Earlier this year, I heard a research talk by an FSP who inserted many comments about her personal life into her talk. During the talk, I was quite annoyed by this, but I had to mull it over for a long time before writing about it because I had to think carefully about why it bothered me.
I certainly don't mind if a speaker inserts some personal asides in a talk. A talk given by a human being should have some human elements to it. In the talk that annoyed me, however, the personal details were unusual in quantity and detail. Is that bad?
First I will give some (vague) examples. When presenting data collected a few years ago, the FSP mentioned that she was very pregnant at the time. This fact was not relevant to the data collection. At another point in the talk, she mentioned that during a later part of her research her daughter was a toddler and she had another baby. She mentioned her spouse several times and showed pictures of her children during the talk, interspersed with the scientific results and interpretation.
Is this useful information that gave the audience a more complete appreciation of the context of her research life and in particular provided the audience with an unambiguous example of a woman being a professor and a mother?
Or was it unprofessional and strange?
Would my opinion, which veered closer to the latter than the former, have been more positive if the research had been impressive? Was I anxious that some audience members might think that her research was unimpressive because she was a professor-mom? Why should she have to be a representative of professor-moms?
I have listened to many lame talks by MSPs and never assumed that any of them were representing their gender or race or place of origin or marital status or religion or anything but themselves (and maybe their departments). I hope I was not embarrassed by this FSP as an unimpressive representative of professor-moms, but I fear that I was, at least a little bit. This of course leads back to the usual point about how if there were more of us, none of us would be seen as representatives for all women, moms etc.
Aside from that issue, how much personal information is appropriate to include in a professional talk? I can see the temptation of wanting people to appreciate how difficult it is to do certain research activities whilst confronted with significant challenges, even if those challenges are of the personal sort. Even so, although we professors shouldn't hide the fact that we have families and medical issues and so on, I don't think we should make our personal lives a significant part of our research talks to professional audiences. The audience came to learn about your research; you: not so much. That type of information can be more effectively and appropriately conveyed during mentoring sessions, individual discussions, or social events (over meals and drinks), not to mention in blogs.
Perhaps it is a generational thing, one of my similarly-annoyed colleagues wondered. Perhaps we are curmudgeons who become unhinged at the mention of pregnancy or babies during a Scientific Talk?
I don't know, but if these TMI talks become a trend, I might have to add another category to my newly reformatted CV. Perhaps I will annotate my list of journal articles and conference proceedings based on my physical and mental health and that of my family, friends, and cats at the time. There are certain papers and conference proceedings that instantly bring to mind certain events in my personal life from the associated time and place; it just didn't occur to me to share this information in certain ways.
7 months ago