Friday, 20 February 2015

The importance of teaching seminar etiquette to students, as well as how to present them

I went to my first academic seminar in 1980, since then I have been to one a week on average, which means I have sat through over 15 000 seminars! In fact I haven't included scientific meetings, so I reckon 20 000. It seems a high number, but I reckon many of my colleagues are veterans of many more seminars. Some have been more memorable than others, but I have no doubt that seminars and presentations have shaped my views on Science in a profound way. Hearing Fred Sanger (top left) explain the principles of DNA sequencing of the lambda genome in the early '80s, was a privilege, if not the most inspirational of talks. Being enthralled by Sydney Brenner with his two overhead presentation of the wider implications of puffer fish genomics in a filled lecture theatre where you could hear a pin drop. These are memories that will (hopefully) stay with me. Then there were the seminars that irritated, frustrated, infuriated me, or just simply sent me drifting into a daydream. The truth is presentations and their style and content combined with the personality in front of you is not always perfect. However, I have witnessed Kim Nasmyth stand up at a meeting in Oxford (I think) in the early 1980s and deliver an impromptu chalk and talk presentation on the molecular biology of mating type switching in yeast, "about the time the slide projector broke" (to steal from Bob Dylan). It was stunning, and at the time, I was deep into the steady state kinetics of enzymes! (It's true!) This also make a point that some of my most memorable seminar experiences  have been on topics I would not have thought (in a million years) would be of any interest! In fact I have a rule of thumb for seminar attendance that says: "Dull title:must go"!

So seminars have stimulated, irritated, informed and entertained me over many years. I really can't get enough of seminars. I have already written about the value of seminars in an earlier Blog, but here I want to discuss the importance of the audience, the listener and the chairperson or facilitator. Just consider a presentation from a visiting speaker to a mixed audience. Let's say the topic is "Behaviour and Patterning in East Asian Lepidoptera" (just in case, butterflies and moths). The audience comprises students, academics, interested enthusiast and the age range is 14 to 84. The speaker, Professor Linnaeus has travelled by car from a  University seventy miles away, and the seminar is scheduled for 4.30pm. It's November and it's cold and wet! The audience begins drifting in ten minutes early and by 4.35, the chairperson introduces the speaker, a few words of background and a general welcome. Three more people drift in and the speaker overcomes the challenges of lap-top and projector incompatibility and dims the lights to maximise the impact of his slideshow. The pressure is now on the speaker to deliver an engaging presentation, legible slides, attractive images, a logical flow, evidence-based information and sometimes a little speculation to stimulate discussion. The closing minutes are devoted to acknowledgements: the support of colleagues and funding bodies and, where appropriate, a mention of any commercial interests.

Now it is the turn of the audience to play their role in the seminar. Some are there to listen and expand their awareness of a topic they may be largely unfamiliar with: such participants may often ask for clarification, which in turn may help the understanding of others. Some will be experts, looking for insight that they may have missed, or they may be more predatory; challenging the speaker's confidence in a controversial view or data that may have alternative interpretations. The widely held view is that scientific seminars should promote exchange of ideas and that personal rivalries or grudges have no place in the lecture theatre. Of course, we do not live in an ideal world, and the best laid plans can go astray! However, it is the responsibility of the Chair to manage the transition from presentation to discussion and on to closure, or to welcome the next speaker. An experienced session chair should stimulate discussion, if the speaker has failed, or the audience are silent. Seminar etiquette is such that an audience should show engagement with the speaker and the presentation by asking one or two questions. However, it is also important in situations where several speakers are presenting, that the chair keeps the speakers and the audience in check to ensure speakers have approximately equal time to present. 

What is not acceptable is audience hectoring, where one or more individuals take against the speaker and repeatedly challenge a point, or in some cases take the discussion away from the main theme, in order to "steal the show". Here, whilst some speakers are able to "handle" such heckling, sometimes the chair has to intervene, but if this fails, the audience must make it clear that such outbursts are inappropriate and that (especially personal) disagreements should be taken "offline".

In conclusion, seminars from visiting speakers or at scientific symposia are a two way event and both speaker, audience (and chair) need to understand the rules of engagement! I feel that audiences should, on the one hand, be less passive in scientific seminars, but on the other, they should always be courteous, and should choose the most appropriate way of challenging a speaker. This will sometimes be during a talk, after a talk or sometimes in private. However, I do get irritated when audience members walk off down a corridor mumbling to colleagues that "Who on earth funded that project", or the evidence for that particular conclusion doesn't take into account any of my last two papers! So maybe we need to teach students how to participate in seminars, not just how to present one!

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