Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Credit Worthy

Continuation of yesterday's discussion of Department Seminar Attendance

If attendance at department seminars 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?

Students should get academic credit for seminar attendance if it benefits their academic program to do so. In some cases, adding an extra credit or two can be can be helpful, but in other cases it is a problem. Attending seminars takes time, and if the intention of requiring mandatory attendance is to provide an educational experience, students should get some credit for that time if possible. The action of sitting in a chair in a room while a seminar is occurring is probably worth about 1 credit at a typical American university. [Some programs require more than just attendance; I will discuss this tomorrow]

In systems in which awarding academic credit is either not done or is not feasible, it may well be that mandatory seminar attendance cannot be enforced in any sane way. Even so, a department's philosophy and/or regulations regarding seminar attendance should be clearly stated to new students so that everyone knows what the expectations are and how these are to be met.

Department seminars -- whether mandatory or not -- should be during typical daytime/weekday hours. [I feel another poll coming on... but not today .. about what is the best day/time for seminars]

When I have been in departments in which seminar attendance is not required or is only required of first/second year grad students, most of my students attend regularly anyway, as do I. If attendance at seminars is recognized as important by faculty advisors, their students are probably more likely to attend as well.

The department chair can also send a strong message that seminars are important educational experiences (for everyone) and are a way that a department demonstrates that it is an interesting, interactive place. If budgets permit (and they may soon not permit), bringing in outside speakers is a way to advertise what is going on in a department. This can be very important for the general reputation of the department, and can therefore benefit all department members.

If I show up to give an invited talk at a university and the seminar room is filled with people asking questions, I will have a positive impression of that place as an intellectually stimulating place filled with energetic and curious people. If there are only a few sleepy people in the room, it will certainly not occur to me that I am boring or that my research topic is unappealing. Well, it might occur to me briefly, but I will then nevertheless conclude that the place is an intellectual desert and I will wonder why I was even invited if only one person wanted to hear my talk.

Summary: Attend as many seminars as you can. If students can get academic credit, that's good, but whether or not academic credit is bestowed, in the long run the cosmic credit may well be worth much much more.

15 comments:

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Department seminars -- whether mandatory or not -- should be during typical daytime/weekday hours.

In all my years attending and delivering seminars at numerous insitutions all over the world, I have never experienced a seminar that wasn't scheduled at a normal time. The most common I have experienced are 4PM and Noon.

Cherish said...

I'm disappointed that you failed to mention one of the best motivators for students to go to seminar: food and drink.

At my previous institution, my dept. went through a phase where all grad students were required to go to seminar. It was like pulling teeth, and as soon as they removed the requirement, seminar attendance dropped to virtually nothing.

At my current institution, seminar is late in the day, and food and drink are available afterwards. People eat and socialize after seminar, and a lot of students show up who aren't required to be there. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the opportunity to socialize, as well as the free food. It's a very different atmosphere.

squawky said...

While I loathed this particular practice when I was a student, I think the best way to handle academic credit is to require some kind of assignment beyond attendance.

We were required to do some short written assignments for some fraction of the semester's seminars - either to write 3-4 questions that we would have asked the speaker, or to put together a short "logic flow" of the talk (although I never quite figured that one out and ended up just outlining the talks... )

The question writing, in particular, helped bridge that intellectual gap between "lecture material is correct, go learn it" and "here's my recent work, what do you think?" -- the difference between accepting the presented material as fact (undergrad) and questioning the material (grad).

Now, as for cosmic credit - that applies to all of us (faculty included). Life doesn't get any less busy after grad school, so figuring out how to manage your time to fit in things like weekly seminar is a good experience. (Once you're in the faculty job, you'll have to make time for faculty meetings and university committees that you'd rather not attend - best to learn how to deal with these things early).

To be honest, the absences that irk me the most are the faculty members who demand that their students attend but cannot be bothered to show up themselves.

I always come to seminars (and meetings) with a pad of paper and pen. If the speaker is horrible (it happens), I can brainstorm project ideas, write to-do lists, or whatever. If the speaker is really interesting, the worst that happens is I spill some seminar coffee on my unmarked paper.

Sneks said...

But is "cosmic credit" motivation enough?

I am a 4th year grad student in a department that "requires" grad students to go to seminars. It is a widely varied department (which we pride ourselves on), so the topics range from miniscule things to giant things. I am more on the giant end of science, so the tiny end doesn't really interest me (and, worse, the speakers that are from that not-interesting-to-me side of things are usually from industry! (Which we all know usually means BORING talk with inability to use powerpoint)). But I am "required" to go anyway.

But there are no consequences for NOT going! So many students don't go! Which is so very frustrating to me (a student who attends them all). Why am I "rewarded" with a boring talk for doing what I am required to do, while those who do not attend get rewarded with an additional hour of research (or sleep or TV watching)? Seems a bit ... unbalanced to me!

AsstFemaleProf said...

As a new professor whose department chair "strongly encourages" all faculty to attend seminars, it is extremely frustrating. I agree that attending is important for students of all ages. But the sheer number of seminars makes it difficult - multiple seminars a week. I think attendance may go up if the number of seminars decreased. Simultaneously, the quality of the speakers (on a routine basis) would also probably increase which would feedback into the attendance loop...

Anonymous said...

Re: timing. My current institution has weekly talks that run from 5:15 til 6:30. However, if I do not pick my daughter up from daycare by 6pm I am charge $15 for every 5 minutes I am late. Furthermore, despite putting my name on the waiting list before I even reached the "public" 12 weeks pregnant mark, I am still not at the top of the list for on-campus childcare, so I can't even run out at 5:55pm.

My absence from the seminar series is frowned upon, but until either the dept or the institution does something to address the time constraints of the those of us with kids, there is really nothing I can do about it.

yolio said...

Actual university credit may be important to undergrads, but your average grad students has a surplus of it. Thus it is an empty reward, barely even noticeable beyond the cosmic credit, and thus not worth the paperwork. Good food is far more motivating.

Comrade Physioprof said...

My current institution has weekly talks that run from 5:15 til 6:30.

That's totally fucking ridiculous,

Woman Chemist said...

Our department doesn't require attendance and through some mystical procedure random (or maybe not, I don't know) groups of us are registered for the 1 hour seminar "courses". This is done by the graduate office, and those of us selected get an email notifying us of the change, and reassuring us that this is just a formality, and while attendance is still encouraged, it's not mandatory - even if we're technically registered for it. It's a strange policy. We also have cookies and coffee at every seminar, but attendance is still low.

caroline said...

My current institution has weekly talks that run from 5:15 til 6:30.

That's totally fucking ridiculous,


Why? As I mentioned in my comment on the last post, a lot of grad students (myself included) work 9-5 jobs and can't make it to daytime seminars.

At the same time, most graduate classes (at least at my university) are 7:30-10 pm. So this time slot would fit neatly into nearly everyone's schedules. I'd still have to leave work quite early to make it, but a 5:15-6:30 seminar would not be impossible.

Ambivalent Academic said...

@ anonymous 12:17 --
My department does the same thing, even to student-parents...AND that seminar is required for students - they take attendance and make us write a "punishment essay" (yes, that's really what it's called) in order to make up the incomplete grade.
@CPP & caroline --
Yes, it's a total bullshit thing to do to parents who are still trying to earn their degree. I say that if they're going to continue to pull this kind of crap the student-parents ought to pick up their kids early and bring the screaming infants to the seminar. That ought to get things fixed in a hurry.

Not Just Academic said...

So - free food and/or drink a good seminar make. Mostly, if not completely, irrespective of the content of the talk!

Seminars in my department run from 4-5pm but attendance is poor. Picking up kids is often given as the reason for non-attendance, but lots of child-free people don't attend either.

All we need now is to pinpoint the idea time and we've got the optimal recipe for good attendance. Lunchtime?

grad student said...

the problem with scheduling these things is that there is no ideal time for everyone.

I don't think attending should be required. We're adults, capable of taking responsibility for our education (or should be). That being said, attending should be encouraged and shame on advisors who tell their students not to go (directly or indirectly).

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP, I have a female scientist question for you. How can I send this to you? Is your email visible somewhere on the blog? If so, I am being blind to exactly the target I am looking for (why?)

Apologies for disrupting this topic.

My view on topic: My grad dept had tension about this because grad students showed up much more than faculty to the departmental weekly seminars! Otoh, if I were faculty in that dept, (in retrospect) I'd probably pick another seminar to attend on campus give how busy + the range of options...

Grad students can always find a reason to not attend seminars (assignments, experiments, conference deadlines, papers etc). I did it myself. But really over the years I am now convinced seminars are actually one of the most cost effective science activities. The speaker, in most cases, regardless of ability to do so, actually attempts to summarize and convey their research to the specific audience that you belong to... That's not always the case, even at conferences the audience is usually wider... Yes, some people are horrible speakers and mess it up. But mostly you're getting the best of the speaker as targeted to you. And occasionally something real special!

I wouldn't make anything "compulsory" since I believe in freedom and all. But yeah I think there should be "social pressure" on all dept members to attend dept seminars.

That said, I hate pizza at seminars - smells the whole time with cheese! Yuck... (Maybe I don't get it because I am not american...)

EcoGeoFemme said...

We have to register for the seminar series as a course, but for 0 hours. If we give a seminar, we can register for 1 hour that semester. It is graded P/F based on attendance, but it's never clear how many you have to attend to earn a P.

I hate signing in. It's humiliating. But I like that there is typically a full room for seminars so I guess I'll put up with it.