Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post by Peter Adler.
Is it important to have a well-attended, stimulating department seminar series? And if an existing seminar isn’t working well, can it be saved?
Here’s a totally, completely, absolutely hypothetical scenario: A large state university has a cross-campus ecology program with a great seminar series run by graduate students. That seminar series brings in a nationally-recognized speaker each month to give a pair of talks, accompanied by a reception, meetings with students, and organized discussions or workshops. The same university also has a College of Natural Resources (NR) that runs its own seminar series during the other three weeks of each month. The NR series isn’t so great: it does not have a big budget to bring in speakers from across the continent, the quality of the talks is inconsistent, and attendance by both faculty and graduate students is poor.
Should a hypothetical NR professor try to do anything to improve this seminar series?
Keep in mind that making a case for collective action is a great way to annoy colleagues. If there is a golden rule of faculty conduct it is “don’t ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t want to be asked to do.” On the other hand, why bother running a mediocre seminar series at all? If we care enough to do it, shouldn’t we do it right?
If I were going to make a case for greater investment in this totally hypothetical seminar series, I would start by highlighting its most important potential benefits. Here is what I have come up with:
- A seminar is one of the very few times each week that everyone in the program gets together. This builds social and intellectual relationships, and often sparks the serendipitous conversations that generate new ideas.
- We want our graduate students to have breadth of knowledge to complement the depth they gain from their own research. Attending good seminars is one way to get that breadth.
- We want our graduate students to learn how to give good presentations (and to recognize and avoid giving bad ones!).
- If I invite a colleague to speak, I want to be sure that a decent audience will turn out.
- Heaven forbid, even the faculty members might learn something new.
I’m sure I am missing important benefits, so please comment and give me some talking points.
If this hypothetical NR program decides it cares enough about its seminar to improve it, how should it go about it? I’ve been trying to come up with a recipe for success. Here are the ingredients I have so far (again, please comment to suggest additional ingredients):
- Schedule the same convenient location, same convenient time, every week. For people to fall into a habit, the routine needs to be solid. I worry that reducing the frequency of seminars—a reasonable reaction to poor attendance–would send exactly the wrong message.
- Serve decent refreshments 15 minutes before the seminar start to entice people to show up early enough to mingle.
- Faculty must attend regularly. If they don’t, the students won’t either. Find an enforcer who is not afraid to call out the intransigent.
- Schedule good speakers who will appeal to a broad audience. This can be hard without a big budget. Do any of you have experience beaming luminaries in via videoconference? Worth a try perhaps?
- Provide perks to the organizer. Teaching or service credit?
Have you tried to turn around a lackluster seminar series? Did it work? Should I just drop this and go back to my office and pretend to get some work done?