Thursday, January 17, 2008

My New Material

In a conversation this morning, a colleague and I convinced ourselves that we are a lot like aging rock stars. Perhaps there are some differences, but there is at least one compelling similarity of which we are aware.

We have both been giving a lot of invited talks on our research this year, and in most cases the inviting department or session organizer wants to hear about research we have already done/published. They want to hear our old songs, but we wanna play our new material. Is anyone convinced by this awesome analogy yet?

I suppose I could give the same old talk over and over again, but I would go out of my mind with boredom. I would rather lose my mind in a more interesting way. Furthermore, an oft-repeated talk would become stale and I would be reduced to mumbling through it and sighing a lot, and maybe occasionally flicking my laser pointer at an image.

What my aging rock star/professor friends and I typically do of course is keep some of the old stuff and add some new material to it. The challenge of this approach in terms of giving a talk is that you have to make the entire talk flow -- you can't just abruptly end the 'old' part of the talk and then say "OK, now I'm going to talk about something that interests me."

Also, if you add new things, you have to cut some of the old things -- not cutting anything and therefore giving a longer performance might work for rock stars, but here is where we professors part ways with our musical colleagues. Giving a longer talk is not a good option for speakers, however fascinating the research. Talking extremely fast to cover extra material in the allotted time probably isn't a good idea either.

In some cases, deleting old images creates a problem because this information might be important for understanding the context of the new work. In that case, I make one or two new images that synthesize the information in deleted images. Then I can cover the old information quickly but clearly and move on to my new research/songs.

And that's when I get to pondering just how much work it is to update a talk. I am cranky about it right now because I am deep into making new images and figuring out what I can toss and what new material I can fit in. Once the new-and-improved talk is done, I am pretty sure I will be glad that I took the time to do all this.

Once it is done, I will also feel good about the fact that I have new results to present, and some things to say about the research I want to do in the near future. There is always something new to do, and therefore there is always something new to talk about. I think someone should write a song about it (but never sing it the same way twice).


SaraJ said...

From an assistant professor in one of the few social science disciplines that is less female than male, I must say, "I want to be you when I grow up". I never wanted to be a rock star, but I do want to be an academic rock star.

An aside, some of us super young ones have taken to the idea of calling academic rock stars "porn stars" instead. Even the old rock stars have everything done for them now- from writing to performing. It still takes some form of gift to be a pornstar. So my friend who does one of the many varieties of "cultural studies" claims.

Anonymous said...

Amen sister!

I am bored to *tears* by the same old talk, which I am now on my 4th year of giving. A few years back I started to add images and make slides special to a target group, and then I stored them with the name and date of where I gave that talk.

But now when I have a similar target group, I start to look for some of the old pictures that are no longer in the last talk I gave. I spend far too much time digging, eventually giving up and making them again (saves time).

And the emphasis is on "aging". I was in Belgium last week, and got called "Madame" so often, I kept looking down to see if my snazzy pants had somehow turned into a floral print dress. I suppose this is just French, but it quite unsettled me.

Anonymous said...

Rock on :-)

Anonymous said...

Scientists and Indie Rockers

Anonymous said...

Please, oh please, shoehorn in as much new stuff as you can. Anyone who goes to talks regularly will appreciate it. A simple line about "Result X is likely to arise from Cause Y, which I'm not going to go into right now because it's published," with relevant ref(s) on screen, takes care of it.

I consider it a lost hour if I go to a talk by a superstar who then proceeds to give a "greatest hits" blitz. People become superstars because they push the boundaries of new things--and that's what I always want to see examples of.

Anonymous said...

It all depends on the context and why you are speaking. I am organizing a meeting right now and inviting people to speak on specific topics. I will be annoyed if they talk about other work without checking in with me.

People are also able to give contributed talks, where they can talk about anything they like, with the understanding that the invited speakers are laying some of the groundwork. If an invited speaker doesn't cover the expected material it will negatively impact the meeting.

If an invited speakers doesn't want to play their assigned role, for which we are paying all their expenses, they should pay their own way and give contributed talks like the hoi polloi.

One speaker did ask me about new vs. old and we agreed they would do a combination of both, as you propose.

Anonymous said...

I love that you love what you do. It's so refreshing. Is there somewhere where you are a real poster-child for science? You know, some place, where your picture can be plastered on a wall and say "I love science." Maybe we can make a bobble-head doll: Female Science Professor with a little microchip that says "I love science"

Or, perhaps push you into a high level administrative position, like director of NSF?

usagibrian said...

I'm convinced.

Interestingly, I think female rock stars tend to change up their material, even & especially their standards (heard Cindy Lauper's latest acoustic Time After Time? Awesome! Oh, and Annie Lennox is more a force of nature than ever--I can't recommend her current tour more highly, especially since she's playing fairly small venues.), while (most) male rock stars try to recreate performances from their prime, which is kind of cool when it works but rather sad when it doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Please, oh please, talk about new stuff as much as possible. From conferences and so on I often end up hearing the same rockstar prof speak once a year or so, and nothing's worse than hearing only the greatest hits. Rockstars don't get where they are by being content with old stuff, no matter how good, and so I always want to hear about what they're excited about NOW!

EcoGeoFemme said...

I also want an FSP bobblehead, complete with graph paper hat and socks!

Anonymous said...

"I am organizing a meeting right now and inviting people to speak on specific topics. I will be annoyed if they talk about other work without checking in with me."

This is the looniest thing I have ever heard from a conference organizer. You are a control freak.

Ms.PhD said...

I would always rather talk about my newest stuff, but I've learned that it's usually much harder for anyone to understand what I'm excited about until it has aged a bit.

I agree with the commenter who says not to give the old talk over and over, because some of us have already seen it this year. I can think of one guy in particular who is literally a meeting-killer for that reason. I can't go to his talk and pretend to pay attention AGAIN, but I also can't attend a meeting he's at and skip his talk (ah, politics). I'd rather skip the whole meeting than angst about it!

Personally I'm a little torn about the speakers-who-switch-topics problem. I've walked out of talks when the person announced that they wouldn't even touch on the topic in the title that was advertised! On the other hand, I'm occasionally delighted to find someone has given their slot to their postdoc or just decided to talk about something totally hot off the presses.

(I've also seen a lot of the ancient rock stars who show up and talk incoherently about their postdoc's latest stuff (it's never their own stuff, they're too old for that). I'd much rather see the postdoc do their own talk than have to sit through that!)

If they can only give the one, old talk, but give it really well, that's probably preferable.

I applaud you for being aware that we want to hear your greatest hits and a few new singles, in that order, maybe slightly remixed. You're not over the hill yet, though, so I wouldn't worry about it until you're on your Nobel tour.

Anonymous said...

There is professor who gives pretty much the same talk at conferences she visits year after year (many times every year). In this talk she cites one of my papers, so the citation count of this paper is skyrocketing. So, you won't hear me complaining about this :)