Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Big Invited Cheeses

For various reasons, I have found myself co-convening sessions for some conferences later this year. One of these sessions has so far been a pleasure to organize, as I am working with a congenial, compatible, and international group of colleagues. We have different but complementary expertise, and I think it's going to be an interesting session.

The other session is still in the early stages of organizing, but already I can tell that my co-convener and I do not share the same world view of session organization. I am not going to go into the details of how we came to co-convene this session. Just assume that I had little choice about whether I organized this session and no choice in co-convener.

In any case, my co-convener and I get to select some invited speakers. This is where we diverge in Conference Organizing Philosophy. I personally would prefer to choose speakers who would give the most interesting talks, whether or not they are the most famous people on the planet in our field of Science. Sometimes early career scientists give the best talks because they are doing the most creative work, and -- even better -- sometimes it is work that hasn't already been presented at the last 57 conferences.

My co-convener subscribes to the Invite the Big Cheeses cult of session organizing. Big Cheeses can be very interesting, there is no doubt about that, but this co-convener doesn't seem to be able to discriminate between someone who could either give an interesting new talk or an insightful review talk vs. someone who has not had anything new or interesting to say in n+10 years. When he sent me his list of suggested invited speakers, I was stunned. I would only have come up with the same names if you had asked me to come up with a list of people most likely to give boring talks about the same old stuff.

Yes, I am aware that opinions can diverge and that what is boring to me might be fascinating to someone else, but really.. this list was amazing for its potential snooze quotient.

I suppose the idea is that if you have Big Invited Cheeses in a session, many people will want to participate and attend. I could well be wrong, but I think that is more likely to work if the Big Cheese is someone who gives a good talk and has new things to say.

In the end, I suppose my co-convener and I will compromise and the session will be like most sessions -- a mix of interesting (i) and boring (b). My hope, of course, is that i : b will be high.


grad student said...

As a grad student, I really enjoy seeing big and boring cheeses at a talk because it makes me feel better about my new and exciting work. I think to myself, "gosh, I am so much better than this guy" which leads me to doing even better work.

Anonymous said...

Now, could there be some point to inviting the big cheeses who will talk about the same boring old stuff because it won't be boring to people who don't know about it already? That is, are they seminars likely to be attended by folks outside of your field, who have, perhaps, seen the person's name in a textbook?

We recently had such an invitee, who repeated a talk on already published material that I knew very well. But, not everyone in the audience was me :-). Others, I think, learned something. And, I don't know that they would have come to the talk, if this person's name didn't appear in their textbooks.

DrJ&MrsH said...

I wonder if some people just love familiarity. Hearing the same big cheese talks over and over must be reassuring to them, like, "Yeah, I'm so well-informed that I already know about this! I must be a big cheese too!" Sort of for the same reasons that teenagers love book series--same characters, aura of familiarity, and stays within the comfort zone.

Anonymous said...

I say the heck with Big cheeses. They already have recognition. Time to give others a chance in the limelight.

butterflywings said...

As you said FSP, a mix of big cheeses and newer people would be best.

Also: it can be inspiring for young people new to the field to hear "big cheeses", just to think "Wow, I've read this person's papers and books! So that's what they look like!". Remember we young ones have not necessarily heard it all before.
Also, a good chance to make contacts ;-) lack of confidence/ nervousness allowing.
I am not normally shy, but reduce to a gibbering wreck in the presence of Important People.
(Before a glass of wine, that is. "Ah, so that's why they have wine at these academic things"!)

drj&mrsh - I like book series :-) and am no teenager.

Male Humanist said...

Very interesting.

I agree very much with your philosophy. Another point that you don't mention: a younger person is apt to feel honored and work very hard to make it a great presentation, in the hopes that she might be invited back, impress a few people who have never heard of her, etc. Whereas a Cheese is much more likely to throw together whatever notes he has -- and he may be good at pulling it off, but it's still going to be disappointing.

Also, I was on the program committee for my discipline's major convention recently. The society's executive board was concerned that the papers weren't well enough attended, and issued instructions to add 'pizazz'. They suggested loading up on the Cheese. To my happy surprise, *everyone* on the program committee resisted the instruction, and we found other ways to pizazzify the program.

Jennie said...

I was invited to give a talk at a recent conference by on of the conveners but it was informal so I never got the invited next to my name. It was a let down because I was really excited that this would happen to me, a graduate student. As it turns out we had 8 talks out of 23 abstracts (the others were posters) so I felt lucky to get a talk at all and 5 of the 8 talks were invited, all by the big cheeses in the group, and yes they presented similar results that had been presented at previous conferences. Yet my research was the talk of the session. Everyone said "oh you are jennie who measured that really cool thing, ect." *Sigh* How do you write that on a CV?

RattleSnake said...

im a student and i like the big cheeses that bring alot of cheese to the table humor is what wins me and gets my vote

Anonymous said...

Yet my research was the talk of the session. Everyone said "oh you are jennie who measured that really cool thing, ect." *Sigh* How do you write that on a CV?

That's great! Fortunately, the buzz has its own value, and word will spread even beyond the meeting attendees, despite the fact that it won't show on your CV.