of town it almost always means that they have to spend Friday night and mess with their weekend) and don’t jive with the realities of family life (daycare pickups often have to occur shortly after 4:30 pm and on Friday traffic is brutal so have to leave even earlier to be a contributing partner and engaged parent) or fail to contribute to winding down for the weekend (it is FRIDAY… who really wants to end their work week a big dose of science – I LOVE science but I also love my weekends). I recognize the irony of me writing this late on a Friday eve…

    I recognize that the justification for Friday aft is that it is set aside as a time/date that has apparently been blocked off in all of our calendars. I would propose that seminars occur on various Tues, Weds or Thurs from noon to 1pm as alternative with no specific fixed date (just not Mon or Fri). That variation in times will mean that it is unlikely that any of us would have to teach for more than 1/3rd of the possible dates and gives us more flex for arranging dates/times with potential speakers. Over the past 3 yrs I have done about 15 dept seminars and there is only one that was on a Friday and it was at noon. Like the rest of you I work hard all week and really value my weekend… I chose family over late Friday afternoon dept seminar. So – let’s change it!

  7. Yogi Bera comes to mind: "Always go to other people's funerals. Otherwise, they won't go to yours."


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