I made it to the Ignite session on eco-evolutionary dynamics this morning. It was a very interesting experience. Kudos again to the meeting organizers for adding these sessions and to all the speakers for having a go at it. Some random thoughts:
- In previous posts, I’ve suggested that Ignite talks are, or should be, completely different beasts from regular ESA talks. I thought that trying to treat them as short ESA talks would just lead to bad talks. I was wrong about that. Some of the Ignite talks I saw were indeed totally different beasts, such as Chad Brassil’s excellent talk kicking off the session. Chad spent a good chunk of his 5 minutes using a wonderful analogy to classical music to make the point of his talk. But other Ignite talks were basically short ESA talks, or at least that’s the way they felt to me. And more often than not, it worked. Tom E. X. Miller’s talk on eco-evolutionary dynamics of species undergoing range expansion was a particularly strong example of a “short ESA talk”, I thought. So how do you cut down 15-17 minutes of material to 5 minutes? Well, one big way is to assume familiarity with the subject on the part of the audience. This allows you to dispense with the “introduction” almost completely, allows you to briefly refer to published work (your own, or that of others) and assume the audience remembers it, and allows you to put up slides without walking the audience through them because you’re assuming the audience is sufficiently familiar with the material not to need to be walked through it. Personally, I am familiar with the subject of eco-evolutionary dynamics, and so I liked it when the speakers assumed as much. Sometimes you sit in a regular ESA session and get tired of hearing basically the same 5-minute intro repeatedly. Here, you only had to hear the same 20-second intro repeatedly! On the other hand, I wonder if audience members who weren’t as familiar with the topic found the talks difficult to follow. Another way to shorten a 15-minute talk to 5 minutes is to make simpler points. For instance, several speakers showed slides with contrasting pairs of figures, one figure showing eco-evolutionary dynamics, the other showing dynamics with evolution switched off. The point of all those slides was that the two figures looked different, which is something that could be seen at a glance. Precisely why or in what ways they were different wasn’t something anyone had time to get into.
- Several of the talks provided object lessons on the value of stage presence and showmanship. For instance, one of the speakers turned out to have prepared too little to say about some of his slides. He said what he had to say and was ready to move on–but the slide was still up. So he just paused briefly and then said “I’ll just let you absorb this slide for a moment.” It got a nice laugh, defusing the awkwardness. Which was actually pedagogically useful. An audience that’s aware of awkwardness, aware that the talk isn’t going precisely according to the speaker’s plan, is not an audience that’s engaged and listening actively to what the speaker is saying. (Well, a little awkwardness is harmless, but a lot gets distracting) Similarly, in the middle of his talk Dave Post inserted a slide that just read “Breathe”. It was funny, but (if I recall correctly) it also served the purpose of dividing the two sections of his talk. And Katia Koelle used humorous pictures from the movie Much Ado About Nothing on many of her slides. Emma Thompson represented “ecology” and Kenneth Branaugh represented “evolution”, with the two together representing “eco-evolutionary dynamics”. It was funny–at one point she jokingly compared Emma Thompson to smallpox (a disease with dynamics dominated by ecological forces). But it also served a purpose. If the slide’s not going to be up for very long, the audience needs to be able to grasp it quickly. The pictures helped with that.
- A couple of the speakers had some quite text-heavy slides, which I found difficult. I found it hard to try to speed-read the slide while simultaneously listening to the speaker.
- I had the impression that the speakers varied in the level of detail with which they prepared their talks. I’m curious if any of the speakers wrote their talks more or less word-for-word and memorized them. I bet some of them did, even if they didn’t end up saying exactly what they wrote. It seems like it’s really hard to wing it for an Ignite talk.
- The discussion afterwards was interesting on multiple levels. I think a lot of credit for that goes to Colin Kremer, the moderator. He did a great job of keeping the discussion focused on one topic at a time, if necessary asking folks who wanted to address new topics to hold off until until discussion of the current topic was exhausted. And I thought the discussion was a good one, lots of good points were raised. There perhaps wasn’t as much debate as there might have been. I think in future it would be neat to try an Ignite session in which speakers take opposite sides of some controversial issue. The discussion format was interesting too. The speakers just sat down in the audience and raised their hands when they wanted to speak, like the other audience members. I hear other Ignite sessions adopted a panel session, audience-asks-questions-and-the-speakers-answer format. I’m curious to hear from commenters if they prefer one format over the other (don’t know that I have strong preferences myself, both formats can work) I’ll also note that the large majority of comments during the discussion came from a relatively small number of people, most of whom were either the speakers or well-known senior ecologists (plus one gabby blogger…). This occurred even though there were plenty of students and postdocs in the room. And it wasn’t as if the moderator was only calling on senior people–as far as I could tell, everyone who raised their hand to comment got to do so. Possibly, the dynamics in the eco-evolutionary session had a fair bit to do with the room being packed. Had there been a smaller audience, I bet the discussion might have had a different dynamic.
- I’m sure my impressions are at least in part (and maybe mostly) a function of the session I chose to attend. Other Ignite sessions on other topics may well have been quite different in all sorts of ways. Hopefully commenters will chime in with their experiences of the Ignite sessions.
I like having a variety of formats in a single meeting. Ignite talks extend the range of variation. I definitely wouldn’t want the meeting to consist entirely of Ignite talks; different formats exist for different purposes. Tony Ives made great use of the space afforded by a one-hour timeslot for his MacArthur award lecture. Plenty of speakers in regular sessions make great use of their 20 minutes, leaving you feeling like the whole 20 minutes was time well spent. I don’t think Ignite sessions are better or worse than other sorts of sessions–they’re just different, much as how posters and talks are different.
Today I also gave my own talk. It seemed to go over well. Although during the week I’ve had multiple conversations in which I’ve summarized my key points in less than two minutes with no slides. Had I chosen to assume rather more familiarity with the material on the part of the audience, I feel like I totally could’ve given my talk as an Ignite talk. Which is another line of evidence that it’s perfectly possible to treat an Ignite talk as just a short version of an ordinary ESA talk.