Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Compulsory Education

An interesting comment on yesterday's post made me decide to take a detour from my semi-planned blog route this week.

New general topic : Department Seminars: Should attendance be required of graduate students?(note: I am in the mood to use colons today) (another note: I realize that some departments have more than one seminar series, but for the purposes of today's discussion, I will refer to the seminar series in the singular)

Related topic : If attendance is required, should students get academic credit or should they get cosmic credit and a warm/fuzzy feeling of intellectual stimulation even if of the coerced sort?

Other related topic: If students get academic credit, should the students be required to do something other than just be physically present in the seminar room during the talk? For example, should students participate in a pre- or post-seminar discussion of the talk? Read some of the speaker's papers? Write a summary of something (the paper(s), the talk)?

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Today's topic: Department seminars: Should attendance be required of graduate students?


I have been in departments in which grad attendance was optional and in departments in which grad attendance was required and in departments that switched from optional to required systems. Attendance is definitely higher when it is required, and this is of course one of the motivations of the requirement.

It is a fact that, when attendance is not required, some students will attend anyway, some will never attend, and some will have intermittent attendance. (just like faculty)

It is too easy to convince yourself that you don't have time to attend a seminar, that you have other priorities, that your desk chair is much more comfortable than the chairs in the seminar room, that you don't want to disconnect from your iPod for even an hour, and that the title of the talk sounds boring and isn't even in a field you care about.

Being required to attend the departmental seminar eliminates that pesky decision-making process about whether to go to seminar or not. But then, if required to attend, you might sit there in the seminar, seething with resentment about being forced to attend rather than being trusted to make the decision to attend, and your anger at the controlling professors who are oppressing you leaves you unable to appreciate the seminars, even the ones that aren't horrific examples of PowerPoint abuse. You are further unhinged by bitterness when you look around the room and note that quite a few faculty are missing. What is their excuse? Shouldn't they be required to attend seminar as well? Hypocrites.

Faculty should attend seminar if they aren't traveling or on leave or otherwise unable to attend, but faculty are no longer students subject to requirements intended to round out their education. Faculty typically decide to require students to attend department seminars because attending such seminars is viewed as an important educational experience.

I wish that seminars need not be required and that attendance would be high without the requirement. Decades of experience, however, tell me that this is never the case, so I think it is fine to require at least the 1st-2nd year grad students to attend a certain (high) % of each term's seminars.

If you attend seminars regularly, you will realize that although many are in fact not so exciting, over time you learn some useful and possibly important things you wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to learn, you meet (or at least see) new people, you get ideas (about research, about how to give/not give a talk), and you are occasionally surprised by something extraordinarily interesting.

.. to be continued ..

28 comments:

Kea said...

Attendance was compulsory in theory for grad students where I was, but since there were no real penalties for not attending, few did. As a result, the number of people at a seminar would vary from 5 or 6 to 200. But I don't think that really matters. A good speaker shouldn't mind if there is only 1 interested speaker in the room.

Anonymous said...

I disagree somewhat. I think there is an element of respect involved. If the turnout for the talk is low, it makes the department look bad and embarrasses the person who went to the trouble of inviting the speaker. I have been both the speaker and the host in situations like this, and it's not pleasant on either side.

A Life Long Scholar said...

As a graduate student, I really enjoy attending seminars, and never miss *if I'm in the building* that day. However, like many of today's students, I prefer to work from home, so rarely make the trip (15 minutes drive) in to the University if I don't have to. As a result, I miss some seminars on topics which are *very* interesting to me, and attend some on topics which hold no appeal, since my attendance is entirely dependant upon what else I have to do that day.

I am actually looking forward to completing the degree and getting either a teaching position or post-doc position, so that I actually have a reason to go in each day--that way I'll be able to make it to seminars regularly (though, probably, I will get less accomplished, if I start *only* working from Uni).

Not Just Academic said...

In the UK, because PhD students generally don't attend classes for credit (and hence don't have concrete rewards), it can be quite difficult to get any of them to go to departmental seminars. Unless it's directly related to their field, they can't see the point. Unfortunately, in my (rather large and topically diverse) department, it's the same story with the faculty.

Does anyone have any good strategies for guilting / persuading faculty or students to attend? Last week's speaker had only 8 people in the audience and it was a bit embarrassing.

Anonymous said...

How about when day and time are burdensome? Like -hypothetically- when the Department's "CEO" requires all grad students and postdocs (and some faculty) to attend a Saturday morning seminar. Hypothetical "CEO" never showed up, unless to impress a dignitary. I would be hypothetically thankful to no longer be involved with this hypothetical Department.

R said...

I always thought the idea behind required attendance was to avoid what commenter #2 points out: to not embarrass the department and the person who invited the speaker.

While I understand it is important to make speakers feel appreciated (if not, there is a possibility thats eventually nobody would want to visit your department), there is something wrong with the way this is enforced.

For one, student attendance is not the only one that the speaker will care for, faculty counts too. If the professors in the department do not care about the speaker having a bad experience, why should the students?

Then you have the educational factor. Yes, FSP is right that the more you attend the more you learn, there is no way someone in grad school can go years without learning something (we are talking about "smart" people in grad school). But if the purpose of the seminar series is to teach something to students, then the speakers need to be carefully selected. Speakers with an excellent teaching record for example, or maybe 4th, 5th year grad students from other departments/universities. The first will presumably do a good job because of their teaching abilities/style, the second have extra motivation to do a good presentation plus they get experience in giving talks.

Whatever the reason for requiring attendance is, many departments get it wrong both on how they try to achieve the goal.

NeuroPostdoc said...

Unless there are actual penalties for not attending then requiring attendance doesn't force the people who don't want to attend to attend and causes those who do attend to be pissed off about the compulsory nature of it...

Tinkering Theorist said...

My department keeps telling us grad students that seminar attendance is "mandatory". However, it's not clear that they are using the word in any normal sense--it's obvious that not everyone can attend every seminar, yet they don't say how many are expected, only that they are mandatory. Also, nothing (nothing at all) happens to those who don't go. I go for the cookies.
(In fact, there are 3 seminar series that I sometimes go to--unfortunately, the one with the best food is far away and not usually as interesting.)

grad student said...

Coming from an anthropology department, where we have such a wide range of subdisciplines, I'm not sure. I go to seminars (both at my university and those close by) when I can (if they're of interest). But, I'm a 4th year student, running a lab project, writing grants, finishing quals, and TAing. Fitting in seminars is hard! Especially the way people schedule them; I actually have a hard time even getting to the ones I want to go to (they're always scheduled during my various TA activities it seems) without being forced to attend more seminars!But, then I don't think I'm the type of student who is the "target" of these initiatives; I go of my own free will to seminars (and journal clubs).

One thing's for sure: if you're going to force us to go to seminars, you've got to put them at a convenient time...good luck with that! Perhaps some sort of requirement for some, but not all seminars? Or allowances for scheduling issues (ie: interferes with other responsibilities)?

I guess I understand the benefit of forcing students to go, but I don't like the idea. We're adults here and its on us to make sure we get an education.

quietandsmalladventures said...

last year i was a first year student and was pleasantly surprised to find that the intro of at least two seminars completely reviewed material i found on exams within the week. bonus, the speaker did a better job of covering that material than the faculty.

my master's program scheduled seminars at 4pm which allowed for better attendance and less bitterness because i needed to leave an experiment. my ph.d. program has them scheduled at noon which means you see a lot of students straggling in because we're frantically trying to get gels loaded/get to a stopping point etc.

i really wish they were not mandatory, but i'm one of the students who attends fairly regularly if i can without being required. but i can also agree with anonymous, in my master's program (different school), attendance went from desired to required due to low turnout. the faculty were embarrassed, but routinely the faculty didn't show and the students did.

EthidiumBromide said...

We are "required" to attend, but I have to confess that I often do not. It is not because I am lazy, or find my chair more comfortable, but often that I am physically unable to do so. I often arrive in the lab at 4:30am to start my research, and do not leave until 7pm, and am working straight through. We have what totals to 4 hours of required seminars per week, all in the middle of the work days, rather than in the morning or evenings. If I attend all of these, my work hours go from absurd to beyond ridiculous. I am already arriving at 4:30am, am I supposed to come at 2:30am in order to fit in a 2 hour break in the middle?

My take on seminars is that if it fits into my labwork such that I have an incubation time or do not physically have to be doing something, then I always go. You will not find me sitting at my desk for the full 1-2 hours of the seminar. But if I have benchwork to do, then that is my priority -- I will not tack on an extra year of graduate school (and thus an extra year to my long distance marriage) as a result of attending 4 hours of seminars and journal clubs per week.

EliRabett said...

Another approach is to couple the seminar in a course with a second hour during which the topic of the seminar and the speaker's work are put into context by the member of the faculty closest to the speaker's field. Pass/Fail

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

There's another piece to this that you might want to address: making seminar series compulsory eliminates the friction that sometimes occurs between grad students and PIs. Some PIs of my acquaintance expressly tell students not to waste time going to seminars because that's lost experimental time, and experiments are the only things that matter.

I think this is a short-sighted approach that risks isolating the grad student from the bigger scientific community, but it does occur.

I think it's not a bad idea to make seminar compulsory for first years only. Get students into the habit and make it clear that the department values their attendance. After one year, let them make up their own minds about it.

squawky said...

I've been at three departments that had a requirement for seminar - but it was in the form of a 1-credit course (either pass/fail attendance only or a 1-credit course with short written assignments about the talks).

The problem with the course requirement is that grad students get it out of the way early, and then feel somewhat entitled to miss seminars once they've completed the requirement.

Attending seminar is a matter of respect - for faculty and postdocs as well as students - but I feel like the seminar organizers need to consider their department as well. When the seminar schedule feels like the faculty member in charge didn't look much beyond their own contact list for speakers, it doesn't necessary encourage attendance ("Oh, wow, look, the fifth -ology seminar in a row. I've got a deadline, sorry").

Ambivalent Academic said...

I second anonymous...we have one "required" seminar as grad students, complete with a sign-in sheet and a "punishment essay" assignment if we miss more than the allotted absences. Nothing makes you feel more like a petulant child than to be treated this way. If they went back to providing pizza (this seminar runs 5:30 to 6:30pm) I think that they would get a similar turnout with resentment from the students.

Another point: there are actually several (about half a dozen) available seminar series in our dept. PI "strongly encourages" attendance at all of them, and says some are "compulsory". Then wonders why the experimental results don't come in faster...when things are going slowly in the lab, his criticism is "I've seen you at a lot of seminars lately"...implying that we are using seminars to put off bench work. How's that for mixed messages?

Candid Engineer said...

I think it is okay to mandate seminar attendance when it is okay to hold seminar speakers to some kind of standard when giving talks. I was at a top-10 grad university where the seminar speakers regularly sucked the big nut (i.e. it was often obvious that they prepared their slides on the plane). I resented having to go to these seminars, and the occasional excellent seminar did little to make up for the hours and hours I wasted listening to subpar speakers bumble on incoherently.

caroline said...

In my program grad students are required to attend 10 seminars in order to graduate. However, they make it virtually impossible for part-time students to do this because most of them are scheduled on weekdays. There are several seminars I've been quite interested in but unable to attend because I had work. Does your school do this?

Kim said...

My grad department didn't require attendance at seminars. However, there was usually free food and beer after the talk, which meant that lots of grad students attended. (It also meant that the local homeless guy also went to all the talks on campus and then cornered the visiting speakers to discuss metaphysics and parapsychology.)

Comrade Physioprof said...

Grad students should be told that their education and training is, ultimately, their own responsibility, and that they have to be fucking morons not to attend as many seminars as they possibly can. And faculty need to be told that it is grossly inappropriate for them to make it clear to their students, either explicitly or implicitly, that their time is better spent in the lab doing minipreps than at a seminar.

One hour at a good seminar is about the most efficient use of time possible for any scientist at any level of seniority. Of course, one hour at a shitty seminar is a complete waste of time. I tell my trainees that if they are at a seminar and it is clear that it sucks ass, they are free to quietly leave.

Professor in Training said...

At my (very large, research intensive) Postdoc U, most seminars were scheduled either early in the morning or at midday and food was always provided ... which meant that the seminars were ALWAYS well attended by students, postdocs and faculty. As a lowly-paid postdoc, it was nice to know that I could get 2 free meals a day, 5 days a week if I needed/wanted ... oh, and I guess the sciencey stuff was sometimes worth the effort.

Tracy said...

Offering food is a good way to encourage attendance without mandating it. One good way I discovered was that the seminar was held at Friday at lunch time, lunch was served, and the seminar was considered required but you showed attendance by sending in the list of seminars you attended at the end of the term. Of course, the seminar grader was present, so lying to blatantly could potentially get you in trouble. Also, many professors came (perhaps also partly for the food) and were active in asking questions and discussing the content material. This made it seem like seminar was worthwhile and judged as such by your mentors.

One of the least effective I have seen is where no food is offered and lots of ridiculous rules are instated (ie, which rows you are allowed to sit in) and not only not many, but ZERO professors show up many days, and on a good day 1-2 will. This tends to reinforce the idea that going to seminar is unneccessary and useless.

Ambivalent Academic said...

I meant to type "without resentment". Free food makes up for a lot of crap treatment.

I also think mandating seminars after normal working hours (as defined by non-science types) puts a real hardship on students w/ kids. Parents in my program have to pick up the kids from daycare before 5:30, drop them off with someone else who can care for them for an hour, then rush back to campus to attend the crappy (student-led journal club) required seminar so as to avoid having to write a punishment essay for missing too many meetings.

Then go home and make dinner.

That's total crap in my opinion

capella said...

I think requiring at least some seminar attendance isn't a bad idea, since many students don't yet have the knowledge to figure out which seminars will be interesting or helpful. However, I think sometimes faculty err on the side of treating grad students like children - in my PhD program, we had a required weekly seminar (in addition to an optional department colloquium and of course all sorts of other seminar series on campus), and if we missed more than one seminar per semester there were serious consequences (I heard of people's graduation being delayed). This became really onerous toward the end of the degree program - nobody appreciates a seminar that is taking time away from writing the thesis they need to deposit the next month, and it's ridiculous to have to plan interviews around such things - but the faculty was extremely rigid and refused to make exceptions.

I also think a nominal requirement for discussion or written analysis of one or two talks per semester would really help students learn how to think about these things, as well as making the requirement seem less arbitrary.

Odyssey said...

I second what Comrade Physio Prof said.

I have learned more about the broad field in which I work (which is not what I trained in as an undergrad and grad student) from attending seminars than through any other means.

Anonymous said...

My current department requires the students to attend seminar. As the department is small we don't have many seminar series, only one. The students, I think, are exposed to science they might not otherwise ever hear anything about. Too often, it seems to me, that graduate students get so sucked into their own little tiny project world that they end up not learning anything not directly related to what they are doing. This, in my opinion is bad.

Sure, some departmental seminars do really really suck but over all I think it ends up being a positive experience even if you might not be directly interested in the topic. That being said though, a good speaker can make any topic interesting even if it isn't directly related to your tiny minutiae of science.

Anonymous said...

I have to say something to EthidiumBromide. Ummmmmm. . . what the f-- are you doing that you need to be at work from 4:30 AM-7:00 PM? And that being said, if you really are there that much and you only have 4 hours of other required stuff, what would 1 more hour be?

My suggestion to you, would be to think about having a life. I managed to get a PhD at a top-tier university in the physical sciences in 4.5 years by working 50-60 hours a week. I'm mind boggled.

yolio said...

The thing about seminars is that you never know. Some seminars are on a topic you never imagined you could possible be interested, and the talk turns out to be brilliant. Others, ought to be relevant and instead put you to sleep. You have to suffer through some duds in order to catch the good ones.

To me, seminars fall into the category of "miscellaneous scholarly activities." This is a category of things that are important but generally non-urgent, and thus are apt to be neglected. Being a good scholar means not neglecting these things.

Graduate students need to be taught to value activities that won't necessarily pay off in the short term, but in the long term make them better scholars. So yeah, a mandatory policy is good because it communicates the importance of these things. Resentment doesn't seem like such a problem: graduate students expect to have some things be required of them.

Ms.PhD said...

I think it should be non-compulsory, but sufficient information about seminars should be provided ahead of time to help everyone decide if they're going to miss something potentially exciting, useful, or otherwise educational.

My feeling is, if you have trouble getting attendance up, you didn't advertise well enough, and/or you're inviting the wrong people to your department. Good talks are always full, compulsory or otherwise.