Monday, March 28, 2011

Where You Sit

Once upon a time, when I was about to give an invited lecture at another university, my faculty host warned me ahead of time that the talk was in a very large lecture hall that was much too large for their department. Even if everyone remotely interested in our field of science from within a 50 mile radius came to my talk, the lecture hall would still have many empty seats. Furthermore, he told me, the graduate students would all be sitting in the last few rows and the faculty would be sitting in the first few rows, with a big blank area in between.

And so it was. It was kind of strange. In order to make eye contact with these two groups of people, I had to either look way up high to the back of the lecture hall or look down at the professors sitting clustered near the front. If I looked in the middle distance, I was looking at nothing, just seats.

This was an extreme case of a common phenomenon that I have seen again and again during visits to give talks at other universities. Professors sit near the front -- perhaps because our fading eyesight and hearing requires it -- and students sit in the back.

Although in other situations I prefer to sit near the back of a room, when I go to talks in my department, I like to sit near the front. This helps me focus on the talk more and makes it easier for me to be seen and heard if I ask a question. I don't know what reasons my colleagues have for sitting near the front, but that's where we professors all are during department seminars.

How divided is the seating in general talks in your department? Is there any place where professors sit near the back and students sit near the front?

How many places have total mixing of faculty and students? I had seen such places, but I think they are more rare than the professor-in-front/students-in-back seating arrangement.

If you are in a professor-in-front/student-in-back kind of department, do you think this is weird? cool? normal? Do you think there should be more mingling or are you happy sitting with your peers? If you are a postdoc, where do you sit? With the faculty or with the students or in between? (assuming you give it any thought at all)

I could do another poll, but I think I will just leave these questions to be answered in the comments today. An informal survey has indicated to me that people (other than me) have given this seemingly trivial situation a surprising amount of thought..

56 comments:

A Life Long Scholar said...

I have always sat in the front row, starting in Kindergarten, and nothing will ever change that habit. However, I was also both nearsighted and hard of hearing from early childhood. While I now have hearing aids and my eyes have been fixed, I am still more comfortable sitting close to the speaker.

Gears said...

THey should have put the talk in a smaller hall and encouraged mixed seating. I haven't come across such an extreme as that though.

Anonymous said...

There is a similar "tradition" at my university. I try to mix it up by sitting in the middle or towards the back of the room. This usually results in the impression that I have horrible BO since faculty proceed to their usual front-of-the-room position and students are afraid to sit directly next to me.

As a student, I also enjoyed sitting next to my advisor during talks because I got to hear his commentary on the science as well as its presentation.

zed said...

I wonder if the phenomenon varies as a function of room size. I have the impression from a small sample size that the segregation occurs mostly in large seminar rooms, maybe because there's more choice as to where to sit. Interestingly, at my last University, in the large lecture hall it wasn't so much a front to back segregation as the faculty sitting in one clump to the right and the students mostly to the left.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, at my institution, the students usually sit in the front and the professors sit further back at talks (or both in front, but on the left and right sides of the lecture hall). During regular classes with students, the seats fill in from front to back and at faculty meetings, the seats fill in from back to front.

Anonymous said...

The back row of our seminar room is typically dominated by the graduate students, though one prof. has worked hard at getting us to move and sit more forward in the room in an effort to get us to participate more in asking questions and whatnot (it has not worked that I can tell). Our group is also growing, so some of us need to sit commingled with the faculty out of necessity now. So the front has a high density of faculty with a decreasing gradient going backwards, and the back is dominated with student with a gradient decreasing forwards.

Anonymous said...

When I was a first year PhD student I would go to all the talks and sit near the back. As a second year, I would sit near the back and near the door and explain to everyone around me I would leave early (but I would come back for beer). Now as a third year I rarely, if at all, go to the series, I just come for the beer at the end and hang out with my friends and have a few free beers.

Anonymous said...

Our weekly department-wide seminars follow the professors-in-front, student-in-back arrangement, with one exception: since these seminars are held late in the afternoon, professors (male and female) who are on a tight timeline to pick up their children from childcare or after school programs also sit at the back, so as to be closer to the back door in case the seminar/Q&A runs long.

Female Post-doc said...

In my grad department, grad students sat on one side of the room, faculty on the other. Over the years some mixing happened as new faculty and students joined, but there were certainly those creatures of habit who didn't change it up.

sclemm said...

Oddly enough, in our department seminars the faculty sit to one side (stage left?) and the graduate students on the other. The middle is usually some grad students and then a bunch of undergrads taking the seminar for credit.

I think at this point this is because it's "traditional" - I've only been here a year so I have no idea how or when it started. A few faculty side on "our" side sometimes, but for the most part we're pretty separated.

Anonymous said...

We have our seminars in a room that is usually a tiny bit too small. The faculty are pretty evenly spread but the grad students always sit in the very back row, even if they have to cram extra chairs into that single row. I'll be interested to read all the justifications for sitting in the back that I'm sure will be posted today. I think it is pathetic in research seminars.

(I might be biased, of course. As an undergrad, I always sat in the last row in large lectures, but that is because I spent the time working on my crosswords).

Anonymous said...

In my department, the students are not allowed to sit in the back row during a seminar and they are in fact spread fairly evenly over the lecture hall.

Anonymous said...

It's pretty mixed in my department. The professors usually sit on the aisles on both sides, from the front to the back of the room (and one professor is usually sitting at the very back, playing with his iPhone). The students sit in the center, more near the back but many of the theory students sit closer to the front. There is also a weird side bank of seats in the very back, which is usually completely full of students. I used to sit in the center front or so, because I have poor distance vision but often forget glasses, and I didn't think that anyone I knew went to seminars until I realized that the only people around me were theorists, and my experimentalist friends were further back.

queenrandom said...

Our lecture hall is woefully inadequate for our department size; people are usually sitting on the steps and sometimes standing in back. So not much empty space. But the faculty do tend to sit front-middle and techs/postdocs/students middle-back. I prefer to sit front-middle, if I get there early enough. On the few occasions where we have a larger or emptier hall, students sit further forward, although some will always sit in the back row no matter what. I guess I never really thought of it as strange until now :) I don't have too many theories for the seating arrangement, except maybe the trainees prefer to sit with each other to socialize and not with their bosses/mentors; likewise, mentors prefer to socialize with one another. Why the front-back division I don't know.

Bashir said...

It depends on what room the talk is in. In the smaller rooms used for weekly seminars many professors have specific seats that are "theirs". Those seats tend to be in the front half, and at the conference table is there is one. That's the big one, table seat vs. non-table seat.

Grad students tend to sit middle to back. I don't care where they sit necessarily, some in the back but pay attention and ask questions, though many seem to be hiding out, hoping no one notices them.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if there is a trans-Atlantic split. At the UK universities I attended, staff and students were completely mixed, while at my current US institution, there is a clear faculty student split, with post docs filling the gaps. I do wonder whether the bigger gap between faculty and students at my current institution is partly a result of the lack of communal eating arrangements - unlike my experience in the UK, there is no common room where people congregate to eat lunch.

Heath said...

This phenomenon struck me shortly after starting grad school. In our department the students sit in the back and professors sit in the front. Even weirder our professors noticeably group on the right side of the room. I am in a small lab with our PI, one postdoc and one other grad student. We buck the trend and sit as a group in the third or fourth row.

I think the segregation is pointless. I am in grad school to become a professor. Part of that is interacting with invited guests and other faculty at presentations. Sitting silently at the top of the auditorium doesn't serve that goal.

Anonymous said...

Our department seminars are in a lecture hall that isn't big enough to have that many empty rows. In general, the first row is mostly faculty, but otherwise the rest of the room is mixed. Our dept chair always sits in front, and there are some faculty who always sit in back so they can sneak out early. But otherwise everyone basically sits wherever there's space. It's not uncommon for faculty and students to sit near each other, and even *gasp* ask each other to borrow a pen for note taking.

science is real said...

Our seminars are in a reasonably-sized room - it'll be packed with people sitting on the steps for popular talks and decently full for most others. Professors have the front row, but if that fills up they mix in with the grad students. Grad students and post-docs definitely don't aggregate in the back row, though the side closer to the door is always much more crowded than the "far" side!

We also have an emeritus professor who comes to each and every talk, and there is always a seat saved for him in the front row even if he walks in late.

science is real said...

oh and I forgot to add, as a grad student I feel that leaving the first row for professors is kind of a sign of respect. You can see just as well from the second row (where grad students routinely sit) and it seems like some of the older professors have been sitting in the same seat at seminars since before i was born. Us young spry grad students with good eyesight can sit a row back.

Anonymous said...

Our seating is entirely mixed. It seems entirely appropriate to ask the people sitting in the back to mover forward before you begin.

Anonymous said...

Our seating is mixed in terms of undergrad/grad/post doc/ prof. We frequently have lab groups that sit together. There are a handful of professors that always sit in the front when they go to a talk. I can't imagine a "segregated" audience - in the three Marine Science departments I have been in, it was always mixed. The Ecology & Evolution in which I sometimes attend talks is also mixed. Most of my departments have had portable microphones for the speakers.

Anonymous said...

We are a "students sit in front (because they are told to), professors sit anywhere" department.

Anonymous said...

I usually sit at the furthest forward row with the nearest seat to the door. I really hate crowds and so I always like a good proximity to escape if needed. Apart from that, I don't really pay any attention to who sits where. Though to be fair the rooms we use aren't big enough for these distint segregation anyway.

akajb said...

My department is one of those that is mixed. Except for maybe the very first row - where usually only professors sit. But the rest, second row to the back has a mixture of grads and profs (and undergrads and post docs).

Anonymous said...

Even for talks, we don't have access to a lecture hall, just a seminar room. As the room starts to fill, the faculty sit at the seminar table in the comfy chairs and the grad students take the folding ones along the sides of the room, but as more people come in, the room ends up integrated, with segregation based on time of arrival. As with A Life Long Scholar, I'm deaf and need to be up-front to lip read. Never occurred to me that I might be breaking some kind of behavioral code!

Anonymous said...

I've been in three departments (as a student, postdoc, and now faculty) and all three are profs-in-front. However, halfway through grad school an announcement was made that from now on graduate students would be required to sit in front, profs in back. So, we switched. I think the idea was that we would be more likely to ask more questions.

This actually worked. When the profs sat in front, they dominated the Q&A time after the seminar and even if a grad student raised their hand the prof's never stopped talking long enough for the speaker to call on us. It was kind of ridiculous. But when the students sat in front, the profs could see if a student was trying to ask a question and would politely and quickly wrap up their point to give us a chance to speak.

Micro Dr. O said...

Ours are fairly well-mixed, although there are more faculty in the front and more grad students in the back. This is different than what I saw during grad school, where a sharp division like what you speak of was common. We also have quite a few more outspoken grad students here - which means they're not *hiding out* the way students do at other institutions I've been at.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much of this audience division is field specific -- and how much it relates to actual or perceived social hierarchies in various fields.

I have never seen a divided room and have been to talks in Ecology, Conservation Biology, Forestry, Geology, and Plant Sciences at two Universities. I have found these fields to be rather collaborative and non-hierarchical.

In a big auditorium, I (a grad student) tend to sit about one-third of the way back and towards the center. This would be where you would pay the most for theater seat tickets, and has the best sight lines.

Anonymous said...

In my department the professors sit in front and the students sit in the rest of the room. This happens in both the lecture hall and the small classroom in which our department has seminars. There are gaps in seating but only at poorly attended talks, and it's probably only noticeable in the large room.

I thought this seating arrangement was lame when I first got here, but now I go with it. As I've been in grad school longer I've also learned of the baggage that comes with asking questions in seminars and do it less. Professors have to because it's their job. The students don't have to and people get irritated when they ask questions, unless the questions are excellent. Not a particularly encouraging environment.

Also, we have had a contingent of students who knit in seminars the whole time I've been here and I think it makes sense to sit in the back if you're going to knit. Our chair is totally pumped about this and for a while entertained the idea of learning to knit so he could do it in seminar too.

Writing this down makes me feel like my department might be bizarre.

Anonymous said...

Seminars in my grad department were divided to an extreme. The grad students sat in the back and the faculty in the front, with a gap in the middle. The grad students would talk incessantly and loudly in the back and it was very embarrassing. I sat in the back of the front, i.e. a row or two behind the faculty and very obviously separated from the rest of the students. There were a few select students who sat with me, and I'm sure we were regarded as overachievers by our peers.

It got bad enough that eventually the first and second year students were required to sit in certain rows in the front. Several times the hosting faculty member openly chastised the students in the back for their rude behavior. Again, it was just plain embarrassing.

In my current department, there's definitely the faculty-in-the-front/students-in-the-back phenomenon, but it's much more relaxed and mixed. Bold students sit right up in the front with the emeritus faculty and younger faculty sit toward the back and middle with the students. I think partly this is because our room is usually jam packed, but we also have a pretty good culture in the department where we all respect each other. And for the record, this is a physics department.

Anonymous said...

My department does professors in front, students in back -- but there's no assigned seating, it just happens that way. I always sort of assumed it was out of respect for the professors -- the front is the "better" seats, and of course the professors should get those. Seniors sit in front of juniors too, usually, although that's more mixed.

-a physics undergrad

Anonymous said...

faculty tend more to sit in the front, grads in the back. but for certain talks (i.e. ones pertinent to special subject area) grads will sit up closer. personally i got the most out of seminars when i sat next to faculty & could ask them questions & hear their comments

Micro Dr. O said...

Scratch the first comment - the phenomenon of mixing grad students and faculty must be confined to our department. Just went to a seminar in another department, and I was the only non-faculty sitting anywhere near the front of the room.

Ms.PhD said...

My grad school tended to be very mixed. As a postdoc, it depended mostly on the topic of the talk. If it was something I really cared about, I'd sit in the very front.

Otherwise, I tended to sit near the front so the faculty would see me and I could ask questions, and I only sat in the back if the front was full or if I might want to sneak out early (due to benchwork timing or potentially poor quality of the talk).

Obviously, none of my sitting the front just to rub elbows with faculty and be seen asking questions helped my career *one bit*, or I'd have a job now, so I don't think it matters at all.

The guys I knew who got jobs in my field had no problem sitting in the back and yelling out their questions across the entire room. I never felt comfortable doing that.

unlikelygrad said...

MyU is the opposite of zed's school--the profs all sit to the left, and the students to the right.

I am one of those people who loves to sit in the front row, but I can't do it for seminar, otherwise I end up too close to the screen. In the good ol' days (when I was younger), my eyes could focus better at different distances, but that is sadly no longer the case. (If we ever had a PowerPoint-less seminar, I wouldn't mind sitting up front.) I can't read all the print from the back, either, so I sit just right of the middle of the room.

Anonymous said...

I am in 2 depts and in neither do students tend to sit in the front. I don't think it is because they are saving good seats for the profs though, I have the impression they would sit in the back even if there were no profs there.

falltoclimb said...

Our weekely departmental grad seminars bring together a few dozen grad students and faculty, and the seat selections are always the same: no one in the first few rows (except for the presenters themselves and those who are introducing them), then the students, then the profs. Most of the profs always sit at the very back row, with one or two exceptions who stick to the middle-to-rear positions. It's a small enough space that everyone can easily hear everybody else.

Anonymous said...

I'm in a biochem department that also uses an overly large room for our seminars. Faculty density is highest in the very front (people who share research interests with the speaker, emeritus profs who go to every talk) and the very back (overscheduled people late to everything). Students and postdocs sit together, usually with their labmates, in the middle to mid-back, leaving a thinly populated mid-front region. Everyone is usually to the speaker's right, because that's where the coffee is.

Annoyingly, the department host usually calls on people for questions, rather than letting the speaker do it herself. This means the local political bigwigs dominate Q&A. Students and postdocs can ask questions, but have to wait till the bigwigs have spoken. In practice, students don't ask many questions, and aren't encouraged to.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

Grad school and two post docs at institutions with 15-35 professors and about twice as many grad students, has shown this pattern (profs to the front, students to the rear) consistently, but not to an extreme (both groups spread out enough that the meet in the middle). In all three cases the room was a good size: seats were always available but the place never felt empty. Post-docs always seem to feel comfortable anywhere in the room.

Two of these school had to take positive measures (at least for a short while) to keep the students from coming for snacks but abandoning the talks.

During my time at a national lab, I attended many talks of different sizes in rooms of many sizes (including those much to large or much too small for the audience that actually showed). The tendency to self-segregate was much less pronounced. And if the topic was an on-site project, the segregation was on the basis of relationship to the project: the front row was mostly grad students and post-docs on the job, and the back of the room was people who were vaguely interested.

I personally prefer the back-of-the-front or the front-of-the-middle. Close enough to see and hear well (and be seen and heard if I ask a question), but not at the center of attention.

Anonymous said...

In my engineering department, faculty usually sit at the back of the room and students scatter throughout. I think this happens because we (faculty) tend to show up just in time for the seminar to begin while the students show up early for the free coffee and cookies (located at the front of the room). Come to think of it, when we use a different room for the seminar, more of us sit near the front. I think maybe the faculty members are just lazy and aim for a seat near the point of entry whether this be at the front or the back of the room.

Psycgirl said...

In my department, grad students and faculty both compete for the back. It depends on who gets there first....

Anonymous said...

We have a gradient effect going on, but pretty well mixed. I used to sit at the back because I thought it would be less noticeable/rude when I fell asleep most weeks, but I guess now I've been around long enough that I don't care anymore.

EngineeringProf said...

I'm a prof. I usually sit in the back, so that if the talk is sucking or turns out to be not of interest to me, I can escape gracefully, or at least with a minimum of gracelessness and disruption.

My impression is that, at our seminars, the majority faculty tend to sit in the front few rows or near the back. The ones near the front are excited to see the talk. The few at the back are probably, like me, preparing themselves so they can escape if necessary. Students tend to sit all over, with no common pattern.

Anonymous said...

I work in particle physics, where essentially no one seems to want to sit in the front (there is a strong culture to use laptops during talks as well, which is less intrusive in the back, those two might be correlated)

Anonymous said...

In our weekly colloquium, my university has bubbles of professors surrounded by a sea of students. Our room is large, but we pretty much fill it for talks. The dynamics of the coffee hour is also quite interesting: while there are only a few people there, professors and students chat with each other. But after a critical number has been reached, a phase transition occurs: profs and students separate like oil and water.

Anonymous said...

We have a very large and disparate department with seminars on a wide range of topics. There is only one lecture hall that could possibly accommodate all grads and faculty, but seminars are held in one about a quarter that size, which is rarely filled unless we have a nationally known speaker. Higher-ranking faculty (and those who so aspire) tend to cluster toward one front corner, nearest the speaker's podium. Beyond that, there are subdiscipline-oriented clusters of grads and faculty. A few very busy junior faculty tend to sit toward the back near the aisles to facilitate escape from talks that are either indecipherable or hopelessly awful in some other sense.

Walt Lessun said...

Community College (small, rural, poor) point of view: Except for commencement (candidates for graduation up front, faculty and staff behind them) we all sit intermixed. I try to scoot up towards the front (near-sighted, hard of hearing) so no one but the speaker can hear my (c)rude but insightful comments.

Anonymous said...

Nice blog to address this very true observation. I have been an academic in Germany, Belgium, the U.K. and Spain and have seen this situation everywhere. Actually, as a student I sat myself in the back and as a professor now mostly in the front. I see two reasons for it. Firstly, as a student it was seen as a sign of respect to leave the front seats to the professors which I accepted when it was voluntarily and couldn't stand it when it was reinforced. Secondly, sitting in the back has always been a sign for the wish of anonymity. You can sneak out, sleep, or, as some mention, respectlessly browse on your computer. As a student I had that urge being able to back out. Being in the front is a sign of commitment to the speaker. Where I am now, occasionally students mix in the front rows, but in my impression a bit with the feeling of doing something wrong.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

We have research talks in three different rooms. Two have only two rows of seats around U-shaped tables and are generally standing-room only: there it is common for students to start filling the back row and faculty to start filling the front row, but people get mixed fast. One room is borrowed from another department and has several rows. Some students fill from the back (where the food is), and faculty usually are scattered along the center aisle. I sit near the front, because way too many presenters use tiny fonts and have weak voices that don't carry even in small classrooms (I've no idea how they manage to teach—perhaps they don't).

Alex said...

For me it's a function of how on top of things/insecure/etc I'm feeling that day. If I'm confident, know the material, and don't need to work through it, I sit in th efront proudly. If not, I slink in the back and hope noone notices me.

First year grad student with terrible coping strategies.

A CS grad student. said...

At our department the students always prefer to sit in the back even when there are no faculty (e.g. at lectures).

When my eyes got bad I moved to the front and realized that I learned more since the professors started addressing me and I couldn't conveniently fall asleep. Perhaps bad eyesight is correlated with grades.

Anonymous said...

In my department, there is mixed seating at research seminars. But in thesis defenses, the faculty sit in the front, the other students sit in the back, and any supporting family or friends sit in the middle.

Anonymous said...

In grad school (Ivy League), everyone was mixed. As a postdoc in Europe, professors in the front, postdocs in the middle, students in the back. Students never never ask questions and professors ask dumb questions right from the start. I miss grad school!

Anonymous said...

Some professors sit in the very back so they can have their laptops open and check email.

Amanda said...

In my department, there's kind of a gradient. It's pretty much all professors at the very front, and the student-to-professor ratio increases as you move toward the back of the hall. It's mixed but there's definitely a trend that students sit farther back and professors sit farther forward.

For a while, our department chair was having people rope off the back rows of seats so people would sit farther forward. It was pretty unpopular, because it forced the late-arriving to fill in the very front few rows, and those rows are so close to the giant presentation screen that you spend the entire presentation craning your neck trying to see the screen. The chair is forever annoyed that no one sits in those frontmost rows, but they're so uncomfortable.