Save the seminar

Even in the web age, academic get-togethers remain relevant, says Alice Bell

June 9, 2011

There's a lot of talk about the ways in which digital communication might help academics talk to each other and find new ways to connect with those outside the academy, too. Much as I find this incredibly exciting, I'd like to speak up for the humble seminar.

I don't mean seminars run as part of taught courses: I mean the departmental seminar, the work-in-progress seminar, the seminar series linked to some cross-institutional research strand - discrete little academic events where a group of people get together to share their scholarship.

Done well, a seminar should be the highlight of any academic's week. It offers a chance to hear from a scholar directly, to enjoy their humour and asides, and the special tone they reserve for particular phrases (or for the names of certain colleagues...). Best of all, it's a chance to ask questions afterwards, and to chat about it with others over a drink, too; a chance for a department to get together and invite friends; a chance to collectively experience something new, and learn from each other in the process; a chance for diverse and exciting conversation, not the dreary reading out of notes.

Sadly, however, they rarely are this good. I think the low point came a year ago when I realised that the guy sitting next to me (a highly educated and expert colleague, I might add) was holding his phone, watching a video of cats playing bagpipes. Others were checking emails, quietly marking essays or playing Sudoku. I was concentrating hard on this badly presented paper, giving it the benefit of the doubt, trying to find something original and coherent in it. Everyone else had switched off. Moreover, jaded by previous experiences, they'd expected to. They had brought along something "to play with", just as they might do for a long train journey. And those are the ones who turned up at all.

That older staff come along to these things for a bit of a snooze and younger ones are bribed with free food are old jokes about academic culture. They aren't funny, though. It's embarrassing. It's wasteful.

Increasingly, academics are going online to get the professional interactions that the seminar used to provide. Why subject yourself to one of those stuffy rooms and bad coffee when you can download that paper you found through an academic social network such as Mendeley, then engage in rich conversations when aggregators such as ResearchBlogging.org help spread your summary of it to the world? Still, I think we gain something from the local physical connections provided by seminars and should maintain them. Moreover, the web should help us revive the seminar, not make it redundant.

Online media give us the chance to make these events more public. Of course, there are times when a seminar should be kept private - for example, "dummy runs" of a conference paper, or events designed to get feedback on work in progress. However, I find it hard to understand why all seminar series don't have a blog, preferably with podcasts, links to a Twitter hashtag, write-ups from students, links to other blogs and space for further discussion - although a simple electronic version of that flyer stuck to the side of the lift would be a good start. It really isn't hard or time-consuming, either.

Importantly, a bit more publicity would help make seminars more inviting and therefore increase the range and number of people who attend. It's the basic tenet of Web 2.0, and one that's easily taken offline: a larger and more diverse set of eyes on something will improve it. I don't just mean other academics: I bet there are graduates, prospective students or local people with some personal or professional connection to the topic who would love to come along but are unsure about what to expect. Their attendance would help the seminar to tick outreach and PR boxes, but it would also draw in new perspectives.

A stronger online presence for seminars means that the discussion around them lasts longer, too. That great question you thought of on the bus on the way home? Put it in a comment thread. Still buzzing about how good the seminar was and want to share it with even more people? Don't just tell your partner you heard a great talk today: post a link to a podcast on Twitter and see who else it inspires.

I don't want to sound naive about the accessibility of such content. Downloading a podcast of a seminar is one thing; understanding it is another. The strength of a seminar is largely that it is specialist. Still, we can be imaginative about what "specialist" means. Why not make seminar content a little more digestible to people other than those you know already? It's a seminar, not a journal article.

At a basic, some might say panoptical, level, knowing that a seminar's content is online might also make us polish it up a bit. Keep to time, enunciate, pause for breath, explain yourself and avoid packing in the ideas too densely. (I know this is hard. I do not pretend to have especially good presentation skills myself.) Online, anyone could be looking. This may seem threatening, but perhaps we need to get used to it and pull our socks up accordingly.

The occasion of a group of people getting together to hear a paper should be an incredibly exciting event, not a chance to sneakily catch up with marking. I'm not saying seminars should become high-profile TED talks (speakers at TED conferences have just 18 minutes to get their ideas across, see www.ted.com). I know many seminars are as good as I could ever want them to be. Still, too many aren't and I think it's wasteful. Digital communication shouldn't mean watching cat videos in a seminar; it should help us make seminars stimulating enough that people don't get bored in the first place.

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